Category Archives: Inquiring Deeply Newsletters

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, December 2019

REFLECTIONS ON THE NEED TO FEEL IN CONTROL

“Due to circumstances beyond my control                                                           

I am master of my fate and captain of my soul”           

….Ashleigh Brilliant

One of the most fundamental of human dilemmas is the lack of control over circumstances we think essential to being happy.   Beyond efforts to master conditions which are basic to survival,  there is a continual challenge and struggle to meet a multitude of life demands.   We expend enormous energy trying to get what we want and avoid the bad things in life.  And then, in addition, our lack of power over what we can’t control leads to feelings such as anxiety, anger, or depression.  These unwanted feelings constitute a secondary challenge which we also can’t control.  Taken together, unpleasant experiences which arise from our lack of control is a fundamental part of the human predicament.

The effort to be in control is closely linked to trait anxiety, sometimes defined as the tendency to live in the gap between the now and the future.   When we are anxious, we take on the burden of warding off events that haven’t happened yet.   Efforts to maintain control may be expressed in a myriad of different ways.   Common strategies include worry, hypervigilance, and compulsive doing.

Notwithstanding the problem of anxiety, the need to be in control is not all bad.  Those with a higher need for control generally set loftier goals and also tend to achieve more. At the other extreme, those who make repeated and failed attempts to try to control their circumstances  (such as those who live in chronic poverty, for example) resign themselves to having little or no ability to bring about a positive outcome and may succumb to a “learned helplessness” in which they give up hope and stop trying to improve their situation. 

Deep-seated needs for certainty and control may rise to the level of an addiction.  A “control freak” finds him or herself in a very tricky predicament:  wanting something which is impossible.  None of us is in control! Like addicts of all stripes, the control freak may need to be confronted about their problem before they can recognize it.    At some point it becomes necessary to “hit bottom” and realize that the need to be in control is itself out of control!  

It is especially useful to inquire deeply about how what happens between ourselves and others around issues of control.  It is common for people to complain that an intimate partner or family member is trying to control or micromanage them.  The power struggle that ensues may manifest as an argument, in which one person insists that they are right and the partner is wrong,  or it may escalate into an outright battle of wills in which both people use any available strategy to impose their needs and preferences on the other, including bullying, sulking, and inducing guilt.  While it is doubtless true that both partners are using their own strategies for trying to get their way, it is important to consider the possibility that an actual need to dominate may not be involved.  In the interpersonal dynamics around control issues, it is often the case that both people feel that the other is the invasive or controlling one and that their own aggression is in the service of defending themselves.  These feelings are most often rooted in childhood experiences of arbitrary parental authority.  Regardless, the effort to achieve advantage at the expense of the other(s) often backfires, causing a chain reaction of painful interpersonal interactions.  

One place to begin is with a deep inquiry about what we feel we need to control, and why:   What is at stake?  In general, there is one common underlying assumption:  that our happiness depends upon it!   The core of Buddhism addresses the folly of this point of view:  it is the very investment in achieving control of circumstances— on getting what we want (or getting rid of what we don’t want)— that underlies our suffering.  Happiness is predicated not on control, but rather on a clear and wise view of the circumstances,  one which allows us to align ourselves with reality and “go with the flow”. 

What we can must discover for ourselves is that life is to be lived, not controlled. The poet Mark Nepo expresses this beautifully in the following lines:

“Ultimately, we are small living things
awakened in the stream,
not gods who carve out rivers.

Like human fish,
we are asked to experience
meaning in the life that moves
through the gill of our heart.

There is nothing to do
and nowhere to go.
Accepting this,
we can do everything
and go anywhere.”  

Life has a mind of its own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, November 2019

 

REFLECTIONS ON RELATIONSHIP AS DHARMA PRACTICE

Human beings are relational beings.  We spend the majority of our lives conversing and interacting with others against a complex backdrop which includes the culture of our social connections.  In a multitude of different ways, we are continually mixing minds with others (including in cyberspace).    It is not an exaggeration to say that we are made of relationship.  Relationship is the way we ­inter-be with others.

All of the essential truths of existence – dharma— are revealed in the phenomena of relationship.  Interpersonal suffering, like all suffering, arises from wishing things to be other than they are.  Relationships are impermanent and inherently unreliable sources of satisfaction or happiness.   The universal truth is that people often disappoint us, hurt us, or leave us,  and even if they don’t, eventually we will be parted by death.  Our views about the way it is between ourselves and others is often based on mistaken views and/or unconsciousness about what is governing our interactions with others.  We mostly live in the fundamental illusion that we are separate beings, whereas, in truth, everything we consider to be our ‘self’ can readily be shown to be intrinsically dependent upon its relational context.

With the intention to ‘wake up’ in relationship, there is much we can notice in bringing mindful attention to our interactions and connections with others. Our embodied experience and the feelings that arise in interpersonal exchange are basic elements of this powerful driver in all of our lives.   The experience of comfort or discomfort we have within different relationships can be very instructive to us in our journey towards understanding.  Whom we like and whom we don’t shows us the nature of attraction and aversion.   We can explore the tendency to open ourselves or to contract at the surface of our contact with others,  as well as the sense of intimacy or emotional distance we experience.   We can explore what parts of ourselves show up and what we try to hide.

In hindsight, we can reflect on the dynamics that have arisen with others,  investigating the truth that it always take two to tango. We can examine the feelings and context of memories that are stirred up by relationship,  noticing the stories we tell and exploring the meanings we assign.

There are also abundant opportunities for dharma practice to be found in the emotional reactivity that can happen any time we come into contact with others.   The inevitable conflicts and difficulties in human interactions are rich sources of understanding and insight into what makes people tick.  This is especially true between primary partners, where relationship exposes areas of vulnerability and psychological wounding.  In particular, areas of mutual reactivity can explode in ways which are painful but which have the potential to reveal both where we are stuck and where we need to grow. 

The eightfold path provides a wonderful guide for practicing dharma in our relationships.  In addition to bringing attention to wise speech, we can cultivate wise view and engage conscious intention.   Indeed, all relationships cry out for skillful means.  As a psychotherapist, I also find it valuable to inquire deeply in order to come to emotional understandings which are broad enough and deep enough to encompass both psyche and dharma. 

Among the most universal of human needs is the need to be understood.  Wise relationship requires us to be able to listen from a place of deep and open-hearted presence,  and with the intention to empathically understand where the other is coming from.  Ultimately,  creating space which invites deep emotional understanding is an art and a practice unto itself.  The language of the German philosopher Martin Buber— I-Thou— conveys the essential meaning: we need to engage with one another from a space of being together which is intimate in the sense of deeply mutual but yet not caught up in psychological merger.

In summary, relationship presents the opportunity to bump up against the rough edges of our surfaces with others.  In so doing,  we get to see that we are basically all in the same predicament;  that it is part of human nature to get caught up in painful emotion and entangled with others.  For those of us to like to “work on ourselves”,  relationships are a perfect path for awareness practice.  They wake us up to the complex construction of self and other,  and, in so doing, help us recognize that what we find when we look inward and what we see when we look outward are not separate, but rather mutually reflective surfaces of experience.

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, October 2019

                                    RELATIONAL MINDFULNESS

“Relational mindfulness” describes the practice of bringing mindful awareness into the interpersonal domain.   By intentionally noticing and reflecting on our interactions with others we can become aware of how the mind organizes itself in and for relationship.       Ultimately, this practice deepens our self-understanding and enhances our capacity to be intimate both with ourselves and with others.  It supports us in staying present, open, and compassionate as life unfolds moment by moment.

The practice of relational mindfulness begins by becoming aware of the basic features of our lived present moment with others: our body sensations, breath, feelings, and the associative network of thoughts that accompany them *      But more than simply denuded moments of mindful awareness,  each relational moment also has its own a felt sense of closeness/intimacy or conversely, emotional distance.  In some moments with others we may feel well received while in other moments the connection between us falls flat.   Our tendencies to move towards or away from a particular relational moment depends on our needs for contact and connection, our deepest feelings of vulnerability,  and our defensive needs for safety.   Mindfulness of connection is a window of view into this basic interpersonal and psychodynamic dimension of relationship.

One primary observation is that interpersonal dramas tend to occupy center stage in the theater of the mind.   Plotlines unfold around who is doing what to whom.  We can see this both in the mundane dramas that ‘make the world go round’ and in the epic dramas of social injustice, political intrigue, and war.  All involve familiar interpersonal themes of love and loss; violation and betrayal; conquest and defeat.  

In relational mindfulness,  it is interesting to take note of the dramatic themes in the events that are unfolding around us as well as in our own lives.  These are especially evident in the conversations we participate in; relational narratives told and retold.  (Human beings love to gossip!) In any event, we can gain in psychological self-understanding by paying attention to our own soap operas, and by reflecting on the stories we tell (either to ourselves or to others) about what is happening in our lives.   By transforming our narratives, we can also transform ourselves.

Beyond story, there is a lot to be learned about ourselves by exploring the way we “show up” in the drama of our lives.  Not only are we different with different ‘others’, we are different scene by scene.   It is interesting to observe the emergence of different subpersonalities and reflect on where they come from in us.  One basic insight is that we are made of relational building blocks.  After all, we model ourselves after the people we experienced most closely in childhood.  Through the practice of relational mindfulness, we can locate our identifications with these ghosts of the past in our current behavior, as well as in our posture, mannerisms, and gestures. 

It is informative to make a study of the things that upset us and that we are emotionally reactive to.  Our psychological vulnerabilities are revealed most clearly in events that engage primal emotions such as anxiety, despondency, and shame; anger and blame;  jealousy, envy, and competition;  sexual attraction and lust.  By intentionally paying attention to moments when we get interpersonally ‘hooked’ or caught up in something someone did or said,  we can glean valuable information about our unmet psychological needs; what we need to wake up to and where we need to grow.**

When we inquire deeply about relationship, we come to see that relational themes infuse the way we relate to our own bodies and minds and even to the very process of how we relate to life itself.  Indeed, we can begin to see that our entire paradigm of personal meanings derives from an interpersonal framework.   To give just one of many possible examples, each of us engages an effort to control the events of our lives, a motive that is transparently connected to behavioral themes in child-rearing and which tends to replicate the ways we have seen others behave. 

The bottom line is that we are always in relationship.  The penetrating truth of interbeing is that everything is interrelated and constituted by its matrix of connections with everything else.  Relational mindfulness shows us  this basic truth.  It evokes and enhances our capacity to live from the quality of relatedness that the philosopher Martin Buber called I-Thou:  the ability to connect to one another from that place of deep being that lives behind our eyes, one whole human being to another, subject to subject.

**********************************************************************

*  The method of Insight Dialogue (Kramer, 2007) is a valuable form of training in the basics of interpersonal mindfulness.

** Relational dynamics are discussed at length in Schuman, M. (2017) Mindfulness-Informed Relational Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis:  Inquiring Deeply    Routledge Press, New York.     https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B01N24V17T

 

 

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, September 2019

    THE RELATIONAL DIMENSION OF EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE:       

          What is really happening? Who is doing what to whom?

When we inquire deeply about our emotional reactions, we discover that very often what we react to emotionally is what other people have said or done (or not said/ not done) and the meanings that we have assigned to those things.   With this in mind, deep inquiry investigates emotional reactions through the lens of our relationships with others.  Not only do we gain a window of view into how relational events orchestrate our emotional lives, we begin to see that our minds are organized subjectively around our connections with others.
 
One important thing we can notice in the interplay between Self and Other is the repeated pattern of rupture — ideally followed by repair– between ourselves and others.  We are constantly reactive to how well our interpersonal needs are met by others,  and we are likely to experience emotional turbulence when they are not. 
 
Understanding the dynamics between self and other is the primary domain of psychoanalysis.  We all have psychological ‘complexes’ (or ‘psychic knots’ as I personally prefer to call them).   In Jungian terms, this is the shadow.  The shadow aspect of our personalities can be vividly observed in ‘enactments’ with others: painful moments with romantic partners, family members, and friends which re-create in living color the psychological themes and patterns of early emotional life.   We may get upset emotionally, and/or we may get stuck in repetitive, painful ‘knots’ of entangled emotion and behavior (often in the form of fights) which are determined by the emotional baggage of both parties.   
 
When difficult feelings or emotions are occurring, various psychological defenses may be engaged in order to avoid experiencing, admitting to, or dealing with unwanted feelings.  One ubiquitous defense is that of projection, involving the attribution of one’s own feelings to someone else.  The unconscious aspect of personality is often revealed through this psychodynamic mechanism.  It is not easy to know who is doing what to whom.
 
This becomes especially problematic when both people in a relationship have similar issues or knots.  In a common enactment which occurs in couples,  for example, both people feel wounded and angry at the same time and each perceives the other to have started it and to be at fault.  The only way out of this cul de sac of mutual projection is for both people to be willing to step back and gain perspective on the fact that each person’s patterns of attachment are challenged by the partner’s.   By gaining some perspective on the reactive pattern that is reciprocally triggered in one another, it becomes possible to come to an empathic understanding that is inclusive of the pain of both and free of blame.
 
This situation illustrates several primary dimensions of relationship boundaries.  Interpersonal boundaries are usually defined as limits we set in regard to what is acceptable behavior on the part of ourselves or others.  Many emotional upsets occur when one person fails to respect the boundaries set by the other, or when two people have a different idea about what appropriate boundaries should be. Intersubjective boundaries can be defined as invisible and fluctuating demarcations between where I leave off and you begin. The essence of both kinds of boundaries may be readily grasped by simile:  what we see as happening on the ‘self’ side of the street vs. what we see as the ‘other’ side.  Where self boundaries are poorly defined, we are liable to becoming entangled (enmeshed) with or defensively removed from others.  
 
Bringing meditative awareness to our emotional upsets allows us to begin to penetrate the shadow with light by bringing attention to the unquestioned veracity of our perceptions.  We need to understand that there is a quintessential ambiguity inherent in delineating who is doing what to whom.  An important first step is acknowledging that interpersonal reality is always co-created.  We are complicit in the construction of our subjective reality, and there is power in recognizing that there is also an underlying question: ‘whose unconscious is it, anyway?’ *
 
Meditative inquiry about emotional reactivity provides a direct path to recognizing and understanding what is unhealed in our psyches. The very act of inquiring into what is happening entails a powerful and generative shift in awareness which allows us to begin to get unstuck from emotional reactivity. Contemplative rather than analytic in focus, the process of inquiry is one of posing questions and then feeling our way towards answers. Sitting with, being with, and repeatedly inquiring about who is doing what to whom is a means of inviting a profound shift in one’s experience of the world. Deep inquiry enables us to discover how we are complicit in constructing our subjective world.
 
 
*Bass, A. (2001) It Takes One to Know One; or, Whose Unconscious Is It Anyway?, Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 11(5)

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, August 2019

 

                                             

ON BEING ONESELF

“Today you are you, that is truer than true.
There is no one alive who is you-er than you.”
….Dr. Seuss

The curious fact is that it’s not always easy to just “be yourself”, nor even to know precisely who that is.   

 “Who Am I?” is one of the most basic questions we can ask in deep meditative inquiry.  This question first appeared in my awareness somewhere around the age of 3, and it is still alive in me.

We can address this question at various levels of depth, both intellectually and experientially.  I can convey some basic points of my understanding by describing the experience I had several decades ago at a contemplative inquiry retreat. The inquiry took place in a dyadic dialogue format.   In each 45 minute segment,  one partner simply gave the prompt: “tell me who you are”, while the other partner contemplated, answered, and then contemplated some more.   We reversed roles.  Then we changed partners.  For a total of 54 hours. 

Of the many things that happened for me during this profound retreat, one vivid element I recall was the sensory experience of the collective voices in the room.  The first night was marked by the sounds of lively chatter as everyone told their story:  (What I do for a living, who I’m married to, what I studied in school, what I do for fun, where I live, etc.)   By the second day, the collective mind of the room had become very much more settled.  There was a lot of silence in the room, and a palpable sense of meditative presence.  (Similarly in my own mind:  a lot of stillness, with empty space between thoughts).

While it was interesting in its own right to observe the content of what came up for me in response to the prompt, eventually it all seemed to  boil down to the feeling of “blah, blah, blah”:  a kind of boredom I felt about the oft-told story of myself (or maybe even a certain boredom with self itself.)  I gained a deep appreciation of a truth articulated by the psychoanalyst Roy Schafer:   The self is a story; it is the story that there is a self to tell a story to.

At the same time, it was also clear that behind the story of Who I Am — beneath the layers of identity and personality — there was a felt experience of what it is like to be me.  (Who am I?  I’m me! )  This felt sense was ineffable, but somehow constant behind fluid and continuously changing subjective experience.   I felt a profound sense of realization regarding the truth of Heraclitus’ well-known aphorism “you can’t step in the same river twice”.    (It wouldn’t be the same river, nor would it be the same person.)  And yet, there was also an indisputable experience of sameness within the subjective diversity: a sense of ‘me’.  This subjective experience is what we call the psychological self (the being of which is the topic of this discussion.)

Looking back from my current vantage point, several decades later, my sense is that becoming myself has been a lifelong process of deepening authenticity.  Though difficult to define,  authenticity refers generally to the congruence between what we say/do and who we are.  Simply put, I am authentic when I am being myself (so at this point the definition becomes circular).   Nonetheless, broadly speaking, authenticity is reflected in how we inhabit ourselves; how comfortable we feel in our own skins; by our spontaneity and freedom of expression. It also carries the meaning that we are fulfilling our innate potential. 

In contrast, we are inauthentic when we show up in a way that forfeits individual meaning in favour of the habit of trying to please and accommodate to the wishes of others.  In this case, the natural, spontaneous expression of “who we are” gets coopted.   “False Self” supplants “true self”.

The ability to authentically be oneself is reflected by how we show up in life.  It has to do with how we relate to ourselves as well as with our ability to be vulnerable and intimate with others.  It is an evolving dimension of being increasingly comfortable and natural, as expressed by the following great quote:  “I used to be different, now I’m the same.” *
  
The quality and depth of being which is engaged when I am being myself is the quintessential thing.   The ideal state of being entails an experience of flow as well as a sense of being optimally tuned and responsive to what is going on both internally and externally.  We feel alert and aware; subjectively cohesive, alive, and integrated. This is what I call, for want of a better phrase,  “true subjectivity”.   In some moments, this experience may deepen into stillness, a sense of mystery or even awe: ultimately, the ineffable experience of being itself.  In such moments, we come home to ourselves.

 

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*Title of film which documents Erhard Seminars Training (Werner Erhard, 1978).

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, July 2019

INQUIRING DEEPLY ABOUT HOW WE CHANGE

 Many – most — things that cause suffering are beyond our control.  But even those circumstances in which it appears we do have some choice may be stubbornly persistent, hard to manage, or intractable.  Life has a momentum which tends to carry our problems forward into the future for reasons both seen and unseen.   We suffer from the tendency to repeat old patterns over and over again, reenacting painful events or putting ourselves in situations where the same dreaded outcomes are likely to happen again.

Sometimes we bear our struggles and miseries with an added sense of shame and the perception of our own unworthiness.  Nonetheless, within us there is potentiality for change.  Freedom lies in the wise awareness of alternatives and of the ability to choose.  How can we cultivate this freedom?

In order to come to terms with our problems, it is helpful to have some place to “put them”:  a positive context/ frame of human understanding within which the situation can be held and integrated.   Problems entail any number of dysfunctional, ego-centered assumptions, but they also direct our attention to what we need to see.  When we can be deeply present with what is happening, we can see the situation more clearly and discern what is wanted and needed; what is wise.  Very broadly, we need to understand what we think needs to change, and probe the reasons why.   These dimensions of support allow us feel into the problem or difficulty.

In the framework of deep self-inquiry,  we can approach stubborn difficulties by “living in the question” of them. Somewhat analogous to the Zen idea of “koan”, this means that we endeavor to sit with the question; be with it; and repeatedly ask the question as a means of inviting a transformational shift of view. 

This idea first came to me in the form of an epiphany in which I recognized that the problem was the problem!  The very notion that there was a problem supported the idea that there must be a way out, a solution;  which in turn led me down a rabbit hole of trying to figure it out.   It was also clear that the process of struggle was counterproductive, distracting attention away from the feelings at the core of the emotional difficulty.  Moreover, getting stuck in trying to figure things out often turned into a problem in its own right.   In contrast, living in the question of something often revealed to me that “the problem” and “the solution” were two sides of a single coin.

Short of waiting for illuminations and epiphanies, there are strategies and practices that we can engage to cultivate change:

  • Clarify your intention. “Inquire deeply” within about what you are trying to change, and why.  What result are you trying to produce?   What are you trying to be, do, or have?   What are you resisting or avoiding?  Who are you trying to become?

       Endeavor to see your intentions clearly.

  • Clarify the obstacles. “Inquire deeply” about how you may be getting in your own way.  

 In addition to what seems to be in the way, notice especially how  you are being with whatever is happening.   What attitude(s) are you carrying?  How are you inhabiting yourself?   What are you embodying?

Endeavor to soften into your experience.

  • Contemplate: are you willing to be changed by change*?

Change is facilitated when we understand what is at stake for us.  The following questions are helpful:

  • How would you be different if life no longer contained this problem or challenge?
  • Who would you be if there were no problem to solve?

The ability to change rests upon our wise and compassionate awareness of the matrix of meaning in which we live and construct our personal experience.   We need to cultivate the awareness and self-reflection that will make this possible.

*Moffitt, Phillip    www.dharmawisdom.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, June 2019

               
 
 

                 INTENTION:  THE LEADING EDGE OF CHANGE

“If you look hard enough for something, eventually it will appear
  ….Ashleigh Brilliant

Dynamic psychotherapies tend to emphasize the causal role of the past in the present, with little emphasis on the shaping impact of awareness going forward. It has been left to “new age” spiritual psychologies to fill in that vacuum with various forms of “thinking from the end”, the fundamental idea that consciousness manifests that which it focuses on. Visualization, affirmation, positive thinking, and prayer, for example, are said to “create” whatever outcome is desired.

We can use the metaphor of pushing and pulling to explore these ideas of cause and effect. 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. In this way, awareness (or insight about) how something was brought about may become the beginning of what comes next.  In metaphysical terms, energy follows thought.

Without resorting to metaphysics, the concept of intention in Buddhist psychology elegantly illuminates the complexity of this process. Intentions are an important dimension of thought because what we intend directs our energy and attention. 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.

Simple examples abound. If you are looking for someone to marry, everyone will be evaluated as a prospective mate. If you are angry and have the energy of ill-will, you will find someone to have a fight with. If you expect good things to happen, the quality of your attention will itself amplify possibilities of something good.

Because intentions are what ‘incline the mind’ in one direction or another, it behooves us to be conscious of what these intentions are. Having clear intentions is a soft form of “thinking from the end”. 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 desired outcome 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.

By acknowledging the importance of intention, deep inquiry invites change. As the psychoanalyst Alan Wheelis put it, “something lies behind us, something goes before us, consciousness lies between”.    This blueprint for change is expressed in the following aphorism:

 First comes understanding, without which action is blind
 Then comes action, without which understanding is ineffective
 Finally, understanding and action become one 1.
 
[1] Source unknown

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter: May, 2019

                                        “We don’t know who discovered water,                                                                                                                   but we’re certain it wasn’t a fish ”                                                                                                                   ….. John Culkin

 

The Need To Know

Patterns of thinking are held in place, in part, by the need to know. 

In the face of any negative experience—when we are anxious or threatened or in pain— we instinctively try to think our way out of the situation.  For many people, this becomes a basic strategy for solving problems: “figure out” what to do.  Over time, we become reliant on this effort to know. This strategy solidifies into an unconsciously held and deep belief that knowing is essential to safety (or at least the illusion of safety).  We cling to knowing as a primary source of security.  It allows us to feel more in control.

Alongside this attachment to knowing, we can also observe the tendency to defend what we know (or what we believe we know).  We can notice that we cling to what we believe, and that we attempt to prove to ourselves that our views are right.   At deeper levels, we can also see the extent to which particular views and beliefs come to be invested with a sense of self.

At a yet more fundamental level, we can see how we identify with the faculty of knowing: we become the knower, never noticing, much less questioning, the assumption that who I am is the one who knows.  Indeed, the function of knowing is a basic aspect of the conscious mind, integrally involved in giving rise to the sense of self.  So, whatever it is I take my self to be, the ability to know is at the core of it.   

This kind of self-identity rests on several false assumptions.  Self-as-knower is based on what we have come to know in our lives along with all of its associated beliefs and assumptions.  It may readily become a closed circuit that limits our thinking, our relating, and our way of being in the world.  When we inquire deeply about what we know, we can begin to see that what we think we know keeps us from seeing what we don’t know, which is nearly everything[1]

When, in contrast, we are able to let go of needing to know and can relax into not having all the answers, we can begin to access a domain of deeper awareness that is based not in what we know but in the simple experience of being.  Such open and authentic experience of the present moment allows the emergence of insight and creativity.   As we learn to locate ourselves in the experience of not knowing, we can begin to transcend limiting identifications with the self as knower.

Not-knowing is the hallmark not just of this inquiry, but of any true inquiry.

As Socrates said, true wisdom comes to us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves, and the world around us.

 

 

 

[1] Quote from Gregory Kramer, 2007   Insight Dialogue: The Interpersonal Path To Freedom.   Shambhala Press, Boston.

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.

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”.