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 made so much more available and accessible. Hence my own personal name for the form of self-empathic innerwork that I now practice, is Mandala Innerwork.
The Buddha’s Self-Enquiry / Self-Empathy Dyads
As I have developed this model, 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 shall be outlining the details of this future articles listed under the ‘Buddhism’ menu on this website. By making these connections we can bring the richness and power of Buddhist wisdom traditions to our work. In this article I will be avoiding that complexity, and 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 meditative self-enquiry’, but I use the Focusing terminology for the roles, and acknowledge our 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 historians of Buddhism understand the practice as a form of ‘confession’, but I believe that it would have more closely resembled the self-empathy / self-enquiry dyad practices of today, and my Mandala Innerwork model is an attempt to recreate it. I shall be sharing more of my thoughts on this in future articles.
Resting as Consciousness; Relating to Psychological Parts
Their are two close related features in my approach. The first could be characterised as ‘resting as Consciousness’: a focus on familiarising ourselves with, and learning to ‘rest as’ the ’empty’ impersonal Consciousness, that is capable of witnessing our experience objectively, and ‘relating’ to our experience with a warm accepting Presence. The second feature is learning to ‘work with psychological parts’.
I regard these two features 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 a spiritual seekers wishing to know the ultimate nature of mind, we can not 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 the apparent self is made up of many ‘psychological parts’, and to develop a sense of the inner relationship between Consciousness and those psychological parts.
Working 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’ – a 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 ‘Giraffe’ is used as a symbol of Consciousness – our innate capacity for Presence, compassion, and connection; and ‘Jackal’ is used as a symbol of 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 long-time students of the NVC model are unfortunately not aware that Rosenberg was using the ‘Jackal’ and ‘Giraffe’ symbols to explain internal as well as external dimensions of the model.
‘Giraffe’ and ‘Jackals’ – Consciousness and Psychological Parts
On the external level, 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 Presence, is experiencing the thoughts, feelings, needs and strategies of a psychological part – a part of our psyche which becomes progressively more conscious and more integrated as we recognise each of these perceptual components. The more explicit we are in acknowledging 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.
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 consciousness, 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, and our feelings, and 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 of our 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 that we always have the ability a step back into the relaxed and centred experience of Presence 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 any more deeply established in us over time, especially through meditation practice, which serves to cleans 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 of course means that there is a deep paradox in practising meditation, or doing inner work from a starting 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 sense in which the essence of the healing we desire is actually already present in Consciousness. Any energetic transformations that 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. 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 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 literalised, not taken as fixed 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 the 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 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 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 some of ‘opening meditation’ – a process to find, and familiarise ourselves with, Presence, or embodied Consciousness, before engaging with psychological parts. We do not have to be rigid about this. We can work with whatever healing process wants to happen – what ever wants to be known – and often that means spending the whole session exploring the experience of Presence.
The short opening meditation – usually a meditation guided by the ‘companion’ or coach. Consciousness is always there for us, and 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, extremely 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.
There are a variety of ways of shifting into a state of Presence, or resting as Consciousness. The Inner Presence Inquiry model uses a very simple approach to this opening meditation, which brings attention into the internal space of the body. Although the emphasis and focus in Inner Presence Inquiry is less on meditation and more on the self-empathetic work with psychological parts, I am personally very happy to give time in individual sessions to ensuring that people are approaching meditation practice correctly.
Meditation practice that is focused on establishing a familiarity with Consciousness, and on deepening our ability to be present, is of enormous value and provides a strong foundation for self-empathetic innerwork with psychological parts, but it also powerfully transformative practice in itself, and I am in the process of developing a structured Mandala of Love meditation teaching program for those for whom this is their main focus.
© William Roy Parker 2017