This is Post 31 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found by clicking here.
In interpersonal relationships, when we are reflecting silently about someone, especially someone we are concerned about, it is natural to engage empathetically using the the four perceptual components, or functions of Consciousness, in the following way:
‘How do they understand this situation?’ (Thinking); ‘How do they feel about this?’ (Feeling); ‘What is the need in them that is causing them to feel that way?’ (Intuition / Volition); ‘What solution would concretely fulfil that need in a practical way? (Sensation).
So, the mandala of the functions of Consciousness is not only an analysis of the process of perception – it is a framework to guide empathetic connection, communication and action. Those on the path of the inner life can also ask the same questions inside. In the intra-personal relationship between Consciousness and our psychological parts that I have been exploring in the last two posts (here and here), we have been acknowledging the enormous value of connecting self-empathetically in this way. When we do this work of inner empathy, it is the same four perceptual components, or functions of Consciousness, that provide us with a guiding framework.
Self-Empathy with a Companion
In self-empathy the whole process place takes place inwardly and does not have to be externally verbalised. If we were however, to bear witness to our internal self-empathetic connection by describing our experience to a spiritual companion who is ‘holding space’ for us, there are several ways we might approach it – but usually it feels best to silently connect with the part and then speak for the part as we describe our internal dialogue to our friend.
We might for example ask ourselves inwardly: ‘How is this part of me thinking about this situation? What is its point of view?’ (Thinking); ‘What does this part of me feel about this? What is the emotional history of this part, that it should feel this way?’ (Feeling); ‘What is the need that leads this part of me to feel that way?’ (Intuition / Volition); ‘What solution or strategy would concretely fulfil this part’s needs / my needs in a practical way? (Sensation).
The process outlined above simply brings awareness to all four components of the process of perception in turn. Very self-aware, creative people do this naturally all the time in the midst of the activities of life. The rest of us are much more one-sided and can benefit from consciously adopting and making use of this four-fold framework both inwardly in self-empathy and outwardly in communication.
The Practice of Self-Empathy in Psychotherapy and in Everyday Life
While the psychotherapeutic value of working with psychological parts is insufficiently understood in Psychiatry and Academic Psychology, it has become increasingly common as a fundamental understanding in most schools of psychotherapy. Psychotherapists are therefore often trained to recognise psychological parts and to facilitate their client’s self-empathetic relationship with those parts. While some therapists will systematically teach their clients self-empathy, the learning is often a more haphazard process, where clients learn self-empathy by listening to their therapist’s questions and empathetic reflections.
It needs to be acknowledged however, that self-empathy is a natural skill in all human beings, and should certainly not be exclusively associated with psychotherapy. Healthy societies would do well to teach self-empathy in schools and support knowledge of it in every possible way, because all forms of unhappiness – anxiety, depression, anger, for example, or almost any form of psychological distress – are ultimately caused by our inability to self-empathise effectively. And more severe forms of mental illness are generally associated with more severe loss of the capacity for self-empathy.
It is not sufficiently appreciated that ultimately those who suffer psychologically are not just in need of endless amounts of external empathy. It could be argued that what they need rather, is to be systematically taught the capacity to self-empathise. While the empathy of another will always help us to self-empathise and will usually go some way to relieving our psychological distress, real long-term mental and emotional stability requires the capacity to rest as Consciousness – and a reliable capacity for self-empathy can only be built on this foundation.
Mandala Frameworks for Self-Empathy and Self-Enquiry
To learn self-empathy we need two things. It is helpful to have a self-enquiry framework to guide us in our internal investigation of the perceptual or egoic components, but perhaps more importantly we need to gain familiarity with Consciousness – with that centre in ourselves from which we can effectively self-empathise. The Mandala of Love framework that I have been exploring in this ‘Meditation Guidance’ series, can provide both these things. It is essentially the same mandala framework that allows us to know the nature of Consciousness on one hand, and to recognise the egoic components on the other.
There is much that could be said about the rich and deep subject of psychological parts, and how the Mandala of Love framework can bring awareness to both our self-empathetic innerwork and our communication, and I intend to try to address this systematically in a series of future articles entitled ‘NVC / Communication and Relationships’ series.
I use this mandala framework with deep conviction because it is not only based on the teachings of several great innovators in the closely related fields of Psychotherapy, Philosophy, and the Psychology of Communication – Carl Jung, Eugene Gendlin, and Marshall Rosenberg respectively – but it is based on the teachings of the ancient sages of pre-Buddhist India; on the teachings of the Buddha himself; and on the teachings the meditation masters of Mahayana Buddhism – including the great Padmasambhava, author of the Bardo Thodol (the Tibetan ‘Book of the Dead’).
Self-Empathy / Self-Enquiry in the Teachings of the Buddha
I would like to talk a little more about how the Buddha advocated the use, not only of the ancient Indian teaching of the brahmavihāras as a mandala framework for cultivating Presence, but used another ancient Indian teaching, the Five Skandhas (Sanskrit), as a mandala framework for recognising the perceptual components that together form our psychological parts.
The Buddha’s psychology can be characterised as a subtle non-dual psychology, and as a subtle ‘Middle Way’, which stems from the liberating experience of resting as Consciousness – where both Consciousness and its cognitive-perceptual functions are recognised as spacious and ‘empty’ of self. The Buddha repeatedly invited his students to notice that the Skandhas, the cognitive-perceptual components that fuse to create our egoic parts, are actually ‘empty’ of self when investigated closely – and we can all conduct the same investigation today.
At the end of a great many of the recorded dialogues between the Buddha and his students, there is a familiar statement, which describes and celebrates the profundity of the spiritual breakthrough that the student has made as a result of the Buddha’s non-duality teachings. This breakthrough into psychological freedom is described as “seeing the emptiness of all five skandhas”. This description of the state of realisation has a deep poetic and emotional resonance for all serious practitioners within the Buddhist tradition, but is unfortunately poorly understood – even to the point where there is a complete lack of engagement, either intellectually or through self-enquiry, with the psychological and spiritual reality behind these words.
The Skandhas – the Buddha’s Self-Enquiry Framework
When we are familiar with the mandala archetype it becomes clear that the Buddha taught an approach to self-empathetic self-enquiry that is very similar to those that were developed in the 20th Century. Whereas I now inter-changeably use Carl Jung’s four functions of Consciousness (Thinking, Feeling, Volition/Intuition, and Sensation), or Marshall Rosenberg’s ‘four components’ (Observations, Feelings, Needs and Requests), the Buddha used the ancient Indian ‘Five Skandhas’ framework, which is essentially the same – a mandala-form analysis of the cognitive-perceptual components, which aggregate together to form psychological parts.
By dis-identifying from our psychological parts and recognising the nature of the four egoic functions that give rise to their appearance, we free ourselves – as the Buddha did – to observe objectively and non-reactively (Thinking); to use feeling for fine discrimination and true discernment (Feeling); to compassionately recognise our real needs and the needs of others (Intuition/Volition); and to come into a new and more joyful appreciation of what it is to be a human being – a spiritual being in a physical body (Sensation). Those who have been following this series of articles closely, will perhaps recognise the four brahmavihāras (Equanimity; Loving Kindness; Compassion; and Appreciative Joy) in this description of freedom.
Just as the Buddha discovered, we notice that the experience of being a person, is certainly not one of being a fixed, single, separate, ‘self’ – but is only an assembly of cognitive-perceptual functions and data that we have unfortunately chosen to identify with. This recognition that we are an assembly of ’empty’ cognitive-perceptual components – arising in Consciousness and empty of self-nature – brings profound freedom from our previously imagined separation, because what arises in place of the characteristics of the egoic mind are the attitudes of Consciousness itself – the brahmavihāras.
The Mistranslated Skandhas (Buddhism), the Four Functions (Jung), and the Four Components (Rosenberg)
I believe that there great value in recognising that these various mandala models of the psyche are identical – that they are all pointing to the same reality. I have found however, that there is often great resistance to this. It was, and still is, a great source of sadness to me that my Buddhist teachers in my twenties argued so fiercely closed to the idea that Jung’s four functions could shed light on the ancient Indian Skandhas teaching that the Buddha was so enthusiastic about. The fact of the matter is that Jung was a passionate student of Buddhism and, believing that the wisdom in Padmasambhava’s Bardo Thodol (the Tibetan ‘Book of the Dead’) texts might save humanity from the destructive path it was on, incorporated it into his mandala model of the psyche.
There is a tragedy here, which relates to the ever-changing nature of languages and the ever-present tendency towards literalism in the way words are used. In the context of non-dual psychology – and Buddhism is ultimately a non-dual psychology – words are only symbols of, or pointers to, spiritual truth. Indeed, in this context, we can truly say that a word is a symbol of a symbol. I have no doubt that at the time of the Buddha, the words used for the skandhas were still effective pointers to psychological realities, but something has gone wrong somewhere, that has allowed the power of the original framework to be lost. The loss within the Buddhist tradition of the integrity of the ancient Indian Brahmavihāras teachings has followed a similar process, in my view.
Although, I am afraid that many Buddhists are likely to be unwilling to consider the improved translations that Jung offers us, I personally have no doubt that several of the skandhas are usually mistranslated in their usual English rendering. I have not been able to accept the conventional translations ever since I studied the skandhas in the context of a seminar on the Bardo Thodol, in the 1980s. At that time it became clear to me that these translations just do not work – they simply do not meaningfully correspond, either to the associated imagery from the Six Realms, or to the associated Wisdoms and Buddha families. I have written several articles on this and related themes – which can be accessed via the ‘Book Sections’ Menu above.
My conviction about the mistranslations of the skandhas has deepened over the subsequent decades, especially since studying Ann Weiser-Cornell’s approach to Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing (in the 1990’s), and subsequently when I was introduced to Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) model. Both of these self-empathy / self-enquiry models powerfully reinforced my conviction that Jung’s Functions and the Buddha’s skandhas should be regarded as having essentially the same meaning. Indeed all of these various mandala-like formulations are essentially the same – descriptions of the egoic components of the cognitive-perceptual process, and descriptions of the universal Consciousness that is present in every moment of cognition and perception. The skandhas are foundational and universal, in the same way that Cartesian geometry is foundational and universal – they cannot be owned or monopolised by a particular tradition, because that are universal and essential in all conscious experience.
From a place of resting as Consciousness, we can relate to, or be present with, our psychological parts self-empathetically – empathising with them in very much the same way that we would with external persons. I have come to call this form of self-enquiry Mandala Innerwork, because I draw primarily on the mandala wisdom of the Buddhist tradition, and that of Carl Jung. Much of the detail of my approach to the practice however, comes from Eugene Gendlin’s ‘Focusing’ (especially as it is taught by Ann Wieser-Cornell), and from the approach to self-empathy taught by Marshall Rosenberg and his students within the NVC community.
Essentially this approach to innerwork involves asking the four self-empathy questions that I was describing at the beginning of this article: What is this part thinking? What is this part feeling? What is this part needing? What concrete strategy or actions would fulfil the needs of this part? This sort of self-empathic self-enquiry is a foundational part of Marshal Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) Model, and I shall be talking about this model in much greater detail in future articles in the ‘NVC’ series.
As we enquire in this way, the defensive and difficult egoic parts are usually revealed to be protective psychological parts who are actually old internal friends (or internalised authorities and ‘educators’), familiar parts of ourselves from childhood and early adulthood who have been trying to meet our needs using various strategies that they learned at that previous time. These parts are habitual and unconscious however, and usually show a surprising lack of understanding of the fact that we now have much more freedom to choose the ways in which we get our needs met, than we did at the time when they established themselves in the internal system of our psyche.
Healing the Emotional Shadow through the Brahmavihāras
Clearly, an awareness of our psychological parts is of great value, and gives us a practical and modern psychological perspective on the dynamics that the Buddha was describing in his imagery of the Preta Realm, which I described in a previous article (here). And clearly the unconditionally accepting and unconditionally valuing aspect of Consciousness which Indian tradition calls mettā, or Loving Kindness, is one of the keys to the healing of these internal dynamics. All four of the brahmavihāras are needed however, if we are to recognise the ultimate ‘emptiness’ of the psychological parts, and facilitate the release of their energy back into the unity of our true nature.
These articles are best read in sequence. To go to the next article in the series just click the ‘Next’ button at the bottom of the page. For an overview of the whole sequence of articles, with short summaries of each one, click here.