by Judy Lown
There is a very popular television series, shown on both Irish and UK television, called ‘Who DoYou Think You Are?’ It’s about family history. With the help of archivists and historians in a variety of countries, different celebrities trace back their roots over several generations. The results are often very moving for both the subject and the viewers as stories of personal and family tragedy, triumphs, courage and resilience are uncovered.
What emerges has many similarities with psychotherapy and counselling. Through an exploration resembling an archeological dig, discoveries are made of things which have lain hidden for many years. What is revealed has been there all along but is only just being brought to the surface. People find out more about themselves and where they have come from. They reach a larger and deeper recognition of who they are and begin to make some sense of aspects of their lives and themselves that might have been inaccessible to them before. They are changed by the experience. Something is often touched in them that gives rise to a different relationship to themselves and others.
In psychotherapy and counselling, we offer to accompany people on a similar journey through various layers of their experience, much of which has been buried for a long time. Clients begin to access places within themselves that have been holding unresolved pain and trauma. Their explorations might hark back not only to the family and environment they grew up in but often also to previous generations. Distress and sorrow can often give way to release and joy. With time and trust, a new sense of life and its possibilities can take shape.
When therapy has a spiritual perspective it holds the potential for reaching the very deepest layers of who we are. These layers hold the most buried aspects of our wounding but also contain the richest source of healing. Spiritual teachings from many traditions offer guidance for an enquiry that includes this innermost terrain. Core Process Psychotherapy draws mostly from the Buddhist tradition.
The deepest wounds call for the deepest healing
In this perspective, there is a source within us all of inherent and ever-present health. In the West, we tend to create a division between body and mind but, within Buddhism, consciousness is seen as unitary and connects all sentient beings. The Zen teacher, Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, describes this in terms of “interbeing” (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1988). At our deepest levels, we are all interconnected and the ground of this interconnection is open and empty. There is an absence of self-definitions, concepts and conditions. This is what is meant by the ‘core’. Deep beneath the layers of our familial and generational histories – and all the thoughts, emotions, impressions, opinions and beliefs that have grown up as a consequence – there is a state of vast and unconditioned presence.
This state is what we orient towards in Core Process Psychotherapy. It is not a place that can be known intellectually but one that is held within the most subtle layers of our experience. It is the place from which our sense of being arises – that sense of ‘I am’ when it is not qualified by ‘I am this or I am that’. It’s like an ever-available fulcrum of awareness in the midst of our continuing stream of consciousness and experience (Sills F., 2008). When we are closest to this state we feel fully present with nothing in the way, nothing added or taken away from direct experience of the moment.
Inevitably, this state has become obscured, for all of us, by the conditions of our existence. From the time of our conception onwards, we are subject to a variety of impingements of that basic sense of being. Western psychotherapy can inform us a lot about the nature of this developmental conditioning. Frank Lake, one of the first clinicians to focus on the pre- and peri-natal period, talks of the “womb of spirit” in which, from conception until about nine months after birth, the baby enters her first relational field of contact and communication (Lake, 1980). This field includes the mother and the wider environment of meaning and circumstances which she inhabits. It is in the reflection and resonance from mother and her world that the baby experiences her own being nature. Disruptions in this field activate the need to defend. Seeds are sown for self-formations constellated around that need rather than a secure rooting in our sense of being.
Donald Winnicott’s emphasis on the need for “good enough mothering” also highlights the impact of relational responses on the “continuity of being” in the growing infant (Winnicott, 1965). Again, it is this deeper aspect of who we are – in Winnicott’s terms, the “true self” – that is compromised. It is concealed by a “false self” with which we begin to identify and live out our lives. Developmentally, as we negotiate each stage of our progression through childhood, we create survival strategies and patterns based on our defences against wounding. These limit our deeper potential to be open and present.The personality that we accrue is not so much something we are as something we have or continually become. Our identification with it tends to block our sense of being and interconnection. We relate to who we are as if we are a fixed and separate ‘self’. This constitutes our deepest wounding.
Looked at in this light, it is the personality or sense of ‘self” which operates as a major obstruction to the open ground at the source of our being. It is this that prevents us from being present to experience. It is our ‘selves’ that get in the way. Our ‘process’ describes the way in which we move away from the core of our being in order to meet the world from these constructions of ‘self’ (Sills M. and Lown, 2008). If my entry into the world was not welcomed with a felt depth of love and acknowledgment, my sense of “deserving-to-be”, as Lake puts it, will have been severely diminished. To protect myself from the hurts of this experience, I will have become adept at withdrawing from contact. The more I turn away from relationship, the more isolated and separate I will feel. I begin to identify with this sense of solitary existence in a hostile world. I don the narrow garment of this fixed ‘self’ and behave towards more and more people according to my introjects and perceptions. The responses I get reinforce my internalised sense of who I am and how the world is.
In this way, I start to create more of my own suffering. One of the Buddha’s first teachings pointed to how we keep this cycle of suffering in motion (Ajahn Sumedho, 1988). In brief, we tend to relate to constantly changing phenomena as if they are permanent. This includes the way we see ourselves. I start to live as if I’m some kind of immutable entity which keeps me from recognising the fluid set of processes that actually make up the sense of ‘self’. I tend, equally, to see others through a similar lens. I lose touch with the openness at my centre where things can be seen as they are rather than how I have become accustomed to perceiving them. I become the suffering engendered through this process .
Re-aligning with inherent health
The Buddha’s medicine for this predicament is to know the nature of suffering rather than becoming it over and over again. Our capacity for clear comprehension is never lost only obscured. A major vehicle for recovering that potential at our core is through mindfulness practices that can tap into that fulcrum of awareness within. These are contemplative means of enquiry through which we can begin to settle our attention beneath the more formed layers of thoughts, perceptions, feelings, emotions, opinions and beliefs and cultivate a sense of witnessing the passing parade of our internal experience. From this vantage point, more space and fluidity starts to emerge. This is not about dissociating from what’s happening. We allow everything in but we also allow it to pass through, noticing any tendency to believe, reject, embellish or hang on to anything. We get to know those processes that constitute who we take ourselves to be and depend less on identifying so solidly with them. This is not a cognitive knowing but an experiential one at the depth of our being.
These kinds of practices are increasingly being taken into contemporary mental health services where they offer a wide variety of people a way of resourcing themselves. This development has grown from the recognition that contemplative practices, often undertaken as a solitary activity, can be fruitfully extended into one-to-one or group work. In a psycho-spiritual psychotherapy context, as in Core Process work, mindfulness – or awareness – is brought into the heart of the therapeutic relationship. It is the cornerstone of a joint practice between therapist and client where it is embodied awareness in relationship itself that enables the client to begin to witness their self-processes. This opens a door to reconnection with a subliminal wellspring of health and coherency from which something other than pain and suffering can emerge.
The therapist enters the relational field with the intention of seeing the personality structure not as a problem to be sorted out but as a contingent process to be held in the light of awareness (Sills F.,2008). She brings her attention to her own inner landscape as well as to that of the client and cultivates an embodied presence to whatever is arising in the present through the gateway of relationship. Sustained attention to the open and empty ground state as well as the self-constructs and personality positions of the client allows an expansiveness in which defensive self-forms can begin to dissolve. An orientation towards emptiness helps the client’s self-processes to slow down and make themselves known. It is often in moments of silent contact in a deep wordless being-to-being meeting between therapist and client that the most profound shifts take place. Touching into emptiness frees us from what gets in the way of experiencing our oneness with all of life. It releases the potential for an unhampered experience of empathy and compassion for ourselves and others.
As a client who has spent many years withdrawing from relationship, I might begin to feel the pain of my isolation being deeply received. As I enter into a holding field of profound recognition, acceptance and warmth, I not only contact the developmental wounding of my past but open to a much bigger field of awareness in the present. As my habituated self-processes begin to loosen, there is something much vaster for me to let go into. It’s not that I’m exchanging one sense of self for another to which I can become equally attached. My whole sense of self becomes something I can hold more lightly as it comes into greater alignment with being and emptiness. I touch into a subliminal quality which the Theravadin teacher, Venerable Ajahn Chah, has described beautifully as “still, flowing water” (Ajahn Chah, 2007).
A regular mindfulness practice based on meditation and contemplation is both a resource and a skill for therapists working in this way. It nourishes a fine attunement of attention that reaches through and beyond personal and generational histories into the profoundest expression of interconnectedness. It is not necessary for clients to be following a similar practice outside the therapy room or to have any particular spiritual orientation. The therapist’s intention of bringing the quality of awareness into relationship includes both client and therapist in a journey of inner experiential enquiry where subtle layers of meaning emerge for each participant. The most important element is the therapist’s willingness and capacity to meet the client at a being-to-being level. When this is present, the potential is released for the deepest realisation of who we are, rather than who we think we are.
Ajahn Chah (2002) Not for Sure: Two Dhamma Talks. Thailand: Wat Pah Nanachat.
Ajahn Sumedho (1988) The Four Noble Truths. England: Amaravati Buddhist Monastery.
Thich Nhat Hanh (1988) The Heart of Understanding. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
Lake, F. (1980) Studies in Constricted Confusion: Exploration of a Pre- and Peri-natal Paradigm. Nottingham: The Clinical Theology Association
Sills, F. (2008) Being and Becoming: Psychodynamics, Buddhism and the Origins of Selfhood. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
Sills, M. and Lown, J. (2008) ‘The field of subliminal mind and the nature of being’, European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling, Vol. 10, no.1, March 2008.
Winnicott, D. (1965) The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment, London: Hogarth.
Judy Lown (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Core Process psychotherapist and supervisor in Brighton, England, and a member of staff at Karuna Institute in Devon which offers professional trainings in Core Process Psychotherapy – founded by Maura and Franklyn Sills in the early 1980s as a mindfulness-based form of depth psychotherapy which integrates Buddhist psychology and practices with the skills and insights of Western psychotherapy.
Contact in Ireland: Deirdre Walsh, Deirdre.Walsh3@yahoo.com, 0877931715