Summary and Conclusion: The Mindful Mind-Object
Mind-object is a psychoanalytic concept that describes psychological strategies that seek to manage and control experience. It is the set of executive functions that are engaged in order to try to hold life together in the mind. During development, the intellect—the fabric of thinking—takes over in order to try to provide the sense of security that optimally is provided by safe connection with others. Absent that attachment security, the mind clings to knowing, to being in control, and to its relationship with itself. In essence, knowing functions as a kind of second skin that contains experience and attempts to provide a feeling of security.
Ironically, what often escapes notice is that this strategy is in itself a major source of insecurity and suffering. With the intellect-dominated mind-object, authentic self gets replaced by compulsiveness, rigidity, and trying too hard; joyful experiences of flow get co-opted by obsessional efforts to keep track of everything, including oneself. Achievement, striving, and doing can never remedy the sense of emptiness and unworthiness that lies beneath. They do not provide a sense of connection with who we are, which ultimately is the only cure for a core experience of separateness and isolation. Moreover, immersion in compulsive productivity may tend to eclipse experiences of relational connection with others, thereby creating the very isolation that it seeks to remedy.
The effort to be in control is, in any event, futile, since so many aspects of life are beyond human control.
Elaborating this point further, it should be noted that when we are identified with ourselves as cognitive beings19—when we assume that who we are is this intellect—we become locked into a particularly limiting form of self-identity. As the Buddhist teacher Gregory Kramer puts it, “Thinking we know costs us all that we don’t know, which is nearly everything” (Kramer, 2007, p. 144).
Transforming and healing of the mind’s relationship to itself is the basic aim of both Buddhist practice and psychodynamic psychotherapy, each in its own way. (Perhaps we can call this the development of a mindful mind-object.) I will briefly reiterate here the important factors that bear upon the healing of the mind-object with mindfulness practice and/or relational psychotherapy:
- • Mindful awareness of the experience of being driven allows recognition of feelings that are buried beneath obsessional thinking. (Observing ego is developed.)
- • Mindfulness of embodied experience counters self-organizations that are based on intellectual function. (The split between mind and body is overcome.)
- • Increased ability to be with feelings deepens emotional understanding of oneself. (Affect modulation is improved.)
- • Feeling deeply understood fosters self-understanding and self-compassion. One develops compassion for what one has suffered and may still be suffering as a consequence of emotional wounds. One learns to be kinder and gentler toward oneself. (A more “loving and beloved superego” is developed (Schafer, I960).)
- • Directly and deeply encountering one’s psychological pain allows one to recognize lifelong patterns of thwarted psychological needs, which underlie the development of a mind-object. (This opens a doorway to liberating insights.)
- • Through becoming aware of the mind-object in its broader relational context, it becomes possible to appropriately redirect one’s energies toward more nurturing connection with others. (More rewarding relationships with others can then be sought.)
• By decentering from and disidentifying with entrenched and previously unconscious states of mind, transcendent subjectivity is cultivated. (New self-states may be acquired and problematic self-states can be healed.)
As previously discussed, transcendent subjectivity is cultivated in mindfulness meditation practice; it can also be facilitated intersubjectively. In many instances, transcendent experience may be intersubjectively communicated—it exists in potential or virtual form in one person until it is brought into being by another.20
While it may be psychodynamically helpful to become familiar with the functioning of the mind as an internal object within psychic reality, from a Buddhist perspective this conceptualization is intrinsically misguided, in that it perpetuates the dualism between one part of the mind and another. Indeed, when the concept of mind-object was first delineated by Corrigan and Gordon (1995), they made that precise point: “When the mind takes on a life of its own, it becomes an object—separate, as it were, from the self.” This may tend to generate a dissociative split within the sense of agency. To the extent that someone feels driven and does not own that pressuring behavior, s(he) may not fully take responsibility for the way that he or she is being.
Even within a dualistic frame, it is a mistake to conceive of a singular self in relation with a singular mind-object. We might do better to speak of multiple mind-objects. We also need to remember that the concept of mind-object tends to reify what is in reality a set of complex and dynamic processes in the mind. Do we attempt to live up to the performance standards of our mind-objects? Do our minds boss us around, drive us to distraction? Do we ignore the imperatives of our mind-objects in favor of sensory pleasure or impulsive acting out? Alternatively, can we become aware of and learn to be with the mind-object in a way that begins to heal the split between mind and body?
Mindfulness is practice with being which begins to inform and transform subjective life. As we inquire deeply into what we are striving for, and why, we can begin to see more clearly how anxiety within us gets expressed as a mind-object dynamic. Bringing consciousness to the experience of being driven opens the possibility for greater being and freedom from everyday compulsive doing. This allows us to be more aligned with our intentions and to create our lives in a way that has more coherent meaning.
As may be said of ego generally, the mind-object bears the stamp of defense. More than anything else, attachment to doing—to staying busy—defends against anxiety. “Dancing as fast as we can” provides the illusory sense that we are protected against existential fears: the freefall of groundlessness and the fear of nonbeing (death). It fortifies the illusion of self.
In conclusion, psychotherapy and Buddhist mindfulness meditation in tandem—inquiring deeply—provide a unique opportunity for subjectivity to evolve beyond blind domination by our mind-objects. As was discussed in Chapter 8, self-reflective awareness, whether in meditation or in everyday life, reveals many different states of mind and states of consciousness. Such states were described psychologically/clinically as different modes of subjectivity, each with its own organization, contents, and objects of awareness.21
Together, therapeutic inquiry and self-reflection heighten awareness of how we relate to our experience and to our minds—to the fluid, constantly shifting relationship between the experiencing self and the mind as object. At the heart of such inquiry lies the core issue of how people change. This question will be taken up at length in the next chapter.