Category Archives: Blog

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.   

 

The Importance of StoryTeller Mind

The Importance of Storyteller Mind

It is not helpful (at least for psychotherapeutic purposes) to simply dismiss ideas, thoughts, and stories in the mind because they are fundamentally “empty” of substance.  Self-reflection about the content of our narratives helps us to achieve deeper contact with what is true for us personally and  anchor our experience, thoughts, and beliefs in our own wisdom.

Narratives encode subjective experience and create meaning in the psyche.  They reveal the way we see ourselves and others.  They make sense of what has happened to us in the past and create a blueprint in the mind for what we can expect in the future.  In this way, they create the structure we live by.  

Our brains are wired to understand and retain stories.

We are made of stories!

For more on this subject, see INQUIRING DEEPLY:  

https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B01N24V17T

 

The Relational Moment

The “relational moment” can be defined as the felt sense of being-with a particular someone on a particular occasion. The ability to be-with is an inborn mammalian capacity for relational connection. (Every pet owner can attest to this). There is a layer of non-verbal relational knowing which exists prior to and underneath our higher mental capacities. It is this innate capacity that allows us to know what is happening when we walk into a room and get the vibe of the situation.

A special set of relational moments or “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 a 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.”

Moments of meeting vary in level of depth. The shared relational and mindful moment feels replete with Presence. Along with the felt sense of connection or intimacy – being-with – 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.

Schuman, M. (2017) Mindfulness-Informed Relational Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis: INQUIRING DEEPLY. Routledge Press, New York

Here and Now

 

 

 

 

 

 

The most common perspective gleaned from contemporary dharma teaching is that our goal in mindfulness practice should be to keep ourselves in the present moment.   For example, from a recent “Daily Dharma” published by Tricycle magazine:

“We can get dragged back into the past, which can lead to depression, or we can become anxious about the future, which can lead to fear. Conscious breathing returns us to the here and the now, where we really belong”.
—Gary Gach, “Brief Teachings

This is certainly some truth in this.   And, we have all gotten (repeatedly) lost in our minds.  

HOWEVER:  The present moment does not, and cannot,  exist in isolation from the past and future.  The present moment includes what arises in the mind as we recollect what has happened to us.   The process of recollecting and narrating our experience is an essential part of the activity of the brain/mind that is given to us as human beings.   Stories about what has happened to us in the past are an integral part of the present moment (albeit not the direct experience of the present moment).

 

Similarly, we don’t exist in isolation from how we relate to the future.  Planning, thinking about, and fantasizing are intrinsic functions of mind.  It is important to be aware of these processes and to try to be conscious of them.   It quite often happens that we topple forward toward the future, and we can become quite anxious in the gap of Unknown between now and then.  It is skillful to be wise about the imagined future through the way that we formulate our intentions.

A woman said to me in a therapy session:  I want to stop worrying and just be present with what’s happening.

I said:  worry is what is happening.

 

Are Buddhism and Psychotherapy Different?

  

“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”… Patrick Kearney

As my dharma practice has unfolded during dedicated study over more than 40 years,  it has taken shape as a psychologically-minded contemplative practice that I call “Inquiring Deeply”.    Simply stated, I have made it a habit to inquire within about the “deeper meanings” I see in whatever events are transpiring in the moment.    My inquiry lives in the overarching frame of Buddhadharma.  It begins with the premise, as Pema Chodron famously said, that “this very moment is the perfect teacher”.

Starting with the intention to explore the leading edge of subjective experience, “Inquiring Deeply” is awareness practice which is focused on deepening understanding of your emotional life.  Deep emotional understanding is more than simply mindfulness.   It is intuitive understanding grounded in personal history, embodied experience, and the felt sense of things.   The emphasis in deep inquiry is on exploring the field of relational connection with others.

The most frequent question that I get asked is how (and whether or not)  Inquiring Deeply differs in any significant way from the dharma practice I have learned in the American Vipassana movement (as taught by Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and many others).   I found that question sufficiently interesting that I wrote a book about it  (“Mindfulness-Informed Relational Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis:   Inquiring Deeply”;  Routledge Press, 2017).   

Are Buddhism and psychotherapy different? Zen-like, in my book I conclude BOTH yes and no; NEITHER yes nor no.    Your answer depends upon where you are looking from.   As the opening quote suggests, both Buddhism and psychotherapy are narratives  (“myths”).  The distinction between them is neither clearly delineated nor fixed. 

That said, my effort has been to construct a wise and compassionate frame that includes them both. 

 

 

 

The Best Thing For Being Sad……

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, ….”is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

                    ….T.H.White   from The Once And Future King

Autobiographical Reflections: Marjorie Schuman, Ph.D.


I.      LONG JOURNEY TO FIND MYSELF
:                                                                       I Used To Be Different,  Now I’m The Same

My parents often said I was a born psychologist.

From as early as I can remember, I felt compelled by the mysteries of consciousness.   Inquiring deeply into these questions has been the unifying theme of my life.

My wish to understand the connection between mind and brain led me to a PhD at the University of Michigan, where I studied psychology and psychopharmacology, and then to postdoctoral work in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry.   

But as much as I loved what I studied,  academia felt  too dry and objective to me.  I came to recognize that in order to understand the mysteries of awareness, I needed to  focus on the inner landscapes of my mind. 

Mid-career,  I turned my attention to clinical work.   I did advanced training in psychoanalysis and Buddhist mindfulness meditation.  This professional identity has been a wonderful container for my continued learning over the years and has enabled me to come more and more fully into being as myself. 

 

II.      IT TAKES ONE TO KNOW ONE:                                                                                The Gift of Being Fully Understood

I have always possessed the ability to know intuitively where people are coming from. As a psychotherapist, I can sense what my clients are feeling and can translate those feelings into words for them.    More than 30 years of practicing Buddhist meditation has also had a large impact on the way I approach therapy.

My insight and psychoanalytic understanding help me to contextualize and articulate complicated feelings and emotions.  It supports my ability to be an unwavering and emotionally attuned anchor in guiding others through difficult life experiences.

Bottom line,  I believe that the ability to Identify what you are feeling is the first step in self-understanding.   And, I believe that therapeutic empathy is the most important factor in the healing of psychological wounds.

III.   LIFELONG STUDENT OF THE MIND:                                                                     I teach, therefore I learn

My work as a clinical psychologist was greatly enriched by the decade I spent as an Associate Professor at the California School of Professional Psychology where I taught psychology graduate students.   Developing and implementing advanced curriculum sharpened my clinical prowess and enhanced my understanding of how to work with clients.

I absorbed as much from my students as hopefully they did from me. I also realized that teaching and learning are two sides of one coin.

Years of teaching has paid off regarding the psycho-educational dimension of my clinical work. My ability to explain concepts in simple terms helps clients understand the process they are engaged in.

 

“Blood Moments” in Psychotherapy

“Your intelligence grows new leaves in the wind of this listening”     ….Rumi 

“Moments of meeting”  are special moments of now in which there is a profound sense of mutual connection.    The prototypical moment of meeting is the one that occurs in the first moments after birth, when the new baby looks into the eyes of a mother who is looking back.   Such moments of special intimacy in psychotherapy are a vital aspect of  the healing connection.

These moments  have also been termed blood moments, a description which derives from the native American ritual in which two members of a tribe mixed their blood in celebration of bonding as brothers. By this metaphor, we can understand a blood moment as an “intersubjective now moment” in which two individuals co-mingle their most vital essence.

Applying the idea of a blood moment to the psychotherapeutic encounter also carries the meaning that real feelings and actions are taking place between real people in real time.

Last but not least, because blood is a quintessential element in birth, the term “blood moment” is also well suited to express the meaning that something new is being born.

From my point of view, psychotherapeutic blood moments are those in which new aspects of self come into being.

excerpt from Marjorie Schuman, Ph.D.  Mindfulness-Informed Relational Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis: Inquiring Deeply.   Routledge Press, 2017.    

What is “Inquiring Deeply?”

Deep inquiry—  “Inquiring Deeply”— is awareness practice focused on deepening your understanding of your emotional life.  Deep emotional understanding is more than simply mindfulness.   It is intuitive understanding grounded in personal history, embodied experience, and the felt sense of things.   The emphasis in deep inquiry is on exploring the field of relational connection with others.

“Inquiry” means to live in the question of something, on and off the cushion; to consciously engage your experience in a way which invites it to unfold. When you ‘inquire deeply’ into a problem or concern, you approach your experience with the attitude of delving into it, feeling whatever it is more fully, and inviting it to reveal itself.  

Inquiry explores your relationship with other people and expands to include your relationship with life itself. Through this self-reflective awareness practice, you become more fully who you are.

 

Problems as Koans of Everyday Life

Koans are riddles or paradoxes used for contemplative meditation.  Their purpose is to invite a profound shift in one’s experience of the world.   A well known example is  “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”  Koans do not have answers nor make logical sense, and that is the point of them:  to boggle the mind.  Sometimes the problems of everyday life have a koan-like effect: they tend to entangle the mind in the search for logical solutions which cannot be figured out.

In Zen practice , engaging with a koan involves sitting with, being with, and repeatedly asking the question as a means of inviting a profound change of heart or inner transformation.  A koan creates a kind of mental slope which inclines the mind in a different direction than it might otherwise go – off the beaten track of familiar mental patterns and towards creative discovery which lies outside the box.

In psychological terms, while there may be no way around reality, there may yet be a way through.  It’s like running up against a door that opens inward: no matter how hard you push against it, it won’t open. And yet, when you can pause and consider other options, the door may open and you can pass through.

When we can ask the right questions and tackle them with a mind which is steady, focused, and receptive, we can best discover what we need to do next.