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As We Think?

I start most days racewalking the Creek trail. In late Fall and Winter my headlamp illuminates a few feet ahead, until dawn finally lights the path. Raccoons scurry by; egrets perch quietly. Though skunk smell often hangs in the air, I have never seen one.

This morning my mind produced a disturbing thought/image… what if I got sprayed by a skunk? How would I remove the smell? With no answer in mind, I continued enjoying the special feeling of a Winter Solstice sickle moon hanging low in the sky.

A little more than halfway through my walk, the trail dips closer to the creek and I hear familiar bubbling waters and duck calls. It is too dark to see any of this. Suddenly I detect a faint movement of white close to the ground on my left. My mind races to determine what it is.

As my head turns, the headlamp illuminates a beautiful skunk, white tail straight up in the air. I startle and chuckle quietly… synchronicity? Power of mind? Intuitive foreshadowing? Please don’t fear me and spray! My body speeds up to avert the very image mind conjured up only a short while ago.

We are such strange creatures—so at the ready to connect dots, create meaning, assign deterministic frames to what are probabilistic random events. Randomness does not sit well in a meaning-making animal that spins tales of thought’s power and intentionality. We believe as we think, so life occurs. The grandeur we accord to our inner thought world is astounding. And we use this exceptionalism to distinguish ourselves from all other mammalian brothers and sisters. Want to hear how much we actually share with these animals? Listen to the Groundless Ground episode I recorded several years ago with Professor Kristen Andrews author of “Animal Minds”. It will blow your mind.

I finished my walk musing on my own penchant for meaning-making. How pattern recognition and superstition marry in my brain fooling me into believing I somehow made that skunk appear! Silly human.

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.