Category Archives: Inquiring Deeply Newsletters

On The Importance of Understanding and Being Understood

I had an upset this morning that crystallized something— or many somethings— for me.  The upset centered around my feeling not understood by someone.   “Not feeling understood” is in the same genre as misunderstood, but it is not quite the same.   Discerning this distinction led me to recognize the many different flavors of meaning I attach to “being understood” (and “understanding”).  Understanding is a spectrum of experience, not one single ‘thing’.  One size does not fit all.

As a psychologist and psychoanalyst, I have devoted my life to understanding others.  In my effort to meet emotional experience – both my own and that of others— in the best way I possibly can, I have given a lot of thought to the nature of understanding.   The way we understand is informed by concept and theory, but it is not only, nor primarily, conceptual.  It is direct comprehension grounded in intuition and empathy.

Beyond extensive clinical study and experience,  I have also spent years inquiring deeply about how “understanding” lives in my own experience.  I offer the following ideas for your reflection:

The psychological need to be understood is universal and basic to who we are as human beings.   “Understanding” has an important psychosocial function and is one of the basic moves in the dance of social communication and conversation.  When there is a milieu of understanding and being understood, there is basic safety.

Feeling understood is a primary foundation of psychological safety and part of what makes it possible for us to learn to modulate our emotional states. Understanding is a basic element of intimate connection.   To the extent that we feel accurately and empathically understood, we can trust and feel close to another.

Above all, it must be recognized that deep emotional understanding is a relational event. 

In more personal terms,  we might also say that when we feel emotionally distressed, what we seem to need/want most is to express our feelings and have them deeply received by an Other.  When this can happen,  it often feels as though the bubble of emotional tension or worry bursts and evaporates.  

In the presence of a trusted other, the experience of being understood seems to provide a balm of emotional safety which allows relaxation and letting go;   release from the clutches of painful feelings.  Sometimes when the need for understanding feels urgent, lack of adequate attunement on the part of a needed Other can trigger old developmental wounds.

There is a great opportunity in such emotional reactions.   Being upset often signals the presence of something not yet seen, understood, and/or accepted.  For this reason, it is useful to “inquire deeply” in such situations by turning towards the upset and feeling our way towards deeper understanding by asking questions (often implicit) such as

  • What am I feeling, and what triggered it?
  • What wants/needs my attention?
  • What am I clinging to?
  • What am I avoiding?
  • What do I not want to feel?

Understanding is a worthy topic for self-inquiry.  In the words of writer/journalist Mitch Albom, “in order to move on, you must understand why you felt what you did and why you no longer need to feel it”.

And, last but not least,  what we understand and how we engage with the process of understanding are integrally related .  Understanding unfolds in relation to the questions we ask,  and is shaped by what we learn from each subsequent experience.  Through this process, wisdom unfolds at the leading edge of our understanding.

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are” …. Anais Nin

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. 





Reflections on Introversion & Social Distancing in the Time of Covid

The psychological and mental health consequences of the COVID pandemic have been a popular focus of many recent television interviews, magazine articles, and dharma talks.   In my previous newsletter, I described one aspect of the emotional impact which I termed “existential shock”:  a kind of radical and fundamental wave of turbulence in the collective psyche.   Existential shock happens when we have been confronted with the truth that Reality is always and irrevocably tenuous and uncertain.  The “normal” we return to may or may not be very similar to the one that was left behind. 

Apart from existential threats of illness, death, and loss (including financial insecurities),  quarantine provides its own set of emotional challenges.   While the particular obstacles vary with individual circumstances, what we can notice is that sheltering at home is far more disruptive for some people than others.   We depend on the quality of our interaction with others in order to be able to effectively manage our feelings.   Being too alone and deprived of ordinary channels of social support can be difficult, to say the least.   And, conversely, being cooped up with others who may themselves be emotionally off-balance can be triggering.    For these reasons,  quarantine can push us into the deep water of ourselves.  

What I notice in my psychotherapeutic work with others is the truth of the aphorism that wherever you go, there you are.   Our experience of quarantine— of any experience—depends not only on our circumstances but also upon both our temperaments as well as our different histories and experiences of  “home” and “family ”.   As depicted in the cartoon, what is an imprisoning isolation for one person may feel like a cozy cocoon to another.  

For those of us who are introverts and/or homebodies,  the experience of quarantine may feel congruent with a preferred way of being.   For example, sheltering in place can provide permission to “hang out” in the rhythm of the day;  a slower pace of life that is more stay-cation than isolation.  But we can also notice that aloneness does not always feel the same.   It can feel very full at times, empty or lonely at others.    [What is the felt sense of a companionable aloneness with yourself?  In what ways do you tend to get lost in distractions, avoidance, or spacing out?  ] .  

The other major dimension of quarantine, “social distancing”, gives us an opportunity to investigate the surface of our connection with others.   What internal experience spurs the impulse to connect?   What are we hoping to get? (Comfort?  Validation? Stimulation?  Distraction from an unpleasant internal state? )  What defines the difference between a satisfactory and an unsatisfactory contact with someone else?  Do we get energy from connection, or does it drain us? 

“Introversion” is not a one-size fits all personality trait nor even a particular relational style.   It is not simply the preference for spending time alone, the tendency to be quiet, nor social reserve.  It is a complex mixture of our experiences of being alone and our ways of being with others.  It is possible to feel quite connected socially even when we spending time by ourselves.   And conversely, it is also possible to feel more alone, or even lonely,  when we are in the presence of others.  

What we can discover when we inquire deeply about our experiences of introversion and social distancing is that our connection with ourselves and the interconnection between ourselves and the world are two sides of a single coin.






Some Reflections on Existential Shock

                                                    Some Reflections on Existential Shock

It is commonplace in recent days for people to express astonishment at how COVID could have so completely upended the world, causing everything to change so suddenly and all at once.   This is a kind of situation for which the term “existential shock” seems both apt and descriptive.

Existential shock can result from many different kinds of trauma that befall human beings –both personal and global cataclysmic events.   Its defining characteristic is an experience of intense personal upheaval in which it is felt that “the world” itself seems called into question.   The philosopher Martin Heidegger describes such moments as the darkness which can break out at any point in the struggle of human existence.

Grappling with the existential shock of COVID has invited me to ponder the question “what IS ‘the world,’ anyway?”   This is a deep inquiry with many layers, but where I looked first was to what the German language designates by the word “weltanschauung”:  the fundamental cognitive orientation which encompasses the whole of the individual’s or society’s knowledge and presumptions about the nature of things.  

Bottom line,  “the world” is generated by a collective and socially constructed experience which corresponds to what we come to expect about “the way life is” at a particular time and place.     On one level,  “the world” includes all of the mundane features of the modern Western cultural lifestyle, inclusive of things such as running water, electricity, grocery stores,  and the internet.   At another level, “the world” includes planet earth and all of its denizens, and presupposes all of the things that we take to be eternal, including planetary events such as seasons, climate, weather patterns, etc.   

But existential shock shows us the Zen truth of “not always so”[1]. Our expectations about the world rest on the common metaphysical illusions of human life:  the presumed nature of things which is communicated and sustained through the medium of words and reified pictures.   As the philosopher Wittgenstein expressed it, we humans are “bewitched by language”; our shared illusions replace the tragic finitude and transience of existence with a picture of a permanent and eternally changeless reality[2].   

When we encounter the fact that life is otherwise — transient and context-dependent – this can be shocking.   ( In the effort to remind myself to be mindful of this existential truth, for many years I kept a refrigerator magnet which said on it “SUDDENLY!”)

As I reflect on it, I see that existential shock arises as a consequence of being dislodged from the ongoing-ness of life.  We are psychologically reliant on what feels ordinary and routine,  on the structures of meaning that define our lived experience.  When this structure suddenly changes, our felt sense of the continuity of being is disrupted.   And because, as the famed psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott was the first to emphasize, going-on-being is the subjective center of our human world,  interruptions in our experience of going-on-being are traumatic.

Many circumstances and crises have this tendency to disrupt the experience of continuity of being, but none more than the experience of being seriously ill or attending someone who is dying.   When we are very sick – even from causes which are not life threatening – it can feel that the world has gone on without us.  The existential impact of such an experience can be profound.   As indicated in the Chinese book of divination, the  i ching,  crisis contains both danger and opportunity.   Crisis can be an important threshold experience and a portal to personal transformation.  It poses an existential challenge: will we be broken down and defeated by our reactivity and resistance to change, or broken open and transformed?[3]

The value of existential shock is well conveyed in the story of the Buddha’s life.   Leaving the protected enclave of the kingdom of his birth and youth, it is told that the young Buddha encountered the realities of old age, sickness, and death,  and he was so struck by these “heavenly messengers” that he vowed to find the path to enlightenment.  Existential shock can be profound in a way which can initiate deep transformation in us, awakening our consciousness.  

As has been observed by many, the COVID pandemic presents us with opportunity as well as crisis.  Thanks to the necessity to stay at home, the enforced busyness and pressures of life are stripped away, giving many of us a taste of what is available on meditation retreat.  For all of the danger it presents, COVID shows us what is available when we slow down enough to be present and open to a more spacious awareness of being.   We have the opportunity to lean into the uncertainty which seems to be the center from which everything begins.

At the level of “the world”, the opportunity inherent in this pandemic is nowhere expressed more beautifully than in the following poem:


from Richard Hendrick (Brother Richard) in Ireland, March 13, 2020

Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.
Yes there is panic buying.
Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise, you can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet, the sky is no longer thick with fumes, but blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi, people are singing to each other across the empty squares.
Keeping their windows open so that those who are alone may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman is busy spreading fliers with her number through the neighborhood, So that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples are preparing to welcome and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary.
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting.
All over the world people are looking at their neighbors in a new way, with empathy and compassion.
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality — To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
To love.
So we pray and we remember that –
Yes there is fear. But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation. But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying. But there does not have to be selfishness.
Yes there is sickness. But there does not have to be disease of the soul.
Yes there is even death. But there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Today, breathe.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic.
The birds are singing again, the sky is clearing, spring is coming, And we are always encompassed by love.
Open the windows of your soul.
And though you may not be able to touch across the empty square, Sing.



[1] Suzuki, S.   (2002)   Not Always So.   Harper Collins Books

[2] Stolorow, R.   (2020)  Planet earth: crumbing metaphysical illusion. American Imago, Vol. 77 (1): 105–107.

[3] Lesser, E.  (2005)   Broken Open:  How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow.    Villard Books, Random House

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, March 2020


This cartoon beautifully illustrates a central predicament of the human condition:     each of us is painfully constrained by underlying assumptions that we do not see.   What we do not recognize, we also cannot question or change.  

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

The cartoon cage may be interpreted as representing the carapace of “ego identity”:  our concepts of who we think we are; who we are afraid we are; what we are invested in having, doing, and being; and who we think we are supposed to be and/or are striving to become.  The limiting personal enclosure for each of us is constructed from these autobiographical themes,  which derive from how we were related to by family and others during our early development. 

In psychological terms, we can further see this bird as trapped in the prison of its own defenses:  its need to cling to what is familiar in order to preserve some experience of safety within a familiar world.    Though in some sense a cage is safe – think of the crates used for puppy training—  this strategy precludes us from discovering the world beyond the cage: the universe of other possibilities.

That people cling to things that make them unhappy may be the source of all of our troubles, but this tendency can be – unfortunately – difficult to change.  As I have explained and unpacked elsewhere,  problems live in the matrix of our relationships with others**.   This is where we can look most effectively if we want to disentangle the knots of feelings, personality, and core beliefs that keep us trapped.   

While it may be true, as the title of the Buddhist book says, “No Self, No Problem”***,  trying to “let go” in order is seldom of lasting help.  “Let it be” is better advice, but this too is easier said than done.  Nonetheless, it is useful to recognize that the freedom we seek is actually not outside our actual experience. 

In the words of the 20th century mystic and philosopher G.I. Gurjieff,

The more clearly you can see the situation
Feel your way into the situation
Articulate what you feel
Put words to your experience
The more real it becomes
The more real YOU become


*title adapted from paper by Brandschaft, B. (2010) in Towards an Emancipatory Psychoanalysis, Routledge Press NY**

Schuman, M. (2017)  Mindfulness-Informed Relational Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis: Inquiring Deeply. Routledge Press, NY

 ***Thubten, A.   (2009)  No Self No Problem   Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, NY.

Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, Xmas 2019

Xmas, 2019

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 Past. Present, 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.

In this spirit of The Christmas Carol,  wishing my readers joy at this holiday time.    May your heart’s desires be fulfilled.  May you awaken and be free.

“Inside everyone  
is a great shout of joy
waiting to be born”

        .…David Whyte   







Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, December 2019


“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



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.



Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, September 2019


          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)