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

Opening the Ground and Ditching the Subject

It seemed in that most recent talk with my teacher that what made him think I am working within the range of groundless ground is what I said about the subject’s being gone. I mean, since July 30, 2015, it has been gone, gone, gone. I explained to him that what I mean is that I’m no longer roaming my body fields, no longer continually redefining a subject viewpoint from which to relate to “out there.” I said that I don’t know how that result fits into the mother-infant paradigm. 

Roaming the Body to Redefine the Subject Is Samsara

He said that the roaming all over my body fields was seeking, samsara, and when that seeking stops it is because individual consciousness has slipped away (or something like that – I’ll look back at my notes for the exact words and edit). Because this session started with my complaining about the strange loss of drive to practice, he then asked whether I recognized that my former need to practice was a form of suffering and that now there is “a little bit of a relief.” I laughed, and said, “Yes! A lot – my hair was on fire, so the relief is massive!” And he said, “So that is extinguishment, and taking time to recognize the end of suffering is important.”

Opening the Ground Marks the End of All “Views”

So that is that. When rigpa is perfectly stabilized, then groundless ground as fruition will mean “the end of views,” he said. There is, after that point, no more “deepening.” However, there are visions and there is embodiment work. In other words, at that point, awakening is “done,” the true agent of awakening has been recognized, and then that awakening can “do its work.” This means I will still sit, but, from groundless ground, the awakened field of awareness will automatically release the storehouse consciousness, the karmic traces from countless lifetimes. My understanding is that this exhaustion of the storehouse normally takes around 6 years, but it can be as little as 2 years if, I think, certain measures are taken (no idea what).

Just Sitting Causes Rigpa to Blaze

Tonight I did a brief sit. Rigpa flared at the same intensity the whole time and really all day, even though I was sleep deprived today. It does seem that sitting, just any kind of sitting, even without “meditating” causes a flare-up in the intensity. This seems to be simply because of the reduction in particularized inputs to my attention. For this intensity to be at the same level, at least throughout the day, I will simply need to exercise mindfulness when attentional demands are on me. This practice is called liveliness

Feeling Other People in My Space Bubble

Spinning discs or twirling swords can be visualized and felt to slice through the center, pulling space-awareness out the other side.

As DreamWalker says, if I don’t write it down right away, poof—it is gone from tracking. I think it is okay, maybe even best, for practice to be gone from tracking day to day, but there comes a time when it is helpful to look over a long sweep of time and understand patterns. My sessions for the past few weeks have been stupid, boring, and plagued with those pin-prickly sensations and even scattered lights and visions of everything as kind of roiling. Basically, low EQ insight stage for me, with is usually strangely unpleasant and tempts me sorely to skip practice, because I feel fine, actually, so long as I don’t practice. So, having learned my way out of this mirage-like sand trap before, I practice.

Boredom as Aversion to Suffering

There is one line in MCTB2 about how boredom is usually aversion to suffering. The other night, I tested out the practice in that section, because, if there is any discernible “lesson” so far over the past few months, it is that Suffering is the one of the Three Characteristics I’m least likely to honestly investigate.

So I returned to what I almost never do—a fast noting/noticing of all the tiny pains and whatever underlies boredom in this apparent low EQ. Clearly seen was how I almost automatically try to “dissolve” whatever pain is there, or recoil from it. Seeing this, I was able to be pretty stubborn about staying right with all the little pains—without manipulating them or running. When this goes on long enough, something breaks, everything goes wide and diffuse, and the pains subside without the sense that I did anything to make it so.

Practice—Twirling Swords

MCTB2 has another interesting little practice that I will head “Practice—Twirling Swords.” To follow this practice, I first employ my usual Ajahn Lee “Keeping the Breath in Mind” Method 2 practice until I reach at least Jhana 4, wide and spacious. The idea here is to imagine these two twirling-around-each-other swords as cutting swaths through the center, the doughnut hole, or whatever seems to be me.

At first the exercise feels forced and a little silly, but I love the choreography of staged sword fights from having been a theatre major. Anything with that kind of fluid beauty I can entertain. This practice can be tiring, too, so I take breaks and rest in the jhana state a while before resuming. Eventually, the image of the swords vanishes for me and is replaced by vast disc-planes of space that I allow to “cut through” my head, neck, shoulders, chest/heart, all the way down. If pain emerges anywhere, I of course begin identifying with it, so I then I pull the plane of space through that, and the pain vanishes—for a while. 

My left rotator cuff has been giving me grief, and, through conversations with DW, and via Nick, I have begun wondering why I think that “love” must come from this chest area, near the heart. For a while after August that sensation went dormant; but lately it is back. Anything localized like that—DW made this point that it should be investigated. Anyway, I begin to feel into this cutting plane of space (viscerally, spatially, auditorially, even visually) and notice that it isn’t clear or stable where I end and the surround-space begins. There is not so much a “line” as just various balloonings-out, fields of awareness, fields disappearing in succession.

Sleep Deprivation and Scattered Lights

My son had surgery this morning, and I had to drive to a town more than an hour away at 5 a.m. for it. I had slept only an hour, not because I was worried, but just because my sleep schedule is such that I stay up so late because I won’t stop whatever I’m into to sleep. 

My husband was evidently stressed, which is unusual for him, and he seemed bent on having an argument with me this morning. I finally obliged him, and the result wasn’t pretty. He ended up leaving me behind and taking just our son to the hospital in the other town, something I think he felt bad about having done to me, the mother, later. So I had to drive all by myself, with no sleep, through rain, dark, and fog—not the safest thing to do. I have a well-established travel phobia, but I was perfectly calm almost instantly after our fight and throughout the trip. My anxiety has dropped by 80 to 85 percent since August’s event [stream entry].

I arrived just in time to kiss my son as they took him back to the operating room. I went out into the waiting room and decided that I was too tired to work on a tough part of MCTB2, so I went to a dim, pretty, quiet area of the waiting room to meditate, beginning with metta for my son. I’ve often noticed that sleep deprivation makes meditation much more profound, maybe because some kind of resistance just melts—I don’t know. Or maybe I’m just closer to sleep and so slip over into altered states more easily. I tend toward high energy rather than dullness as a meditator, so I often practice close to bedtime on purpose.

The first phenomenon I noticed was that I was, for the first time ever, feeling other people’s feeling tone when they entered my space–within 12 to 15 feet of me. These two older men approached my space, and I slowly recoiled. Then they sat down and started worrying aloud about all these people they knew who were dying of various cancers. I got up and moved after observing this sound a while and feeling the tone. Next, with eyes closed, I felt some positive, bright, happy energy. I opened my eyes to see a woman in her 30s walking up toward me. We instantly smiled directly into each other. So, there was the feeling, and then there was the external playing-out as confirmation. Interesting in both cases.

I didn’t go anywhere near my husband, even though I wasn’t mad at him—just neutral and not wanting to test that neutrality or make my own waves into him. So I stayed off and meditated.

After the people-in-my-space thing, I closed eyes and everything was quickly broad and spacious and calm. I practiced the twirling swords for a while, till they became the wider discs. Then I sat back just to receive and let resolve whatever showed up. A lot of me is easy to have over there now, at least in these states. I opened my eyes because vision tends to reinforce separateness like nothing else, although I suspect that is because I’m confusing what is with an expectation of unity. 

Anyway, the carpet had this design that looked like numerous white ribbons snipped and tossed onto the green background. Carpet began roiling, the ribbons and background became very 3D and fluid, and, at the top of the breath, there were splashes of scattering bright white lights, and at the bottom of the breath there were the same. This was curious. The lights went with the breath. I wondered if I were doing this. So next I poured my intention into making the lights appear exactly when they had been—and, oddly, the lights stopped. Then I relaxed out of the intention, and the lights started again.

I kept this up for 1.5 hours. My son came out of surgery, and all was fine.

Alone in the Dharma Underground for Now

It is perversely fun to be down here [in the Dharma Underground] by myself for now, although I’m waiting for DreamWalker and possibly others to check out this cool, dark, echoing underground.

Pain-to-Identity as Fundamental Confusion 

Suffering is the efficient way to construct identity—a something to fortify and, ironically, fend all threats off for.

Well, in the interest of balanced reporting, I’ll say that lately my meditation sessions alternate between deep, rich, and spectacular—and painful, distracted, and boring. Funny how these are happening back-to-back. Last night I was in fifth jhana within literally seconds. Tonight felt like I didn’t have even access concentration. I had all those little irritating physical sensations of itching, pin-pricks, lower back pain, restlessness, and even nausea. My thoughts were all superficial but all over the place. 

On top of this, I was bored and wanted to just blow off the sit. But I didn’t. I just sat there unable to even hate it. I just felt “This is so friggin’ repetitive; I’ll never get it.” So I was disgusted and full of doubt, but even the doubt had lack of substance. 

I tried to notice something “useful” about the pains, or at least just notice them because that’s what I’m supposed to do, right? All I gleaned was that a galore of “selfing” energy is bound up with pain and suffering. I know I’m “supposed” to see that the suffering is ownerless, but I just noticed how it sure does seem like I’m totally owning the pain. It is almost as if pain is the most efficient way to construct a self, a something to fortify and fend all else off for. The trouble is, what I would fend off are my own sensations!

There is a fundamental confusion here.