A few years ago, while teaching a course in family therapy, a particularly bright and insightful student named Maria lingered after class one day and asked, “Isn’t differentiation of self similar to mindfulness?” I hadn’t quite thought of it like that before, but it certainly seemed plausible. “Let’s set aside some time to talk,” I suggested. With that single question began many months of conversations.
In 2015, a continuation of those hours of exploration transformed into an “anti-presentation” that was awarded “Best of Show” at the Louisiana Counseling Association Annual Conference. The examination continued the following spring at the American Counseling Association Conference & Expo in Montréal. In the end, it was inquiry rather than answers that animated our informal lyceum. Quest and question are born of a common root. And teaching is thin soup if only the student grows. The current work is an attempt to extend the spirit and tone of those many fruitful hours of meeting.
Attempting to define differentiation
Differentiation of self (DoS), since first being introduced by Murray Bowen in the early years of the family therapy movement, has remained a lofty, elusive and often misunderstood concept. As Bowen’s colleague, Michael Kerr, pointed out, differentiation contains so many unique conceptual facets that it defies simple definition.
Bowen himself, persistently mystified by the consistent misinterpretation of differentiation, noted late in his life in one of his more cantankerous moments that he wished he’d never “discovered” it in the first place. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson once said of Charles Darwin that he didn’t discover evolution, he made it up. The same may be said of DoS. Viewed through this lens, DoS becomes a story (the point of which is to communicate its creator’s intent) steeped in a deep faith in science and the relatively recent emergence of the Western nuclear family.
If we are to accept the premise that differentiation does indeed defy simple definition, or at the very least is so subtle and nuanced that it is open to numerous interpretations, the initial question that emerges is: What in the world are we actually talking about when we talk about differentiation?
Michael Cowen, one of my colleagues at Loyola University New Orleans, provides a useful foundation from which to launch this conceptual ship with his interpretation of differentiation as “the capacity to be aware of one’s own unique pattern of feeling, valuing and thinking, and to decide and act in ways that remain faithful to that awareness.” Cowen’s definition shifts the focus of differentiation away from some thing that one is or has or even does, toward a description of understanding and action. It is a process that, at its core, allows individuals to make distinctions between thoughts and feelings and to remain calm in highly emotional situations. It is the ability to be both a part of and apart from significant relationships, and it places a high premium on the ability to behave rationally. It is not, however, a call for a Spock-like hyper-rationality nor a ringing endorsement of the ruggedly individualistic American mythology.
For the sake of moving forward with consensus, nebulous as it may be, I (Kevin) am inclined to give Bowen the final say in the construction of a working definition of differentiation as “a way of thinking that translates into a way of being.” So the story goes.
If that description of differentiation is to be accepted, the question then becomes, how is one to cultivate such “a way of thinking?” And who might act as a reliable translator? This is the point at which the teaching of the Buddha, in general, and mindfulness, specifically, can offer a helpful perspective from which to view perceptions and human experience.
At first glance, Bowen and Buddha may seem to be a strange pairing. After all, Bowen’s search for understanding led him back to the tumult of his family of origin, whereas Buddha left home seeking transcendence and never returned. Logistically, Buddha’s eightfold path provides a different road map toward liberation and understanding than does Bowen’s eight interlocking theoretical concepts. But the wisdom gained beneath the Bodhi tree may not be as divergent from the family tree as one might think. When differentiation is examined through the prism of mindfulness, significant conceptual convergences begin to emerge. The potential implications for personal growth, insight and clinical practice merit a pause, perhaps a deep breath, and further contemplation.
Mindfulness is essentially the act of being present. Anchored in continuous awareness of each emerging moment, it is the cultivation of a calm, dispassionate state in which experience can be examined with acceptance and nonjudgment. Mindfulness, not unlike DoS, is a process that provides the possibility of escaping the trappings of emotional reactivity.
In an excellent article examining mindfulness (“Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition” in the September 2004 issue of Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice), a group of Canadian academics, led by Scott R. Bishop, pointed out that the insight that emerges through disciplined contemplative practice creates an open “space between one’s perception and response, ultimately making it possible to respond and interact more reflectively (as opposed to reflexively).” Rather than becoming tangled up in “ruminative, elaborative thought streams about one’s experience and its origins, implications and associations, mindfulness involves a direct experience of events in the mind and body,” wrote Bishop and his colleagues
In other words, we are able to stay tethered in the present, experiencing our life with courage and composure as it actually unfolds in our midst. In this awakened state, our mind is freed from anger, attachment to desire and misperception. Providing an alternative to being swept away in a flood of emotionality and elaborate misinterpretation, we are able to resist the urge to flee into ideations of the imagined future clouded by the residue of the past, or compulsively bend reality to meet idiosyncratic needs.
Mindfulness is the antidote to fear, confusion and anxiety. It is a practice and process that tethers us to the immediacy of our lives with the insight to see “relationships between thoughts, feelings and actions and to discern the meaning and causes of experience and behavior” (as described in “Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition”). Essentially, mindfulness cultivates the ability to interact rather than react.
The greatest hurdle in defining a self or sustaining mindful attention is emotional reactivity. When emotions escalate beyond a critical threshold, a state of mind emerges in which rational thinking evaporates and agitation hijacks the cognitive process. It is impossible to differentiate in such an agitated state. We become prisoners to automatic emotional responses saturated in fear.
Buddha referred to this reactive state as “monkey mind,” in which fear becomes much like a loud, drunken monkey frantically screeching the alarm bells of danger in our brains. The ability to quickly regain composure and quiet the monkey mind is the cornerstone of both differentiation and mindfulness.
The quiet mind is fertile ground for exploring what Buddha called “store consciousness.” Long before Sigmund Freud proposed his theory of the unconscious (again, see Bateson above) or Bowen began his examination of psychobiological cognitive-emotional processes, Buddha was wandering about preaching the Dharma, teaching practices aimed at liberating people from misperception and attachment to mental formations that seemed to be just beyond the reach of everyday awareness.
Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes in the introduction of Cultivating the Mind of Love: “In our store consciousness are buried all the seeds, representing everything we have ever done, experienced or perceived. When a seed is watered, it manifests in our mind consciousness. … The work of meditation is to cultivate the garden of our store consciousness.”
Getting back into harmony with our lives
Whatever we “attend” to will grow. And what we don’t attend to will tend to grow out of control without insight into content and coping strategies buried deep in our store consciousness. For multigenerational family systems theory, the seeds in the soil are the early experiences in the family of origin. Differentiation allows for a bit of psychic “weeding” to occur so that intimacy and integrity may grow.
Buddha, too, was attuned to the influence that family members have on one another. Perhaps more poetic, but no less prophetic, a Buddhist teaching examines the importance of the emotional climate of filial bonds, invoking the image of the garden again: “A family is a place where minds come in contact with one another. If these minds love one another, the home will be as beautiful as a flower garden. But if these minds get out of harmony with one another, it is like a storm that plays havoc with the garden.”
It is precisely in those moments when one finds oneself in the “I” of the storm where mindful intention allows the well-differentiated self to stay calm and sift through frenetic cognition that often causes impairment in our lives. The ability to sit in the midst of the tempest and remain present, self-aware and in close emotional contact with others is the essence of what Soto Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki calls “imperturbable composure.”
The well-differentiated self exhibits radical acceptance to what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls the “full catastrophe of living.” In this way, we remain open and curious to the actual events of our lives as they unfold, freeing ourselves from endless cycles of suffering and automatic reactivity. Whether we call this mindfulness or differentiation becomes an exercise in semantics.
Through work and practice, we become available to the full reality of our lives, with the insight and courage to quietly slip through the cracks of our conditioning and allow our ego-cramped consciousness to release its grip on our battered psyche. Quite simply, DoS and mindfulness bring us back into harmony with our lives.
For Buddha, the ultimate act of enlightenment is to wake up. The Dharma teaches that it is possible for any of us to awaken at any moment in our lives. Much like achieving a fully mindful present state, people often find embarking on the path of defining a self to be a daunting task.
Bowen was clear and consistent in his insistence that the fully differentiated self is a theoretical concept that is practically unattainable. It is a guiding light rather than prescription. However, with much work and practice, it is possible to increase one’s level of differentiation. Bowen pointed out that if we can “control the anxiety and the reactiveness to anxiety, the functional level will improve.” The task at hand becomes “getting beyond anger and blaming to a level of objectivity that is far more than an intellectual activity. … The overall goal is to be constantly in contact” with emotional issues involving ourselves and others.
A common thread
Although Bowen and Buddha’s conceptualization of the “self” superficially seems to be the point at which the Venn in the Zen between DoS and mindfulness begins to diverge, it is through interdependence that the deepest synthesis actually occurs. Whether one adopts a scientific or a spiritual perspective, the influence that each of us has upon the other is the thread that ties mindfulness and differentiation together.
Bowen was certain that the self exists. Buddha sent his disciples out into the world in search of the self and sat patiently waiting for the report back. Ralph Waldo Emerson, with his ever-present, transcendental wisdom, offered this: “All that is said of the wise man by Stoic or Oriental or modern essayist … describes his unattained but attainable self.”
Both Buddha’s and Bowen’s philosophical views were undergirded by a belief in the profound effect that each of us has upon one another. Bowen believed that successfully differentiating oneself within the system could have significant influence on all others in that system. He noted that if one is able to successfully define a solid sense of self and defend against requests from others to change back to old ways of being, then the entire system can catapult forward into higher levels of functioning.
The Dharma teaches that when one is awakened with compassion and wisdom, all are touched by the light. In Cultivating the Mind of Love, Hanh examines Buddha’s teachings, exploring the ways in which the Dharma opens each of us to the possibility of deeper understanding and more intimate connection. In his introduction, Hanh invites us to become fully present, and “the rain of the Dharma will water the deepest seeds of your store consciousness. If the seed of understanding is watered … the fruits of love and understanding will grow.”
Examining the teaching of interbeing and the delusion of separateness falsely constructed in the mind, Hanh concludes: “We must vow to practice for everyone, not just for ourselves. … Because of our ignorance and habit energies, we usually perceive things incorrectly. We are caught in our mental categories, especially our notions of self, person, living being and life span. We discriminate between self and nonself. … When we see things this way, our behavior will be based on wrong perceptions. Our mind is like a sword cutting reality into pieces, and then we act as though each piece of reality is independent from other pieces. If we look deeply, we will remove these barriers between our mental categories and see the one in the many and the many in the one, which is the true nature of interbeing. … Everything is touching everything else. … To bring relief to one person is to bring relief to everyone, including ourselves. This insight brings about the kinds of actions that are truly helpful.”
These are hopeful thoughts for troubled times. What is called for in this moment, if one is to view differentiation through the lens of mindfulness, is a “way of thinking that translates into a way of being in the world” that accurately perceives the deep connection that we have with the world surrounding us and the profound effect that each of us has upon one another. So the story goes.
Counseling is a reciprocal process of story and interpretation. As a conversational intervention, much attention has been given to the narrative telling of the tale — the “talk” in talk therapy. Often lost in the reciprocity is the transformative power of listening. As Hanh points out, when we listen to another deeply and compassionately, we help that person to suffer less. “One hour like that can bring transformation and healing,” he teaches.
If listening in this way does indeed, as we believe, lead to the alleviation of suffering, the question becomes, how does one engage in the process of compassionate listening?
The calm that accompanies the differentiated self, and a mindful stance tethered in the present, provide a helpful perspective from which to enter into another’s story. It allows one to avoid judgment without abandoning discernment and concern. This way of being allows the counselor to bear witness to the tumultuous content of clients’ troubled narratives without becoming overwhelmed. We can tolerate intense emotion without needing to flee for safety and care without getting carried away.
Deep listening contains the seeds of empathy. The calm that accompanies a well-differentiated presence opens up the space to create the distance necessary to examine problem-saturated narratives. The practice of active listening artfully folds the story continuously back upon itself, returning the client to present-moment awareness. The acceptance that accompanies awareness invites the client to slow down, resist the impulse to avoid the suffering and instead examine the story with compassion. The wisdom to accept that which is beyond our control paradoxically generates the flexibility necessary for transformation to occur.
Pragmatically speaking, compassionate listening is rooted in language. To listen in this manner, it is essential to remain firmly planted in the present, gathering content without getting lost in the labyrinth of past suffering or anxious projections of the future. When listening to stories of suffering, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that the actual experience is the retelling of the tale here and now, not what occurred there and then. It is imperative to honor our clients’ suffering while also uncovering their strength.
The task is to attend to the content of the client’s story while staying deeply connected to the person. Listening in this way allows us to wonder what the client is trying to communicate about his or her struggle through the story. What meaning is seeking to be understood? What are the relational and emotional elements recurring in the client’s words? Compassionate listening is the conduit into the deepest sense of clients’ experiences. It asks, how can we be present to the struggle and help our clients confront the frustrating and most frightening moments of their lives?
At its core, compassionate listening holds the therapeutic space. It widens the client’s interpretation just a bit. It uses the client’s language, symbols and metaphors. It sees as well as hears, deconstructing the story, searching the margins for what has been edited out, pulling the thread of seemingly disjointed pieces and reflecting it back in recognizable form. This way of listening is ultimately a path toward healing that allows for safe passage through suffering. As American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön points out, mindfulness allows us to choose an alternative course for our lives. A process such as DoS requires us to first notice the true nature of our experience, then disrupt our habitual patterns and do things differently and, finally, practice again and again, one moment at a time.
A client suffers and a change is necessary. The struggle often comes with not knowing how to manifest a healthy change. The client has likely been avoiding, wrestling with and running away from anxiety for years, creating deeply ingrained habits. In the space created by deep listening, the client can experience something different. Clients may be able to look at their anxiety for the first time with compassion and understanding. The paradox is that once they are able to sit with their struggle instead of avoiding it, anxiety loosens its grip on their lives.
DoS, viewed through the lens of mindfulness, creates the clarity and compassion for transformation to occur. Mindfulness aids in the process by creating awareness of our mind-body interaction so that we can become more skillful in our interpersonal, and intrapersonal, relationship(s).
Just as the counseling process makes space for emotions, thoughts, ideas and stories in session, mindfulness creates a similar space for our internal experience to occur. This is the “deep listening” to our own process. Mindful awareness allows for attunement, not only with our clients but with ourselves. It creates systemic and intrapsychic awareness to the ways that we get hooked into metanarratives and mental confines. Emotions no longer run amok, and we are available to be in relationship with others. As clinicians, we must first listen deeply to the mystery and history of our own stories before making contact with someone else’s.
The Beat Zen of Richard Brautigan leads us to a quiet place to begin in his poem “Karma Repair Kit: Items 1-4”:
1. Get enough food to eat,/ and eat it.
2. Find a place to sleep where it is quiet,/ and sleep there.
3. Reduce intellectual and emotional noise/ until you arrive at the silence of yourself,/ and listen to it.
Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
Kevin Foose is an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling at Loyola University New Orleans. He maintains a private practice that focuses on couples and adult individuals. Contact him at email@example.com.
Maria Cicio is a graduate of the Loyola University New Orleans master’s in counseling program, class of 2015. A licensed professional counselor, she is currently working in community mental health in rural Oklahoma.
Letters to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org
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