All posts by cmsadmin

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter: April, 2019

 

                  The Unfolding of Wisdom:  Going With The Flow

Wisdom is inherent within us but it takes a concerted effort to learn how to listen deeply for what life is speaking.   By following the thread of inner truth which is available in whatever we experience, we connect more and more deeply both with what is so and with who we are.  

Wisdom is not abstract.  It reveals itself in insights, both large and small, as well as in the answers we discover for our deep questions and in the resolutions we find for our most vexing problems.   Wisdom is a path. 

Wisdom is also a practice.  By bringing alert receptivity to what we experience moment by moment, we increasingly discover whatever we need to see in what is going on; the meanings implicit in what is happening.  In this way, we can endeavor to receive life:   to open to life instead of struggling against it. 

In cultivating wisdom, we attune ourselves to the simple truth of experience, including emotional experience.   Wisdom unfolds naturally as we inquire about what is happening, and why;  our deepening wisdom expresses itself in our ability to be increasingly present with ourselves and others.

In inquiry practice, we attune ourselves to finding the dynamic intelligence in the flow of awareness.  To ‘go with the flow’ of life as an unfolding wisdom process means to align ourselves with what is happening.   Literally, we aspire to be like water – to flow in and around the events of life.   Going with the flow is a kind of letting go in which we allow life to carry us downstream; surrendering to the currents of our life energy,   whatever they may be, we heed the intelligence of our body, heart, and mind.  

Ultimately wisdom reveals itself in a felt sense of the existential coherence in life, inclusive of all of its thematic complexities.   In the words of the famed Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls, we learn not to push the river; it flows by itself.

Life has a mind of its own.

Mindfulness vs. Psychotherapy: Discerning The Difference

Mindfulness is the meditative heart of Buddhism, and it seems to have found a secular home in western psychotherapy. This makes sense because Buddhist practice, like psychotherapy, is fundamentally a method for addressing psychological pain.

An implicitly psychotherapeutic view of Buddhist practice is also invited by the work of contemporary dharma teachers who have been educated in western psychotherapy and who have been the authors of our current Buddhist psychological narratives. For example, when we look at inspirational stories of transformation which occur during mindfulness meditation practice (such as those recounted in Jack Kornfield’s books) we see that they can be aptly described either as dharma practice or as Buddhist psychotherapy. Both narrative frameworks feel valid.

However, there are also confusions created when psychotherapeutic and Buddhist narratives are conflated. Healing in the psychotherapeutic sense is not the intended goal of Buddhist practice. Buddhist practice is defined in its own terms; it aims towards a radical re-contextualization of identity in which suffering ceases to have its usual personal meaning and significance. This goal, “liberation”, is distinct from psychological healing.

Psychotherapy is intended to relieve pain by untangling the relational knots which engender psychological suffering. In contrast, dharma practice is a method for radically transforming our relationship to the entire field of our experience — our fundamental way of perceiving and being — in a way which obviates the necessity for untangling. In any event, mindfulness cannot be adequately understood apart from the Buddhist philosophy from which it derives.

The distinction between the psychotherapy and Buddhism is well summarized in the following quote from Buddhist teacher Patrick Kearney:

 “We are all living within a myth, the myth or myths that provide us with our fundamental world view. Psychotherapists [often read] the Buddhist myth in terms of their psychotherapeutic myth…But to understand Buddhism, one must enter the Buddhist myth, and once we are within that myth, then we will naturally read psychotherapy in terms of Buddhism”.

More similar discussion in my book, “Inquiring Deeply” https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B01N24V17T

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, March 2019

 

Inquiring Deeply About Self-Reflection

 

Self-reflection may be broadly defined as the process of examining our own experience in order to become aware of our thoughts and feelings. The word “reflection” itself evokes the idea of the mind as a mirror.   We may become aware of many different kinds of images in the mirror of the mind: what we see and hear, what we feel, what we think.   And, we also have the capacity to turn our attention back to the surface of the mirror itself.  This is the self-reflexive capacity of awareness. 

Self-reflexivity is built into the very structure of the human mind.   At times self-awareness operates in the background of our experience, giving rise to a vaguely felt sense of being.  At other times, it may move into the foreground of our attention, amplified through intentional focus (as in meditation) or by virtue of emotional reactions (e.g. social anxiety; embarassment) or interpersonal events.   Regardless, we can never become aware of ourselves from outside of our experience, only from within.  So self-reflexivity is always both subjective and objective;   it weaves together mind and body, thoughts and emotion, as it integrates both the observational and experiential dimensions of awareness.

Although an inborn potential, self-reflexivity is not a fixed capacity, but rather one which expands and deepens along with other aspects of psychological development.  It is organized in relation to our understanding of our own minds as well as the minds of others.  Moreover, because some aspects of ourselves are essentially invisible except in the mirror of another, our capacity to know ourselves is a function of our connection with others.

Interpersonal experience is an important domain for the development of self-reflection.   Conflicts between ourselves and others call our attention to possible discrepancies between how we see ourselves and how we are seen. Such disruptions invite us to de-center from our own point of view and consider the impact we may be having on others. They also galvanize our attention to what would otherwise remain unseen in ourselves. 

For all of us, psychological defenses in the mind are engaged in order to obscure vulnerable aspects of ourselves.  We may deny or disavow realities which are painful, attribute qualities of ourselves to others, or find other ways to avoid knowing the truth about our feelings. 

What we are blind to in ourselves is the limiting boundary of our freedom. 

Self-reflection is arguably the central integrative element in psycho-therapeutic exploration and psychological growth.   Reflecting on our experience and behavior either by ourselves, or in conversation with others (including psychotherapists), can help us to become aware of how we are relating to our experience.  In seeing more clearly what we are doing, how we are feeling, and the way that we react to things, we create a greater capacity for choice.  In this way, self-reflective awareness may be likened to a “clutch” which allows the mind to shift gears so that new points of view can emerge.

Self-reflection is an evolving dimension of our subjectivity which can be intentionally cultivated in practices such as meditation.   Mindfulness meditation amplifies self-reflection through the intention to notice what one is aware of from moment to moment and through the ability to shift awareness from the content of experience to the context of background awareness which surrounds and contains it.  This enhances the clarity of what is seen in the mirror of self-reflection and creates greater access to somatic, psychological, and relational layers of the mind. 

Last but by no means least, with the cultivation of mindful attention we can become aware of awareness itself.  This transcendent dimension of self-reflexivity is conveyed by the statement that mindfulness is the state of mind in which you realize that you are more than your state of mind.   This deepening of self-reflexivity allows us to see more and more deeply into the body/heart/mind and into the nature of self.   

In the words of the Sufi aphorism, What you are looking for is who is looking”.

 

 

What We Can Learn From Trees

Because of their deep roots and the fact that they bear witness to so much of  life on Earth, trees have much to teach us.  Indeed, life itself is often depicted as a great tree with many branches; the tree of life.

One of the things that trees can teach us is that life and death are not fixed events but rather processes that occur over time.

Just outside the town of Stradivari, Italy there is a forest, with trees from which the famed Stradivarius violins are carved.   The town itself is home to dozens of the world’s greatest violin makers.  The wood from which the violins are carved is held to be still alive in important essential ways.

Each year, world class violinists come to the town and perform a concert in the forest.  The purpose of the festival is to allow the trees in the forest to hear the sweet sound of their brother or sister tree now incarnated as a Stradivarius violin.

 

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter February 2019

Meditative Listening

There is a kind of magic in the experience of feeling deeply heard. A special set of relational moments, “moments of meeting,” are those in which there is a profound sense of mutual connection.  Such “moments of meeting” occur in conversation when something is said and received in such a way that the speaker feels deeply seen, felt, accepted, and understood.    The prototype of this experience is the moment that occurs immediately after birth, when the new baby looks into the eyes of a mother who is looking back.  Such moments of mutual deep contact are what the philosopher Martin Buber understood to be the essential meeting of “I-and-Thou.”   The descriptive term “intersubjective” is also broadly useful, carrying the general meaning that two (or more) minds come together in a space of shared thought and feeling.

In addition to what is said in moments of meeting, equally important is the felt sense of connection.  Regardless of what is being said aloud in a particular conversation, we likely have a felt sense of one other and some idea of where the other is “coming from.”   This felt sense is the “relational moment”.   Of course, not every experience of being-with is mindfully known; we may feel many things, including our connection with others, implicitly — i.e., without conscious awareness. 

Moments of meeting vary in level of depth.   The conscious experience of being-with is a capacity which is enhanced by mindful attention.   Such moments often feel replete with Presence.  Along with the felt sense of connection or intimacy there is a deep sense of being oneself.  Connection may be so profound that the boundary between self and other momentarily disappears.   Wisdom arises in such moments as the compassionate and intuitive knowing of the other’s experience, and sometimes as the experience of a heart-to-heart connection between us.

We can also engage a similar quality of deep meditative listening within ourselves by turning inward to explore what we are feeling and sustaining an attitude of receptivity towards what may be emerging.  This may be called meditation, contemplation, prayer, or by other names.  I call it INQUIRING DEEPLY.  In this inward turn, we come to an inner threshold where we are in the presence of the unknown.  At this threshold, deeper wisdom has a chance to break through.
 
The hallmark of emergent moments, whether listening to another or listening to our inner experience,  is that they simply arrive:  what arises can be neither predicted nor controlled.  The emotional impact of emergent moments is amplified and the experience more vivid when they are experienced against a backdrop of deep stillness and Presence, as in meditation.  Meditative listening deep within oneself opens space for things to unfold at the living edge of our experience.
 

When experienced against the backdrop of a focused mind and a heart-centered, receptive listening field between two people,  the impact of relational presence resonates between us, deepening the experience of us both.

When you feel heard a silence falls.
In that silence more may come
Often it is something deeper: you can feel it
Just now forming at the edge of being."
...Rob Foxcroft

 

 

*More about emergent moments may be found in Schuman, M.  (2017) Mindfulness-Informed Relational Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis:  Inquiring Deeply.  Routledge Press, New York.    https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B01N24V17T

 

 

Inquiring Deeply About Subjectivity and Truth

Subjectivity is a central philosophical concept, related to consciousness, personhood, and truth.  Though defined in different ways, the central idea is that information, ideas, and situations are true only from the perspective of a subject or subjects.

Do we regard truth as objective, a matter of fact? Or do we understand that truth always bears the stamp of what is subjective?  

This concept is illustrated in the well-known staircase drawing of the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher. Two people are moving side by side on the same staircase, yet they have different ideas of what is horizontal and what is vertical. If we don’t share the same reality, it is impossible for us to walk, sit, or stand on the same floor.

story that Gregory Bateson told about Picasso makes a similar point. The artist was traveling in a train, when a stranger asked him why he didn’t paint things as they actually appeared. Picasso said that he didn’t understand what the stranger meant, so his accuser pulled out his wallet and showed Picasso a photo of his wife. “You see, that’s how she is”, the stranger said.  Picasso replied rather hesitantly: Oh, she’s quite small, isn’t she…. and rather flat!

As the philosopher Thomas Hobbes once said, True and false are attributes of speech, not things.

Buddhist philosophy further illuminates this situation in its distinction between two levels of truth:  Conventional and Absolute.  That truth is irreducibly relative becomes apparent once it is understood (as it is in Buddhist doctrine) that there are no distinctive things or beings which can be said to be inherently “true” or “false”.

However, this philosophical conundrum leaves us squarely with the question “so what”?  What is wise view with respect to the relativity of subjective truth?

Clearly, the whole conception of my mind sitting safely in my body and looking out through its senses on to a universe which is not mind, and with which my own mind has therefore no connection except through the senses, is an impossible one.

The alternative, spiritual ‘solution’ to the problem is that once you experience who you really are – a core consciousness beyond the mind, intellect, and ego – all suffering will come to an end.  This is “enlightenment”. 

However, for me, the best solution to the quandary posed by these deep questions was expressed by the psychoanalyst George Atwood and his colleague David Klugman.  To paraphrase their idea, both the narrative impulse— the need to have and tell a story about one’s life— and the metaphysical impulse— the need for an eternal, changeless foundation for all that exists—are complementary formulations which both serve the human need for purpose, meaning, and wholeness. 

Narratives, including the meta-narrative we call “self”, provide a reassuring coherence and unity in the diverse elements of our otherwise unbearably chaotic personal lives.  And spiritual narrative (Absolute truth) provides an image of a cosmic ground that solidifies the transitory impermanence which otherwise may seems to threaten us with dissolving into nothingness.

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, January 2019

CONTEMPLATING THE NEW YEAR

“I call the moment when you fully know that a change is achievable realizing the imaginative possible.  When you are able to envision that an alternative is real, you experience a sudden energetic surge toward actualizing it, which becomes self-reinforcing.”

……Phillip Moffitt  (2012)  Emotional Chaos To Clarity

The New Year holiday is a natural time to reflect on the cycles in our lives – the beginnings and endings, the losses and renewals, the ongoing narrative themes that weave in, out, and through our life story.    In the ritual of new year’s resolutions,  we also have an auspicious opportunity to contemplate our aspirations and intention as we go forward into the unfolding future.  

For more than I decade, I have had a personal new year’s practice of reflecting on and then writing about my goals and intentions for the new year.   I distinguish between goals and intentions.  Goals express our preferences for future;  what we want to accomplish;  what we want to bring into being.  They provide inspiration and direction as well as determine how we allocate our time and resources.  Intentions, on the other hand, are statements about how we would like to actually think, act, and speak in any given moment as we move forward towards our goals.   Together, goals and intentions describe our purpose—  the forward thrust of our energy going forward.  They can function as a blueprint for the “imaginative possible” (to use Moffitt’s phrase from the opening quote).

Because intentions are what ‘incline the mind’ in one direction or another, it behooves us to be conscious of what our intentions are. Having clear intentions is a soft form of “thinking from the end”: the fundamental idea that consciousness has a shaping impact on awareness going forward.  In new age psychology, this idea is captured in the phrase “energy follows thought”.   If we think of the past as a push and visualization as a pull, push and pull come together in the present moment by influencing how we interpret and respond to events in an ongoing fashion. In the act of bringing new awareness to the present moment, the next moment is already changed because of the alteration in view.

Without resorting to metaphysics, the concept of intention in Buddhist psychology elegantly illuminates the complexity of this process. Everything that happens, the Buddha taught, begins with our thoughts; for good or ill, our thoughts are the foundation of what arises. Intentions are an important dimension of thought because what we intend directs our energy and attention. The back and forth movement of attention lights up the process of ‘minding’ that is the unseen background of experience as it arises. Intentions frame our interpretations and determine how we hold things in mind.

When we form a conscious intention, this then becomes an integral part of what unfolds next. Attention and intention light up experience and support living from the inside out.

When our purpose is clear and coherent, we are on course towards a particular outcome. Moreover, intentions keep us centered in the moment by keeping our attention focused on what is important, and that helps us stay optimally responsive to what is unfolding.

Clear seeing and clear intention segue into strategies for action. Once we are clear about what the goal is, we are poised to take whatever action is appropriate and indicated. (And conversely, our failure to see or understand important aspects of the current situation keeps us blind to important possibilities). Intention leads to constructive action in the spontaneous unfolding of the journey forward. It remains only to commit to what we most deeply value and stay on the path defined by putting one foot in front of the other.

Wishing us all a safe, healthy, and vital new year.

Choiceless Awareness — A True Story

One focus of attention in mindfulness meditation has no specific focus at all.   Termed “open attention” or “choiceless awareness”,   the instruction for this kind of practice is simply to open the field of awareness to include mindful noticing of whatever arises.  

Following a session of sitting practice we had shared, I good-naturedly teased a friend about his mismatched socks.   “What’s up with that?”, I asked.    Without missing a beat he answered:  “Oh, that’s just choiceless awareness from the bottom up”.

Dickens’ Spiritual Allegory

In Charles Dickens’ story The Christmas Carol,  the old miser Ebenezer Scrooge experiences visitations from the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas PastPresent and Yet to Come.    As a consequence of these visions,  Scrooge is transformed into a kinder, gentler man.  

We can think of The Christmas Carol as a parable about the experience of “waking up” in life and its importance in the transformation of human suffering.   The Christmas Carol is a kind of spiritual fairy tale.   As we engage the story, we are carried along into a deep imagining of how spiritual awakening might feel.   In Buddhist terms, we see an example of how greed, hatred and delusion can be transformed through the powers of insight and compassion.  The timeless appeal of the story is that Scrooge is able to achieve what we all deeply long for: to transcend the structures of personality that keep us trapped in our own misery. Scrooge discovered the transformative joy of giving.

Emotional Equanimity

Emotional equanimity is much more than the ability to feel serene in the here and now. It is about the ability to open to and accept our emotional experience; the  commitment to meet painful emotions with awareness. 

Emotional equanimity benefits from a clear understanding of how emotional life is organized in the mind.  It is based on emotional intelligence: the ability to recognize, understand, and manage feelings. Maintaining emotional equilibrium is not a simple technique but rather a multifaceted psychological function which lives in multiple layers of both body and mind, including innate temperament, biochemistry, and early trauma history. Except perhaps for the lucky few people who were effectively parented in early life, emotional equanimity requires a lot of inner work.  

The basic way we understand emotional experience is by consciously feeling our way into it. This may be likened to the process of locating a splinter: first we have to probe the inflammation to find out what is sharp and psychologically painful. What is often insufficiently recognized is that many emotions are inherently inchoate; early nonverbal experience tends to be unformed and it cannot be expressed in words.  To get the messages conveyed by our emotions, we need to be sensitive to their idiom of expression, and to develop an understanding of how they function within us. Deeper knowledge surfaces when we open to what is expressed in body sensation and images, metaphors and narratives.

  Example: Trying to discern why she was feeling depressed, a woman found herself with an unexpected image of Londoners in World War II sending their children off to relatives in the countryside. As she reflected on what this image was telling her, she realized that her depression was providing a zone of emotional safety, a respite from the bruising forces in her daily life. [Ex adapted from Karla McLaren, The Language of Emotion]   

 Unresolved emotions lie at the heart of every psychological problem. Cultivating emotional equanimity is not only about training the mind to attain states of calm; it is about learning to use our emotional challenges as opportunities for growth. Bottom line, our feelings reveal what we are unwisely holding onto and where we need to grow. Finding the wisdom in these experiences is beautifully expressed in the metaphor of a lotus in a pond, its roots in the mud below, its flower orienting towards the light above.    

No mud, no lotus.