Inquiring Deeply, Relational Suffering, and the Dharma

Relational suffering is basic in human life. Sensitivity and reactivity to how we relate to others—to what others say and do (or what they don’t say or don’t do)— dominate much of our experience. Feeling painfully separate is frequently at the core of psychological wounds. For this reason, having a clear understanding of relational issues is at the heart of Buddhist-informed psychotherapy.

Although relational suffering is not acknowledged as such in the teachings of Buddhism, it is readily understood within the Buddhist concept of “dukkha”—the primary unsatisfactoriness that permeates our experience as human beings. As we dig down into relational dukkha, what we find there is always the same: in simple terms, not having what we want from others and/or not wanting what we do have.

This fundamental Buddhist reality does not, however, directly address the psychological complexities. Relational dukkha is held in place by layers of psychological meaning. Perhaps this point may be understood by analogy with physics: Buddhism brilliantly illuminates the basic atomic structure of suffering but does not much concern itself with the molecular configurations in which suffering presents itself. Buddhist psychology highlights the universal core elements in suffering—grasping, aversion, and ignorance—but it does not concern itself directly with the matrix of psychological factors that organize those core experiences into meaning.

Inquiring deeply fills in some of this territory by investigating the narrative as well as enacted meanings that organize our relational lives. It explores the complex psychological issues of relationship in a way that honors the wisdom and methods of dharma practice. Some of the differences between mindfulness in Buddhist dharma practice and mindfulness in inquiring deeply may become more clear by comparing them to each of the three Buddhist marks of existence: dukkha (suffering), anicca (impermanence), and anatta (no self).

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