Mindfulness and the relational field


Basic inter-relatedness 

You must have heard the term ‘mindfulness’ a zillion times – but the term ‘relational field’…? Well, as for ‘mindfulness’: I’ll simply say that it’s the action of bearing something in mind; whether it’s small or large, an idea or a sensation. Just that. What then is this ‘relational field’? One way of explaining it in Buddhist terms is the principle of idapaccayatā, which means ‘mutual co-dependency’. Simply put, this means that our experience is a seamless field of qualities, or dhammā that co-dependently arise. This means that there are no separate ‘things’. What appears to be a separate thing is actually an event in consciousness that our minds interpret as a thing ‘out there’. In detail: consciousness – visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory or tactile – occurs as the relevant sense door opens; it brings in a particular experience called ‘form’. These various experience of form, rūpa, are then synthesized through mental consciousness to create an internal form, a perception, that we carry around as a blueprint. This creative process is called nāma – ‘name’ is the rather inadequate English word for this.

‘Name’ involves an intention to attend and turn towards a particular form and make contactThen attention that frames it up, and then there’s a recognition, called saññā, of that form; an immediate reference to what it reminds us of. So in our life we learn what a dog, a car, or a phone are. We build up a lexicon of such meanings and perceptions. As one of these perceptions occur, there’s a changeable degree of agreeable or disagreeable feeling; and then intention comes in again as an inclination to have more of this or less of that, to shut it out or bring it in. The word ‘intention’, is often used to translate cetanā, but cetanā is not necessarily a deliberately considered plan. Some cetanā are deliberate; some are reflexive; some we despair over… as in: ‘Here I am getting upset again and I wish I wasn’t.’ Intention is that flicker of the heart to jump out. And that jump then steers attention to follow it. Anyway, attention acts as the basis for perception – so that we ‘get it’ – and that is also ‘contact’. The end result being that an apparently substantial thing is concocted out of changeable qualities.

Intention, attention, contact, perception and feeling: this is the conglomerate called nāma and that establishes the experience of rūpa. Obviously you can’t have a nāma without some rūpa to do the nām-ing on. And nāma is looking for some rūpa to define. Consciousness serves as the liaison that bridges the form with the naming. And consciousness is bound up with a body, a rūpa, which acts as the home base for the senses. This matrix of experience is called ‘consciousness-name-and-form’, viññāna-nāma-rūpa. But the nitty-gritty of it all us that here are no separate things; it’s all inter-related, this is a relational field. Bear that in mind.


Kamma generates self

This essential relatedness at the micro level of experience gives rise to active relationships in the discernible macro world that is the source of our kamma. That is, as intentions coalesce onto objects, certain tendencies are activated; the tendency towards generosity, the tendency towards fear, the tendency towards hatred, the tendency towards love and so forth. Kamma means ‘action’ and it’s based on cetanā; it’s the activation of those intentions that are projected onto the world of objects. So through contact a form is perceived; that perception suggests the potential to do something with it – we can push it away, we can eat it, we can paint it, we can organize it, we can kill it, we can cuddle it – once perception has mapped out what a form signifies, ways of relating to it come to mind, and the likelihood is that we’ll act on those.

The other result of kamma is that the habitual or determined mode of our intentions and tendencies become our characteristic ways of behaving, and that becomes our apparent self: at times I might become an angry person, or a fearful one. Of course, I may be many people; sometimes angry, sometimes fearful, sometimes joyful, sometimes generous. That changes. But what is constant is that kamma creates the experience of an entity, a ‘self’ who seems to be the subject, but is actually the result of these intentions and inclinations.

But as these intentions become ‘myself’, the pattern for the next set of attitudes, impressions and perceptions dependently develops. So if I tend towards fearful impulses, I see an unknown as threatening or unsafe.  I get modeled by these perceptions and attitudes; sometimes other people encourage me to adhere to their biases; and we can form a world of threat based on differences in skin color or how we define the sacred. What things or people signify is of course subject to our own perceptions and attitudes: perceptions of people can still activate us twenty years later even when the person themselves has changed or even died. Twenty years later they can still be there chattering, mumbling, making us sad, making us happy. This is the solidifying result of kamma.

Kamma generates the self and the self generates more kammathis is the relational matrix of co-dependency. Many of these relational tendencies are confused, based upon assumptions and not seeing clearly – or ‘ignorance’. Rather than seeing the experience of ‘self’ just as a point of attention in the relational field, we imagine that we are a self that exists outside of the relational field. Thus a process becomes an entity that is vaguely sensed as living in this body – because the body is where all the sense doors are based – but somehow separate from it at the same time. So a weird, demanding or unhappy relationship can even occur between me and my body.

The relational world is multifaceted. It’s a sensory domain which seems to exist in a spatial world that seems to extends in front of us and around us for some indeterminate distance: Where do you live? ‘I live in America.’ No, where do you live? ‘I live in Cambridge.’ No, where do you live? ‘I live on 33 Main Street.’ Where do you live? ‘Well, there’s a little room upstairs…’ Where do you live all the time? You live in your world, don’t you? And that world happens within the space that is really your awareness as it’s being configured by the flux of viññāna-nāma-rūpa.

So you live in your world and your world is not really ‘out there’. It’s a play in the spatial domain that consciousness constructs: the eyes open and consciousness says, ‘Oh look, there’s a world out there.’ But what you can walk around is a synthesis of visual and tactile impressions with mental qualities. This spatial world houses pleasant impressions, anticipations, opportunities, and phobias and tendencies towards feeling frustrated, eager, anxious, joyful, whatever.  However this self experience isn’t just happening with seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching, but in the psychological world too. As the psychological world is a virtual one that extends through space and time, the self is subject to the uncertainties of those domains: ‘What will I be in the future? What do others think of me? Why did he do that? What do you think she meant? What about him? He never did… I wish she would…’  The domain of time is also a construction and the self gets very busy organizing within that. So the world created by the mind is very busy and intense because the mind doesn’t shut. You can close your eyes and your ears, but the mind door doesn’t shut, so the self can be busy dealing with its world day and night; too busy to pause and look clearly.  But one thing is clear: this world of ‘me and it’ is changing and insecure.  So the self is motivated towards relationships that are based upon seeking and defending and holding on; consequently, life can get territorial and predatory.

However you can work on the key piece of this constructed world, that is, the psychological matrix of self. In other words, you can work on the way you relate to what consciousness presents, in the here and now. Instead of triggering confused and compulsive intentions, you can acknowledge and work with the jumps and biases of the mind. This is the work of meditation, the practice of bearing the teachings in mind as we relate to what arises. This can clear your world of greed, hatred and delusion.


Meditation as a relational practice

While meditating in seclusion, we may experience some quiet because all the triggering is put to one side, nobody’s bothering us, nobody’s talking to us and we don’t have to figure anything out. As we eventually calm down, some of us start to look at this stuff sensing that something transcendent can open out of this process – like ’emptiness’ or ‘wisdom’ or ‘nibbana’. Maybe we get a taste of these. But what also can happen is that three days after coming out of peaceful seclusion, we find ourselves getting in arguments or following familiar distracting habits again.  Where did all that peace go?

For the meditator what occurs is that through experiencing subtle and pleasant perceptions and feelings, an intention gets set up to hold onto them. So the wish to own these nāma experiences generates the inference of an owner, and in this way the sense of a separate self arises. And from that basis arise latent intentions, or tendencies that have been established with that sense of self: the tendency for self-criticism, the tendency to try to perform and become something, the feeling of inadequacy, the sense of what other people think, comparing myself to others or ‘What am I going to do with my life?’ or ‘Will I get to be as good/ popular/ comfortable as she is?’ All that stuff. This goes on because the sense of self and of other arises dependent on these tendencies.  Now, if we listen more deeply to that process and contemplate the teachings, we may realize that the self is not some real entity that can be released or perfected, it always arises in relationship to some notion or object. So instead what has to be done is to change the relationship from one of grasping to one that is more dispassionate and open. As ‘I notice feeling intimidated or inadequate when I create this impression of another person, or of how I think I should be.’ And with that, if I could relax those impressions, or not create them; if I could work towards bringing forth intentions and actions that I feel are good and wise – then I’d be more satisfied. Ending suffering therefore implies an ongoing, deep and fully conscious development of relationship with how it is for me right now.

So by ‘mindfulness of the relational field’ I mean working with that nama-rupa-viññana matrix. Rather than focusing on the ‘self’ or ‘the object’ or ‘the other’, it’s about focusing on the perceptions and intentions that occur around an apparent subject and object. Whether the object is a thought or a person, the focus is still on relating. Please bear that in mind.

Now the mindfulness model that most of us have learned is to focus our attention on a particular object and use that to dispel contradictory or negative impressions: Just stay with breathing in and breathing out or some other prescribed object. Keep putting the agitation to one side and steady up. Focus on the breath and keep coming out of all that negative stuff. Feeling tired? Take a break and then come back to it. Keep working on it until you get some sense of a strong, steady mindfulness that’s able to dispel irrelevant, obtrusive or toxic material.

This approach is a reasonable one to begin with. But that model has to be expanded as, within that process, we begin to recognize how dependent the object is upon our intentions, attention, energy, and our sensitivities. We learn that meditation doesn’t work if we start pushing the breath around. If we come in with, ‘I’ll get this done in a half-hour,’ attention is biased, and a receptivity to the relaxing and deepening effect of breathing is overlooked. A sensitive attunement to breathing can become a latent expectation, ‘watching a breath until …’ So the time boundary arises. If the attitude is, ‘This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be,’ we never let go of our opinionated mind; and we never get to sense what is happening. On the other hand, the more we empty ourselves of our controlling tendencies, and the faltering, or the distractedness, or the irritability and self-criticism that arises as these programs inevitably fail – the more peaceful the experience begins to feel.  It’s relational: this awareness is sensitive to our attitudes and energies.

When we relax some of our assumptions and programs, the object also begins to change. What is a breath? We may ‘watching it’ but has anybody ever seen one? Is it a thing? Actually it can be many things, and breathing – a process – rather than the breath – a fixed thing, is a changing quality. It can be felt and sensed; it’s ephemeral and vibrant; its qualities shift and change. As you deepen into it, it can seem like light or silk or space. The breath can quieten down and almost disappear.  If it’s an object, what kind of object does that? But if it’s a quality … notice how the quality of the breath very much depends on the subject. If the subject, the apparent watcher, is open, relaxed yet alert, breathing gets more and more peaceful. The form that the object takes becomes dependent on the perceptions that arise in a relational field.

But if we think, ‘That was good, how do I do that again?’ we’re back in our self and we lose the quality of relating. Breathing is here to train us to be less in our self, to be less impatient, to be more open, to sense subtler qualities of feeling and experience. Meditation is not even about me having an experience: if it were, then I’d want to have a good one, and have it again, and then have a better one … and so on. It’s not even the case that I ever have an experience: I am the experience of trying to become this and becoming that. That’s what has to be abandoned. There are actions and inclinations that seem so much to be ‘me’, but they’re not ‘me’; there are programs. They can be habitual, and long term – but they’re not ‘me’; otherwise how would I be able to be aware of them? So our Dhamma practice is a training to come out of the programs of kamma to withdraw energy so the program can cease. Then if there is a realization, it’s not me that realizes it. There is just the realization of the ‘me’ sense falling away.  So there can be an experience without an experiencer, and all that can be said of that is that it’s peaceful, easeful and open.


Cultural inheritance: objectivity and supremacy

Meditation is our common ground for exploring and clearing this relational field, because it takes us to an intimate place that we can check in with time and time again. Otherwise, relationship is just a nice, or awkward, idea. But in meditation, we can recognize the programs of craving and worrying and resisting that are forming and infecting our world; so it shows us that the ongoing requirement is to take responsibility for that. And as we begin to sense the ‘me’ programs that we have to move out of, we incrementally widen the boundaries of our compassion and mutuality to include more and more of what arises – whether it’s ‘self’ or ‘others.’

This is the beauty of mutual dependency. It suggests that the world around us that we see, hear or imagine – past, present, future, others including creatures, people, humans, whatever – is something to learn from. It’s like an obstacle game that you get placed in and have to work through using the Buddha’s advice. The skill of the game is in letting go of the selfhood, the ‘them-and-me’ thing and all that that contains. Anything we do with that intent is hugely transformative. If everyone does a little bit, if we all reach out an inch, then the boundaries between us get that much thinner and safer and more easily and carefully negotiable.

The relational model is important to hold and begin to run through one’s life because we’ve inherited some bad models in terms of how we operate. Our attitudes are embedded in social and cultural beliefs that have informed us, and we tend to act on them. As the Buddha commented, ‘Either on one’s own initiative … or prompted by others one generates mental volition. ’*  So wherever the motivation came from, kamma creates us and impacts our world; so we can keep creating more kamma on the same lines – or we can change.

One underlying cultural bias that hinders this relational practice is that of ‘objectivity’. We believe that the truest mode of experience is one in which we experience an object ‘out there’ as independent from me ‘in here’. And we really like that view: ‘I’m in here, and that thing’s out there, and I can know it and act upon it, and that gives me knowledge and power.’ We have devices like telescopes and microscopes that allow us to look at something out there as an object that is distant from me. ‘I can see it. It can’t see me. I can probe it. It can’t probe me. I am the subject. It is an object.’ These devices are handy things but the person using one can feel so removed from their living context that they don’t think they’re in the same domain as the object that they’re studying. There are stories of people taking photographs who get killed because they don’t realize they’re in the same reality as the soldier or the tiger they’re photographing. This is called the ‘tele’ reality, as in ‘tele-phone’, ‘tele-vision’, ‘tele-communication.’ ‘Tele’ in Greek means far or distant. The object isn’t really here. We can look at it or we can leave it or we can just switch it off.

The amount we know about this objective world is truly amazing. And yet something very important is missing. The subject is missing. Who’s sitting in the chair looking at that object? How does she or he feel? What’s it like to be her or him? But the subject is a shifting unknowable – and everyone is one. In fact every living thing is; subjectivity is the living thing. It’s the most important truth. Every plant is responsive to its soil; it knows how to grow, knows where the light is and inclines towards food and water. It’s a subject. Yet this subjectivity gets overlooked through our fascination with the world ‘out there’. ‘Let’s dissect it to discover how it works.’ But objectivity still can’t tell us how and why here it all began and where it’s going. Look into your own subjectivity to find that one out!

Objectivity increases the potential for domination and for blocking mutuality – God got shoved off the throne and now we’re on it, stuck with a sense of separation. Because once that objectivity reigns supreme, ‘he’ becomes an object, and ‘you’ become an object and we lose mutual respect, cooperation, and compassion. The really frightening thing is that when someone becomes an object, there’s almost nothing a human being will not do to them. Witness the holocausts, the genocides, the slaveries, the torture. ‘They are objects’ they are ‘the accursed’, ‘the collateral damage’, ‘the ones in the way of progress’. They’re the ones that don’t count, or the ones we need to ‘deal with’.

A myth that springs from that objectification, and gives it a lethal twist is the notion of supremacy. Now we might all agree that human beings are better than cows. Cows can’t drive cars and they didn’t create medicines, they’re less intelligent and we herd them … so, we are definitely superior to cows, right? Okay, if that’s the case, go into a field naked and try living off grass – then see who’s superior. Try to survive through an Arctic winter like a bear. Who’s superior? Ultimately, is the car or the iPhone the most important thing? It’s become so because if you only take the human domain into account these devices are important. But if you take the environmental domain into account then what’s important is food and shelter; and human beings are pathetic in that regard. Plants can produce their own food, animals live out in the elements; we can’t run faster than a chicken and have almost hairless bodies. Without our ‘stuff’ there’s no doubt we would be dinner. So, who’s superior?

As a species, the quality that has made us so dominant is our ability to form concepts and collectives. We have the ability to share, to calculate and plan, and to form informed cooperatives where we can pass on certain functions to others. Cooperation gathers our resources and compensates for our individual limitations, based on forming an inclusive group seeks cooperation rather than competition between individuals as to who is ‘best.’ So for a moment or two, turn your conceiving mind onto checking that out … how did you get to be here? Just imagine the number of human beings who participated consciously in your birth and in your first five years, without whom you wouldn’t have survived. Then widen the focus: consider the clothes you’re wearing; where did they come from? Who made them? Where did any of it come from? When you trace anything back to its origin, you’ll find it all came from the earth – the given. The basics were given. Our bodies were given, our intelligence was given; yet we say, ‘This is me,’ ‘This is mine.’ We say, ‘I have the right to take as much as I want from this earth,’ when it’s already given us everything.

As we inherited this life and need support in it, surely our duty is to give back what we can, and to share. Because the only way we are able to stay alive as creatures on this planet is through sharing and giving. This means taking responsibility and committing to widening one’s sphere of concern. That’s the cooperative way. That’s the non-supremacist way. The human potential is either that which includes and increasingly includes or that which excludes and increasingly excludes. Those potentials are not static; they move and develop based on our intentions and what we attend to.


A fourfold relational map

Check out what it’s like to come from the supremacist idea in which you have to be (and prove you are) the best. (Which is different from trying to do your best.) Notice the attitudes and the judgments that that ‘I am’ sets up. To take another example: you’ll probably imagine, unless you’re an athlete, that your thinking mind is the superior part of your mind … rather say than your bodily awareness. But your body knows how to relax, which your thinking doesn’t; and your body meets the unknown with increased awareness, while your thinking mind floods with ideas and panic. And there are plenty of unknowns that we have to meet – like other people, tomorrow, and the rest of the world – that thinking just can’t. Only the silence of the mind can meet those; and as a culture we don’t value that. Instead we eliminate silence and the mystery with data and beliefs.

At any rate, if you keep following the exclusionary paradigm, eventually you exclude aspects of yourself – your body shape, your untidy emotions or phobias – with repression or shame. Exclusivity cuts things up, but the frightening and the unacceptable still remain. In fact they grow. Just because you’ve added an excluding intention to your nāma, that doesn’t reduce the perceptions of fear or distaste; it just covers them with ignorance. Think it over: if a child, not wanting to be seen, covers their eyes with their hands and says, ‘You can’t see me!’ – would that make them invisible? In fact it makes them more vulnerable. Just so, covering one’s fears and weaknesses and pretending they don’t exist doesn’t get rid of them; it makes one less capable of unraveling them.

Excluding and ‘needing to be, or being better, than’ is the myth that we inherit. And once those intentions and perceptions get set up, the program rolls on in an automatic way. That’s the nature of nāma-rūpa and kamma; the kammic wheels just keep rolling and there’s always a good reason to keep them doing so. If you look at the media you’ll see how there’s always a good reason to view someone as ‘other’. But when you cultivate mindfulness in relationship to your own body, you can check out the ‘reasonable’ rhetoric by touching into what excluding others feels like. In the felt sense in your body, you feel the hardening, the reactivity, the fear or jealousy even when the other is just an image on your screen! So bearing the Dhamma in mind, just keep relaxing that hard boundary of ‘other’. Then you become more generous and open and see new perspectives. And that opens your intelligence. You don’t need to be ‘better than’, you need to learn how to relate to the stuff you don’t like. Not to say it’s great and fine, but if you can be with your moods and reactions, or other people’s stuff in a more dispassionate and spacious way, that starts to get the tensions and the conflicts to relax. And that’s how the process of purification begins.

So, cultivate the relational field. Yourself, other people, the natural world – learn to relate it to all, or at least to include it in awareness so that you can check what your relationships actually are. And to do that, you have to cultivate awareness, and mindfulness of mind. Get grounded, and pay attention – this is the essential first piece of meditation. Then take these four points: your own body and mind; those of other people; the earth and the biosphere; and the sacred, the domain of values and truths. Try to be aware of what arises for you in any of that without getting stuck, collapsing or generating internal tribunals. These domains should all intersect; your value for others and yourself, your concern for the planet along with your wish for freedom. If these domains don’t interconnect and support each other link – like you worry about other people but don’t look after yourself – then there’s a flaw in your map somewhere. So begin with the sacred; contemplate what you hold most sacred and of value and extend it in all directions: ‘to others as to myself.’ Bring this field to mind, participate in it, live in it and let go into it, because it is the only place where deep sanity can occur. That’s the purpose of cultivating the relational field. Be mindful of that aim bear it in mind, and follow it. This intent is for our lasting welfare.

*Samyutta Nikāya 12.25


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