I have practised various forms of self-empathetic innerwork over the years. In the past, my personal method has been a distillation of, and a combination of, the innerwork approaches of Eugene Gendlin (Focusing), Ann Weiser-Cornell (Focusing), James Hillman (Jungian Innerwork), Marshall Rosenberg (Nonviolent Communication), Richard Schwarz (Inner Family Systems), Jerry Donoghue (Inner Presence Coaching), Steve De Shazer (Brief Solution Focused Therapy). While I continue to draw on the specific methods of these innovators in the fields of psychology and psychotherapy practice, I have more recently found it helpful to set these learnings in the context of the non-dual mandala-wisdom that we find in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and which Carl Jung helped to make so much more available and accessible in the West. Hence my own personal name for the form of self-empathic innerwork that I now practice, is ‘Mandala Innerwork’, reflecting the fact that it is essentially a form of Buddhist self-enquiry.
The Buddha’s Self-Enquiry / Self-Empathy Dyads
As I have developed my approach to self-empathetic innerwork, and studied the various other self-enquiry dyad models that I have mentioned above, I have increasingly found myself coming back to the Buddha’s approach and to the Buddhist terminology of the Five Skandhas, the Five Realms, the Five Wisdoms, and the brahmavhāras. I have begun to outline the details of how these fit together in various articles on this website. By making these connections we can bring the richness and power of the Buddhist wisdom tradition to our Western approaches to psychotherapeutic innerwork, while also bringing a much needed psychological sophistication to Buddhist Mindfulness, meditation and self-enquiry practice.
In this article however, I will be avoiding the complexity that arises for us when we try to use the Sanskrit terminology of ancient Buddhism – by mainly using the language of the self-empathy aspect of Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) model.
In the language of Nonviolent Communication, we can conceptualise Mandala Innerwork as a self-empathy practice, and the person doing it as a ‘self-empathiser’ and the person holding space is the ’empathiser’. In Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing model the activity of self-enquiry came to be called ‘focusing’, and the person turning their attention inward was called the ‘focuser’, and the person holding space is the ‘companion’. In the context of Mandala Innerwork, I prefer to think of the activity simply as ‘doing self-enquiry’, but I acknowledge a debt to Eugene Gendlin by using the terminology of ‘focuser’ and ‘companion’ for the roles.
The Buddha had his monks do meditative self-enquiry dyads, the details of which got lost down the centuries. The modern Buddhists and historians of Buddhism understand the practice as some form of ‘confession’, which is an unfortunate projection of Christian cultural practice onto the much more complex and subtle culture of early Buddhist self-enquiry. It is my belief that these early Buddhist ‘Confession’ dyads would have more closely resembled the self-empathy / self-enquiry dyad practices of today, and my Mandala Innerwork model has in part been an attempt to recreate the sort of Buddhist self-enquiry that would have characterised them.
The notion of ‘Confession’ is not completely illegitimate – of course. It just needs to be freed from the assumptions that tend to attach to it. I shall be sharing more of my thoughts on this in future articles, but the main thing I would like to highlight here is that in a confession process we are addressing that which is incongruous with our deeper true nature. In other words, not merely incongruous with an external religious creed, but incongruous with our deeper ethically and aspirational sense of ourselves, which is felt to be more essential and more authentic. So, ‘confession’ is always about our inner relationship between this deep inner knowing (which I like to call Consciousness) and something more superficial which is incongruous with that.
Resting as Consciousness; Relating to Psychological Parts
Their are two close related features in my approach, and they are both rooted in the profound early Buddhist psychology of the five skandhas and the four brahmavihāras. The first, could be characterised as ‘resting as Consciousness’: a focus on familiarising ourselves with, and learning to ‘rest as’ the ’empty’ impersonal Consciousness (the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha), that is capable of witnessing our experience objectively, and ‘relating’ to our experience with a warmly accepting quality of Presence. In my articles – especially those on meditation and self-enquiry that are to be found under the Meditation’ menu above – I have been highlighting the fact that the character of that the ’empty’ field of Consciousness, as it becomes embodied in us as Presence, is beautifully and comprehensively described by the four brahmavihāras.
The second feature of my Mandala Innerwork, or ‘Buddhist Self-Enquiry’ model, is based on our development of a deep familiarity with the other four skandhas – essentially the conceptualising (rūpa), sensing (vedanā), evaluating (samjñā), and volitional (samskaras) functions of Consciousness – and this involves learning to ‘work with psychological parts’. By working with psychological parts I mean, essentially, that we look at our experience closely, and learn to recognise that our conventionally experienced self never does actually have the character of a self at all. Rather, on close examination is it found to be an aggregation of cognitive-perceptual processes and cognitive-perceptual data that are assembled into the appearance of a self. What’s more, when we engage in this enquiry, we also become keenly aware of the fact that the egoic self is certainly not single. Rather, it is multiple – each of our separate egoic selves or ‘psychological parts’ are an adaption, in the course of our development to particular developmental stages and challenges.
I have come to regard these two features: resting as Consciousness; and working with psychological parts, as inseparable. Whether our focus is on learning to be self-empathetically present with yourselves for the purpose of self-knowledge and psychological healing; or we are spiritual seekers wishing to know the ultimate nature of mind, we cannot avoid acknowledging these two features of the process. It is one of foundational paradoxes of the process of spiritual integration and psychological healing that in order to become more unified and whole, we need to acknowledge that our egoic self is made up of many psychological parts; and need to develop a sense of the inner relationship between Consciousness and those psychological parts.
Working Self-Empathetically with Psychological Parts
Personally, I now prefer to frame the way I work with psychological parts in terms of the Buddha’s advice on recognising the non-personal nature the ‘Five Skandhas‘, but I would like, in this instance, to explain the process using Marshall Rosenberg’s notion of ‘self-empathy’ and his terminology of the ‘four components of communication’ – which are a popular modern version of the same idea. Working self-empathetically with psychological parts is integral to the idea of self-empathy in the NVC model, and this understanding was often explored in a wonderfully playful and entertaining way by Marshall Rosenberg using his ‘Jackal and Giraffe’ puppet work, where a ‘Giraffe’ puppet is used as a symbol of Consciousness – our innate capacity for Presence, compassion, and connection; and a ‘Jackal’ puppet is used as a symbol of a psychological part that is caught in unconsciousness, fear and disconnection.
Rosenberg was incredibly skilled in the way he used puppets in the context of his NVC training workshops, to enact dialogues between a ‘Jackal’ and a ‘Giraffe’ to illustrate both outer communication skills and internal self-empathetic processes. The principles of self-empathy are however, not usually explored in enough detail in either NVC foundation trainings, or more advanced trainings, and many even long-time students of the NVC model are unfortunately not aware of the degree to which Rosenberg was using the ‘Jackal’ and ‘Giraffe’ symbols to explain internal as well as external dimensions of his model.
‘Giraffe’ and ‘Jackals’ – Consciousness and Psychological Parts
On the external level (i.e. when NVC practitioners are focusing awareness on interpersonal communication), ‘Jackal’ describes unconscious thinking, and communication that creates disconnection, and ‘Giraffe’ describes thinking and communication that is conscious and creates connection. Implicitly however, there is a second, internal level which relates to self-empathy, in which psychological parts that are unconscious and disconnected are called ‘Jackals’; and the figure of the ‘Giraffe’ represents Consciousness. Because of the way that NVC is usually taught, it is not always clear that the self-empathy dimension is not secondary to the model, but integral and foundational – that we cannot actually practice NVC effectively at all without a very high level of self-empathy.
Self-empathy however, requires the ability to dis-identify from psychological parts and to instead identify with (or ‘rest as’) Consciousness – an ability that many people are either not aware of, or find illusive – but which can be learned through meditative enquiry. When we do self-empathy, Consciousness, or present awareness, is in an experiencing relationship with the thoughts, feelings, needs, strategies, and with the style of physical embodiment, of a psychological part. And through this witnessing, noticing, internally-empathising relationship, the parts of our psyche become progressively more conscious and more integrated as we recognise each of their cognitive-perceptual components. The more explicit we are in our acknowledgement of these component parts of the psychological parts, and acknowledging the internal relationship between Consciousness and the parts, the more we are able to ‘be Present’ with ourselves, and the more likely we are to be able to stay out of identification with the parts and in the spaciousness of Consciousness. This is a very practical example of the moment-to-moment choice to ‘rest as Consciousness’, which Buddhist tradition speaks of in terms of Mindfulness.
A Language of Inner Relationship – Presence and Psychological Parts
This explicit acknowledgement of psychological parts is a natural extension of the language of NVC. While most NVC teachers regard this as optional, it is very helpful in NVC self-expression to say ‘part of me is feeling ….. and needing ….. (and another part of me is feeling ….. and needing …..)’, it becomes essential to talk in this way if we want go really deeply into the practice of self-empathy. Acknowledging psychological parts is also an extremely powerful way of extending our self-empathy and empathy skills, and our capacity to ‘be Present’ in more difficult situations where we need to bring more awareness, or more empathetic connection to the feelings and needs of ourselves and others.
It is important to understand that, although many will find the idea of psychological parts to be a little strange and contrary to our assumptions; our actual experience once we try it, is that working self-empathetically with psychological parts feels very natural indeed. When we develop an awareness of our psychological parts we naturally become more self-aware and more conscious in our communication. And as we become less identified with our points of view, our feelings, our needs, and our requests, our communication naturally becomes more harmonious and effective as a result. It is a paradoxical, but very deep and essential psychological truth, that the less identified we are – with our thoughts, feelings, needs and requests – the more connected we are with ourselves and others.
Resting as Consciousness and Cultivating Presence
The second feature of the NVC model that is strongly highlighted in my Mandala Innerwork model, is Presence, or the experience of embodied Consciousness – the spacious place from which we self-empathise or empathise with others. Deepening our recognition of Consciousness, and our embodiment of Consciousness, and our ability ‘rest as’ Consciousness, goes hand in hand with the work with psychological parts outlined above. The movement out of identification, which needs to take place in order for us to relate inwardly to our psychological parts, is always an inner ‘step back’ – out of identification with the part and into the spaciousness of embodied Consciousness, or Presence. Learning to rest as Consciousness means that we always have the ability a step back into the relaxed and centred experience of Presence, and this is deeply empowering and brings profound mental and emotional stability. From a place of Presence we are able to be warmly accepting of, and empathetically present with, whatever is arising in our experience.
Although they are in some ways equivalent, there is an important distinction that can be made between the two words Consciousness and Presence. Essentially Consciousness, in this context refers to the universal and non-locatable field of Consciousness in which we rest, and which is the mysterious source of our experience of being a person; whereas Presence refers to way in which that field is embodied energetically or somatically in each one of us.
The Paradox – Nothing Needs to Be Healed
Perhaps the most important distinction between Consciousness and Presence, is that Consciousness is always unconditionally present and cannot be cultivated; whereas Presence – the embodiment of the qualities of Consciousness – can be cultivated so that it is more and more deeply established in us over time, especially through meditation practice, which serves to cleanse the energetic residue of the egoic mind from the subtle bodies. This distinction between Consciousness and Presence, or embodied Consciousness, is not well understood in some approaches to non-dual wisdom, and this error of understanding leads to a tendency to devalue meditation practice and psychotherapeutic innerwork.
This distinction between Consciousness and Presence means that there is a deep paradox in practising meditation, or doing inner work from a starting point of resting as Consciousness, because when we truly rest as Consciousness, we recognise that there is nothing that needs doing; nothing that needs to change; nothing wrong. There is a mysterious and difficult-to-define sense in which the essence of the healing that we desire is actually already present in Consciousness. What the egoic mind experienced as lack, is recognised by Consciousness as a beneficial energy that seeks our fulfilment. Any energetic transformations that do take place are only a realignment of our physical and energetic surface with our deep true nature that was never wounded and never needs to be healed. Ultimately, learning to find and recognise this place of rest is a foundational part of the work.
Working with the Component Parts of the Psychological Parts
The development of the energetic alignment with Consciousness, which we call Presence, can happen relatively quickly through the practice of resting as Consciousness – once we have understood that the healing power of Consciousness is always present and available and does not have to be cultivated. The embodiment of Consciousness is also powerfully accelerated however, when we make it our conscious intention to achieve this: firstly through meditation; and secondarily through innerwork to integrate the psychological parts that are making it difficult to be present in circumstances that ‘trigger’ us into identification with them.
What distinguishes both my Mandala Innerwork model and Jerry Donoghue’s Inner Presence Inquiry model, from other ‘parts work’ models like the Internal Family Systems model of Richard Schwartz, is the non-dual context, which provides the basis and context for the psychological work. By making the enquiry into the nature of Consciousness, foundational to the approach, the healing can go much deeper more quickly, and with remarkably little effort or distress – and the starting point is always one of just resting as Consciousness and not needing to fix anything.
An important reason for this depth and ease, is the fact that the phenomena of psychological parts is treated as an appearance only. The parts are not reified, and not taken as fixed or substantial in any way. Rather they are seen as ephemeral psychological phenomena and seen to be ultimately empty of any self-nature in much the same way as the Buddha did when he used the ancient Indian formulation of the Five Skandhas as a framework for analysing the component elements of our cognitive-perceptual process, or the categories of cognitive-perceptual data out of which the illusion of a self is assembled.
Whereas the Buddha used the Five Skandhas as his framework for self-enquiry; I often use the corresponding four components of NVC. The Mandala Innerwork framework however, builds on NVC‘s ‘four components’ by drawing on Carl Jung’s insights, and those of the Buddhist tradition (i.e. the mandala framework of the four brahmavihāras, the Six Realms, the Five Wisdoms, which I have been sharing in the Mandala of Love ‘Meditation Guidance’ series). I also draw on the Inner Relationship Focusing approach of Ann Weiser-Cornell. Ultimately all of these conceptualisations are manifestations of the same universal psychological structures that are symbolised by the mandala archetype. It is remarkable, but also perhaps not surprising, given of the objective and collective nature of the mandala structure of Consciousness, that these almost identical mandala-form models have emerged independently of each other.
Setting an Intention to Connect Inwardly
Mandala Innerwork sessions can be open ended and responsive to the life energy of needs in the moment, or can engage with an issue that you have chosen previously – or can include a combination of both approaches. If you wish to begin with a brief conversation about what psychological parts are ‘up’ for you; that you are aware of identifying with in your life, that can serve to set an intention for the session. This ‘intention to connect’ is the guiding principle, so this initial conversation is not so much about setting a goal for the session, as setting an intention to connect deeply with particular parts of yourself through self-empathy.
Opening Meditation – Resting as Consciousness
To ensure that Mandala Innerwork sessions are as focused and effective as possible right from the beginning, they usually include some form of opening meditation – a process to find, and familiarise ourselves with, Presence, or embodied Consciousness, before engaging with psychological parts. We can work with whatever healing process wants to happen however – whatever wants to be known.
For those new to the process, the opening meditation is a guided one – guided by the ‘companion’ or coach. To recognise that Consciousness is always there for us, and to develop the ability to make use of this fact for our own mental and emotional stability, by regularly resting as embodied Consciousness, is, in and of itself, very powerfully supportive of psychological healing. By familiarising ourselves with the experience of Consciousness, we make the work with psychological parts very much easier, because Consciousness gives us a benevolent and accepting place from which to objectively observe and reflect on our parts, and connect with their feelings and needs.