Buddhist philosophy · Buddhist psychology · clinical mindfulness · integrative psychiatry · mental health · mindfulness · mindfulness interventions · nondual mindfulness · psychological inquiry · psychology · psychotherapy · somatic psychotherapy

Intersubjectivity and Interdependence

Recently, a colleague shared the following, “I am more and more tuned into the reality of separateness, gradations, distinctions. I think we are being hoodwinked by this idea of universal oneness. This feels particularly true when working with patients, where I find most significant change occurs from investigating distinctions and details.”

While I agree that in-depth exploration is critical for insight, contrasting that process with notions of universal oneness rings hollow for me. And that common mistake may simply be due to widespread misinterpretations of ‘oneness’; most especially the Buddhist concept of emptiness or interdependent co-arising. Although emptiness is a concept, therapeutic dynamics provide a real-time example of how interdependent co-arising actually manifests in human experience.

The Intersubjective School of Psychoanalysis hypothesized an intersubjective field continually mediating bidirectional knowing between psychotherapist and patient. Intersubjectivity enables a psychotherapist to empathically use their entire psychophysical system to receive and mirror a patient’s cognitive-affective-somatic material. That form of empathy or therapeutic attunement, is the primary process through which a patient feels known. So, although a psychotherapist may deliberately direct patient inquiry, intersubjectivity tells us that both parties are equal participants and influencers in the therapeutic container’s ebb and flow.

Acknowledging that apparent interdependence does not discount or negate the appearance of two separate participants. Each exists from their own side in a relationship of mutual influence. Nagarjuna, the progenitor of the Middle Way School of Indian Buddhism argued that emptiness rests on two principles: (1) things/selves in the world appear nominally, and (2) because of their impermanence, interdependence and insubstantiality, these entities lack any essential (svabhāva) nature.

For example, take the device you are reading this blog on. If it was self-existing, it could not be broken down into its parts—cover, screen, content, matter, particles, quantum information and so on. It is no more than a so-called object, interdependently linked to nominal parts similarly lacking any essential nature. Though the device does have conventional or relative existence, it also cannot be found to ultimately exist separately from its myriad parts.

Similarly, though the therapeutic dyad includes two separate beings, the therapy itself is an intersubjective, co-created process. Co-creation widens the menu of possible perspectives and makes possible successful interventions that decrease systemic reactivity and increase capacity for in-depth inquiry. Mutual influence and co-creation till the soil that yields embodied awareness and cognitive-affective-somatic openness. Such that self-fixation and its concomitant feelings of separateness fall away; and along with it the oh, so ubiquitously harmful distorted notions of self and world. Clearing those obscurations of mind is not only the optimal path to less cognitive-affective-somatic distress, but also increased tolerance and connectedness with all other beings.

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Meditation is not an antidote.

If you think meditation alone will ‘cure’ the deleterious characteristics of humanness, like anger, violence, greed, hatred, fear and bias… think again. These qualities arise from an experientially shared, all-pervasive perceptual feeling of separateness—I am inside, everyone else is outside.

Cutting through that misapprehension requires both conceptual training and contemplative practices for cultivating cognitive-affective quiescence and profound insights into what is known in Buddhist philosophy as the Three Marks of Existence—impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self.  Most clinical and non-clinical applications of mindfulness teach meditation devoid of information about the way in which humans misapprehend the Three Marks of Existence, and how this mistaken perception becomes the proximate cause of all forms of human suffering.

Let me be absolutely clear. Noticing 1) how thoughts come and go; 2) how much time we mentally spend in the past and future; 3) cultivating compassion; 4) and that basic physical pain is worsened by mental anguish about painful stimuli—all these insights will decrease cognitive-affective symptoms, which makes them appropriate Western psychological interventions. However, when ‘Buddhist-derived’ mindfulness meditation practices are offered as a means to attain happiness and/or reduce distress, those meditators remain largely unaware of the root causes of their suffering.

The main reason Buddhist psychology does not view symptom relief as an end goal is because non-suffering is ultimately an outcome of the fearless pursuit of non-delusion. That pursuit includes the recognition of and liberation from two basic causes of human suffering—our deluded belief in a substantive, separate self; and our deluded belief that happiness is conditioned upon comfort, certainty and security.

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition that perceptual distortion is called, innate reification, which is viewed as largely unconscious; functioning at a very basic level of cognitive processing. The pervasive and assumptive nature of innate reification is a primary obstacle to direct realization of how all perceptual phenomena (including the self) interdependently co-arise moment-to-moment. Separate self-existence is illusory. But that illusion makes harming doable—particularly the false perception that harming another does not simultaneously also harm the harmer. Imagine how different the world would be if all human beings recognized how intimately connected they are to all other beings through their thoughts, words and deeds.

Because this profound insight into reality is not a predetermined outcome of meditative practice, it must be pointed out directly. Clear conceptual understanding proceeds and fortifies accurate perception of reality. Experiencing the Three Marks of Existence and cutting through the perceptual distortion of innate reification requires both concentration meditation and analytical meditation practices. Just practicing mindfulness and compassion is not enough. Concentration meditation alone is not enough. Conceptual understanding is not enough. Going beyond antidotes requires all of these together.