Category Archives: Blog

The Dysfunctional American Psyche in the Era of Trump

                                                  It Can’t Happen Here:    Is That True?

We are in the midst of a turbulent wave of psychosocial unrest.  As I “inquire deeply” about what wants and needs to be said, what stands out for me most strongly is our sociocultural divide.  I chose the title phrase “the dysfunctional American psyche” because I believe that the problems that are afflicting us as a society are ultimately psychosocial in nature.  If we want to adequately address solutions, we need to see clearly that societal problems have deep roots in what happens in families broken apart by poverty, mental illness, domestic violence, alcoholism and drug addiction.

The fact that harsh, abusive home environments create harsh, abusive adults should surprise no one.   Such environments breed fear and hatred and problems with management of anger.   This may manifest in a myriad of antisocial ways which involve acting out against others.  It may be expressed, on the one hand, in rebellion against authority and attendant lawlessness; on the other hand, it may find an outlet in “socially acceptable” forms such as police brutality.  

The prevalence of such problems in our culture are, I believe, one of the root causes behind the eruption of the violence in our culture which has been escalating for some years, perhaps most notably in the growing frequency of mass shootings.  It is seen in sexual assault,  in hate crimes, and in domestic terrorism.  It lives under the skin as conscious and unconscious racism.

Bullying, in other words, begins at home. 

Dynamics around aggression and power also underlie authoritarian personality and find a natural home in fascist ideologies.  In that regard, I am struck by the otherwise puzzling tenacity of Trump’s popularity with his base. Like the  story “The Emperor’s New Clothes”,  Trump seems to have an uncanny ability to maintain himself inside a bubble in which a significant number of people are willing to overlook his provocations (his bombastic grandiosity, self-righteousness, and blatant lies.).  Clearly there is something in the Trump “brand” that garners not only mass support, but strikes an obvious chord– if not becoming an actual cult of personality– with the brutal, the angry and the terminally embittered. Those of us old enough to remember Mussolini and Hitler will also recognize that this has happened before. 

In order to be safe from authoritarian rule, we need to understand what it is in human nature that allows bullies to thrive among us.

 Both Trumpism and the polarization and animosity that beset the body politic seem well explained by the psychoanalytic idea of SPLITTING: a psychological defense which divides the world (and the self) into black and white, good and bad.    Splitting and its sister defense, projection, allow us to tolerate difficult and overwhelming emotions by seeing people as either all good or all bad, idealized or devalued,  and locating what we don’t like in the Other. While splitting and projection are not in of themselves pathological,  these so-called “primitive defenses” are most likely to occur in those who operate at a low level of psychological functioning.  We resort to these kinds of defense when our psyches are flooded or overwhelmed by energies we cannot manage — a desperate effort to resolve difficult feelings. 

These are desperate times, and our sociopolitical and cultural divide can be understood as splitting at the level of our collective psyche.  The widespread occurrence of splitting seems further evidence of the poor mental health of our nation,  also seen in skyrocketing rates of anxiety, depression and suicide, alcoholism and drug addiction.  Splitting into us vs. them is one of the basic mechanisms by which we attempt to keep ourselves safe, seeking shelter in the tribe of us and locating problems in them.  It is one among several factors that maintain racial and economic inequalities. Unfortunately, such polarization compounds the problems and foments the spread of violence and hate.  

While there is no simple solution to the polarizing splits we face as a nation (or as human beings) this is a time when each of us needs to inquire deeply about the predicament of it all.   While contemplative practice is not a substitute for engaged action,  I find the theme of splitting to be a valuable focus in awareness practice.   Among the many questions of interest, each of us needs to ask ourselves how we are complicit in maintaining the splits which put so many members of our human family at a grave disadvantage.

Finally, each of us needs to investigate and take steps to address our own  “inner bully”, the persistent inner critic that judges and demeans both self and other.  The key to this inner work is to find a way to acknowledge both sides of the split without blaming or shaming either ourselves or others.  We cannot resolve splitting without recognizing that the apartness we feel from ourselves (or others) is none other than our inability to fully be ourselves in the face of this problem. 

In the words of the immortal Pogo by  cartoonist Walt Kelly in 1972, we have met the enemy, and they are us. 





Powerful Poem Worth Contemplating….


This is a poem by Mariangela Gualtieri that circulated widely in the social networks (and in print) in the past few days in Italy –in its simplicity it seems to have struck a collective chord – spoke how deeply the desire for change moves both though apocalyptic imagery and a longing for deep renewal. Here is a translation into English. 
(courtesy of Stephen Aizenstat)

This I meant to say
that we had to stop.
We knew it. We all felt it
that it was too furious
our doing. Our being with things.
All of us outwards.
Agitating every hour – to make it yield.

We had to stop
and we could not.
Should have done it together.
Slowing the race.
But we could not.
No human effort 
could make us do it.

And since this
was a common unspoken desire
like an unconscious will
perhaps our specie has obeyed
and loosened the chains
that bind our seed. Opened
The most secret cracks
Allowed entrance.
Perhaps this is why there was a leap
From one specie to another – from the bat
To us. Something in us wanted to give way.
Perhaps. I do not know.

Now we stay home.

What is happening is uncanny.
and there is gold, I believe, in this strange time.
There may be gifts. 
Golden nudgets for us. If we help each other.
There is a strong call
of the specie now and as a specie now
we ought to think of ourselves. A common destiny 
binds us here. We knew it. But not so well.
Either all or none.

The Earth is powerful. Alive, for real.
I feel her thinking with a thought
that we ignore.
What about our present plight? Let us consider
whether she might be the one moving things.
And whether the law that governs
the whole universe, and even what happens now, 
might not be a full expression of that law
that rules us also – like any star – like any cosmic particle.

What if the dark matter was this, 
this sort of holding together of all things 
in an ardour of life, with death the sweeper coming
to rebalance each specie, in order
to keep it within its own measure, its proper place,
Guided. We have not made the sky.

A powerful wordless voice
tells us now to stay home, like children
who have really blown it, without knowing why
and will not have kisses, no hugs.
Each now forced to restrain,
bringing us back, perhaps, to the slowness
Of the old foremothers.

To look at the sky more often,
To paint a corpse with ocre. To bake bread 
well. To look at a countenance carefully. 
To sing slowly in order to lull a child to sleep. 
For the first time to hold another’s hand, 
To feel with force the connection.
As one organism. We bear the whole specie 
Within. Within we save it.

And to that shaking
Of a palm with someone else’s palm,
To that simple act that is now to us forbidden
we  shall return, I think, with wider understanding
We shall be here with greater care. More delicate
our hand will be within the making of our lives.
Now that we know how sad it is
to stay a meter apart.



Inquiring Deeply About Problems (Introductory Workshop)

Learning how to relate to the problems that come up for us in life–— our difficult situations,  feelings, and moods—is a core life challenge for everyone.  In Buddhist language, this is the challenge of equanimity:  the art of finding balance in the moment.   

 Fortunately, it turns out that what is psychologically painful can also be quite generative. Our emotional problems show us where we have shut down, where we need to wake up,  and where we need to grow.   Learning to listen to the wisdom of our feelings is a practice unto itself:  cultivating our ability to be with and feel our way into difficult emotional experience.   

 The meditative practice of asking questions (Inquiry) has been used for thousands of years to develop intuition, inspire awakening, and connect us more deeply to the sources of wisdom within. While Inquiry is often taught as an eyes closed contemplative exercise, it is also very engaging as a speaking and listening practice done with partners.  This process explores what happens when we learn to rest in the questions, themselves.

This brief experiential workshop will provide an introduction to the method of “Inquiring Deeply“.   A didactic presentation about Inquiring Deeply About Problems will be followed by guided practice of inquiry in dialogue, with some emphasis on the use of inquiry in psychotherapy.

Where and When:

  • Summerland, CA     February 09      SOLD OUT

Visit here for upcoming opportunities




 ‘Inquiry’ can be defined as the process of intentionally living in the question of something:  consciously engaging our experience in a way which invites it to unfold.  We can “inquire deeply” about any problem or concern at the leading edge of experience.   This method is useful when we want to amplify our awareness of a challenging situation, a particular emotion, or a difficult relationship.  We approach our experience with the attitude of delving into it, feeling whatever it is more fully, and inviting it to reveal itself. 

Posing an inquiry question is a powerful act unto itself;  the question frames and constructs an intentional matrix of meaning around experience.  I think of the process of as a kind of psychospiritual exoskeleton which supports growth and the emergence of new experience.  The path of inquiry unfolds in its own way and as a function of our intuitive wisdom.  Explicit inquiry frames the intention to grow with and from our awareness of emotional life.   

The practice of inquiry rests on the existential premise (beautifully articulated by the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl) that one of the most important things humans beings can do, regardless of their circumstances,  is to consciously find— create— meaning in what is happening.  In the spirit of this intention,  engaging the process of inquiry constructs an explicit frame of meaning around our experience.  It is a method for exercising conscious ownership of psychological growth and transformation. 

In the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke:     “Live the questions now,  and perhaps without knowing it, you will live along someday into the answers”.  ….Rilke




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”

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 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.

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.