Identifying a Problem/Leading Edge or Horizon of Change
The surface layer of a problem is generally not very subtle: it announces itself with an experience of suffering. So, the first step—both in Buddhist practice and in psychotherapy—is calling attention to suffering and then inquiring into it.
Recognition of suffering in its broadest sense is evoked by the phrase used by the Buddhist teacher Ajahn Sumedho: “Suffering is like this” (Sumedho, 2004).
One suffers and knows that one is suffering. This is mindful awareness of suffering, the heart of Buddhist practice.4
Suffering can be felt (recognized) at many different levels. In its most basic aspect, it highlights the direct experience of what we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste, as well as the perceptions, images, and thoughts associated with the unpleasant experience called suffering.
In addition to the sensory experience of the moment, there is an associative network in the mind that provides both the affective tone and “paradigm of meaning” that makes experiences of suffering feel psychologically distinct. For example, in a particular moment we may feel unhappy, burdened, dejected, or hopeless, as though things are falling apart.
In the most general sense, a problem/leading edge or horizon of change presents itself as an awareness of some difficulty accompanied by the upsurge of unpleasant emotion: “reactivity.” Pema Chodron (1997) uses the Tibetan term “shenpa” to describe this phenomenon of getting hooked by something “sticky” in the mind. Reactivity may be triggered by an acute event or may be a long-standing reactive emotional pattern, and it is generally associated with upsetting or unhappy thoughts, images, fantasies, and/or narratives in the mind. Our reactivity shows us the surface of a problem that needs to be explored, grounded in the intimacy of our embodied experience, and met with compassionate understanding.
Investigation of “problems” can take many different forms. We can focus on a given moment through a meditative lens, amplifying our awareness of direct experience—each moment as distinct as the proverbial snowflake. We can focus on the emotional texture of the moment, amplifying our awareness of our “felt sense” of it. Or, we can expand upon its “meaning” by reflecting on it, or by speaking with someone about it.
In psychotherapy, problems are understood within a personal framework; their meaning is elaborated in relation to psychological history. In contrast, Buddhist practice aims toward extending presence beyond the conditioned aspects of experience, pointing awareness away from organization of experience around concepts of self and toward a broader awareness of the background field that pervades all existence. (From the perspective of this limitless, unbounded intelligence, there is no problem to fix (Amaro, 2007).5)
Inquiring deeply honors both of these perspectives, meeting problems on their own terms. It is a way of working with problems by feeling our way into and through them. There are layers upon layers of experience—“no end to seeing,” as Hokusai tells us.6 We meet each of them as they arise within the psychological world of lived experience. In addition to the personal layers, themselves somewhat endless, we can discover many other layers which are existential/archetypal/ universal. Over time and with open and receptive curiosity toward experience, intuitive awareness uncovers the intelligence within problems. Mindful awareness unfolds and deepens.
Inquiring deeply has some essential similarity to dharma practice.7 However, because it does not privilege the spiritual dimension of experience, and, because of its focus on “personality view,” it has a different “flavor” than does mindfulness meditation. It highlights what in psychodynamic language is called “working through” (Epstein, 1995).8
The major importance of the way that we identify problems—how we define the leading edge and horizon of change—lies in the fact that they are part of the narrative structure within which life unfolds. Inquiring deeply is based on the fundamental premise that there is innate wisdom in problems. If we use a problem as a guide to inquiring deeply into the structure of our experience, it will take us exactly where we need to go to discover important opportunities for change and healing.
With or without explicit goals for change, the way that we “construct” a problem is the way that we “incline the mind.” In the teachings of the Buddha, “all experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind” (Fronsdal, 2005, p. 1).