The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Meditating towards Differentiation of Self

Authored by Jennifer Howe, L.C.S.W

Bowen has theorized, that each human being is the culmination of the mass of ancestors who have preceded her, each human being generations in the making, If we assume that is true,  then, like a diamond, it may take a fair amount of excavating before we uncover the shiny nugget of “self” beneath all the accumulated rock. When we look at humans, we tend to focus on their individual behaviors or at best the individual within the context of their nuclear family. Bowen advocated getting information on as many as five generations of family history, in order to understand the patterns we observe. He advocated doing this so that we might see the patterns that have been active in our families and begin to distinguish between patterns that we have chosen and ones we may have simply inherited.  Kerr in his most recent book describes one of the components of differentiation of self as “the phenomenon of thoughts and feelings operating as a working team”, those who are least differentiated have achieved the least separation from behavior driven purely by instinctual responses to others. Achieving more “self” requires distinguishing between one’s thoughts and one’s feelings, so that one’s actions more closely reflect one’s thinking, and are not merely a reflection of how we are feeling at any given moment.

But how does one distinguish between thoughts and feelings, and then make decisions on how to act?  Bowen advocated going back into the family system, armed with theory; understanding how triangles function, understanding what anxiety looks like and how it is managed, asking factual questions; and paying very close attention, in order to get a more complete understanding from multiple perspectives. With this broadened, more accurate perspective, ideally, we can then reassess some of our long held beliefs and reactions and determine if they are appropriate or even useful for our personal goals.

Going back into the family as an adult, equipped with a Bowen lens, allows the possibility for the immature gaze of childhood to be replaced by the fuller, more realistic view of adulthood and, more importantly, the possibility for the individual to engage in the visceral experience of being an adult “self”, watching, seeing and responding based on the principles of theory, rather than blind reactivity.

This is not easy work. Our early training in our families sets up a complex system of neural pathways that prime us to see and experience what we were trained to see. Like Pavlov’s dogs, salivating to bells instead of food, we see “Mom” or “Dad” or “Brother” and immediately have our trained response. Recognizing that I may be salivating (reacting) but there is no food (real threat) in the room, is a very important and satisfying realization. Perceiving that my body is having a trained response, but I can choose not to act on it, introduces most people to territory they did not even know existed.

It is not easy to disconnect or soften these instinctual neural responses.  As a child, in our families or communities of origin, these responses make sense because we are dependent on others for survival. The perceived threats of children hold legitimate, potentially lethal consequences.  We depend on our caregivers to survive our first years of life.  The degree of anxiety in these caregivers colors our worldview for life. As children we cannot distinguish the anxiety of the environment from our “selves”.  We absorb the anxiety of the environment and respond to it in fairly predictable ways. But as adults, these responses are inaccurate and misleading. Ideally, we are no longer dependent on these individuals for our survival. How do we get our nervous system to understand this?  As Bowen demonstrates, some individuals have been conditioned to have much more emotional freedom than others. But how do we get clear on this early emotional conditioning and its current effect on our choices?

Helping tease out the framework and the corresponding valence of this early conditioning, and each individual’s response, through many generations, is the task of most Bowen coaches. Bowen did not believe anyone could do this work of coaching others without going into their own family of origin, to understand how families function. Bowen theory is distinctly difficult to understand, and most people will never understand it if they don’t attempt to observe their own families, with the coaching and descriptions of emotional patterns that Bowen theory provides. Triangles are notoriously difficult to see, so difficult, most therapeutic paradigms don’t even see or discuss them. Going back into one’s family equipped with the knowledge of the way triangles function, and coached through the discomfort that will arise when in the middle of a triangle, is a distinctly visceral way to experience the power of emotional process and the accuracy of Bowen Theory. But many people are extremely frightened by the prospect of going back into their family of origin, and even more frightened of disrupting the family “rules”; changing the ways they have always acted and responded.  To contradict possibly hundreds of years of programming about what one, as the eldest daughter, mama’s favorite, detested black sheep, or youngest son, etc., is “allowed” to do, is a significant challenge, and it’s one we are rarely even aware we are engaged in. So how to become more aware and calm ourselves enough to return to our families and do something different?

Mindfulness meditation, a distinctly western adaptation of one Buddhist practice, can be very useful for students of Bowen theory.  Through meditation one can gain more awareness of the emotional process and the ways emotions have shaped our thoughts and choices.  For Buddhist practitioners, meditation is a practice that helps facilitate the adherence to the dharma; the teachings of the Buddha (theory). One meditates in order to more closely understand and follow the Buddha’s teachings. Like the study of Bowen theory, one attempts to become knowledgeable enough about our nervous system and automatic responses, so that we may calm or disrupt the automatic responses and implement our chosen responses instead. Meditation alerts us to the constant and ever present flow of thoughts and reactivity. Prolonged meditation introduces practitioners to their capacity to sit with discomfort, to watch painful thoughts surface and disappear, through no volition of one’s own. We can see the mind actively setting in upon itself without any directive from “me” or “self”.  In fact, we see that it patently refuses, at times, to cooperate with what “I” want.

Both Bowen and the Buddha attempted to teach people to pay attention and observe, distinguishing between what we imagine, based on our childish and limited perceptions, from what the world (biology, physics, chemistry etc.) actually presents to us. Both acknowledged an intricate interdependence that exists between all living organisms. Both saw that our difficulty with this interdependence creates the majority of life’s challenges. They both believed that we navigate this interdependence by using others to manage our difficult responses to life, in order to avoid accepting personal responsibility for our feelings and choices. They both believed that most of us have the option to become more at peace with ourselves, the world as it exists, and our place in it, if we gather more knowledge.

Meditation is one practice the Buddha recommended that helps us to see our reactivity, experience its hold on us, and ideally gain more understanding of how our thoughts and physical sensations direct our actions. We do this so we can see that this activity is separate and distinct from another part of “me” that gets to choose and make decisions about whether these reactions and sensations are worth acting on. It is not the cessation of reactivity that we are aiming for, it is the understanding and recognition of reactivity’s place in achieving our self-defined principles. Meditation also offers the opportunity to find strength and resilience in our capacity to withstand strong emotion. We learn that we hold the key to our own salvation.

Both Bowen and the Buddha taught that having a set of principles that guide our actions, and not letting our physical/emotional sensations determine our actions is the path to a life less dictated by our lower, more primal, animal-like instincts and a life rich with engagement with what “is”, rather than what we imagine.  Both state that you must define and have these principles set in place, first, if one is going to act on choice rather than instinct. For most of us, that constant train of thoughts and feelings running through our head is what we believe is “me” and “true”.  The Buddha and Bowen both teach that there is something else that is “me/self” and we can learn to see it, and let that guide us, instead of letting our incessant, biologically-determined, knee-jerk reactions shape our life. Meditation is one of many ways individuals may learn to discover more of their “self” and move towards Bowen’s concept of “differentiation of self”; defining a course for oneself and living accordingly. Meditation is not a cure-all, but it is one more step in the direction of understanding our history, our emotional inheritance, and our place in a universe filled with others doing exactly the same thing.


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