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.