Part 2 – Territories of Self

by Sep 1, 2022Karuna0 comments

🗣 This is the second in a series of three blogs where Jonny White, introduces the Nine Territories of Embodied Relational Attunement. These territories capture the essence of our training

The ‘second’ territory is the territory of prenatal conditioning. MBCPP recognises that from the moment of conception there is the beginning of a relational process between baby and mother. It’s clear that everything that becomes me is formed inside another being – every part of me, every neuronal pathway, every cell, every nerve ending and so we know that our prenatal experience is formative and central to the emerging conditioned processes of my ‘self’.

Often in long term psychotherapy you can find yourself in a territory that feels almost fundamental to the basic sense of how it is to be here for an individual. This is like a basic ‘felt experience’ of how it is to be in the world. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish from a feeling that this is what reality ‘is’. It is also clear that by the time a baby has experienced gestation, birth and the attachment processes immediately after birth, so much central and formative experience will have been felt. Sometimes this process can be traumatic and intensely difficult and form the beginnings of painful process around which self-formation develops. It is also obvious that these processes are going to have a profound impact on deep psychological and neurological processes that revolve around territories such as the fundamental sense of how it is to be here in the world, to belong, how it is to feel received and met and be wanted, loved and understood. It has been said that by the time we are nine months old the basics of all of these territories are in place for us and after that we are just building on and deepening these primary patterns of experience.

Our birth experience then lands us in our families or the early situations of our lives and the whole territory of childhood development. And so, the ‘third’ territory of attunement which arises and is felt powerfully and naturally in the therapeutic relationship, is the vast one of early developmental conditioning. Clearly the pre-natal and early developmental territories are continuous and part of the same process and MBCPP works with this continuity in its concentration on embodied experience as central. This aligns our training with trauma theories and the importance of approaching ourselves on the level of the biological, animal and mammalian process which is so key to who we are. We are animals taking shape through the relational forces of evolution and the truth of this continues to ground our attunement in the embodied nature of who we are and how our bodies experience the world.

In addition to this, our attunement to the developmental territory is supported by enquiry into the world of the emerging self-mind and the conscious and unconscious layers of representation of conditioning held in mind, which we study with the support of psychodynamics and object relations theory. We see here how beautifully these theories tie in with Buddhist understandings of the nature of mind which are also interested in how the self, and the sense of ‘self and other,’ takes shape in the object relating nature of mind and the interaction of mind and reality. So MBCPP is interested in both body and mind and how body/mind and world co-arise together, and the way that the forces of childhood conditioning shape that arising into patterns which give rise to suffering, both at the level of the nervous system and the level of our minds. Our work then is to not only explore the shapes that can arise in the body/mind that are described through theories like attachment theory, trauma theory or through ideas such as borderline and narcissistic adaptations, but also to understand the shaping process itself and how to work at depth with this shaping process in the body/mind.

We can see this shaping process in our own minds as we meditate and of course as we work in embodied mindful relationship with another in therapy. When we look into the nature of the ‘self and other’, we see that they co-arise together and nowhere can this be more powerfully felt in our intimate relationships and in our therapy relationships. Again, there is a vast wealth of experience to draw on from the world of therapy when learning about the nature of the therapeutic relationship. Buddhist enquiry too points us into the nature of self and other, and the arising of suffering in relational process as well as towards the potential for love and openness that emerges within and through relational processes. Central to this work in MBCPP is the understanding of ‘self as process and not thing’ and the freedom that can unfold for us through enquiring into that understanding.

We can also powerfully see the shaping process at work in our ‘fourth’ territory of attunement which is where we explore the vast systemic nature of conditioning. The families or situations in which we develop as children are held within forces of culture seen and unseen. It’s clear that even the very idea of what it means to be human or have a self is a culturally conditioned one. We are deeply conditioned not only in who we think ourselves to be, but how we are supposed to be. What we believe ourselves to be and how we are supposed to be, as well as the objects that we believe in and build our lives around, these are all powerful culturally conditioned responses. We can see this most clearly around the way we relate and perceive, think and feel, in the territories of race and gender, class and society. We see through so many ‘veils’ and perceive through such clouds of ignorance. The world of therapy is as obscured here as much as any other world. Ideas of what constitutes ‘health’ that seem rational to some cultures seem insane to others. We can see this everywhere, in our attitudes to what ‘good’ childcare is for example, or relationships to emotions and expression, to ideas of sustainable and functioning political systems. All of these intersectional processes are in the therapy room to and it’s our work to enquire into them as well as the individual histories in the room.

Within this in particular we pay attention to the presence of power. To the way power is used to oppress at so many levels of self, from within our own minds, to within families, and within and between cultures. We look at how therapy recreates this through unconscious and unexamined bias and perceptual distortion. We work within ourselves to examine and deconstruct conditioning and open towards freedom as best we can. Opening to inter-relational co-arising process helps us to uncouple from positioning ourselves as power in the room, and to the joint exploration of process as a doorway to genuine empowerment and mutually supportive and compassionate exploration.

Nowhere is the tendency of shaping and identifications and positioning to give rise to suffering clearer than in the deep crisis we have made for all of us as a species through our relationship to the planet itself. This ‘fifth’ territory opens our awareness and attunement not just to each other but to the planet and the non-human. There is perhaps no other symbol of our collective madness and attachment to destructive patterning and process, than the destruction of our eco-systems and climate and our seeming entrapment in the drive towards an unsustainable future. Clearly this process is the same as our capacity to identify with forms and systems of mind-created tendencies, which we act out and from which we cannot seem to escape, which we know at the individual level of our live. To feel it working at this macro level can be profoundly disturbing. It feels important that while therapy cannot resolve this issue, and while it is entirely appropriate to work with the individual needs of clients, we must also feel into the territory of sustainability. Whether that sustainability is on the level of my own life and its relational processes, or the collective level of global health and sustainability, there is something powerful about recovering our relationships to sustainable health, to coming into relationship to our ‘selves’ and our environments, and to understanding the inter-relationship of health and our intimate personal relationships, our collective relationships and our relationship to climate and the biosphere. Nowhere can it be more important for us to come into awareness of destructive patterning and open up to embodied understanding of inter-connection and a wider sustainable being.

Jonny White
Author Jonny White

Jonny is a director of Karuna Institute. He has been teaching and holding groups on Mindfulness Based Core Process trainings and Masters Degrees for many years now. He also offers courses internationally on issues of spirituality and psychotherapy. He currently lives with his children in Somerset, UK.


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Part 1 – The Nine Territories of Embodied Relational Attunement

This is the first in a series of three blogs where Jonny White, introduces the Nine Territories of Embodied Relational Attunement. These territories capture the essence of the Mindfulness Based Core Process Psychotherapy training here at Karuna Institute.

Part 2 – Territories of Self

The ‘second’ of the Nine Territories of Embodied Relational Attunement is the territory of prenatal conditioning. MBCPP recognises that from the moment of conception there is the beginning of a relational process between baby and mother.