Mindful Awareness, Self-Reflection, and the Development of Subjectivity

The discussion presented in this chapter is intended to provide a conceptual framework for inquiring deeply into subjective experience. The process described begins with psychotherapeutic exploration, and sometimes includes self-reflective awareness practice as an adjunctive intervention. Although inquiry can focus on anything of psychological interest, its epicenter is typically psychological wounds, long-standing painful patterns of emotional reaction.

As explained in preceding chapters, narratives tend to congeal around painful emotion, encapsulating areas of unprocessed experience and trauma within the psyche. While narratives protect the psyche by providing a context of meaning for painful experience, ironically they often wind up repeating and perpetuating difficult feelings. Inquiring deeply begins from the assumption that psychotherapeutic narratives entail communication that is in search of understanding and recognition. It is important to emphasize that narrative here refers not only to what is communicated in spoken language, but also to what is expressed in the body, what is enacted in behavior, and what is revealed in the form of problems. Deep emotional understanding of narratives within the psychotherapeutic relationship is the foundation of psychological healing.

Psychotherapeutic exploration and inquiry in the framework of the above discussion highlights narratives of self, including mentalizations about self and other. It focuses therapeutic attention on how subjectivity is organized in the mind: psychodynamic awareness of self, other, and how relationship is held in mind. In and of itself, engaging in this process contributes to the development of further self-reflective capacity. Also, because narrative constructs create meaning, they lead to more constructive, compassionate, and self-empowering mentalizations.

Self-reflective awareness practices amplify subjective experience through the intention to pay attention to and observe what one is aware of from moment to moment. De facto, mindful awareness enhances the ability to de-center and take a step back from experience. It can yield insight into the fact that mind is essentially a continuously unfolding process rather than a set of fixed conditions—“minding” rather than simply “mind.” And, articulating observations and insights within the relational therapeutic field further reinforces self-reflective awareness.

The starting point in inquiring deeply is not different from what might occur in mindfulness meditation when a difficult experience arises. Some nexus of reactivity within oneself has surfaced. In Buddhist practice, the aim would be to bring “bare attention” to the experience—that is to say, to be with reactivity, to notice the experience in the body and associated thoughts and images. In contrast, in a psychotherapeutic framework the aim is to explore the context of meaning in which reactivity is embedded, including its story line, and the experience of self and other connected to it.

As explained above, narratives are a primary matrix/structure that organize each person’s subjective reality, sense of self, and relationships with others. It is vitally important for narrative structure to remain open and pliant, alive and responsive to changing circumstances. When instead, however, it becomes rigid and inflexible, it may become like an outgrown exoskeleton, confining us within meanings that have long outgrown their psychological usefulness. So the primary goal in inquiring deeply is to unpack narrative, see the stories in the mind as story, and feel the underlying feelings more fully. In this way, self-understanding deepens, wiser versions of our stories can be created, and self-experience can shift profoundly.

When a therapist and/or patient has their awareness and cognitive skills honed in mindfulness meditation, this entire process is aided and abetted. The combination of mindfulness and psychodynamic self-reflection furthers the development of self-reflective awareness.24 Together, this promotes cognitive flexibility and emotional resilience by virtue of the repeated alternation between direct experience of subjectivity and the observation of one’s experience.25

The focus on narrative in inquiring deeply is not at odds with the Buddhist understanding that stories in the mind are empty. It is true that narratives are fabricated, but it does not follow that they are simply conditioned associations devoid of value. At the same time, however, this does not imply that we should attempt to explore every narrative in the mind (which would in any case be impossible).26

What is needed is a wise relationship to narrative. It is easy to get lost in our stories, and it takes a particular kind of self-reflective awareness to recognize when we are in the grips of one. Narratives can be quite mindless and repetitive in a way which pulls the mind into dysphoric experience. To the extent that we do not hold narratives consciously, they tend to have us unconsciously.

Even when we know on a rational level a particular narrative is untrue and/or unhelpful, the narrative may often be quite resistant to change.27 Narratives represent unprocessed emotional pain and often substitute for feeling things fully. For example, when we are angry with someone, all of our energy may be drawn into the narrative of what they have done wrong; and to that extent, we don’t take the time to really feel the hurt that is underneath. For this reason, it is important that inquiring deeply be grounded in and integrate experience of both body and mind. Absent embodied feeling and compassion—i.e. without “heart experience”— inquiry becomes dry and flat, and, what’s worse, useless.

To reiterate, narratives have subjective truth that can be recognized. They often represent unprocessed emotional pain and are driven by an inability to feel the underlying feelings more fully. Simply by engaging in a process of self-reflection with an attitude of inquiry, subjective truth is given the opportunity to reveal itself. For example, in Clinical Illustration 8.3, by investigating his experience with the simple inquiry, “What is this feeling?” Barry was able to notice a deep experience of “heartbroken” that might otherwise have been overlooked.

Meanwhile, the therapist’s role is to listen empathically to what is said, what is not said, and often to what has never even been thought. Narratives are reworked in the form of the spontaneous dance of conversation, ideas, and feelings which emerge in the here-and-now of the therapy process. This deep understanding can untangle painful knots of story and reactivity.

Inquiring deeply in psychotherapy also has a didactic dimension, as the therapist intervenes to highlight the process of listening for and being receptive to what is emerging at the leading edge of the patient’s experience. Patients expose aspects of themselves for review, and the therapist’s role is to illuminate what might be usefully investigated in more depth. Sometimes, the role may be to devise practices for constructive self-reflection, such as the one “prescribed” for Barry in the clinical illustration. As patients articulate their experience and the therapist reflects aloud about what is being said, new possibilities for how to relate wisely to life often come into view. Moreover, the Buddhist-informed psychotherapist can help to bring Buddhist insights about self into the relational field of psychotherapy. In both of these ways, inquiring deeply can further the emergence of creative responses to old problems. This amounts to a newly delineated sense of self.

In sum, as the stories of a life are reexamined and retold in psychodynamic treatment, self-experience develops as a function of how the therapeutic connection is felt. This was described in Chapter 5 as both present moments and moments of presence. Inquiring deeply in psychotherapy is a co-created process of selfreflection, in which the therapist is partner and sometimes guide.

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