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Mindfulness vs. Dissociation: now it’s relational

I’m deep in the middle of a research project for my therapy training about the fascinating subject of dissociation and how it impacts our mindfulness.

Dissociation is like the hidden narrative that was air-brushed out of the history of psychoanalysis by the followers of Freud, who rejected it in favour of his theory of repression.

I’m deep in the middle of a research project for my therapy training about the fascinating subject of dissociation and how it impacts our mindfulness.

Dissociation is like the hidden narrative that was air-brushed out of the history of psychoanalysis by the followers of Freud, who rejected it in favour of his theory of repression.

Dissociation is more like a structure that lies on the bottom of the lake

The two ideas are explained by the therapist, Donnel Stern. Repression is like a rubber ball floating on the water which you have to push under the surface to hide. This requires quite an effort. In this way, something known and disliked is hidden.

Dissociation is more like a structure that lies on the bottom of the lake. It’s completely invisible in everyday choppy weather, only becoming vaguely distinct when the water is calm. Bringing it into consciousness requires effort. We have to intend to bring it up to the light.

Repression requires effort to hide; dissociation requires effort to reveal.

In contemporary therapeutic thinking, the things in our life that were dangerous and threatening to us when we were kids are not repressed. They were never allowed into consciousness. We left them unseen at the bottom of our mind where they nonetheless continue to cause currents and whirlpools on the surface.

All of these things were hidden in the dissociated spaces that solitary mindfulness could not reach

This, basically is dissociation.

I meditated for many years in blissful ignorance of some very basic and powerful dissociated structures in my life. My social nervousness, my fear of intimacy. All of these things were hidden in the dissociated spaces that solitary mindfulness could not reach. But they still had an impact on my conscious experience.

How can we become aware of dissociated stuff? Can mindfulness work on something that we are simply not aware of?

I would argue that yes it can but it requires mindfulness of an element that is often left out in the current training: relationships.

When you consider the monastic roots of mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition. Then we can understand how this crucial part of human experience got air-brushed out. In a culture that prized the celibate and the hermetic, the emphasis fell on solitary, self-sufficient practice.

However, I believe that without becoming seriously mindful of the way in which we relate and the way we have internalised models of relating. Mindfulness will always struggle to access our dissociated parts.

One-on-one relations like the one we have in therapy. Offer a space for experiencing the way we relate. So often these structures are completely invisible to us. Like the air we breathe. But a skilled pair of eyes that are not our own can reflect back to us what we cannot see ourselves.

However, I also believe that we can start being aware of this part of our life without the time and expense of being in therapy. But this does require turning our attention to the way we interact with others. And it requires a brave willingness to step outside our comfort zone.

It’s better to know what’s going on than to pretend it’s not going on

For me, the mediation space became a ‘safe’ one: solitary, self-sufficient and calm. However, the moment I stepped up from the cushion and started relating with others again my fragile peace fell apart. Or (which is worse) I developed an odd, Teflon personality that worked like a force field to repel all attempts at intimate contact.

Facing up to our wonky ways of relating can be profoundly dispiriting and uncomfortable – but mindfulness often puts us in such places. The maxim is: it’s better to know what’s going on than to pretend it’s not going on.

There’s a great exercise that Kathy Osbourne leads in our “Mindful Togetherness” weekend that gets us to arrange people in the room to represent how we see a particular relationship. Perhaps with our boss, or our partner. We then step back and let the other people arrange themselves according to how they feel. It’s called systems constellation work. It is a very vivid way of seeing how our way of relating has a direct impact on the way we feel.

It can be a revelation to suddenly realise how we have been invisibly arranging people around us to act in certain ways, to treat us in a familiar manner. To act out familiar dramas.

Who doesn’t experience a shift into an oddly childish mode when you go and visit your parents?

Research shows that our relational context has a profound effect on the actual way we experience the world. Think about going out on a first date with someone you really fancy. Your focus, your sense of self-worth, your ability to speak all get warped. Similarly, if you’re with a family member. Who doesn’t experience a shift into an oddly childish mode when you go and visit your parents?

Who we’re with affects who we are. And without being mindful of that aspect of ourselves. I believe we’re doomed to be dragged around by surface undercurrents caused by dissociated material swirling away in the deeps.

“Mindful Togetherness” – A weekend course looking at mindful relationships with self and others.

31 March-1 April: KSD Spa Road Buddhist Centre, Bermondsey London 20-22 April: KSD Dublin. Kilmainham Well House, 56 Inchicore Rd, Kilmainham, Dublin

I’d love to know your thoughts about the mind. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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