The Trauma of Everyday Life


Feelings Matter

The Buddha once gave a teaching in response to his followers’ repeated requests to explain the mysteries of the universe to them. Known to possess a “divine eye,” the Buddha was asked over and over again to talk about how everything really worked. Okay, he finally cried. I give up. You want to know about the world? I’ll tell you. The world that matters is what you experience. The world is your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, body, and mind; your sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations, thoughts, and feelings; the visual, aural, olfactory, gustatory, kinesthetic, and intuitive consciousnesses that accompany them. Like a contemporary neurobiologist, the Buddha explained how each of his disciples was constantly remaking the world through his own sense organs, breaking it down and reconstructing it through his own relational mental processes. You and the world are not really separate, he explained, although that’s the way it seems. In fact, each person, each organism, is inextricably interwoven into the fabric of the world, constantly reproducing a version of it through their interactive, sense-based, experience of it. The self is not the same as any of these processes, nor could it be said to exist separately from them, he affirmed. The self is a mystery. In our efforts to pin it down or make it safe, we dissociate ourselves from our complete experience of whatever it is or is not. While other spiritual disciplines counseled a rejection of the body, suppression of the emotions, or the eradication of the personality in the hopes of connecting with a divine soul or spirit or essence that could survive death, the Buddha taught his students simply to attend to the shifting landscape of mind and body. Nothing else matters, he claimed. Only this.

This way of speaking was the Buddha’s introduction to his biggest discovery, known in its shorthand version as the doctrine of “no-self.” The shorthand version is a bit of a problem, because the Buddha’s teachings on the subject were actually quite nuanced and always varied depending on whom he was talking to. If the person believed strongly in a concrete soul or self or spirit, the Buddha would emphasize its empty nature, but if they believed in an empty self, if they were convinced they were vacant or hollow or unworthy or didn’t matter, he would tell them that too was mistaken, that they were attached to emptiness, that their human birth was immensely precious. For the supersophisticated, he would often say there is neither self nor nonself and then further confuse them by saying that if they took that too seriously they would be wrong too. His efforts were always in the service of releasing people from their fixed ideas about who or what they were, about freeing them from attachment to whatever concept they were clinging to, about loosening the hold that the fear-based ego claimed as its birthright. The Buddha understood the traumas of everyday life, but he was determined to challenge both the protective reactions of dissociation and the underlying hopelessness that accompanies them.

To this end—as he did for all of the individuals, like Yasa and patācārā, who came to him in distress—he taught the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. Preserved in the Pali Canon in a sutra called the Satipathāna Sutta, his instructions were remarkably clear and straightforward. They codified his pivotal understanding that the path out of fear and dissociation depends on the ability to use reflective awareness to study the nature of everyday experience. For the Buddha, this was not some kind of elevated philosophical inquiry. It meant the actual investigation, in real time, of the moment-to-moment unfolding of the mental, emotional, and physical components of the self. That is why, in his lecture to his followers on the mysteries of the universe, he stressed the centrality of the five senses and the mind. He made much the same argument in his sutra on mindfulness.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness are the domains of personal experience—the foci—in which mindfulness can be practiced. The Buddha specified them as consisting of the body (or breath), feelings, the mind, and mental objects like thoughts and emotions. This was another way of breaking down subjective experience so that it could be opened up to meditative scrutiny, just as he did in his teaching on the nature of the universe. After rejecting his ascetic attempts to suppress his physical and emotional self, the Buddha came to see that freedom actually came from within. The sutra on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness was his way of describing how to make that freedom happen.

The Buddha structured his teachings on the foundations of mindfulness in a very careful way. Recognizing, from his own obsessive immersion in austerity, that the most common reaction to the trauma of everyday life was a flight from bodily experience, he made mindfulness of the body the first foundation of his teaching. This was his way of countering the grossest form of dissociation, known in today’s psychological language as “derealization,” in which the defense of dissociation is applied to physical experience. In severe trauma, after rape or war or abuse or horrible accidents, this kind of reaction is well-known. Nothing seems real. The body seems alien. Physical things lose their solidity. But there is a spectrum of this kind of dissociation, as therapists have come to realize. The character armor that hardens muscles while protecting people from being emotionally hurt also limits their availability: to life, to love, to themselves and others. Children who suffer from developmental trauma, as Winnicott always pointed out, flee from their physical experience to a haven in their minds he called their “caretaker self” and suffer from a reduced sense of their own vitality. The Buddha acted out this flight from the body in his six years of austerities, and he enshrined its reversal in his first foundation. By using the body as a beginning focus of meditation, by gradually easing oneself into the moment-to-moment reality of physical embodiment, the mind begins to learn an alternative to dissociation.

The first foundation of mindfulness is very specific. It involves watching the breath enter and leave the body or, in some of the many variations that have been developed over time, listening to sounds come and go or watching physical sensations arise and pass away. It focuses on what are called the five sense doors—the eyes, ears, mouth, nose, and body—and guides the attention to the bare facts of what each sense organ registers at the boundary between the internal and the external environments. It can be applied to physical activities like walking or eating and is the mainstay of what has come to be known as “sitting” meditation practice. But this is only the beginning: the first of the four foci the Buddha knew to be important for training the mind. The second foundation, mindfulness of feelings, is the bridge between the body and the mind. It is the one that the Buddha’s childhood memory alerted him to, the one that took him out of his attachment to asceticism and returned him to the world.

According to the Buddha’s psychology, feelings are always present. They accompany every moment of awareness. They can be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, and they can be based in the body or in the mind. They flow continuously, although we tend to intervene reactively, dissociating from the painful feelings, clinging to the pleasant ones, and ignoring the neutral. Our egos, in our relentless rush to normal, pull us away from our feelings when they are difficult and immerse us in them unconditionally when they are alluring. In the practice of mindfulness, these habitual tendencies in relationship to our feelings are countered. One learns to abide in the flow of feeling, not pushing away the uncomfortable and not hanging on to the pleasurable. A deepening of internal experience inevitably results.

The Buddha came to accept the importance of feelings when he recovered his childhood memory and saw that he was afraid of the pleasure it held. In that tiny but crucial moment the Buddha saw the importance of both unpleasant and pleasant feeling, of both fear and joy. His interest in his own emotional experience was piqued and he began a new process of attending, without judgment, to both the pleasant and unpleasant aspects of mental and emotional life. Opening himself to his own subjective flow of feeling, he stopped trying to make it go away. He realized that he mattered, that he did not have to destroy himself, even as he was setting the stage for an equally profound realization: that he was not the limited individual he thought he was.

At that moment, remembering his childhood joy, he also made the crucial distinction between “sensual” and “nonsensual” feelings that became an essential part of his teachings on mindfulness. Sensual feelings were clearly dependent on sensory events, and their pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral qualities were easy to apprehend. But “nonsensual,” or “nonworldly” feelings, like the kind he recovered in his childhood memory, were more mysterious. They seemed to be experienced in the mind as much as in the body, and they carried hints of the past while also being able to fill the mind in the present. This distinction between the two kinds of feelings freed him up and gave him a new approach to working with the anguish, or dukkha, that had driven him into the forest in the first place. It showed him another kind of pleasure besides the physical one that was less dependent on sensory gratification and more related to simple being. And it gave shape and history to the fear that had propelled his spiritual search in the first place. He was able to make this fear an object of inquiry instead of something he needed to run away from. In reorienting himself in this way, the Buddha was firmly in line with the psychotherapy tradition of our own time. Accepting the importance of internal feelings, the Buddha opened himself to the mystery of the self. He validated psychological experience and made the psyche, as he had the body, available for subjective exploration.

As the great contemporary scholar of Buddhism at Oxford, Richard Gombrich, has repeatedly pointed out, people tend to construe the Buddhist concept of no-self or no-soul as “denying a principle of continuity.”1 Gombrich pulls no punches when addressing this misconception. “That is totally wrong,” he asserts. “The idea that Buddhism denies personal continuity could not be further from the truth.”2 The Buddha taught that there is no unchanging essence in people or in things, that what we ordinarily take to be objects are, in fact, processes, but he did not deny the sense of individual subjectivity, of interiority, or of personal continuity. In fact, the general thrust of his teachings was to encourage exactly that sense of personal continuity that people mistakenly think he denied, a continuity that derives in good part from the flow of feeling that underlies our lives.

In the Buddha’s uncovering of the Middle Path lay a profound and fundamental shift in the spiritual approach to pleasure and unpleasure. The dominant spiritual ideology of his time suggested that pleasant feelings were to be shunned3 and unpleasant feelings cultivated for their purifying effects. The Buddha, who tried his best to emulate this approach, was ultimately urged into a confrontation with this ideology and turned it on its head. He did not swing to the opposite, to the materialist stance that was widespread in his time and remains dominant in ours, where we believe that unpleasant feelings should be avoided and pleasant ones accumulated for their invigorating effects, but he opened up the realm of feelings, in all of their variety, to meditative scrutiny. This led him directly to the third and fourth foundations of mindfulness, to the potential of mind and mental objects as vehicles of meditative examination. Nothing in the psyche needs to be excluded, the Buddha taught. It can all be held in a meditative embrace. In today’s psychodynamic language, we might say that the Buddha discovered the unconscious and put it to use as grist for the spiritual mill.

The Buddha did not call it the unconscious, however; he simply called it “mind.” The mind has its own capacity for feeling, he deduced, over and above the corporeal dimension of the five traditional senses. His embrace of the mental dimension of pleasure and pain, which involved opening himself to the interior of his psyche—to its memories, dreams, and reflections and to its continuity over time—allowed him to expand the scope of meditation. No longer idealizing the peaceful quiescence of hypnotic tranquility and no longer trying to escape from himself, the Buddha saw that it was possible to “give understanding” not only to the pleasant and painful aspects of mental feeling but to the entirety of personal experience. The mind itself could become an object of mindfulness.

Just as the Buddha used mindfulness of the body, the first foundation, as a platform for exploring feelings, he used mindfulness of feelings, the second foundation, as a way into the mind. There are various ways of interpreting and describing the third and fourth foundations of mindfulness, the examination of mind and mental objects, but the direction of the Buddha’s approach is clear. As the tendency toward dissociation is countered, first by examination of physical experience and then by an acceptance of the flow of feelings, mental and emotional life becomes more available. Much of the sutra on the fourth foundation of mindfulness, for instance, deals with how to skillfully pay attention to anger, greed, doubt, agitation, and withdrawal, the emotional “hindrances” to mindfulness that come flooding out of the psyche—out of the unconscious—when the first efforts toward mindful awareness are made. Their appearance, while the cause of much frustration, fear, and shame, is actually a positive sign. They are often among the first indications of the opening of the internal landscape. They stop being obstacles when we learn to “hold” them in meditative awareness.

The most esoteric aspect of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness has to do with what is called mindfulness of mind. It does not really mean observation of individual thoughts or emotions—this is covered in the fourth foundation under the rubric of mindfulness of mental objects. It has more to do with the ability of the mind to know itself knowing, if that makes any sense. In the beginning steps of this foundation, one learns simply to know, for example, what a mind filled with fear or a mind immersed in joy feels like. One is directed not so much toward the pleasantness or unpleasantness of the feeling, or even toward the texture of the emotion, as toward the shape or sensation or experience of the mind colored by a particular feeling. When the emotions are strong, it is not hard to shift perspective and feel how intensely they color the mind, especially if one is sitting in meditation all day deliberately doing nothing. But as the emotions calm down, it is still possible to observe the mind with the mind. The mind that knows knows itself knowing. It is quite strange, but at the same time it feels entirely natural. In some Tibetan Buddhist traditions, to make it more accessible, this is called mindfulness of space instead of mindfulness of mind. It is compared to the blue sky that appears when the clouds of grief and fear and vanity are burned off by the sun of mindful awareness. Empty, luminous, and knowing, it is said, the mind knows itself as it really is.

I can give a personal example of how this works. When I went to take my walk after my breakfast of the missing toast, I was still aware of a lurking dissatisfaction. I was ashamed, I realized, of my failure to be mindful in the morning. My feeling reminded me of how a visiting gallery dealer must have felt when he backed up and squatted down to take a photo of one of my wife’s sculptures and sat on a fragile piece of porcelain he had not noticed and shattered it. The sound of the broken porcelain resounded through the gallery and he looked as if he might faint. I saw him berate himself and I could immediately relate to how he was feeling. “I can’t believe I did that!” he must have scolded himself.

On my walk after breakfast I had the definite sensation of the trauma of the morning having not completely disappeared. My meditation did not seem to be releasing me the way I thought it should. My mind was more concentrated, as the Buddha wished it to be, but my thoughts were still there, as I did not. I often think that I shouldn’t be thinking when on retreat but thinking is what my mind does, so I have to find a way to not turn it into a problem. As a result, I find myself watching my mind thinking about thinking, or thinking about not thinking, and I try not to think I am just wasting my time. The teachings on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness have helped me make room for this in my meditation.

That morning, my thoughts were particularly pronounced. I was walking. Not the ultra-slow, lifting/moving/placing, mindful walking I had been taught to do between sitting meditation periods, but a more normal stroll. I was taking a walk after breakfast on an old country road that looped around the outskirts of the retreat center. It was a ramshackle road but not without charm; full of trees, and woodland birds that skittered alongside as I walked, making me feel like Snow White or one of her seven dwarfs.

A couple of things were in my mind as I walked. The morning’s lapse of mindfulness. My feelings of shame. The sense of my life disappearing out from under me. And the Buddha’s teachings of no-self. It’s hard to be on a Buddhist retreat without thinking about no-self. Every lecture insists on it. What is the self, we are constantly asked to consider. And Buddhist sutras, like the famous Diamond Sutra, are always ready with a metaphor or two. The self is but “a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream,” they suggest.

“Those are a lot of things for a no-self to be,” I thought to myself as I strode along, eyeing the breaking of the late-autumn day, my self-preoccupation tugging at my mind. Did I understand it? I wasn’t so sure. No-self must mean inner peace, the place beyond thought, the reservoir of contentment I sometimes found when I successfully let go of my usual preoccupations. But I had the uneasy sense that this was probably wrong. There was a famous story of a very learned and accomplished Tibetan master who, when he was finally enlightened, said, emphatically, that it was exactly the opposite of what he had imagined. I knew I was not enlightened. Therefore, by the logic of the Tibetan master, whatever I imagined no-self to be was probably one hundred and eighty degrees off. If no-self wasn’t inner peace then what was it? I tried to feel like a bubble in a stream or a flickering light or a dream but I’ve never been much good at visualizing and I gave up before too long. I felt more like Snow White than a phantom or a bubble and my recurrent efforts to remember the names of her seven dwarfs kept interrupting my philosophical ruminations.

I couldn’t do much with the concept of no-self that morning. “Can’t figure it out right now,” I thought to myself with a sigh. I realized I was trying to avoid the feelings hanging around from earlier in the morning. At that moment, I was suddenly aware of how much information my senses were sensing, my ears and eyes especially. The landscape surrounding me, filled with color and early morning light, and the rustling of the birds in the trees and undergrowth, were filling my consciousness. I had a brief flash of a diagram I had studied in medical school. Dotted lines connecting two inverted triangles—the eyes taking the world into the brain. I remembered how I used to think the eye was like a camera, faithfully reflecting the outside world in the theater of the mind. But then I had learned otherwise. It was vastly more mysterious than that. The brain actually creates our reality, I was taught, it does not just mirror it. Sensory data enter the brain as raw material, not as finished images. The eye perceives angles and edges, not objects or backgrounds. It’s up to the brain to make reality coherent, building it up out of the raw information our organs of sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing and memory feed it.

Immersed in the sights and sounds surrounding me, this bit of basic science took on a more profound meaning as I meandered on my way. It wasn’t as much “me” walking through “it” as it usually was. The dotted lines of the diagram began to seem as important as the triangles. “In here” and “out there,” the two triangles I could see in my mind’s eye, were not two different things: they were connected. This world I was walking through, stirring slightly in the faint morning air, was my mind. And my mind, its thoughts notwithstanding, was this world. Another phrase crossed my mind: one I had read somewhere recently in a Buddhist text but not really understood, “There is no self apart from the world.” Now that phrase was resonating. Or resounding. No self apart from the world. I thought I understood what it meant. In here and out there. Not two. One.

It was a joyous experience to walk with that phrase percolating through me. It turned something around in my understanding. It reminded me of a quote from Albert Hoffman, the “father of LSD,” who died at the age of 102 in 2008. Dr. Hoffman, a chemist who first synthesized the chemical, gave an interview to the New York Times at the age of 99. He said a lot of amazing things in that interview (“Nearly 100, LSD’s Father Ponders His ‘Problem Child,’ ” January 7, 2006) but one in particular sprang to mind. “Outside is pure energy and colorless substance. All of the rest happens through the mechanism of our senses. Our eyes see just a small fraction of the light in the world. It is a trick to make a colored world, which does not exist outside of human beings.” Dr. Hoffman’s description aligned itself with my experience. I was inextricably bound up with the world, not separate from it. I had always thought the point of Buddhist meditation was to change something in my mind, to effect some kind of inner transformation, to peel away layers until I unearthed my real (no-) self. I was secretly operating with a belief that there was something wrong with me that needed fixing, that my ‘self’ was evidence of this, that if I meditated enough I would be cleansed. But now I had a glimmer of another way of looking at it all. No-self was not a state to be achieved, it was a testament to my embedded nature. No self apart from the world. The whole idea of going deep within to change myself seemed suddenly ludicrous. I felt like I already belonged. Walking through the New England countryside thinking, I felt light and happy. The dotted lines of the medical school diagram held me in their sway.

When I left the retreat the next morning, something stayed with me. I drove out early and made it to the highway by ten o’clock in the morning. I started to get hungry and stopped at a highway rest area, not the kind of place I ordinarily would feed myself from. The fast food restaurant there, a vaguely Italian establishment, was virtually empty. There were two local teenagers, a boy and a girl, working behind the counter. I could sense my own internal patterning—I would not normally make much eye contact and would treat them politely but at a great remove. But these were the first people I could talk to after a week of silence. “What can I eat here?” I asked them. “I’m just coming from a retreat and should probably have a vegetarian something.” I smiled at them and looked them straight in the eye and their acned faces shone. They were full of love. “We’ll make you a stir-fry with melted cheese,” one of them said and ten minutes later they brought it over to me on a paper plate. It was delicious. I was grateful. The exchange made all of us happy for the time being. I could tell that, at least for the moment, the retreat had changed something in me. No longer staving off my own traumas, I was much more open. Instead of remaining an obstacle, my mind was allowing me to connect.

The Buddha did not teach the four foundations as a ladder toward the sublime. That would have reinforced the tendency toward dissociation that his childhood memory encouraged him to give up. He taught them as a means of connecting people to their own humanity, much as I found that morning on the highway. While he did encourage beginning with mindfulness of the body and progressing through feelings to the mind, he also taught that all four foci existed simultaneously and that to privilege any one of them over another reinforced a tendency toward clinging. And the Buddha suggested that the steady application of mindfullness could have a palliative, even a transformational, effect on the way we handle life’s difficulties. In the stories that accompany his teachings he makes this abundantly clear.

There is one sutra, called the Splinter of Rock Discourse,* which describes this in very physical terms. When I first came upon it, I liked the title right away. What was the Buddha going to say about a splinter of rock? In it, the Buddha is surrounded by seven hundred devas (godlike beings who often found it edifying to hang around him) who praise him for his fortitude in enduring the pain of a splinter of rock lodged in his foot. “Not complaining at all,” the sutra reads, the Buddha “endured the pain with mindfulness and comprehension. He lay on his right side on the great robe which was spread on the ground folded fourfold, with one foot slightly further than the other one on which it rested.” I was struck by the image of the Buddha nursing a painful wound. Even though he was a Buddha, he still was subject to pain. While I knew it was not a psychological wound, I could not help imagining that it might be. I read the concluding stanza avidly, curious about what advice he might give to his admiring audience of otherworldly beings.

“In this world, he who is conceited lacks self-control,” the Buddha said. “He who abandons conceit, who has a tranquil mind, and who has wisdom is free from all existence. A forest-dweller leading a lonely life, if he practices mindfulness, can cross over the planes of existence where death prevails to the other shore.” His well-chosen words certainly seemed to hold out hope for those who suffered emotional as well as physical distress. Someone leading a “lonely life” could cross over from the “planes of existence where death prevails” to another shore. There, lying on his robe on the ground, the Buddha was talking quite personally.

I closed the book for a moment the first time I read the sutra and paused to reflect. There seemed to be a hidden psychological teaching here. Despite the presence of a splinter of pain, it was possible to abandon conceit and practice mindfulness. I remembered a phrase I had scribbled down a number of times upon hearing it, over the years, from Joseph Goldstein. “It’s not what you are experiencing that’s important,” Joseph would often say. “It’s how you relate to it that matters.” I always found this shocking—each time I heard it, I felt like I was hearing it for the first time. Splinters of pain did not have to be obstacles to awakening; they could become vehicles of it once the “conceit” that attaches to them is abandoned.

I thought again of the Buddha’s early loss of his mother. Maybe the splinter of rock was not just a splinter of rock. Maybe it was a stand-in for all of the pain we can do nothing about. Whether or not this was actually true, I began to consider it as another example of the place where Buddha and Winnicott overlapped. Developmental trauma leaves us with feelings we cannot control, feelings that rise in the night, feelings that color our minds without our really knowing where they come from. The rush to leave those feelings behind, to pretend they are not there, only leaves us more in their sway. The Buddha was modeling a different approach in this little discourse. He was lying there showing the gods what it meant to be human.

The Splinter of Rock Discourse helped me with my own anxious feelings. I thought of them as like his splinter. Children who in one way or another lose their connection with their mothers or fathers seem to internalize their loss in some way, not as a thought, or even as a memory, but as a feeling. These “self-feelings,” described by Winnicott in his list that included “falling forever, going to pieces, and losing all vestige of hope in the renewal of contacts,”4become the anxious and unstable foundations of the emerging self, the insecurities upon which identity is constructed. “It is a joy to be hidden,” wrote Winnicott of the struggles of such children, “but disaster not to be found.”5

Meditation often becomes a vehicle for being found, for bringing the splinters of rock, the internalized remnants of childhood traumas, into conscious awareness. As day-to-day thoughts and preoccupations become less dominant, the lurking feelings that tint the personality begin to emerge. These more primitive and emotionally tinged identifications, the ones Winnicott hailed as primitive agonies, lie beneath the surface of the mind and find ways of expressing themselves when given the chance. Therapists know this and are trained to let their encounters with patients expose the traces of these early experiences. The Buddha’s Splinter of Rock Discourse suggests that something similar can happen in meditation.

When the Buddha spoke of making unworldly or nonsensual feelings an essential part of the foundation of mindfulness, he was making room for what psychotherapists like Winnicott would describe twenty-five hundred years later. There are feelings we carry in our minds, ones that are not dependent on our immediate sensory surroundings but ones that define who we think we are, that entangle themselves with our sense of personal continuity. Often such feelings come from an early place, so early that they were there before we were, before our selves were formed enough to hold or understand them. These feelings demand attention, even when we are at rest. Meditation, the Buddha discovered, can work with these feeling tones productively.

I had a chance to speak with Joseph Goldstein about all of this once. We were teaching together in a daylong workshop. I had spoken in the morning, outlining my ideas about the Buddha’s loss of his mother, and he came in the afternoon. Given my questions to him, he spoke about his own experience of the mindfulness of unpleasant feeling. In his years of intensive practice, Joseph said, he had to deal with a lot of fear. Even as he trained himself to be mindful of it, he became aware that he was actually waiting for it to go away. His fear did not seem related to anything he was actually going through in his meditation—yet it filled his mind while he was sitting. It seemed to fit the definition of a nonsensual, unpleasant feeling, and Joseph did not like it, despite his attempts to be with it mindfully. He had a slight prejudice against it because of how unpleasant it was, and he was always hoping, in the back of his mind, even though he knew better, that he could manage to get rid of it. His fear was a recurrent presence, and it was not until he resolved, after years of doing otherwise, to treat it as if it would never go away—even if it were to kill him—that it began to actually inform his practice. Rather than pulling away from it just a bit, in a subtle form of dissociation, he learned to rest his awareness in its unpleasantness, making it into an actual object of meditation rather than treating it as an enemy. He used as an example a conversation he once had with his Burmese teacher about meditating while he had a headache. After Joseph complained to his teacher about how the pain was keeping him from meditating properly, the teacher rebuked him. “You’re missing a great opportunity,” he said. “That kind of pain can be a wonderful object of concentration. It can really settle the mind.”

“Your mother must have put you down to sleep before you were ready,” I joked to him when I heard him describe the ongoing nature of his fear. His description of it had put me in mind of Winnicott’s primitive agonies, of the ways in which babies who are not adequately held have the fear of falling forever. I was thinking that Joseph’s fear in meditation must have been his version of something left over from infancy that had happened too early for his mind to make sense out of. Unworldly unpleasant feelings, in the Buddha’s language, seemed to be another way of talking about the remnants of childhood trauma we carry in our unconscious. These feelings are not based exclusively on what is experienced through the five senses—there is a mental component that overrides and preserves the experience.

Joseph looked at me kind of funny. “My mother used to say that for the first three years of my life I just cried and cried,” he said. “She felt like there was nothing she could do.”

For me, this conversation with Joseph helped things fall into place. While he had never particularly tied his meditation fear to his childhood experience—working it through meditatively did not demand that he make this connection—it helped me give language to the stirrings of my own unconscious, language that calmed my mind enough to let me apply the foundations of mindfulness to my anxious feelings. It helped me treat my anxiety without shame, letting it come and go as part of the flow of feeling of which I was a part, while recognizing that I was, perhaps, being given a window into my earliest emotional experiences, not all of them pleasant ones. If my anxiety was like the Buddha’s splinter of rock, then I might be able to learn to be with it as he had been, “not complaining at all, enduring it with mindfulness and comprehension.” This is something I have taken directly into my work as a psychotherapist. People often come with fear or frustration or anger or pain that seems to have been there from the beginning. By recognizing that these feelings may well be remnants of infantile experience, I can help them attend dispassionately but with real interest. Rather than feeling besieged by or ashamed of such feelings, people can take ownership while at the same time not judge themselves so much for their discomfort. This attitude has proven very helpful. Many patients, troubled by these leftover feelings, criticize themselves for them. “Other people have it much worse,” they say. “I should feel lucky that this is all I have to worry about.” But the self-judgments only compound the problem. They perpetuate the malattunement that was the likely source of the discomfort. Once someone can treat his or her feelings like a splinter of rock some movement becomes possible.

Something similar applies in cases of big trauma, too. Those who have encountered incredible hardship or loss often feel that their experiences are singular. They believe that they, alone, have been hurt, and they judge themselves, or worry that other people will judge them, if they reveal what they are going through or have been through. They expect themselves to “get over it,” or, at the very least, to protect other people from their distress. Attending to their feelings mindfully, with attunement and responsiveness but without judgment, often feels too threatening. The Splinter of Rock Discourse has something for these individuals, too.

When the Buddha taught the Middle Path, his vision was one of balance. Having reconnected with his own capacity for joy, with his spirit of vitality, he now had the poise and stamina, the ease of mind and the fortitude, to hold the unpleasant aspects of his psyche in his awareness. In Winnicott’s way of thinking, this equilibrium is what unfolds in the therapy office, with the therapist re-creating the holding environment of the good-enough mother and the patient left with no other option than to slowly let in, or out, the un-worked-through unpleasantness of the past. In Winnicott’s language, the therapist creates a holding environment, a field of awareness, that mimics that of the early parent-infant bond. It does not duplicate it, but it is close enough that a sense of safety is reestablished and one’s defenses are allowed to relax. In the Buddha’s experience, the relational aspects of Winnicott’s therapy were collapsed into meditation. In his case, the capacity to make the mind into an object of mindfulness, to know the mind knowing, created a holding environment for the entire range of his emotional experience. To return to the metaphor of the sky so favored in the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha’s recognition of the background presence of the luminous emptiness of awareness allowed him to hold the splinters of his emotional life in a new way. While the splinters did not disappear, they lost their special status. They could coexist with his knowing mind just as the clouds coexist with the sky. In discovering his knowing mind, the Buddha demonstrated that there is an ongoing rapport that continues, within the individual, long after he or she emerges from the infantile parent-child matrix. The relational capacity that begins in infancy when we are totally dependent on our caretakers endures. We have the ability to be both subject and object to ourselves, and this capacity of reflective self-awareness has the potential to enlighten us, to ease the burdens we all carry.

In the Buddha’s self-analysis, and in his later teachings on mindfulness, we can see his relational self in action. It is as if he were reproducing the parent-infant dynamic internally but taking it to a higher level. Listen to one of today’s foremost researchers on mother-infant rapport, Peter Fonagy, to have a sense of how close the parallels are. He uses the word “affective” in his writing in the place of “emotional,” but he is talking about the same thing, about how babies are helpless in the face of the onslaught of their own feelings.

We suggest that the infant only gradually realizes that he has feelings and thoughts, and slowly becomes able to distinguish these. This happens mainly through learning that his internal experiences are meaningfully related to by the parent, through her expressions and other responses. These habitual reactions to his emotional expressions focus the infant’s attention on his internal experiences, giving them a shape so that they become meaningful and increasingly manageable…. The parent who cannot think about the child’s mental experience deprives him of the basis for a viable sense of himself….

Within a secure or containing relationship, the baby’s affective signals are interpreted by the parent, who is able to reflect on the mental states underlying the baby’s distress. For this reflection to help the baby, it needs to consist of a subtle combination of mirroring and the communication of a contrasting affect. The nature of the object’s mirroring may be most easily understood in the context of our description of the parent’s pretend play with the child: thus, to contain the child’s anxiety, the mother’s mirroring expression will display a complex affect, which combines fear with an emotion incompatible with it, such as irony…. We believe that the infant is soothed (or contained) through much the same process.6

Fonagy is describing the way a parent helps a child make feelings tolerable. He is evoking the means by which an attentive parent creates a field in which feelings can be known. In his view, this is an ongoing process, in which the parent attends to what is going on in the child, reflects upon it, and interprets it for him. Young children or infants have no idea what their feelings are. They are moved by them and possessed by them, but their minds do not yet have the capacity to hold or symbolize or name or understand what is going on. For this they are totally dependent on the adults who care for them. Fonagy describes what he has found in his laboratory, where he and his colleagues have observed infants with their parents. The good-enough parent senses what is going on in her child and mirrors it back with a slight twist. She lets the child know that she knows what is happening and she lightens it a bit with her combination of ironic detachment and sensitive attunement. The parent knows that whatever is happening is not the end of the world. If the child is hungry, she will be fed. If she is wet, she will be changed. If she is tired, she will go to sleep. If she is anxious, she will be held. And in the meantime, when the child is still caught up in the feelings of distress, the parent soothes her with her words and gestures. When Winnicott wrote of the parental “holding environment,” he was writing of this very phenomenon. In relating meaningfully to the child’s distress, the parent, over time, develops the capacity of the child’s mind to understand what feelings are and to deal with them. Fonagy’s word for this is “mentalization.”

The Buddha’s therapy, as described in his Four Foundations of Mindfulness, involves much the same process. What the Buddha counsels, in a moment-to-moment way, is just the kind of attitude that Fonagy described in an attuned mother: Seeing things clearly—the mirroring aspect—but not treating things as too real. Giving the information back with a slight twist, with a bit of paradox. “For me,” said the Thai teacher Ajahn Chah, pointing to the drinking glass he kept by his side, “this glass is already broken. Yet when I know this, every minute with it is precious.” When he called the glass already broken, Ajahn Chah was striking the ironic note of the Buddhist perspective. Undercutting our perceptions of what is real, he created a space in which the traumatic facts of impermanence and insubstantiality could be known. His words created a holding environment in which we could understand for ourselves how something could be both broken and whole, intensely alive and yet, in the words of the Buddha’s Fire Sermon, burning with the trauma of impermanence. And there was something ineluctably calming about seeing it this way. What he was saying was true, and we could tolerate it.

When the Buddha taught the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, he was charting the path to selflessness. When one sees that one’s experience is but a conglomeration of raw data, one’s conviction about one’s identity is shaken. When one sees that awareness has a life of its own—that we can be aware of it, or it can be aware of us, or that it simply is—our notions of who or what we are begin to collapse. The possibility of no-self makes us look at ourselves differently. Nothing changes, but there is a twist. What we had formerly assumed was so solid and real now comes into question. Ajahn Chah might say the glass is already broken—another Buddhist teacher might just call it empty. Whatever words they use, they are replicating the emotional stance of the good-enough parent who soothes her child by both mirroring and slightly undermining his all-consuming distress. “You take yourself so seriously,” she gently teases, holding the difficult feeling with her smile.

The Buddha, in recovering his capacity for nonsensual joy, learned that this joy was limitless. He found that if he got himself out of the way, his joy completely suffused his mindful awareness. This gave him the confidence, the stability, the trust, and the means to see clearly whatever presented itself to his mind. In the curious bifurcation of consciousness that meditation develops, where we can be both observer and that which is being observed, the quality of joy that he recovered did not remain an internal object. It was not only a memory or merely a feeling to be observed; it was also a quality of mind that could accompany every moment of mindfulness. The more he accepted the presence of this feeling and the more it toggled between being object and subject, the closer the Buddha came to understanding his true nature. Splinter of rock or no splinter of rock, the Buddha was figuring out how to relate.


* “Sakalika Sutta,” SN1.38 in the “Saṁyutta Nikāya” (“The Connected Discourses of the Buddha”)

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