Psychotherapy and Meditation: Developmental Stages in “Self”

This classic, penetrating essay by Jack Engler considers borderline and schizoid personality organizations to be a very common and more troublesome meditation hindrance for westerners than the classic Five Hindrances of Buddhist literature: 

Therapeutic Aims in Psychotherapy and Meditation: Developmental Stages in Representations of Self

My interest in this article is at least threefold for pragmatics:


Basic Trust is a prerequisite for the surrender necessary for insight into Suffering to be fully engaged and for the practice to advance.

Unhelpful “No-Self” Language

There are serious risks attending enlightenment goals articulated by westerners as translations of anatta to “no-self” (which is precisely why I won’t be using the term “no-self” in my own pragmatic manual, and why I will not be speaking of “deleting selfing processes” – will pertain to sections about terminology used, need to understand basic Buddhist theory, and careful goal formation). The goal is not to delete the self; the healthier goal is a more expansive understanding of one’s true nature as vast, timeless, and interdependent with all others. That nature makes everything formerly threatening not personal but as intimate as it is integrated with the nondual interconnected field of humanity.

Lack of Embodiment as Intensified Personality Pathology

See my related post, “The Risks of Masculine Practice Paradigms,” and, for deep discussion of the schizoid process in general, see Gary Yontef’s article at

Poetry Is Method

Jhana versus the Natural State

I was too high after meditating last night to write about it, although what I’m referring to isn’t exactly the “afterglow” of jhana practice – although, whether jhana and the natural state are the same thing is a question that I continually pound my head against. My friend Barry and I agree that concentration without object does land us in the natural state, rigpa a-flaring, but is that because we have awakened awareness to begin with, or is it that jhana without sign, as they say, is “it”? 

I guess what I’m calling jhana is when I take the jhana factors, or one of them, as object: I’m concentrating on the state as such; therefore it is temporary, special, fabricated, partly conceptual. By contrast, the natural state is always already here, so long as it is merely recognized. The emphasis is different, in fact opposite. As a technical meditator, I used to practice “calling up” the jhanas by number, in different orders, and then I would run insight experiments in them, as if they were little labs.

DreamWalker is adept at that kind of analytical and intellectual approach to “exercises” and their experimental “results.” But it hasn’t been my karma for awakening to unfold by shifts discrete enough for me to analyze individually. In other words, as John says, my journey has been fast.

Tibetan-y Metaphoricity and the Feminine

So here I am: back in the Tibetan-y realm, resting back into the lush metaphors, the evocations of poetry.

John tells the story of Mara, the reification of self, the embodiment of traumas. There is Mara with Mara’s armies of complicated complexity, and John tells how Mara asks Buddha, tauntingly, “Well, who is backing you up – why should I believe that you are completely free?” and Buddha, confronting all that constructed complexity, simply leans forward and touches the Earth, the ground, the mother – to show that he was no longer separate from that, no longer separate from the whole of reality.

That simple gesture, as told by John, the humility, humanity, and dignity of it in the face of towering edifices of greed, hatred, and illusion, always makes me weep. DreamWalker asks, “Why? I must not be emotional.” And I stand perplexed at his shrugging that poignancy off. That story is the meditation. At a certain point, awakening is not about “exercises.” And this difference that is poetry is what John means when he says the feminine is insufficiently appreciated in Buddhist circles.

Just so, in Bon Dzogchen language, there is the infant and the mother, open awareness and open ground. In full embrace, they are the groundless ground. John weaves these metaphors in and out, around and between, our breaths, the birds chirping into silence, the body’s energy fields buzzing and flowing into stillness. These metaphors open the heart, eschewing the intellect. That’s what archetypes do. Mother-infant is the primary archetype of human relationship, of what is relationally based on selfless love. We are the infant gazing into the eyes of the mother; we are the mother gazing into the eyes of her infant. Suffering and the soothing of suffering is intergenerational, interpersonal; it is a matter of love, not a matter of one’s “own” technical meditative skill. Time being empty and all, we heal our unborn children and we heal our sad lost fathers.

We love our enemies as our self.

Love Not Exercises

I understand distrust of religion, especially organized and codified religion. I have that disidentification going on now more than ever before, but that is not because these “Buddhist” or “Bon” metaphors are without potency; on the contrary, it is because they are so potent that they awakened me to emptiness, to the interdependent co-arising of even all these constructed poetic particulars. And that means religion is empty too. I’ve begun disidentifying as a Buddhist for the very reason that Buddhist method works. 

For about the millionth time, I was rehearsing to DreamWalker this evening the four distinct shifts that I had during the Mahamudra retreat. I always make a point of emphasizing to him that the last shift, when the central processor (subject) dropped out, was not because of some mechanical opening of some sense door, but because of something emotional. Specifically, we had sealed everything at the speed of awareness as empty, but then we were read a list of limiting beliefs and asked to listen for the one that caused some “grab” in us. My own was “I must have missed something.” Well, all I “missed” was sealing this doubt, this victim-identity, this lack of faith, this fear that I wouldn’t awaken. And as soon as I saw that doubt and saw that it too was empty – BAM !– subject dropped out. And it hasn’t returned, not for an instant.

Before that point, we had sung with John and were exhausted, high, and weepy, puddles on the polished wood of the shala. He had worn us down over a week’s time to absolute surrender. The final shift was not because of any “exercise.” It was surrender. What opened where trying stopped? Love did. Love opened. Fear fled. Love boomed.

Pure Ghost

I told DreamWalker this story yet again, and he had a sort of aha – that the last shift I had on retreat was the release of the selfing process that is the fight-or-flight system. The aha was that this forms in infancy, or beforehand, as our first sense of self. He said, “Our first sense of this self is a fear of falling.” And I said, “Why do you think John has everyone lie down and rest into the ground/mother?” I asked, “Why do you think he keeps referring to the holding environment?” John is using the lingo of western psychology here – the opposite of falling is being held. This is love. This is love. This is love. And it is trust, faith, poetry, magic, universe, human relationship.

So. As I tonight rest into the chakras as field, as ground, as mother, I’m opening up to the vast expanse so deep within me. John always speaks of the “primordial youthful subtle body” that is revealed when the body’s energy centers open up. Tonight I especially noticed the second chakra, the sweetness – it flutters and beats just like the third chakra did when I was meditating on it for months. Beneath all the layers, all the constructedness of self-identity, is pure ghost, and that ghost lies contentedly as a perfectly glowing infant in the arms of her beloved mother.

Poetry, you see, is purest method.

Awake Awareness to Open Ground

Part 1

This entry is Part 1 of two parts on my now moving along an axis of attainment once again after eight months of integrating the gains of Mahamudra awake awareness (AA) into an increasingly pared-down human life.

Desire to Return to Some Effort in the Practice

When I last met with my teacher, before the recent embodiment retreat, I brought forward with some new, almost accusatory emphasis my feeling odd that I’m not “progressing.” I told him that I felt I was in some kind of holding pen. 

It was kind of stupid for me to be saying so, because I had agreed with him after attainment of Mahamudra AA in July 2015 that it would be a good idea for me to integrate the gains with my everyday life, to pull my energies back down to earth, and to sort my chief psychological issue, which is my codependent relationships with alcoholics and other emotionally shut off men who represent my father. As a practitioner, I had driven myself hard for a year, after all, my hair having been on fire for awakening since the Arising and Passing Away Event of summer 2013 and even more so since stream entry (or whatever one wants to insist on calling or not calling it) on August 8, 2014. I also had spent more than 800 hours working on MCTB2 with Daniel Ingram and roosting with some intensity in that turbulent relationship and those much healthier other relationships of the Dharma Underground. I had sacrificed my health, sleep, exercise, family time, most entertainment, and contact with my nondharma friends and extended family. 

It was time, after AA, to unravel that yearlong knot, the most driven and transformative year of my life, and return to the basics of being an ordinary human being. And, actually, although I parted ways with Daniel this past October (almost 6 months ago now), I’m only now beginning to get even my sleep and work schedules normalized. Next is exercise, enjoyment of nature, creative writing, and homemaking. I’ve pared down my relationships, my commitments, and my urge to make a new dharma community happen. As my wise teacher said, I needed to stop running and feel my losses, as well as my gains.

Liberation of a Terror-Stricken and Numbed Out Third Chakra

I once read that, even as inside every schizoid and numb man resides a hysteric, inside every hysterical woman there is a split-off and numbed outcropping of self.

Nearly “by accident,” as if there were such a thing as accidents, I discovered a teaching and practice on the third chakra and gravitated to it nightly for months. I found it easy, from awakened awareness, to release into that otherwise tense and numb center in the body. Sheer terror was stored there I discovered. From meditation on that center, I experienced first that it pulsed and thumped like a second heart. Weeks later it began to rotate and open out as I simply sat and rested awakened awareness into it. You see, at this point on the path, I am awake, but now awakening has to do its work. Practice is much simpler and more refined because the agent of it has been recognized as not Jenny. I rest in the natural state, and it does the work.

I had conversed with my teacher about my insights into the patterns of psychosomatic reactivity there in the solar plexus, that third chakra. The dispute with Daniel had given me plenty of opportunity to observe that even my own righteous aggression frightened me. The terror and nausea from the pain Daniel caused me, and the pain of my anger back at him, ballooned upward from the solar plexus and spread as a wave of heat-flush over my chest and shoulders, and then down my back. A simple email from him or his lawyer would do this to me, even though my mind was free, still, and expansive and the emotion moved through quickly and evaporated

Polarization of the Victim and the Perpetrator

My teacher talked with me about how the victim and the perpetrator are bound together –a holdout duality. I have been so identified with being a victim, since I was a baby and underwent many surgeries in addition to living in a violent alcoholic household, that even my own fierceness makes me feel victimized by it. Interestingly, this kind-hearted man, my teacher, told me, “The only way to undo that polarity is to be willing to be the perpetrator, for then the victim and the perpetrator will neutralize each other.” He didn’t mean that I should be a perpetrator in conduct, or not necessarily; he meant that awake awareness hadn’t had a chance to “practice” from within the very volatile and intense energies fueling terror and rage. I had to learn to relax into those instances in which my fierceness is called for.

Awake awareness, focused on that area of the body, unknotted that polarity. So some “untethered selfing process,” as DreamWalker calls subtle obscurations that remain after the subject drops out and the vast expanse of the field opens up, seems to have stopped, to have been liberated. I can see the threatening email come now and think “oh shit.” But there is absolutely no grab viscerally or emotionally, no balloon from the power center and no contraction at the heart center. 

Of course, the path is cyclical, so it may well be that, although third chakra seems to be open now, more is later to be discovered there. Work with the body as ground, as Mother, will continue. 

Part 2 will discuss some terminology and the way onward in practice.

Reply to XX on Greed, Hatred, and Delusion

Dear X_X,

As usual, your explanations really remind me somehow of what I “should” have known, or did know, or do know but forgot I know – so really helpful at cutting back to basics: GHD and dependent co-arising, the level at which GHD can have slightly different nuances from the standard translations/definitions of greed, hatred, and delusion. 

Did I tell you, by the way, that I do not think I would have attained stream entry when I did if you hadn’t pointed out to me, from the other side of stream entry, as it were, what
I was seeing but not “knowing” I was seeing at that time – how I could find a self only when I switched focus back to an object? After that knowing, that articulation, it was then very easy for me to observe how my sense of self was this continuously shifting redefinition, whether focused momentarily on external objects or “internal” ones. Next sit – stream entry. So I’m a X_X [Shargrol] fan, and a grateful one.

I think Dan’s book would benefit from sketching these kinds of connections out more for paths past first path. Of course, I guess the book could also be 5,000 pages, as it is already nearly 600 in its current incarnation.

Thank you. And, yes, lots of seemingly spontaneous crying and lots of confusion, seemingly false starts, being jerked from one practice mode to another; however, some other profound level of okay-ness is still going strong since stream entry, so onward through the fog!