As we develop in the practice of mindfulness, our capacity to be with our experience increases, and our relationship with ourselves softens and becomes sweeter. Being with our experience in a direct way—with a nonjudgmental attitude of curiosity—is at the core of mindfulness practice.
While mindfulness is important and necessary for self-development, is it enough if we want to deepen our inner journey? Before I answer that question, it is important to talk a bit about our sense of self and how it develops.
Self-Perception Has Its Limits
Put simply, our sense of self is largely developed through our interaction with our parents and our environment. Depending on the type of parenting and the level of safety and input we got during infancy, childhood, and adolescence, the way we perceive the world, orient to it, and experience ourselves in it becomes solidified (and, to some extent, rigid).
One way of measuring emotional health is by how flexible that sense of self is. Generally speaking, the input we received while growing up develops into filters and ideas about the world and ourselves that limit our perception of reality. When we do inner work, one of the aims is to understand, see through, and dissolve these filters and ideas we have about ourselves.
Some of these ideas, though, are so deeply ingrained in our psyches that we can’t conceive of experience without them; we come to believe that our filters are simply who we are. In order to understand and eventually dissolve the ones that no longer serve us, we need to experience their energy directly, without necessarily applying a conceptual understanding, yet (somewhat paradoxically) also have an understanding of how they developed.
Growth Requires More Than Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a great tool we can use to enter the experiential portion of the equation, for it will help us stay present and in direct contact with our experience. Mindfulness can also serve in the conceptual understanding by helping us stay focused and not get lost in the many thought patterns that our minds are constantly producing.
But if we practice mindfulness alone, seeing and dissolving these internal patterns is extremely difficult. Again, these patterns are so ingrained in us that we believe they’re who we are, and the possibility of us being something else is terrifying for our usual sense of self. In order to work with them, there needs to be some kind of friction that will help us see them clearly. On top of that, this friction must be contained in a deep sense of safety, so that we are able to tolerate the uncomfortable sensations and emotions the friction produces.
This friction can only come about in relationship. Because our patterns originated in relationship, they can be transformed in relationship. This is where psychotherapy and having others reflect to us our patterns are essential in the process of self-discovery.
Having an external, empathic person validating and observing our experience gives us the advantage of perspective, and if we are open and ready for it, this person can also help us see through our beliefs and filters about the world, other people, and ourselves. A good therapist can begin to point out these patterns and reframe them as our relationship to them.
Of course, a therapist isn’t the only person who can co-create this type of relationship. Any relationship will surface our patterns. Romantic relationships will expose them in the deepest way. However, a therapist—at least, a therapist trained to see unconscious, transference, and countertransference—specifically focuses on seeing our patterns, and provides a valuable holding environment to process and more deeply understand them.
Both Mindfulness and Relationship Are Essential
In my own process, I have benefited from mindfulness as well as continuous relationships with others. I could say that all of my relationships have served as mirrors and have helped me see my unconscious patterns, but I have to say that the most significant relationships have been my more lasting, committed ones. These include my past therapists, spiritual teachers, family of origin, deeper friendships, and romantic relationships. All helped me profoundly to see different aspects of my own patterns. In my relationship with my spouse, some of my deeper defenses began to arise.
With their help—and my own capacity, developed through mindfulness—I have been able to tolerate the experience of defenses dissolving to access the younger, more hidden parts of myself. Some of these parts are so deep within, and so afraid to relate, that it has taken years of continuous work for them to come to the surface. This can be a scary, even terrifying, process. Again, mindfulness alone will not suffice in this endeavor.
Frankly speaking, the fear is a fear of dying. In a way, this is accurate; who I think I am is literally dying. However, when I am able to tolerate the experience, something else begins to arise and support me. As my attention stays with what’s happening, I am able to recognize that a subtler, and profound, presence is closer to who I am than my historical sense of self.
The practical implications of this discovery, and the integrations of it in my daily life, are very clear. For example, relationships have become more fulfilling; I’ve begun to have more access to expansive states of being; and I am able to more quickly recognize when I get caught up in old patterns. This is not a fixed, one-time achievement; it is an ongoing process of opening and dissolving ever-deeper structures.
To sum up, mindfulness is a great tool that will support our process of discovery at any stage; however, if we don’t also address our relational dynamics and personality patterns, our process will not deepen much. And in order to address these issues, we need others.
© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Manuel A. Manotas, PsyD, Mindfulness-Based Approaches/Contemplative Approaches Topic Expert Contributor
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