I have recently been reflecting on the process I go through in the course of “inquiring deeply” about something. In the beginning, a topic generally feels less like something I choose than like something which chooses me. I have likened the process to getting pregnant: the implanting of an idea which begins to grow within me. Early on, most often I will have a felt sense of urgency about it, that there is something which is important to me to understand, although I don’t at first know what the need is about. So my inquiries generally begin with my recognizing a familiar experience of urgency or agitation, followed by my effort to discover where the emotional charge is coming from in me.
To further my process, I may often initiate conversation with others about it, until at some point it feels as though my thoughts “ask” to be written down. At this point, the inquiry transitions into written form. It then matures over the course of successive written drafts until finally I feel satisfied by the meaning which has taken shape and a new issue of this Newsletter is born.
The inquiry which is currently compelling my attention is the nature of the hunger for deep conversation –an aspect of the urgency referenced above. I can sense that there is something within me which wants/needs to be understood, something which feels important. My previous writings illustrate earlier phases of my inquiry about this— (e.g. “On The Importance of Understanding and Being Understood”[i]; “Speaking and Listening: The Intimate Dance of Communication”[ii]) . At the heart of the inquiry is a basic question of ‘what wants or needs to be spoken, and why?’
My inquiry in the current moment is somewhat different. I find myself in the midst of some personal struggle with how to get my conversational needs met. I heard myself express my “predicament” to a friend in the following way:
- I know that I am in search of something and my intuition tells me that there is a conversation(s) I am looking for that will meet this need. I feel a bit like Cinderella waiting for the right conversational slipper, one which will bring clarity to something inchoate in me that wants to be expressed. It’s like something wanting to be born; something incipient. But I’m at a loss about what exactly I need to say or who I could say it to.
As I heard what I said, the first thing that stood out was the theme of pregnancy and birth. The psychoanalyst in me then heard in the statement that there was something I was trying to work out in myself; to my way of thinking, feelings which I am trying to make sense of and organize. I also heard the articulation of very young emotional needs; the longing to be deeply seen and heard by another. In the parlance of psychoanalysis, these are “selfobject needs”. There are many different selfobject needs, intertwined with every aspect of psychological development. Part of what I was expressing here seems to be the need to have my views affirmed or validated.
At one level, then, hunger for deep conversation is about a need for connection. Connection serves many relational needs. The psychological/relational need to be received, listened deeply to, and understood is very basic. We need to be deeply known by another in order to grow. In this, each of us is like a thirsty a plant which needs to be watered by the deep seeing of another.
There is a great deal that goes into this kind of deep seeing. Communication is a generative act which depends on a complex interpersonal chemistry of speaking, listening, and listening to the other’s listening. There is something vital in the shared resonance we have when we ‘mix minds’ with certain particular others. But in addition, the deepening of discourse around a particular topic often depends on the shared language we develop with others whom we come to know well. In this instance, what I wanted to talk about was inquiry, so I was looking for a conversation that would deepen my understanding of Buddhadharma.
In this regard, what stands out to me in my hunger for deep conversation is my experience of incipient meaning. New meanings often emerge in conversation with others, co-created in dialogue. Indeed, my thoughts are often unknown to me until I hear what comes out of my mouth. My longing was to find a relational home[iii] in which my understanding could deepen and be accurately articulated. This search for meaning is closely aligned with my deep need to know.
But what I think is the most fundamental psychological level in what I was seeking has to do with what I regard as an indwelling drive for self-actualization. We strive to feel Real and to become real as ourselves; to come into being. In the words of the mystical philosopher Gurdieff, “the world is only real when I am”. At this level, the hunger for deep conversation reflects a drive for authenticity and aliveness; the need to dwell comfortably within our own skin.
As my thoughts unfolded over a period of days, and as I sat with this inquiry in meditation, I saw that what I had been thinking of as “hunger for deep conversation” had many more layers than I had previously realized. Perhaps the primary dimension was my longing to get beyond the felt sense of the struggle I was experiencing. When I feel caught in this kind of experience (in Buddhist language, “dukkha”), my experience has been that freedom is often available in shared resonance and connection with another. This is of course the basic premise of psychotherapy, but it is prevalent in many conversational relationships. (As the psychoanalyst Donnel Stern has written, such “relational freedom” is a basic property of the interpersonal field[iv] ).
Writing these words, a new understanding dawned on me: at the core of the hunger for deep conversation I was experiencing was what in Buddhism is called bhava-taṇhā, the basic hunger for existence. With the recognition of this deeper meaning, the experience of urgency that had impelled the writing of this Newsletter dissolved; for now, at least, the inquiry felt complete and resolved.
[iii] Term borrowed from the work of Robert Stolorow.
[iv] Donnel Stern (2015) Relational Freedom: Emergent Properties of the Interpersonal Field. Routledge Press, London & New York.