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This article about Relationships, Conflict Resolution and Marriage Counselling was written for a Buddhist and Psychology conference held at a retreat centre, outside of Melbourne. Sherry Marshall, a Sydney relationships therapist, marriage counsellor and Process Oriented Therapist was invited to teach at this annual conference. She examines how Buddhist and Psychotherapy ideas weave together and are different in their theory, philosophy and practice.
By Sherry Marshall
(BSc. Sociology/Social Admin; MAA. Social Work. AMHSW; Masters Social Ecology, Diplomate, Process Oriented Psychology )
If love comes and goes so easily It is not love we’re dealing with.
Relationship with ourselves, our partner’s, family, friends and community present ongoing joy and challenges. At best, relationships are fulfilling, fun, deep, intimate and full of learning and bring happiness and benefit to ourselves and others. They can also bring conflict, hatred, anger, misuse of power, revenge and jealousy.
Process Oriented Psychology or Process Work was developed in the last 25 years, by Dr. Arnold Mindell, a physicist and Jungian analyst. He and Dr. Amy Mindell and colleagues combine Jungian psychology, spirituality, modern physics and social activism to bring awareness to support individual and collective change. He discovered that the dreaming process goes far beyond our night time dreams and can be seen in body symptoms, relationship problems, group conflicts, addictions, extreme states of consciousness, social tensions and in death and dying.
Process work is based on the assumption that the solution to a problem is contained within the disturbance itself and provides a practical framework and experience to unfold and bring awareness and meaning to our lives and help us live that.
Process Oriented Psychology talks about three different levels of relationship. The following just gives a taste of how Process work unfolds relationship issues.
Consensus Reality is what the everyday culture agrees on. People believe that this is the level that is the most important, the only ‘real’ reality. In doing so, we marginalize the other levels of our awareness and experiences. A strong hypnosis is created through the dominant culture, which is fed by the social/cultural context ie. tradition, history, family myths etc around what is valid. These are often reinforced by newspapers, television, advertising which tends to reflect the mainstream culture and politics.
In Process Psychology, we would look at our inner psychology and personal history on this level. Also we would look at issues of communication – signals and double signals, feedback, etc. Process Psychology states that we only take notice of parts of who we think we are, ie. we identify ourselves in a certain way and that is how we recognize who we are.
There are many other parts of us, or ‘figures’ in the background that are trying to express themselves all the time, that are more unknown to us and don’t fit with who we think we are. eg. We think, ‘I am not an aggressive person,’ as we don’t identify ourselves as being angry. Yet, certain signals ‘leak out’ that are picked up by other people, such as a certain tone of voice or gesture. This then can lead to relationship conflict.
The Dreaming Level.
Relationships are the meeting point of spirits. This is the background ‘dreaming,’ atmosphere, which includes mood work, fantasies, and ‘high and low dreaming’ of the relationship and trance states. By unfolding the communication level of double signals, we can find the dreaming figures that are trying to emerge out of the consensus reality level.
Relationships also have more known and unknown processes, as well as the individuals within relationship. There is something trying to be expressed through the relationship. Relationship is a larger role. The dreaming level in the background that we are not aware of, often brings people together and keeps them together. The background dreaming that people share are often why couples are together, when on the consensus reality level, they seem very ill -suited. Eg. a spiritual woman who is married to a bombastic and arrogant surgeon may unconsciously share a dreaming about having power over life and death.
Relationships often become stuck because of high and low dreams. The high dream is our highest and deepest hopes and expectations; eg. people will be kind and not hurt me.
Low dreams are our worst fears, eg. people are insensitive and not to be trusted. When ‘the bubble bursts’ you fall into the low dream. In the high dream, there is a signal of the seed of the low dream and vice versa.
eg. you think that your partner/friend is kind, supportive and loving, a reliable provider for the family and will ‘be there’ for you. Just when you need them, they have a deadline at work and are not available in the way you expect and want. You then fall into a low dream, thinking they don’t care about you and put their work first. Then, they get a raise at work and book a holiday for you both in Paris. You swing back into the high dream of romantic love again.
The Sentient level.
This is the level beyond duality, the timeless essence of our love and connecting on the transpersonal and absolute level. These are our extremely subtle experiences, not yet manifested or come into form, not even on the dreaming level. They are pre-awareness. It is the deepest level, beyond words. Often we connect with the sentient level through meditation or altered states of consciousness.
Generally, we tend to give validity to the consensus reality level and marginalize the other two. Buddhist practices, however, tend to give the dreaming and sentient level more centrality.
Practical Therapeutic Skills to work on Relationships.
What we do and say either will escalate or de-escalate (raise or lower the temperature) a relationship conflict, either one to one, or in a group or community. The following skills may help you process difficult situations with people.
- Talk for yourself, ‘I am feeling…..’ Use of a third party or an unconscious coalition will always cause problems. eg Sally also says she has a similar issue with you and your mother agrees with me on this.
- Try to pick up your own double signals and become more congruent. eg, notice you say, ‘I feel angry with you’ and at the same time, smiling.
- Be open and willing to pick up an accusation made against you, consider even one percent of it, rather than deny it.
- Avoid using stereotypes.
- Notice and be sensitive to your own reactions and bring them in eg. you feel attacked and hurt. Rather than ignoring your hurt, bring it in by saying eg. ‘ouch.’Your reaction may change what your opponent is saying
- Have a feedback loop eg. If someone apologises, don’t continue to attack them.
- Be more direct in your communication. Being indirect through sarcasm, gossip or being patronising with always escalate an argument.
- Be flexible in learning how to take your own side and the other’s side. If both sides become entrenched in their position, and won’t move, that’s how war starts.
- Stay in the now as much as possible. Bringing in unresolved arguments from three years ago and bringing up the past, is not going to help. Stay with one issue at a time. When you reach resolution don’t start the fight again.
- If you are really stuck, think about your personal history. Is this topic similar to an argument your parents had, eg, over money, child raising, work etc Is this a conflict you have with a lot of people, not just your partner.
- Remember that change comes from changing ourselves, not expecting the other person to change.
Metaskills in Relationships
Behind the skills and techniques in Process Oriented Psychology are what we call metaskills, which also can be seen often as the result of meditation practice. Metaskills are a background attitude that shines through or are qualities that are a direct reflection of our most heart felt beliefs about life. They cannot really be taught but rather are demonstrated by our teachers in such a way that as therapists or meditators we slowly embody them over time.
- Beginner’s mind, being curious and open.
- Compassion – finding the soft spot in our hearts and allowing a nurturing, loving, caring attitude to be in us, for everyone.
- Wisdom – developing wisdom in order to have clarity and discernment
- Humour – brings a lightness even to the most difficult situations and reminding ourselves not to take ourselves too seriously
- Mindfulness – bringing our attention, over and over, to what is happening right now and not letting ourselves be too caught up in the past or thinking about the future.
- Trust – having a deep and unshakable trust in the process of nature.
- Awareness – having a detached overview and consciousness of body, speech and mind.
- Spaciousness, courage, fluidity and humility.
- Generosity – having a generosity of spirit that gives to all.
Practical Buddhist Skills to work on Relationships
The underlying belief system and goals of Buddhism are different from that of therapy, although, for me, Process Psychology interweaves Buddhist and Taoist principles into its work. I do not have space here to outline the similarities and differences. However, I would like to demonstrate some practical skills on how to deal with emotional issues within relationships, which are as relevant to sangha as well as to partners and friends.
- Coming home to ourselves. Doing sitting/shamatha practice, either watching the breath or focusing on an external object like an inspiring photo of a teacher. Whenever anger, impatience, jealousy or other strong emotions arise, we can become mindful of our breath, put our concentration back to the breath. We can do this, in the office, walking down the street, on the bus, in the middle of an argument, wherever. We don’t have to be sitting on a cushion, meditating to do it.
- Being in the now. Often relationship problems trigger past memories, either from childhood or in the history of the relationship. It helps to realize that it is not usually what happens that is the problem, but how we react to it. Don’t get stuck in the memory.
- Be aware of your habitual patterns, how we get stuck and remain there.
- Recognise that anger is the compost. When we are angry, our attention is on the person or situation that made us angry. Awareness ‘is a companion to our anger’, we can mindfully observe our anger.
- Thich Nhat Haan says that anger is like the smelly organic material decomposing in a compost bin. We know we can transform the waste into beautiful flowers. We do not need to be afraid of, or reject the rotting material.
- Look into the causes of anger. When we hit pillows for therapeutic expression and letting go, it may relieve stress and anger momentarily, but the roots of the anger are still intact. The next situation comes along, or the same thing that initially made us angry, occurs again. We have to look deeply into the causes of anger, using Buddhist techniques.
- Walking meditation. We can practice walking meditation when we are full of emotion, combining our breath with our steps and ‘giving full attention to the contact of the soles of our feet and the earth.
- We can realize that there is actually no-one there to have conflict with. Think of a boat coming towards your boat on the water. It is going to smash into you. You start yelling at the driver of the boat to stop. Then you notice no-one is driving the boat. Who is there to get angry at if there is no-one there?
- Don’t hurt yourself. Think that when you get very emotional with someone, actually you are hurting yourself. You are the one who gets red in the face, uptight, stressed and obsessive about what has happened. Realise that when we hurt others, we also hurt ourselves, through the law of karma.
- Use compassion practices.
- Go out into Nature, sit and look at the ocean or the sky. This helps you let go and access something bigger than yourself.
I would like to finish with a quotation that, for me, sums up what I feel about life, relationships and the spiritual path.