🗣 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 our training.
Introduction to the Territories
Therapy and the practices that come to us through Buddhism both encourage us to come into relationship with what it means to be human. In particular, to turn our attention around and ‘go in’. Mindfulness is one way of describing the capacity of our minds to turn its focus around and pay attention to the way our bodies and minds work and enquire into the ways in which suffering arises as an experience in those bodies and minds. Another word that describes this capacity of mind is attunement which is a key word from the world of therapy. Attunement is also a capacity to pay close and careful attention to something. We can see it in the way care givers pay attention to the needs of babies and infants. Care givers attune, they listen, they seek to understand and they do this with empathy and love. We could say that Mindfulness Based Core Process Psychotherapy is grounded in this Mindful Attunement to our clients, to ourselves as practitioners and to the therapeutic relationship itself.
Mindful Attunement is then an act of compassion. It’s also an act of clarity and the beginnings of the attempt to understand what is happening. In particular, to understand the nature of suffering and the way that our suffering arises and is perpetuated in experience. Central to this understanding is the nature of conditioning. Conditioning describes the way that, particularly early and cultural experience forms our sense of ourselves internally and so our sense of relationship to the world. We can see how we live out of this conditioned experience as if it describes the whole of our potential relationship to reality. In Buddhist language this is described as the body/mind ‘clinging’ and ‘becoming’ and ‘perpetuating’ conditioned experience. We can see that even without difficult experience in life there is enough force to this process to give rise to suffering and identification with contracted, activated or inhibited inner worlds. When our early experience has been difficult or traumatic, then the force of this process can be incredibly distressing and disorientating for us to live with.
It is clear then that the first layer of attunement for a therapist to pay attention to is just what a client is bringing with them when they come to see you. This sounds obvious but as everybody knows, we all struggle to pay attention to what is around and inside us in the present and really be with it. It actually takes a kind of inner discipline and practice to settle my body/mind enough to really pay attention to what is happening. A lot of therapeutic training rightly goes into this practice. Into the settling of our capacity to receive experience and allow ourselves to be affected by it and get to know it in the attempt to understand what is going on. Slowing down like this is not something that is really supported by our culture with its fixation on quick results, outcomes, and immediate solutions. MBCPP talks instead into the journey of enquiry and the relational unfolding of the therapeutic journey. It’s a mutual deepening in, to understanding and embodying together in that understanding, rather than a thing that I ‘do’ to my client to ‘sort them out’.
We can see that the effort to pay attention like this is in and of itself an act of compassion. We can see that contemplative cultures and practices value this act of compassion and depth relational enquiry. We might know too as parents or as care givers that when we can slow down and pay attention to little children something in both the care giver and the child settles and feels received. We know now that part of this process is called co-regulation of the nervous system. My regulated nervous system helps your nervous system to regulate and feel met and received.
We also know that this act compassionate and mindful attunement is so important in receiving the history of the other. We understand that so much of our pain and wounding comes from places where we were not received and attuned to and therefore how powerful it can be to really deeply listened to. We know this is true not just on the individual level, but on wider systemic levels where the history of marginalised and oppressed groups has been pushed out of dominant narratives and we understand the vital importance of the attempt to fully hear those histories and integrate those truths into wider and fuller understandings and forms of collective knowing. We can see too that by listening like this I too am changed and my ideas and sense what constitutes health is expanded and transformed.
We can also see then that as we attune and listen, processes which were hidden begin to emerge into our knowing. Therapy is rooted in this understanding and so too is meditation practice. In the presence of an embodied, attuned, and receptive awareness, experience can begin to be really known. This coming into relationship with what is happening in the moment in the therapy room remains the touch stone of all practice and MBCPP places a lot of emphasis on this practice of really paying attention to what is happening inside my body/mind as I sit with your body/mind and the relational field between us. It is in this listening into myself as I am affected by being with you, that knowing becomes available. Again, our model encourages this deep participation in relationship and its affect, as opposed to a sense of diagnostic separation in which I apply a series of ‘fixes’ to you according to what symptoms you are describing and how my model tells me I should respond. We would suggest this offers a profoundly resonant and depth therapeutic experience both for client and therapist.
As we can see, the work of this ‘first’ territory of relationally attuning to what is being brought, is in itself profound. It remains the centre of the practice and something akin to ‘beginners mind’ as a place of open enquiry to return to over and over again. Within this primary level of attunement, we are also of course paying attention to certain territories as they make themselves known. These territories are the focus of much of the taught content on the MBCPP training. We have ordered these territories although of course they are not really separate things and will not ‘appear’ in these orders, and some may never really be felt in the relationship with a client although they are all always implicit. It is also worth noting that each of these territories are themselves worthy of entire trainings in and of themselves.
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.