An invisible presence is awakening: Key ideas in self-relations therapy

(This chapter is from Walking in two worlds: The relational self in theory, practice, and community, edited by S. Gilligan and D. Simon, published by Zeig Tucker in 2004)

“Two Zen students were once talking as they watched a flag waving in the wind.  The first observed that the flag was moving; the second countered that it was the wind that was moving, not the flag.  When their master came upon the scene, they asked him who was correct.  Neither, the master replied.  It is your mind that is moving.”

The mind is always moving, filled with images, thoughts, perceptions, feelings, etc.  As it moves through us, it can fill us with delight, passion, love, and curiosity.   Consider, for example, the following experiences:

  • holding a sleeping new born baby in your arms
  • playing with a favorite child or pet
  • great sex
  • experiencing a piece of beautiful music or art
  • being held gently by a trusted person
  • walking in nature
  • conscious breathing
  • anything else that really connects you deeply to yourself.

Of course, the mind may also move against us.   We can get lost in its fantasies, frozen by its images, thrown by its fears, tortured by its ideas.  Imagine, for example….

  • being criticized harshly
  • worrying about an upcoming public presentation
  • feeling grief over a loved one’s death
  • remembering a traumatic event
  • being filled with rage and resentment

Both types of events, positive and negative, may be seen as extraordinary states of consciousness, that is, experiences that take us beyond the ordinary “identity state” we tend to usually occupy.   Self-relations is especially interested in such experiences for two reasons.  First, without the proper skills and relationships to such experiences, a person may become mired in suffering or distracted in endless fantasies.  This is often what is happening for people seeking psychotherapy.   Second, and equally important, a skillful relationship to extraordinary states of consciousness can allow deep transformation and success in creating what Self-Relations calls the “4-H club”: happiness, health, helpfulness (to others), and healing (of self and others).   So the stakes are high, and how we approach such experiences is important.

Self-relations sees extraordinary states of consciousness, both pleasant and unpleasant, as essential and vital parts of a person’s developmental growth.   Such experiences move individuals out of the “box” of their normal identities, allowing new possibilities and identities to emerge.  SR notes how such experiences are especially prevalent and relevant at times of major identity change, being the vehicles by which identity moves through a “death and rebirth cycle” into its next stage.   It also emphasizes how the human relationship to such experiences determines their form, meaning, and unfolding.  That is, a negative attitude and unskillful relationship can make such experiences ugly, unhelpful, and seemingly of no human value; conversely, a positive attitude and skillful means can make the very same experiences helpful, valuable contributions to a person’s development.  

This paper is devoted to elucidating this basic idea in practical terms.  The first section gives contrasting examples to indicate how similar experiences can be harmful or helpful, depending on the human relationship to them.  The second section overviews six basic premises of the SR approach.   The third section suggests how these basic premises indicate three different types of mind within the Relational Self: (1) the Somatic Mind (and the principle of centering), (2) the Cognitive Mind (and its capacity for sponsorship), and (3) theField Mind (and its archetypal wisdom).  We will see how each Mind has two distinct levels—Basic and Generative—and how the Generative level integrates three Minds into a Relational Self that has the capacity to navigate through extraordinary states of consciousness.  We will see how while the Basic level is more or less capable of dealing with ordinary circumstances, the Generative Level is necessary for successfully dealing with extraordinary experiences.  Taken as a whole, I hope this can sketch the outlines of a Generative Self that is capable of happiness, helpfulness, healing, and health.   

Human relationship is the key: Contrasting Examples

Some years ago I was teaching in Japan.  One of my books had just been translated and published in Japan, and my publisher had arranged various media events, including an interview with a national daily newspaper.  The reporter mentioned a number of problems regarding violence and Japanese children, and asked me if my work might be relevant to understanding or solving such situations. One of the stories concerned a 12-year old boy who had taken a samurai sword and, during the night, decapitated one of his schoolmates, a mildly retarded boy who had been the object of much teasing from his classmates.  The boy then ceremoniously placed the head on the school steps for all to witness upon their arrival the following morning.   He was soon discovered as the perpetrator and taken into custody.   Searching his home, the police found extensive diaries he had written.   In numerous entries, the boy described an “invisible presence” filled with raged that lived inside of him.  Nobody seemed to notice it, it didn’t seem possible to talk about it, and all attempts to subdue it failed.   The diaries indicated how this “invisible presence” was increasingly enraged, culminating in the decapitation ritual.

The reporter was most astonished at what happened when the newspaper printed these diary entries:  Hundreds of readers immediately wrote in, saying that they could relate to the notion of this “invisible presence”, that they too felt such a presence within them.  They did not condone the murder, of course, but somehow they could empathize with the boy’s struggle with some experiential process that the external society could not properly name or legitimize.  The reporter asked me what sense I could make of this.

I responded by saying that I agreed with the readers who had responded.  There is an invisible presence that lives within each of us.   Call it what you will--soul, spirit, center, core, essence—but please name and nurture it, I said, for without a connection to it much can go awry.  But with a connection to it, much can go right: happiness, health, healing, and being helpful to others.  Regarding the boy, a much better fate might have transpired had someone been able to help him connect to, listen to, and harmonize with that “invisible presence.”

For example, a client of a student of mine was brought into a small weekly supervision group I was leading in my office.   My student was a therapist at a clinic near the large military base near my office.  A young Marine sergeant came to the clinic with a difficult problem.  She and her sister had been sexually abused by the next door neighbor when she was growing up back East as a girl.  Each time it happened, the neighbor would tell the girls that if either of them told anybody, he would kill her sister.  The woman had felt compelled to keep silent about the abuse, though she did not forget.  When she joined the Marines, she somehow got a specialty of small weapons demolitions expert—that is, small bombs of mass destruction.  After awhile she received clearance for some type of access to these small bombs, and that’s when the fantasies visited her—thoughts of going back home with a small bomb to use on the perpetrator.  She really didn’t want to do it—she didn’t want to take a human life, and she knew her own life would effectively be over if she did—but the fantasies kept visiting her. 

She decided to seek help, and went to the off-base clinic where she was assigned to my student.  When she reported the situation, the therapist felt pretty overwhelmed and tried to offer relaxation suggestions.  Somehow the nervous demeanor in which they were offered served to further upset the client.  Luckily, the therapist was in a consultation group, where she brought up the case with a cry for help.  We discussed some ways she might handle the situation, but the therapist finally confessed that she didn’t feel up to handling the case by herself.  I suggested that she invite the client into our group, where the therapist and I might work with her together for a couple of sessions.  Both the therapist and client thought this was a good idea, so they arrived together the following week.  

Greeting the client in the waiting room, I couldn’t help but notice her curious dissociated appearance—thick glasses, a shy smile, a few teeth missing, withdrawn posture.  We chatted a bit and then joined the other therapists.  As I sat down across from her, I remembered to take the time to develop a relaxed focus.  Sitting silently, I attuned to a basic principle of Self Relations—Something is waking up in this person!.   That is, a person with a “disturbance in (their) field”—a crisis, a symptom, a problem—is someone experiencing a major shift in identity.  The out-of-control, difficult-to-comprehend experiences of a problem are heralding some major shift in a person’s consciousness, some major “waking up” in their awareness.   Self-relations (SR) sees “crisis” as representing the double meanings of its Chinese characters, both “opportunity” and “danger”.  An opportunity (and indeed, often an necessity) for major growth, but severely dangerous if the disturbing energies are not properly received and channeled. 

So as I sat with this young woman, I really tried to concentrate on how I could sense and receive what was going on for her as “terrible gifts” that were calling to be opened.  I couldn’t help but ponder her ordeal of enduring the repeated abuse and then being forced into silence about it.   As I became curious about how her present “disturbance” might be attempt to heal that trauma, it immediately became clear that images of homicidal rage would be a most healthy first step in that healing.   Dangerous, to be sure; but also understandable and having integrity.  After all, if you had been brutalized for years and were just beginning to recover from it, I don’t think peaceful images of serenity would be the first things that would pop up.  Seeing the homicidal images as solutions, not problems, I focused on how to create the “proper conditions” for them to be realized as such.

Feeling a sense of affection for the young woman and her strange smile, I said, “So I understand you want to blow some mother-fucker up?”  Her eyes popped wide, as if to say, I didn’t know you could talk like that in here!  She smiled for a few seconds, before covering her eyes, like a young shy child needing to temporarily hide.  This is typical:  When you touch a person’s wounded self, he or she can usually only handle a couple of moments of connection there before having to turn away.  That’s ok.  When the client needs to hide, the therapist allows it, but stays with the client. 

So I paused a few moments, focusing on centering and attuning to a relational connection with the young woman.  I then said, “So what do you think your best technique might be?”  Again she looked wide-eyed at me, then she seemed to think of something and a small smile crept across her face.  “Yes, that one”, I said……”What was that one?”  Again, she smiled, this time a bit more playfully while turning away. 

A few more moments of silent connection passed before I then asked, “How about a pipe bomb up his ass?”  This time she looked at me and kept looking, a sense of full absorption setting in.  This signaled to me that I had found a “resonant naming,” a verbal word or phrase that was able to connect with the deeply felt sense of an unnamed or unspoken wound.  So I added in a slow, intense voice, “Well, I don’t really know which image or images you will find most interesting and helpful today and in the days ahead, but I am certain of one thing:  That place from where the images are coming from speaks with great integrity.  You were very hurt, and what happened was wrong!  You were forced to stay silent about it, and something inside of you is beginning to heal.  It’s ok to listen to those images and use them for your healing.”

I then asked her to sense some of the disturbing images and notice where in her body she felt the center of any feeling.  She immediately touched her solar plexus.  I nodded, and asked her to close her eyes and continue to place her hand there for a few minutes.  As she did, I soothingly suggested her body had its own language, its own experience, its own logic, and that the angry images that were beginning to arise came from some place of integrity inside of her.  I suggested that she could find connection and comfort with this center, and create a safe place to notice the images as well as other healing experiences.  This began a three-fold healing process: (1) claim the disturbing experiences as attempts at healing, (2) develop a safe place within and around the person to hold, contain and open to such experiences, (3) connect the experiences with cognitive/social competencies and traditions that would allow them to become valuable human expressions.   Over the following weeks, she and her therapist found ways to integrate the images and to begin to reclaim her life and reconnect with her resources. 

The approach used to help the woman is the topic of the rest of the paper. For now, the main point is in noting the similarities but profound differences in outcome in the two cases.  Both the Japanese boy and the young Marine sergeant were troubled by insistent negative experiences that, if not deal with properly, could spell major trouble.  In the first case, the “resonant conditions” were not present to allow for transformation of the disturbance into a solution; in the second case, they were.  As you can see, the stakes are indeed high. So a major focus of SR is on examining and implementing “resonant conditions” so that whatever life gives you, you can use it for growth and development.

To do such work, one needs both rigor and imagination.  Rigor in relational connection; sensitivity to subtle energies and cues; and clear understanding of how (and why) to change negative experiences to positive ones.  Imagination in terms of many ways to do this, flexibility in adapting to unique process; and openness to relational thinking.  Self-relations is an approach that seeks to find the ever-shifting center point where imagination and rigor are partners and lovers, where they balance and support each other.  To clarify, we now turn to the basic premises of SR. 

Six Basic Principles

Self-relations is especially interested in receiving and expressing the basic energies of life.  To understand how this might be done, we start with some basic premises.  These have been laid out previously (Gilligan, 1987), so I will just generally review them.

(1) Each person has a center.  

We start with the notion that there exists within each person an intelligence other than their intellect.  We referred to this above as “the invisible presence,” though of course it can be called by other poetic terms as well.  We especially emphasize this primary intelligence as being based in somatic knowing and experience.  The experience of love, the sense of connection, the intuition of how to proceed, the intense feelings of identity change, the mammalian language of belonging, the creativity of art---all these languages and more are based in Somatic Mind.  They are the platform for cognitive knowing, the basis for relational understanding, the subtlety of wisdom.  When a person is connected to this language, good things tend to happen.  When a person is disconnected from this language, bad things tend to happen.

For too long, it seems, Western consciousness has been dissociated from somatic knowing.  But the notion of knowing only in the head (intellect) is slowly crumbling.  The systemic revolution that began half a century ago, which emphasized that intelligence was spread throughout a system, that no single part of a system could dominate the whole, that there were multiple truths and multiple perspectives, has finally made its way to neuroscience.  It is now recognized that there are multiple brains in the body.   For example, Gershon (1998) describes the evidence for a second brain located in the stomach.  This neuroenteric (“enteric” meaning “inside the stomach”) brain is believed to provide “gut instinct” that operates distinctly but interrelatedly with the “head brain.”   Relatedly, the heart as a brain has been described by various scientific investigators, including Schwartz and Russek (1999), Pearce (2002), and Pearsall (1998.   Candace Pert (1997) reviews evidence suggesting both the immune system and the endocrine system as distinct “brains.”   This evidence for multiple brains suggests a multi-phonic somatic intelligence that is ancient and wise.  As we will see, this somatic intelligence is especially prominent during times of identity change.

Somatic intelligence is especially prominent during times of identity change, and tends to be realized through experiences of “felt sense” (cf. Gendlin, 1978).   Both experiences of well-being and ill-being feature somatic knowing, especially in terms of a “center.”    That is, if you ask individuals who are having either really good or really bad experiences where in their bodies they feel the core of the experience, they most often point to a place in their belly, solar plexus, or heart.  Similarly, if you ask a performance artist—a dancer, athlete, sculptor, or actor—where they sense their core base for creative expression, they often indicate a similar somatic “center.”   Self-relations is interested in the nature of this somatic center—how and why it activates, as well as how it can be utilized positively for creative responses to challenging situations.  

(2)  The river of life flows through the center.  

Self-relations sees life as a river that flows through a person, entering through the center and bringing a person a multitude of experiences.   This is obvious when hanging out with young children: They seem to “channel” virtually every aspect of life within a 24-hour period.  It is easy to see why they sleep so deeply at night!   In the same sense, when we work with a person in SR, we attune to how life is bringing them many different experiences.  We notice how these experiences enter the body, how they are held in the body, and how they are expressed from the body.            

As we will see, all this is part of what is called the art of sponsorship: Transforming the rushing river of life into the valuable experiences of a human being.  In this process, many things can go awry.  For example, a person can say, “Damn you!” to life—i.e., build a dam to block the river—by shutting down.  The easiest way to do this is by squeezing the muscles and inhibiting the breath.  (Many people call this thinking!)   This is the typical “fight or flight” response that occurs under stress.  It can easily become a chronic condition, wherein a person is “shut down” to the flow of life.   This can happen under many conditions—trauma, formal education, “fundamentalism” (where ideology is considered more important than relational connection), consumerism (where the emphasis is on materialism, rather than human relationships), and so on.  The important thing is that when a person tries to stop the flow of life, for whatever reason, problems develop.  Alienation, anxiety, depression, stuckness.  A major challenge of SR is to help a person re-open the channel to allow the energies and patterns of life to flow through.

(3) The river brings both happiness and suffering. 

One of the major reasons for closing to life is that we learn that it inevitably brings suffering.  Not all the time, but at least some of the time.  No matter how much money we have, what religion we practice, how big our cars are, what politics we practice, we must endure times of suffering.  Illness develops, failures occur, friends and family die, violence erupts.  To be in life is to invariably be touched by suffering.  And we never really know when it will hit. 

So how do we address this crucial question of not knowing when the next experience of hurt will come?  Most of us seem to try hedge our bets, setting up “guardians at the gate” that attempt to monitor the environment, trying to determine whether something or someone is “good” or “bad,” and then only opening to the “good” while shutting down to the “bad.”  This strategy, while understandable, usually results in a controlling consciousness that lives outside of the flow of life, with all the consequent experiences of alienation and unhappiness.  In order to enjoy and contribute to life, we must be in life.

So it brings up the crucial question: What is the best way to “defend” our life?  What is the best way to orient to possible hurts and suffering?  While the “flight and flight” response is instinctual, SR emphasizes a third way of “protection” that is based on centering, extending life energy, and keeping relational connection.  It is an approach modeled in part by political prisoners such as Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Jesus.  It is also influenced tremendously by the Japanese martial art of aikido, which I have practiced for some years.  In aikido, the training is to finding a connection with one’s own center, with the relational field as a whole, and with those who enter into the field.  It is a study of how to receive disturbed energy and let it flow through you in ways that are safe and transformative for both the receiver and the sender.  We will be talking more about this approach later in the paper.  For now, the main idea is that it is possible to safely and effectively open to suffering as the most effective means of not getting diminished by it.

(4) To navigate the river, a second (cognitive) self slowly develops. 

While we begin with a somatic mind, we slowly develop a second cognitive self.  This “second coming” of the Self is a distinctive feature of human consciousness, and the relationship between the cognitive self and the somatic self is a major focus of Self-relations.  Indeed, the “relational Self” of SR is realized each time the cognitive and somatic selves are resonant with each other.

While the cognitive self is often thought of as an intellectual, distanced, analytical presence, SR emphasizes that this is just of many different organizations it can take.  For example, notice how people talk to their pets or to children.  When a person who has been “in their head” all day comes home to greet their dog, it is usually not with cool analytical distance!  Or watch someone with their young granddaughter::Such beautiful warmth and resonance in how they connect.  These examples illustrate that a major feature of the cognitive self can be one of extending human presence to “touch” someone with kindness and love.  SR emphasizes this cognitive mode because of how important it is to connecting with the somatic self in both others and in one’s self.  We will see that a major challenge in each life is to find a resonant connection with the somatic self, to achieve a “hook-up” that returns the cognitive self to its larger and deeper Relational Self that is capable of participating in the “4-H” club of happiness, helpfulness, healing, and health.

From a developmental view, one’s cognitive self is initially held by others.  When young, a person’s cognitive self is not sufficiently developed to perform the social/cognitive operations needed to navigate one’s life in the world.  As Jung noted, the first half of your life belong to other people; the second half belong to you.  In other words, one initially internalizes, and is guided by, the cognitive selves of others.  One of the challenges of “growing up” is finding one’s own cognitive self.  The passage from one to the other can be a most interesting experience, as we will discuss further below.

 (5) When the two selves harmonize, a third (relational field) self emerges.  

Self-Relations emphasizes that consciousness exists not only within a person, but all around (beyond) them.  It suggests that there is an intelligence greater than the intellect, not only within the somatic self but also within the relational field.. As we will see, the relational field has many levels and forms.  If a person experiences it through social connection, it might be sensed as“community.”  If through prayer, as “God”; if through walking in the forest, as “nature”; if through singing, as “music”; if through sports, as “the zone”; if through intimacy, as “love”.  In such contexts, a felt sense of something greater than the individual is realized as vibrant and alive.  SR emphasizes the intelligence of this “field” as a third type of “mind.”  It notes that when people “feel most like themselves,” or when they need to “get back to themselves,” they engage in activities that bring them back into the relational field—e.g., walking in nature, meditating, taking a bubble bath, listening or playing music, gardening, etc.   Absorbing in such favorite activities move a person from self-absorbed, self-contained states into more relaxed, open connections with the “field.”

SR is particularly interested in how a person can activate and trust this “relational field” under different circumstances—not only positive ones where it feels safe, but equally under adversarial circumstances where a person feels threatened or overwhelmed.  At such times, we typically withdraw from the field in a self-protecting stance.  While understandable, this blocks us from being able to draw upon the resources of the field to meet whatever challenges we face.  So a central focus of SR is how to support individuals in staying connected to both their center and to the relational field as a means of responding effectively to the ongoing challenges of life.

(6) So many roads: Find a path with a heart.  

Once we move out of ideology and generalities into the particulars of experience, we see how unique each person is.   Your way of being, thinking, behaving, and relating has never been seen before!  The greatest legacy of my teacher, the legendary psychiatrist/hypnotherapist Milton Erickson, was that of appreciating and utilizing the unique features of each person.  Your differences and distinctiveness are what make you an individual; they are the basis for both your happiness and your helpfulness (i.e., your contribution) to the world.  This is in marked contrast to the mainstream expectation that each person should somehow “fit in” to expected norms and frameworks.  The problem with such expectations, of course, is that no person can ever really meet them.    Indeed, a major basis for suffering and self-hatred lies in the difference between what you think you should be and how you experience yourself to actually be.  While recognizing that this gap is inherently unbridgeable, SR emphasizes the importance of noticing, accepting, and supporting all the individual aspects of a person.   

For example, one young man I was seeing for therapy was interested in meeting women.  He went to nightclubs and watched other young men who were apparently very extroverted and skillful in attracting women.  His stated desire to transform himself into such an guy contrasted poignantly with his shy and tender temperament.  This shyness was the basis of much self-disgust and hatred, as it indicated to him a lack of manliness.  Therapeutic exploration of this tender quality revealed its basis as a strength, not a weakness, in intimate relationships.

A major principle in SR is that “the problem is the solution.”  That is, what a person believes to be their weakness is, under proper conditions, the basis for solutions and resources.  The caveat is, of course, “under proper conditions.”  SR seeks to create the conditions that allow that which keeps asserting itself as an apparent “problem” to be realized as a solution.   As we will see, the principle of sponsorship speaks to the type of relationship with a “problem” that will allow it to transform into a solution.  A person’s idiosyncrasies, the things that seem to set them apart from others, are prime bases for this transformational process.  So we especially support a person’s “deviancy,” the ways they can’t be “normal,” the ways they can’t do it “like they’re supposed to.”  We see in these persistent deviations from the norm the seeds of a person’s unique contributions.

The Triunal Mind in Self-Relations

These six premises allow us to distinguish three minds: (1) the Somatic Mind (as a local embodied intelligence), (2) the Relational Field Mind (as a non-local or collective intelligence), and (3) the Cognitive Mind as a sort of bridge between the two worlds.   SR further emphasizes two levels of each Mind: (a) a Basic Level, concerned with remedial operations, and (b) a Generative Level that occurs when all three Minds are harmonized and aligned.  The Generative Level is a sort of subtle meta-field that holds all the basic operations with awareness and skillfulness, while adding other features that transform its form and function in significant ways. SR suggests that while the Basic Levels are sufficient for ordinary adaptive functions, the Generative Levels are needed to navigate and transform the extraordinary states of consciousness that occur, intentionally or unwanted, in each person’s life.  Thus, if individuals are going to continue to grow, they need to develop some capacity to achieve Generative Levels of each Mind. 

In Generative states of well-being—when a person is happy, healthy, helpful, and healing—the three Minds align and integrate to form a Relational Self capable of many interesting things.. A person in a generative state is embodied in a unified (centered) way, open and receptive to the larger fields of intelligence around herself, and thinking in creative and transformative ways.    Conversely, these domains are shut down and functionally dissociated in states of ill-being.  A person stuck in a problem may be observed to shut down or dissociate from center, contract from relational fields, and think in rigid and non-relational patterns.   SR is thus the study of how to cultivate and sustain the Generate level of consciousness needed for positive growth and development.

The Generative Level of consciousness pervades and expands the Basic Level of consciousness.  Moving within and beyond a Basic Level requires (1) special awareness, (2) special knowledge patterns (e.g., skills and understanding of how to hold conflict, how to “be with” something without disturbing it, and how to see the underlying goodness and gift in the essence of a person); and (3) a subtle feeling of energetic connection with a process (e.g., as when a musician or athlete performs their expertise, or a person holds a baby).  We will address further how to develop and maintain these aspects of Generative Mind.

Each Mind has different characteristics when integrated with the others and operating at the Generative Level.  For example, connecting cognitive presence to somatic centering gives cognitive presence a more intuitive, relational capacity, compared to the isolated intellect.  Similarly, the somatic center connected to field consciousness gives a complementary experience of both a local felt sense and a non-local (expanded) awareness.  So a basic goal of self-relations is to both differentiate and integrate these three systems, thereby significantly transforming the form and function of each, resulting in a much greater capacity for happiness, helpfulness, health, and healing.  The three Minds operating together at Generative Levels is the experience of the Relational Self.

Thus, to change a problematic state into a generative one, we can focus on shifting patterns in each of these three domains, both in terms of their internal and interconnecting states.   SR maintains that this creates the “resonant conditions” for generative change.   The next sections suggest a few ways this might happen.

The Somatic Mind and the principle of centering

It may seem a hapless truism to say that without embodiment, consciousness is impossible. But all too often our Western traditions regard the body (and the environment) as a dumb ox to be brutally treated, rather than an intelligent presence that needs to be listened to and harmonized with.   The heavy price of living away from the Somatic Mind is revealed in symptoms, where the abandoned or neglected body reacts with debilitating responses—pain, anxiety, addictions, uncontrollable outbursts.  SR sees such symptoms as attempts at healing, the Somatic Mind’s efforts to balance or reorganize a person’s identity. As Jung used to say, the unconscious (or Somatic Mind) is always trying to balance the bias of the conscious mind.  For example, a woman whose parents worked at “110% effort, 100% of the time” developed narcolepsy-like symptoms, where she would fall asleep periodically throughout the day.  Hypnotic investigations suggested these as psychological attempts to find relaxation for the client and her family’s compulsive over-doing. Sensing that, she was able to transform the narcoleptic symptoms into conscious meditation practices.  Thus, the “problem” of the narcoleptic symptoms was appreciated as a Somatic Mind “solution” to the imbalance of the core identity. 

So we always begin with an appreciation of the Somatic Mind as the basis for consciousness, as the first mode of knowing, as the foundation for creative activity.    At its Basic Level, the Somatic Mind operates with mammalian instinctual drives for food, sex, territory, and hierarchy.  It carries an emotional history that guides its behaviors.    In stress, it uses fight/flight/freeze responses.   It is especially connected with the limbic system and its mammalian orientation to relational connection (see Lewis, Amini, & Lannon, 2000); that is, it knows how to “hook up” and be in subtle resonance with others.   It does most of this without self-awareness, that is, it responds to a situation in either an instinctual or conditioned (learned) way. 

In extraordinary states of consciousness, however, something more is needed.   For example, say your mother or father dies.  Or you are under extreme stress at work.  Or you are going through a divorce.  Or you are traveling in a dangerous neighborhood and feel exceptionally vulnerable. In such instances, your Somatic Mind needs more capacities.  It needs to be able to hold confusion, to experience intense challenges and emotions, to tolerate contradictory emotions, to shift into states of rest, to relax while staying alert, to attune to intuitive and non-rational wisdom, and to take creative action.  At such times, a Generative level of Somatic Mind is needed.

 One general method for entering this advanced level is the art of centering.  Centering is a process of unifying mind and body, in order to quiet and focus the mind, relax and attune the body, and align with the energies of the relational fields.  Centering is a form of balancing attention, finding the point where complementary qualities are simultaneously present—e.g., inner/outer, relaxed/focused, intentional/effortless.  When this happens, a simple “awareness beyond opposites” may emerge.  It is a field of awareness that extends beyond the body, to the environmental field in which the body is operating. 

One simple method of centering is to find a quiet place to sit and settle.  One can then follow a 4-step cycle of (1) sensing good posture, (2) relaxing the muscles, (3) focusing attention through the solar plexus, and (4) imagining breathing one’s thoughts into a liquid that moves through the body, then out into the world.  Repeating these 4 steps (with eyes opened or closed) can help a person shift into a felt sense of quiet, alert awareness.  One might then remember an experience of great well-being—e.g., in nature, with a loved one, or by one’s self.  As you breathe the memory of well-being through your body, notice where the core feeling of the experience is felt in your body.  Most people experience it in their belly, or solar plexus, or heart area.  These are different possible “centers” to which one can attune.   Many people find it helpful to place their hand gently on the felt center, bringing their awareness more integrated into it. 

The process of centering has many values.  First, it promotes calm yet alert awareness.  Internal dialogue reduces and somatic attunement increases, thereby allowing more effective responsiveness.  Second, centering can stabilize attention under stressful conditions.   For example, say an aggressive person is talking to you in an intimidating fashion.  Centering allows you to give “first attention” (see Gilligan, 1997) to one’s core in a grounded, relaxing way, rather than have it get locked onto a stressful person, memory, or internal image.  You can then open and extend your awareness beyond the stressor, so that a spacious feeling of openness beyond the problem is experienced.  Third, centering allows unitive, non-dualistic experiencing.   The typical “either/or” splits of mind vs. body, self vs. other, good vs. bad dissolve into a more integrated sensing of “what is”.   This allows consciousness to align with the life force energy—the “ki” of aikido, “chi” of tai chi, feeling of “the zone”, the grace of “spirit”, etc.    This doesn’t mean the capacity for cognitive differentiation is reduced; rather, it is re-connected with its deeper platform of natural intelligence in a way that promotes the experience of concentrated “flow” (see Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)) and integrated functioning.   Control is replaced by cooperation, domination by resourceful utilization, and clashing by harmonizing.  This can be done even under stressful, antagonistic conditions, as the martial art of aikido is able to reliably show. 

The relaxed intensity of centering also allows one to think without muscular tension.   Self-relations suggests that this skill, which is a major part of extraordinary experiences such as meditation, art, and trance, is one of the key characteristics of a generative consciousness.   Thoughts, perceptions, and feelings can flow through one’s being as a subtle field, rather than being trapped by the gross tension of typical thinking.  With this capacity, one has the freedom to “be with” any and all experiences without “becoming identified with” or feeling overwhelmed by any of them. For example, say a person re-experiences a traumatic memory.   Typically, such a negative stimulus will trigger a “neuro-muscular lock” (Gilligan, 1997) in a person, resulting in a tense, breathing-disrupted state that unwittingly re-enacts the trauma.   In this important sense, the “fight or flight” state of muscular tension that underlies most thinking paradoxically creates the very experiences a person is trying to not have happen.  Via centering, experiences don’t get trapped by reactive thinking; they are able to “flow through”, allowing a process of change and freedom. 

This allows a felt sense of one’s identity as the whole environmental field.   For example, in aikido the connection is felt with one’s self AND the attacker AND the environmental space holding both.  So one’s identity is with the whole field, not just a position in the field.  This allows a feeling of openness, a greater sensing of intuitive knowing, since one feels relational connection as the first mode of knowing. 

This expanded, subtle field of awareness also allows a sense of a “second skin,” that is, a sort of bubble or energy space around the body, sometimes referred to as a “body buffer zone.”   It allows a feeling of safety through extension of one’s life force.   One can see excellent examples of this in political prisoners like Nelson Mandela, who was able to withstand the brutality of an evil system not through muscular force but through the connection with and extension of a more subtle life force.  Conversely, trauma victims often have that “second skin”, a sort of a psychological immune system, torn or ripped away by the trauma, such that to show oneself is unbearable.  Such individuals can’t distinguish between being visible (a good experience) and feeling exposed (an intolerable experience).  The difference is in whether one can sense the “second skin” of an subtle mindbody field which extends one’s presence safely into the world.  Learning how to center can allow a person to do exactly that. 

To be sure, maintaining a centered state of openness in the face of difficult experiences is a challenge.  Centering is a skill that requires significant ongoing practice, especially in terms of its use under adversarial circumstances.  Coaching or therapeutic support may be needed in certain areas.  But with diligent practice, the benefits of centering are enormous. 

Centering also allows one to distinguish two levels of one’s somatic center: context and content.   The context is the open space that receives and holds each experiential content: One moment a feeling of sadness, next a sense of interest, next an old memory of happiness, and so on.    Think of the contextual level like a parent holding a child.  When that child comes rushing in the house screaming about a cut she just sustained, a good parent will provide a lap for the young child to climb up into.  After a few minutes of being held and attended to, the child usually moves through whatever experience was overwhelming her, and is out the door seeking her next calamity.  In a similar way, centering allows a holding space that can receive and transform all sorts of different experiences.  For example, a person experiencing a recurrent fear may use centering to create an inner space in which that fear can be held, listened to, and transformed into a helpful gift.   This process of “sponsorship” will be described further in the next section.  For now, let us appreciate the capacity of the center to serve as a sort of “sanctuary,” a safe place to hold and heal experiences. 

This generative process also allows one to use the center to attune to archetypal resources in the field.  This can be seen in special performances of art or athletics, where a person is drawing from a deeper well of knowledge.  A centered person in a challenging environment may report different types of experiences “just coming” from another place, a special type of wisdom that visits a person sometimes when mindbody centering has been achieved.   A feeling of being a part of something greater, or guided by mental processes beyond one’s individuality, can be experienced.  All of this increases one’s capacity for happiness, health, helpfulness, and healing. 

To summarize, developing the Generative Level of Somatic Mind yields many additional properties: a relaxed, focused calm; integrated, unitary awareness; non-muscular “subtle energy” thinking and processing; an expanded sense of self; a “second skin” that extends and protects one’s sense of self; an “inner sanctuary” within which difficult experiences may nest and be transformed; and increased access to the well of archetypal wisdom.

To reiterate, this access to a Generative Somatic Mind is made available whenever experience takes one outside their normal identity parameters.  This can involve either experiences of well-being or experiences of ill-being—e..g., trauma.  In both cases, the disruption of an identity state activates the Generative Somatic Mind and its centers, thereby amplifying non-rational archetypal/emotional processes.  If a person is disconnected from Somatic Mind, the resulting experiences may be experienced as frightening, overwhelming, and confusing.  Reactive measures to control such uncomfortable experiences are what creates symptomatic experiences.  Alternatively, a centered person can welcome and work with the emerging experiences in ways that transform identity.   To understand further how this is done, we now turn to the Cognitive Mind and the principle of sponsorship.

The Cogntive Mind and the principle of sponsorship

The Cognitive Mind constitutes a second type of human intelligence.   In healthy development, the cognitive self “transcends yet includes” (see Wilber, 1995; Pearce, 2002) the somatic self; in unhealthy development, the cognitive self disconnects and opposes the somatic self. 

As with the Somatic Mind, two levels of the Cognitive Mind may be distinguished. The Basic Level involves the processes used to navigate the social/psychological world: Plans, strategies, rules, frameworks, schema, social roles, etc.  It also holds the shared means of social life, and the fixed values of an individual identity.  Generally speaking, it is responsible for social adaptation, control of environment, advancement of self-interest, and maintenance of self-identity.  It generally operates by taking a fixed point of view, holding some intention (consciously or unconsciously), then acting to realize those intentions.   Obviously, it is a crucial aspect of healthy functioning, one that needs continuous attention and practice.  As we say in California, don’t leave home without it!

While this Basic Level is generally sufficient for ordinary circumstances, it will fail to meet the challenges of extraordinary experiences. The Basic Level of Cognitive Mind has difficulty thinking “outside the box.”  It gets locked into a particular point of view, and has difficulty allowing creative chaos, multiple points of view, contradictory points of view, or conflict. It cannot easily surrender to “death and rebirth” experiences.  For example, say you have a daughter who is entering adolescence, and all of her “sweet young girl” behaviors are being replaced with hip-hop, intense interest in boys, and a need for greater freedom.  Or that you are in multi-cultural environment, where clashing views of religion, freedom, and ethics are being expressed.  Or that you attempted to get rid of some undesirable experience or behavior, and it keeps returning with a vengeance.  In such contexts, a Generative Level of Cognitive Mind is needed to successfully navigate such experiences and their inherent challenges. 

The Generative Level of Cognitive Mind “includes yet transcends” the Basic Level, allowing creative thinking, systemic (i.e., field-based) identity, and resonant intentionality.   That is, it maintains rationality , intentionality, strategic planning and acting, and social meanings; but expands beyond it to include something more.  This advanced level is more a meta-cognitive principle and process, something self-relations refers to as sponsorship (see Gilligan, 1997).  The principle of sponsorship is the cornerstone of all self-relations work. The word “sponsorship” comes from the Latin “spons”, meaning, “to pledge solemnly”.  So sponsorship is a vow to help a person (including one’s self) to use each and every event and experience to awaken to the goodness and gifts of the self, the world, and the connections between the two.   Self-relations suggests that experiences that come into a person’s life are not yet fully human; they have no human value until a person is able to sponsor them.    This is the creative process of art, culture, therapy, parenting, and self-development: how to receive and absorb the river of life in creative ways. This relational process literally transforms an experience that seems to have no human value into something whose value is evident. 

In this sense, self-relations emphasizes the potentially positive aspects of problems and symptoms.  It sees such disturbances of the “normal order” as evidence that “something is waking up” in the life of a person or community.  Such disturbances are double-edged crises.  On the one side, they are (often hidden) opportunities for major growth.  To move from one identity state into the next, one must often go through a “betwixt and between” state of uncertainty and chaos; sponsorship is what allows one to navigate these challenging passages in positive, productive ways.  (Most of us can recall negative events—a death, divorce, illness, or addiction—that led to significant positive change in our lives.)  On the other side, such disturbances can be very destructive—we can get lost for long periods in depression, acting out, or other problematic behaviors.  Self-relations suggests that the difference is in whether a disturbance is “sponsored” by a skillful human presence.

There are many ways to practice sponsorship.  The “yin” (receptive) aspect of sponsorship involves receiving, allowing your heart to be opened, bearing witness, providing place or sanctuary, soothing, gently holding, being curious, deep listening, and beholding a presence with the eyes of kindness and understanding.  The “yang” (active) aspect includes relentless commitment, fierce attentiveness, providing guidance, proper naming, setting limits and boundaries, challenging self-limitations, and introducing the sponsored experience to other resources.   Through a skillful combination of these and related sponsorship processes, an experience or behavior that seems to have no value to the self or community can be transformed from an “it” that should be destroyed to a “thou” than can be listened to, appreciated, and allowed to develop within self and community.

For example, say a person was challenged by angry outbursts.  Self-relations would see such rage as unsponsored fierceness, and look to create ways where that fierceness could be integrated.  Processes of centering might be used to create a calm inner sanctuary into which the rageful presence could be invited.   Questions about its emotional age, its value, its human needs, and its appearance (e.g., color, place felt in the body, ongoing changes) might be asked, with careful attention to ensuring that it was held and felt in a safe, positive way.  Processes of connecting Cognitive Mind with Somatic Mind to create a Generative Mind would then be developed.   The resulting resonant connection would be the “relational self” of self-relations.

To do this, multiple aspects of the skill of sponsorship are important.  For example, we noted earlier the capacity of the cognitive self to “touch” something or someone with human presence, as with one’s pets or small children.  This process of “cognitive touch”—i.e., to use a loving presence to “hook up” with an experience or—is essential to positive sponsorship. For positive sponsorship to work, cognitive touch must be cultivated.  I have often found that while a person may be initially unwilling or unable to do this with his or her own experiences, he or she can usually do it for a loved one.   In such cases, individuals can be helped to access experiences of sponsoring loved ones, which can then be transferred to other experiences (e.g., “problems”) with which they’re struggling.

Another major aspect of sponsorship is what might be called “both/and” thinking.  Self-relations assumes that the basic psychological unit is relationship.  That is, nothing exists on its own; it only is known in relationship to something “other” than itself.  The simplest relationship is complementarity: black/white, good/bad, presence/absence, soft/hard, young/old, and so forth.   In any experience, this means there are four basic pieces: (1) what’s being focused on (e.g., times when I feel bad) (2) its complement (e.g., times when I feel good), (3) the relationship joining them (e.g., co-operative, antagonistic), and (4) the context in which they’re held (e.g., curiosity, control, sponsorship).   To practice sponsorship, all four elements are sensed and worked with.

For example, say a person’s presenting self is “happy”—always smiling, cheerful, positive.  Self-relations is curious about its “evil twin Skippy”, i.e., what is the opposite identity to that, as in the Greek theatre masks of comedy/tragedy.   Perhaps it is depression or anger.  Maybe this comes out in the person’s “problem state” that he’s trying to “get rid of.”  (“If only I didn’t get depressed, my life would be perfect.)  Or perhaps this complementary state is held by a partner or an enemy with whom a person is emotionally connected.  For example: I’m nice but my partner is always angry. 

Self-relations would be interested in the relationship between these two “opposite” identities.  Does a person think of one as “good” and the other as “bad” ?   (To be sure, it will usually look like one is “good” and the other is “bad”, but we emphasize finding other frames in which the values would be reversed.)  If so, it will make creative growth difficult, as they are really two sides of the same coin.  Furthermore, when complements are functionally opposed to each other, they have very different characteristics to when they are in a “both/and” relationship.  For example, happiness isolated from sadness tends to be more brittle, overly positive, and incomplete; but when joined with human sadness, it can take on poignancy, deep acceptance, and endurance.   Tenderness by itself can be too sappy, weak, and sentimental; when integrated with complementary fierceness, it can become vibrant, strong, and potent.

So self-relations assumes that everything contains its opposite, and that a “both/and” relational connection is what allows an experience to be positively sponsored.  So when a person is stuck in a negative state, sponsorship becomes interested in what “either/or” relationships seem fixed.  What is labeled as “good” and what is labeled as “bad”?    Through centering and curiosity, one can “deconstruct” the frames—i.e., let go of the labels and meanings—and begin to sense first one complementary experience, then the other, then the integrated holding of the two at the same time. 

In this sense, self-relations sees the growth of consciousness through cycles of self-realization.  The field opens up, and an experiential presence moves into a person’s life as a “gift” to help them grow and develop as a human being.  At first, one side of the experience is more prominent (e.g., happiness), with no awareness of its complement.  Then the complement appears and becomes dominant, either as a “problem” or “enemy” or just a different experience.  Then the complements begin to touch each other in an intimate way, again without a person’s awareness that they are two sides of the same coin.  This can result in relationship struggle (which side is “better” or “right”?), which can deteriorate into a battle (one or both sides trying to destroy the other), which can lead to a destablization (some inner or outer “war”).  Hopefully the pain and costs of the negative “either/or” relationship becomes so great that some attempt for reconciliation is made.  This can lead to an integration that absorbs both sides into a unitary experience that helps a person grown to a new level.  This complementary experience is now realized as part of one’s Self, and is available as a major resource.   It is in this sense, I believe, that we realize the old Gnostic saying that “the Kingdom of God is within.”   Sponsorship is the loving means by which this is accomplished.

The Field Mind and the principle of field resonance

In addition to the intelligence of the body and of the intellect, a third type of intelligence may be seen:  The relational fields in which all consciousness and identity are embedded.  For example, the physical environment may be thought of as a living “Gaia” field of intelligence, at many levels.  Family and culture are fields within which each person operates.  Art, science, and religion are fields that organize and inform many activities.  The collective history of consciousness, what Jung called the “collective unconscious”, may be thought of as a field of archetypal patterns.  Many other “fields” may be distinguished: one’s immediate surroundings, personal history, social circles, mood states, physical states, etc. All these are contexts that shape, constrain, guide, and create the texts of local and focal awareness.  One would be hard-pressed to deny the tremendous influence of fields on a person’s consciousness.

At the Basic Level, these fields operate primarily as constraints, helpful or unhelpful.  They shape, limit, and guide the flow and content of consciousness.  At the Basic Level, one can operate within the boundaries established by previous creations. This is not a bad thing, of course: it allows one to not have to re-invent the wheel every day, and permits successful approaches to be replicated.  But at the Basic Level, a person’s Somatic and Cognitive Minds are attuned to the Field Mind in set ways, such that only certain types of field-based information are received in certain types of ways. 

But when an old pattern or identity needs to be transcended or transformed, or a significant creative effort is desired, the Generative Level of the Field Mind is required.   In such instances, a person needs to be able to sense and receive from the Field Mind in many different ways. To achieve this, consciousness must radiate “through and beyond” the surrounding fields, creating an experiential “field of fields” that is beyond any particular content or form.   As with the other domains, this Generative Level is a subtle energy meta-field that “transcends yet includes” all of the informational fields of the Basic Level.

For example, in the martial art of aikido, one trains to “Never give your eyes (or Mind) to the attacker.”  That is, you let your eyes become soft and extend beyond the antagonist, so that you’re not locked into a reactive mode.  It is easy to try this experiment by centering to establish relaxed, attentive awareness.  Then orient to some focal point (a person or an object), but let your eyes be soft and let your perceptual awareness open outwards, extending infinitely even as you sense a connection with the perceptual object.  You will likely find a different way of sensing the object, one that allows it to be included within your experience, but not limiting your attention.  This actually allows you to better sense the subtle details of a person’s movement, while also keeping yourself opened and connected to the larger field.  If you continue this experiment, you can begin to sense an implicit space beyond what your conscious attention can focus on; this is an example of opening to the Generative Field.  You could train yourself to do this while interacting with a person, or focusing on a subject matter (e.g., a poem to be written, a problem to be solved).  By focusing in this “open field” fashion, you will have the pleasant discovery of being “fed” creatively by fields of information beyond your local self. 

A similar experience can be sensed through the hypnotic exercise of the “magnetic hands”, or the “Golden Ball” technique of Tai Chi. In such a process, a person relaxes, centers, then extends their hands as if holding a magnetic “energy ball.” I have done this simple exercise in many groups, and found most people can sense some version of it in a very short time.  I then ask them to notice what happens to the “energy ball” when I shift my voice to, say, a harsh critical tone, or a whiny, self-pitying voice.  Most people find their “energy balls” falling apart in some way or another—breaking into pieces, collapsing, disappearing, etc.  I then ask people to again center and generate the “energy ball”, but to this time gently concentrate on the energetic field while I move back into the negative tone.  That is, to give attention to the space around the stimulus, not to the stimulus itself.  This time, most people find the energy field of the ball able to expand, settle, vibrate, absorb the incoming pattern in a positive way, etc.   In other words, concentrating beyond the problem, in a space bigger than the content, allows a meta-field to arise that can absorb whatever is coming in.

It is in this way that the Generative level of Field Mind operates.   It is the Zen “mind of no mind,”  the Buddhist “emptiness beyond form,” the open, resonant Field that can “include yet transcend” the many dynamic fields of the Basic Level.  This allows the capacity to “be with” something without identifying or “becoming” that something; it allows a creative dialogue with the many voices of the collective field; it allows one to confidently hold the chaotic patterns of a self-in-identify-transformation.   Thus, for example, SR trains one to always sense the space beyond a problem, the field bigger than the mind’s focal content.  This “field of fields” creates the context for the Relational Self’s expanded awareness.

Another experience for cultivating Generative Field connections is the Buddhist exercise of connecting to one’s different ancestral lineages. In one version, for example, one centers into a quiet and receptive state.   A bell rings, and you begin the first “field lineage,” for example, one’s land ancestors.  That is, you go back through time progressively, for say a couple of hundred years, sensing all the generations of people who have cared for and tended the land that you live on.  You then sense that lineage moving forward in time, generation by generation, with gratitude for how each generation passed on its learning and experiences to the next.   As it passes through you, you sense your connection to both the past and future generations, feeling both gratitude for what you have received and commitment for what you would like to give to future generations.    Then a bell rings, you come back to a relaxed centered position and rest for a bit until the next bell rings, whereupon another lineage—for example, religious traditions, biological family, work disciplines (e.g., science, art)—is traversed.   In each lineage, one feels both gratitude for what has been passed on, and also compassion for any “unlucky” events or people that may have got caught in negative patterns (damaging behaviors).  In this way, a person’s sense of identity moves to the Generative Level of Field Mind, where many patterns and connections of human knowing are absorbed and transcended.  This allows these patterns to be resources available for meeting the ongoing challenges of a person’s life.

 The Relational Self: A Generative Consciousness

In our postmodern times, it is fashionable to dismiss the notion that life is about consciousness, about a basis sense of living presence.  Indeed, traditional psychology has done much to discredit the notion via fundamentalist notions of self as a fixed or literal thing rather than an energetic presence that carries all psychological forms basic to human consciousness.   And the industrialization of consciousness fomented by both consumerism and fundamentalism has disconnected us from a felt sense of being alive.  But anybody who has held a new-born baby can’t help but sense the amazing life force that is embodied by the infant.  Or sitting with a dying person, it is difficult to not feel something deeper than the intellect, something more basic than the persona. 

Self-relations is an approach that seeks to sense and connect with this life force, this consciousness, curious about what creative human forms may arise out of this relational connection.  It does not set mind against nature, but argues for what Bateson (1979) called their necessary unity.  SR emphasizes that the stakes are high in this relationship, sometimes literally a matter of life and death; that we either sense the “invisible presence” that is trying to awaken into consciousness, or suffer serious consequences.

To meet these challenges, we have seen how consciousness can be described in terms of Somatic, Cognitive, and Field Minds; how each Mind has Basic and Generative Levels; how Basic Levels are sufficient for navigating ordinary experiences but not the extraordinary experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant, that destabilize identity.   We examined how Generative Mind is essential for navigating these latter experiences, and how its cultivation can give rise to a Relational Self capable of optimal performance and transformational (“death and rebirth”) process.    Some of the properties of Generative consciousness include: field-based identity, subtle energy thought and action, centering, translucence. openness, sponsorship, expanded identity, focused but flexible intention; integral and relational processing; and archetypal wisdom.  Such experiential properties increase the capacity for happiness, health, helpfulness, and healing.  

In closing, I want to especially emphasize that cultivation of Generative Mind is part of an ongoing practice.  It is not a technique that one learns in a day, but a great commitment and sincere effort that one makes for a lifetime.  Sometimes students and clients say, “Gee, you seem to be asking a lot.”   The response is, of course, “What else are you doing with your life?”  If we engage in such practices, our lives deepen and improve; if we don’t, we often feel victimized or disappointed by the experiences of life.  It’s good to have a choice!

 

 

 

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