Trembling with the World: The Therapist’s Sensitivity, the Meditator’s Sensitivity, the Meditating Therapist’s Sensitivity

Excerpts from the book Carved by Experience: Vipassana, Psychoanalysis, and the Mind Investigating Itself

The enhancement of awareness is also the enhancement of sensitivity. The therapist aspires to have sharper senses attuned to the patient’s communication, whether verbal or non-verbal, whether conscious or unconscious. The effort is to calibrate his subjective apparatus and make it so open and non-selective as to be ready to receive as much as possible of the incoming sensory and mental information. Being a subject himself, whose receptive substrate rests on a specific mixture of complexes, past experiences, and perceptions, the therapist strives to achieve a subtle awareness of his own blind spots, too, of his own Achilles heel and sensitivities, through which an important part of the countertransference manifests itself. In the absence of awareness of these parts, the therapist’s sense of the patient will remain anaemic, superficial, and hollow. This type of two-directional awareness— towards what comes in from outside as well as one’s own vulnerabilities and blindness—exposes the therapist to pain that must be borne and coped with in a healthy manner.

The meditator aspires to hone his sensitivity to the sensations that arise and pass, pleasant and unpleasant alike, in all parts of the body. In contrast with the workings of the pleasure principle, here the attempt is to develop concentration and awareness so as to be able to take in these sensations in their entirety, with maximum subtlety and depth, not leaving out even the smallest area, not neglecting any sensation, no matter how unpleasant, not keeping any domain or sensation outside the field of investigation. Being a subject, the meditator, whose receptive substrate rests on a specific mixture of com plexes, past experiences, and perceptions, experiences in the process all the mental factors tied to these sensations, including those that interfere with investigating one’s own, constantly changing, map of sensations. The meditator encounters these factors, which emerge as a consequence of the investigation, and this, in turn, refines his awareness of them. We saw this in the case of Joel, whose intense anxiety came with the urge to escape, threatening his ability to keep going with the process, with Shira, whose sealed body zones, together with her attitude towards them, conspired to keep her suffering out of her own sight, putting at risk her motivation to continue investigating her psyche, and we saw it, too, regarding Ethan, whose basic lack of trust caused him to project his anger and conflicts on to the abstract object of “Vipassanā” and made it extremely hard for him to surrender to the process. For them, as for many others, the very work with these interfering complexes—whose triggering is inherent to any in-depth mental process—is the main work that eventually leads toward transformation and liberation.

Therapists have no other instrument to register themselves and others but their own subjective substrate, riddled as it is with blind spots. Meditators have no other instrument to register their internal reality and its interrelations with the external environment but their own subjective substrate, riddled as it is with blind spots. Although very unlike each other in terms of tools and objectives, both these positions put those who occupy them in a vulnerable place. Those who choose to spend long stretches of time with people who suffer badly expose themselves to mental exchanges with them, and, thus, in a sense they consciously choose to ingest painful materials that might not have been part of them to begin with. However, those who decide to carefully explore themselves, leaving out and eliding nothing, and who are willing to be awake to anything arising in them—do they, too, bring unnecessary suffering upon themselves? In other words: do people who are able to avoid all this actually end up being more free and happy? Are awareness and sensitivity suffering, and is ignorance, really, bliss?

The answer, from the point of view that inspires this book, is no. Many of those who start learning Vipassanā feel how the technique sharpens their sensitivity; alongside those who immediately perceive the advantages of this, there are also others who are taken aback. They are usually people who know themselves to be very sensitive, who have become used to the fact that their sensitivity causes them suffering. Being subject to the same habitual reactive infrastructure that was theirs hitherto, the increased awareness of sensations can indeed lead to increased suffering. But Vipassanā offers precisely this: to break through the old habitual reactive infrastructure responsible for suffering. Joel’s intense anxiety and Sarah’s “burning” when they started practising Vipassanā were not created by the process. They were manifestations of mental residues that were created in the past, took up residence in their minds, and were brought to the surface in the meditative process. We deceive ourselves when we believe that if only we decide not to lift the stone underneath which there is a scorpion we can pretend there actually is no scorpion. Neglect and turning a blind eye have never really solved a problem.

Calm and equanimity, which are based on low sensitivity, occlude the reactive mental activity that is constantly taking place in the mind’s deeper strata and that remains outside conscious awareness until it receives appropriate attention (Hart, 1987). Like the princess with the pea under her mattress in the fairy tale, says Lobel (2014), we are very sensitive to the sensations that arise in us as the result of stimuli in our environment, and not knowing the source of the disturbance does not relieve us from its critical influence. When we look at lack of awareness from the psychodynamic perspective, too, not knowing does not do away with suffering. Quite the contrary: it is not knowing that offers the causes of suffering the opportunity to act powerfully within us and to push us into non-integrative intrapersonal and interpersonal actions. Hence, the difficult self-parts and components of experience that the psyche expels into others rather than becoming aware of them do not actually stop affecting the psyche. Counter transference feelings unaccompanied by awareness produce suffering for whoever experiences them and fuel the suffering of the partner in the process, leading to counter-reactions that perpetuate a blindly vicious circle. Reactions of craving and hatred that are generated, unconsciously, to pleasant and unpleasant sensations alike multiply in the mind, transforming into self-perpetuating harmful residues and habits that are responsible for the creation of suffering and ignorance within the individual and for negative influence on his or her surroundings. Ignorance, therefore, is suffering and by no means bliss.

Yet, not every time mental residues are brought to the surface is a healthy and useful thing. It should happen to those who are capable, when they are capable, and within a context that provides proper holding and tools for the right kind of work with what comes up in the process. In the therapeutic situation, these are the setting, the therapeutic technique, and, especially, therapists’ reverie, together with the other professional tools and human capacities they have due to their professional training and personality. In a Vipassanā course, they are the safe physical space, the clear timetable and instructions, the ethical underpinning, as well as the team of people who work on those terms, teachers’ holding and, more than anything else, the technique itself, whose key aim is to work with the causes of suffering in an even-minded, non-repressive, and non-eliciting way. From the present angle, then, there are no “excessive” awareness, “excessive” attention to sensations, or “hypersensitivity” wherever the right conditions are provided to people in the right state. However, there can be awareness, attention, and sensitivity lacking a parallel degree of equanimity. Awareness and equanimity are like the two wings of a bird, whose ability to fly depends on both being developed in equal measure, or like the two wheels of a wheelbarrow: when one of them is smaller than the other, the cart will be turning circles around its own axis rather than moving ahead (Hart, 1987). With the proper conditions, the honing of the part of the mind that serves as the instrument for investigating the other parts supports the process whereby mental residues come floating to the surface, making it possible to uproot them, to allow them to arise and be experienced so that they will not arise again in the future.

I referred to the therapist’s sensitivity and to the meditator’s sen sitivity. What about the sensitivity of the meditating therapist? Obviously, here qualities of both positions are included, naturally producing a new therapeutic position. Fleischman (1999), a psychiatrists’ psychiatrist and a senior Vipassanā teacher in the method of Goenka, mentions the “wounded healer” syndrome. Wounded healers work on a high professional level. They have enjoyed good training; they are conscientious, knowledgeable, and have a pleasant attitude to patients, but deep inside they are lonely, afraid, anxious, and depressed. Their professional achievements compensate for early deficits, and their generosity at work helps them get some of the human touch they lack. They do not communicate their misery to others, and they have a very hard time finding a therapist whom they feel they can trust enough to receive help. When they do find such a therapist, their progress is slow, leaving the impression that, rather than wanting to be healed, they are in search of being patients in order to participate in a process that affords ongoing attention from a type of adoptive parent who can provide what their original parents, for some reason, were unable to give. The pain of the “wounded healer” is, however, not only a problem, but a source of empathy and insight as well, representing, Fleischman suggests, something essential about healing: the wounded healer experiences, over and beyond personal problems, the pain of pain (Fleischman, 1999).

Suffering often causes people to turn inward. Their personal dis- tress makes them shrink more and more deeply into their egocentric nucleus, as they find it hard to expand their range. With the type of therapist Fleischman sketches, as well as, I believe, with sensitive therapists of other kinds (and, obviously, this is not limited to therapists alone), an inverse process occurs. Suffering their profound personal pain, they, of all people, have the ability to touch the very core of the universal truth concerning suffering as such. Thus, the pain they carry, rather than simply being “blind pain”, tightly arranged around their own egocentric nucleus, becomes “noble suffering”, suffering which is tied to the recognition of pain as an attribute of existence, which has the strength to push for insight and liberation, which asks for a response that “. . . differentiates true healing from superficial patch-ups and fraudulent elixirs” (Fleischman, 1999, p. 50–51).

The same vulnerability and compassion that led these people to become therapists, as well as their constant exposure to human suffering as a result of their work (Fleischman, 1999), put them in an unusual position. “He who has seen everything empty itself is close to knowing what everything is filled with”, wrote the Argentinian poet, Antonio Porchia (1943, p. 3, also cited in Fleischman, 1999, p. 50): such a person is close—close to the threshold, and the question is whether he enters or not.

The suffering of the therapist at this threshold is real, and he needs healing for himself if he is to cross it. Indeed, the healing of his own suffering, too, must be “noble”: healing that is not site-specific, not egocentric, not limited to moving from sickness to health or from dysfunction to functionality. This “noble healing” is based on the understanding that suffering can play an enlightening role, and it involves the development of a different perspective on time, on space, and on the close relations people have with whatever is not in concrete and direct touch with them (Fleischman, 1999). Fleischman, who sees himself as a version of this “wounded healer”, recounts how Vipassanā practice changed his perspective and his experience. He tells how he began to feel “surrounded by infinities of helpers for my own consternation, and recipients of my skills and affections. Oceans of beings swim at me, reach out to me, count on me to whisper inspiring exhortations in their ears” (Fleischman, 1999, p. 51). Sensitive therapists are set free, in such a process, from their existential solitude. Their pain transforms into insight and their motivating power—which strives for liberation, which breaks forth from isolated egotism into mutually conditioned universality—is realised.

One expression in the Buddha’s language for having compassion carries the literal meaning: “trembling with the world”, or “quivering” with it.14 Not unlike others who are not therapists, but often in a different role and in different situations, therapists who follow the footsteps of the Buddha aim to tremble with the world without falling apart. They aspire to respond to the other’s mental upheaval with unbiased love and compassion rather than with an egocentric reaction. They aspire to be entirely open to the other’s suffering, to let it touch all the strings of their heart without allowing the suffering to become their own or its touch to unsettle the stability of their mind. “Aspire” is, of course, a crucial word here, because often one is not quite capable of achieving this, or might only be able to achieve it in part, or only at times. Yet, this is precisely why they practise awareness and equanimity, and if they do it properly, then they notice how their egocentric reactions gradually subside, compassion and love expand, and the ability to tremble with the world rather than to be crushed by it spreads to ever more remote and more challenging areas of their psyche.

Wholly open, yet not taking into themselves any suffering and experiencing it as their own; trembling yet keeping stable; receptive and soft, yet clear and lucid. A thin, subtle line passes here, hardly per ceptible. If one is to move along it and not to collapse, something must help one across the threshold. Something is needed to help one break through loneliness and noble pain. Something must protect one in one’s vulnerability. What is this “something”? What helps us to move across, to break through, what protects? The answer, from the perspective of Vipassanā, is this: a person’s awareness of the chain of her own mental actions, which lifts the haze of confusion and illusion and brings clarity to the situation—this is what gives protection. The inner compass which enables a careful look into one’s overt behaviour for the mental action that directs it—this is what gives protection; one’s awareness and equanimity, which increasingly allow one to stay open to suffering without being hurt; one’s broad perspective which forges deep connection with the universe; one’s vulnerability which grows ennobled; one’s sensitivity which, from being contracted, becomes full of compassion—this is what gives protection. One labours to cultivate these and falters, this way and that, and then one goes on. One labours to cultivate them and they, along with the infinities of beings that receive one’s skills and love, helping and being helped, accompany one on one’s way.

Barnea-Astrog, Michal (2017).Carved by Experience: Vipassana, Psychoanalysis, and the Mind Investigating Itself. Karnac Books, pp. 164-170

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