What the mindfulness journey is really about
Was it not for a recent dream one of my patients brought into a session, in which a two-faced person appeared, I would likely not have started this blog with Janus. Consciously, my patient knew nothing about this Roman god. I concluded, that the collective unconscious Carl Jung described is alive and well even in this technological day and age of science and computers, where studying Roman mythology is hardly the main menu in our school curriculums anymore. Come to think of it, that the collective unconscious has not lost its power is hardly surprising, given that the brain that inhabited our ancestor’s skulls 30,000 years ago, is anatomically and physiologically still the same brain as today – and as far as its wiring is concerned, in its fundamental functions it is still wired the same, just different in some of its higher cortical functions. Granted, some of the content in the collective unconscious has of course shifted with the cultural shifts of our civilization.
Was I an ancient Roman to pick a god for my role as meditation teacher and psychotherapist, it would be Janus. The two-faced deity is found in many cultures, all the way back to original Hinduism and Vedic times. Fast forward to today, the ‘god’ notion has morphed into the psychological notion of archetype through Jung’s work, a universal, collective and unconscious psychological force with cultural significance. Janus’ two faces look into the opposite directions of past and future while belonging to the same head that creates and contemplates reality. They are sometimes a feminine and masculine face. Janus is the Roman god of beginnings and transitions responsible for change, transformation, motion, and time. He is the god of space, time, and creation, always present in the midst of transitions, with one eye towards what came before, and one towards what comes next. In our work with mindfulness, he may as well be the symbol of the present moment, which as I have explored in my previous blog, invites us into its inescapable orbit with the beckoning scriptural and mythological call ‘Once upon a time, ….’ or ‘In the beginning …’, both formulaic idioms that in today’s mindfulness parlance would translate into ‘Bring your attention to the present moment and begin to explore what you find.’ In the double role of Janus, I am also related to the name’s etymological roots in the Latin ‘ianua’, meaning ‘door’, suggesting that Janus is the ‘ianitor’, the doorkeeper of transitions. You see where I am going with this: Could it be that as a meditation teacher and psychotherapist I am the janitor, opening the doors to the place of work and education, and closing them after everyone has left in order to safeguard the sacred place of daily busyness and erudition, then going about my real business of cleaning it in the dark hours of the silent night when everyone has left it behind with unsolved messes the way we all leave behind our unconscious?
The champion of the present moment is mindfulness, defined as impartial present moment awareness with kind acceptance of what is. When I sit across a patient or a student, I sit there in humble awareness of my role as janitor and gardener, mindful of the present moment as I engage with an attitude of kind acceptance with this other human being, sharing and exploring our common humanity and the mutual dance of inquiry into what is. In this act, which is a profound act of love towards the other and myself, we are both not just aware of, but inescapably embedded in the present moment, always partially aware and mostly unknowingly unaware.
With our thoughts, we can create the temporary illusion of not being in the present moment and in far-out places and times of our imagination. That escape invariably fails as our neighbor in the theatre of life coughs and brings our attention away from the plot on the screen into directly lived reality. We inevitably wake up from the movies of our own creation to realize that we are tightly gripping the armrests of our theatre seat in the only reality we can fall back on, the stubborn reality of the inescapable truth of Now.
‘In the beginning’, meaning ‘in the present moment’, the two faces of Janus, past and future, are one as they only exist now. In this Now, there are no categories of energy flow except for those we create as maps to orient ourselves in the territory of Now. Our memories of yesterday occur now, our anticipations and plans for a future occur now, our history is completely enfolded into the layers of now, and above all, in this Now there is nothing but wholeness, even if that wholeness appears fragmented at times. Unless I dissociate or compartmentalize, I can only meet my fellow human beings and myself as whole organisms in the inescapable wholeness of now. Therefore, within the context of mindfulness, I personally cannot separate meditation from psychotherapy while looking my fellow human in the eye. For practical reasons I can separate the two in the way I introduce them to students and patients, but that is all. Sitting with a person who asks for help I am thus compelled to see wholeness in the process of transformation, not static ‘issues’ to be dealt with through compartmentalized techniques.
I am always at once a meditation teacher and psychotherapist, which gets reflected in the way I work. Showing my students how to access the mystery of Now always entails the realization that our memories and stories about our history are also revealed now. Even if the content of these memories and stories does not get extensively explored within the context of a meditation class, awareness and openness to its narrative power and degree of coherence are crucial in guiding students towards the knowledge that additional psychotherapy will be essential for their success on their journey towards health (see my blog on ‘The Dangers Of Improper Guidance By Meditation Teachers‘). Conversely, psychotherapeutic reflections on our stories, and how we create them, is frequently not enough to heal, because the patient needs training in here-and-now attentiveness in order to be able to see the inner world with greater precision, and therefore greater depth. This often requires mindfulness meditation training to complement the psychotherapeutic endeavor. In short, unless meditation includes awareness of its procedural limitations with regards to the stories we create, and psychotherapy fosters meditative attentiveness beyond the story content it explores, we tend to fall short on our life’s journey towards wisdom and health most of us so fervently desire. The reason lies in how we are wired with the complexity of nine domains of integration, all of which require our attention for our journey towards wholeness.
According to Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB) we are wired with nine clusters of neurocircuitry responsible for nine functions of the mind that are essential for healthy living. Those are the domains of integration just mentioned. When these clusters function harmoniously, we say they are integrated, and that translates into health. When one or more of them do not function harmoniously and find themselves in states of chaos, rigidity, or both, we develop dis-ease and both physical and psychological diseases. In our role as healers, we cannot in good conscience ignore any of these domains, nor privilege one over any other. When we suffer, something is rotten in the united states of these nine domains, and we need the expertise that gives us full access to all necessary tools to address disharmonies. Mindfulness, with its combined tools of meditation and psychotherapy, provides what is necessary to address the whole human being.
Not all domains of integration are accessible through either one or the other of the two modalities, meditation or psychotherapy. Some require one, some the other, some both. At the core of both, however, is mindfulness, which could be characterized with one word as attentiveness. When we are attentive, impartiality, present-moment awareness, acceptance of what is, and kindness are all included. Sitting with another person or oneself, attentiveness is the Janus that regulates our way of flowing with our energy through time, space, life, and beyond. Yes, regulation of our energy flow is a profoundly important process and skill that has to be learned, by which we monitor how our energy flows, and then modify it to cultivate the harmony of integration necessary for good physical and mental health, resilience, vibrantly loving relationships, existential fulfillment, and spiritual awakening.
Everything is in the present moment like the ingredients of a minestrone, partly explicitly visible, partly implicitly hidden. The art is to make sense of it all and skillfully differentiate the wheat from the chaff so that the inherent power of regulation dispersed throughout our organism can be brought to bear by the loving act of getting out of our own way. As meditators, psychotherapists, and seekers, we are Michelangelos contemplating a raw piece of marble. The wrong question to ask is how to sculpt our vision through this piece of marble. It is not about what we can do to become better versions of who we know we already are. The better approach is to listen to the marble slab, and hear what sculpture it already holds hidden in the mystery of its density that begs to be liberated from the excess stone. Our journey is about peeling away unnecessary complications, scars, and distortions of a life lived for desperate survival. We have to learn to get out of our own way through the process of unlearning once useful patterns of survival we mobilized at an age we had but few resources, then replacing them with skills that enhance and foster the organism’s natural and spontaneous tendency towards the light of integration, health, and spiritual fulfillment.
What the mindfulness journey is really about is to find out how we can relinquish our ideas about who we think we already know we are supposed to be, so that who we really are can emerge in an unexpected and creative act of rebirth into a person we would have never imagined we could be.
Copyright © 2021 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.