Emptiness and the Relational-self

By Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D.

Bachelor points out that as shul, emptiness can be compared to the impression of something that used to be there. Thus emptiness might be thought of as impressions formed by the indentations, hollows, marks, and scars left by the turbulence of selfish craving. When the turmoil subsides, we experience tranquility, relief, and freedom. Bachelor then says something that is absolutely stunning and very relevant to contemporary psychotherapeutic practice. He says (p.80):

“To know emptiness is not just to understand the concept. It is more like stumbling into a clearing in the forest, where suddenly you can move freely and see clearly. To experience emptiness is to experience the shocking absence of what normally determines the sense of who you are and the kind of reality you inhabit. It may last only a moment before the habits of a lifetime reassert themselves and close in once more. But for that moment, we witness ourselves and the world as open and vulnerable.”

This calm, open and sensitive space is where meditators seek to dwell in dharma practice. I submit it is also where psychotherapists would like to dwell with clients in their psychotherapy practices. Such a place is immediate, imminent, and dynamic. But it is also a path, a track. It defines a place where the imminent and transcendent in our lives meet; it grants an intimation of the invisible forces that are at work as the lines of our life converge. Bachelor points out that we strive to create this kind of space because it allows unobstructed movement or freedom. It assures us that we are not alone and implies indebtedness to those who have trodden the path before us. It also marks out our responsibility to those who will follow. This is the way, in Gilligan’s language, that we become a part of those living traditions that sustain and transform life.

This latter field is the place from which we hear whispers of practices and presences embodied in the instincts, the life force, and the cumulative efforts of many generations to preserve life and build accessible pathways to awakened consciousness. It is a place that is sensed in the silence between words, and in the gaps in experience where “synchronicity” (Cf., Jung, 1960) appears. It is the sense we have of “presence.” This presence is a Source of being in the margins of our experience, participating in ways that irreducibly remind us that we are an important part — a carrier if you will — of a much larger field of experience and possibilities than we typically are aware of in our normal waking states (Cf. Senge, Sharmer, Jaworski, & Flowers, 2004).

Paradoxically, it is in this latter level of field that spirit and soul touch relationally, and often, if not always, in very energetic ways. That is why this second field is so deeply “implicated” as a trace in the awakening of something new and sacred that arises out of the emptiness of the implicate order. In fact, in describing the relationship between these two fields and how therapy awakens the birth of soul, it becomes apparent that it would be wrong to equate the first level of field as the conduit of this inexplicable energy and the latter as its container. Rather, it seems that both are container and conduit but in very different ways.

Through sponsorship we open the field so that the first level can both hold, contain, and make manifest the energy and grace implicit in the latter field. We can allow the inexplicable power and largeness of the later field to co-mingle and participate energetically in dynamic relational processes in the former and, in turn, embody both physically and emotionally. Art, parenting, athletics, spiritual practice, and psychotherapy all embody practices of sponsorship — through these each level of field can co-mingle and manifest essential qualities of being in the other.

Each of these manifestations of field embodies Ken Wilber’s (1997: 1998) idea of the “Great Chain of Being” where each level of field transcends but includes the one below, while manifesting its essential presence in the next domain. These interpenetrating levels of field are lived experiential realities that have to do with the awakening of something sacred in the somatic core of being in our clients. Thus the process is far from abstract and philosophical. It is literally life giving, and the essence of what we strive to sponsor in therapeutic conversations. To work optimally, sponsorship must somehow dwell at the boundary between soul and spirit. It must connect the head and the heart and gut, allowing one to breathe with another in deep recognition of the shared human condition linking all, and to speak from that recognition to something that links both to an inexplicable felt sense of the field.

Before delving more deeply into the question of how the Buddhist idea of “emptiness” might inform post-modern therapeutic practice and the self, let me share a little about what I think is similar about Buddhist and self-relations notions of the self. We have constructed two parallel ideas, one coming from an ancient Buddhist source and another coming from post-modern psychology and quantum physics. The first is that of shul; impressions that mark out instances of presence in essentially empty contingent relationships. The second; relational “fields” connecting the eminent phenomena of being to a transcendent order of experience lying beyond language and the space-time coordinates of everyday mind and self. In so doing I am attempting to build a bridge between these two very distinct traditions. Let us now look a little more deeply into these connections.

Stephen Batchelor says, (p. 82), “Emptiness is as devoid of intrinsic being as a pot, a banana or a daffodil. And if there were no pots, bananas, or daffodils, there would be no emptiness either. Emptiness does not deny that such things exist; it merely describes how they are devoid of an intrinsic, separate being. Emptiness is not apart from the world of everyday experience; it only makes sense in the context of making pots, eating bananas, and growing daffodils.” Here we see a clear link between the Buddhist notion of emptiness and the ideas about the relational-self Gilligan talked about above. From the standpoint of psychotherapy, just as in meditation, we seek to support ourselves and others in staying centered in a growing awareness of emptiness.” A life centered in awareness of emptiness,” Bachelor points out, “. . . is one dedicated to learning how to stay centered and grounded in this ever-changing, shocking, painful, joyous, frustrating, awesome, stubborn and ambiguous thing we call life.” Thus the Buddhist notion of “emptiness” becomes a clear path that leads not beyond the “reality” of our lives but right into its heart. As he showed in that stunning quote from Lama Tsongkhapa, it is the track within which the centered person moves. When we think about the impressions we leave in the wake of our lives, we see that we have been created, molded, and shaped by an amazing matrix of lives and shul that preceded us. All cultural and historical conditioning that goes into bringing the next generation into life, becomes the path through which we participate in creating the experiences that configure a unique trajectory culminating in the present moments of the children whose lives we touch. As Bachelor says, “What is here now is the unrepeatable impressions left by all of this, which we call ‘me.’ Yet so vivid and startling is this image that we confuse what is a mere impression for something that exists independently of what formed it.” Then he raises yet another stunning question. He asks: “So what are we but the story we keep repeating, editing, censoring, and embellishing in our heads? The self is not like the hero of a B-movie, who remains unaffected by the storms of passion and intrigue that swirl around him from the opening credits to the end. The self is more akin to the complex and ambiguous characters who emerge, develop, and suffer across the pages of a novel. There is nothing thing like about me at all. I am more like an unfolding narrative. As we become aware of all this, we can begin to assume greater responsibility for the course of our lives. Instead of clinging to habitual behavior and routines as a means to secure this sense of self, we realize the freedom to create who we are. Instead of being bewitched by impressions, we start to create them. Instead of taking ourselves so seriously, we discover the playful irony of a story that has never been told in quite this way before.”

The immediacy and reality of the experience of participation in an unfolding narrative was brought home to me vividly recently in a workshop for amateur chamber music players. One of my passions in life is chamber music. I play the violin and viola (rather badly, I am afraid, but with great enjoyment and a sense of participation in the fields we have been talking about). The notes we participate in with others when playing music might be thought of as shul in the way the Tibetan Lama and philosopher Tsongkhapa used the term. These “shul” we partake of in the notes on the page that fly by as we read the music are so fascinating. (I suppose the same thing could be said of the brush strokes of a painter, the words on the page of a novel or poem, or the chips flying off the marble as the artist seeks to release a meaningful image/object from the inert material from which he or she works). What are these impressions we receive and then pass on? They are “things” for sure. Inscribed by someone, in some cases centuries ago, on an inert piece of paper or a rock or canvas. But what are they as we partake of them? I read notes on the page. I try to transform the inscriptions into meaningful sounds and join with others in “interpreting” what they mean. As we practice and develop in our ability to use the inert material with which we work–the “implements” of the art — we begin to see we are a part of something much larger than ourselves. The more I am able to practice and join in the exquisite dance I share with others, I find I lose myself in the music and in the intersubjective, inter-being, of musical expression. Isn’t that fascinating? It is a paradox. The more I “lose” myself in the music, the larger I become; the more I give myself over to the experience, the more I see that I am a carrier of a great tradition. I partake of something that takes me both into myself and beyond myself at the same time. Suddenly I realize I am a small part in creating a field of experience and expression that carries me forward in time and allows me to create my life in the moment. The notes fly by me on the page. I try to keep up and play my part. I make mistakes but I have to let them go and move on to the next note, the next phrase, the next pause, the next dynamic interpretation, always appreciating that the notes in themselves are meaningless, they have to be woven together, paying attention to the gaps between them, the silence in the margins of expression that give them meaning. Learning to “let go” is as important in playing music as learning to hold on. They are the interrelated impulses that allow me to participate in the shared creative process of musical expression. For me music is a direct link to the “field” of cultural meaning and expression. For someone else I imagine surfing or scuba diving might have a very similar meaning and texture–only the field they are playing in has more to do with nature than culture. As human beings we are a part of both culture and nature. Both are “implicated” in the ways we surround ourselves with something that gives depth and meaning to our being. To be fully alive is to continually strive to reawaken our ability to notice and give ourselves over to the magic that surrounds us every moment wherever we are.

The language of music is one form of narrative. The languages of meditation and psychotherapy are other available forms of narrative. The important thing for therapists to remember is their central task is assisting clients in connecting to any form of language and expression that helps them directly and meaningfully connect to the unfolding narrative of their life. I personally have found psychotherapy fits very well with Buddhist practice. But I certainly do not require it of my clients. More and more I have come to see my work is to midwife clients into some form of dynamic animated connection to life and their body/mind. The form of connection is really up to them. I am very curious what practice will work best for them. I hope our conversations more and more shift from a story of pain, loss, suffering, etc. to one where more and more there is a recognition of the wonder and gifts of life.

Psychotherapy, like music and art, is thus inherently relational. It reflects both the intrapsychic development of therapist and client and the level of development of their relationship—i.e., the understanding and trust that they share. But I must admit there are times when it does not appear dependent on these things at all, or more accurately, it involves these things and something more. Sometimes “knowing” and working off of a specific model of reality actually becomes counterproductive, enticing me into a pre-formed, narrow, cognitive model of development, an image of my own making, subtly distracting me from a felt sense of the relationship. Sometimes all I can do is be with my client in dumbfounded awe at the irrationality, unfairness, unpredictable pain, unearned joy, beauty and grace of life. If I can just wait in this emptiness, while holding the sense of anticipation that something sacred is being born, it actually allows space for creative discovery on the part of my client uncolored by my preferences and attitudes. In these contexts we are talking about sponsoring a paradigm shift, a genuine birth of soul. It is also in this context that Buddhist notions of “emptiness” and the idea of the larger non-local-self make the most sense.

I believe that this “dumbfounded awe” we often feel in psychotherapy is the presence of the infolded “implicate order” awakening the dormant latent potential of emptiness in the living relational field. It is the ability and willingness of therapists to wait in respectful silence, trusting that the “birth of soul” and all the possibilities that that birth entails, is somehow also present in the field. It is the cultivated ability to trust in this presence and the latent possibilities held by the implicate order and the invisible field that surrounds it, a relatedness that takes us beyond local mind, ego, and the normally constituted self.

Seen from the point of view of emptiness, psychotherapy becomes a process of relating the energy and intelligence of the implicate order to embodied center, spirit and soul. It is loving awareness embracing something that is larger than somatic self and center, but includes it; loving awareness embracing something larger than soul, but again including it; loving awareness embracing something larger than spirit, but again, including it. All this takes place in the relational field of the self, a field constituted in and through language and somatic experience, but somehow or other touched by something much larger than can be held in consciousness.

The sacred realm of the implicate order co-mingles in the mundane activities of everyday life, giving them meaning and depth. After all, the everyday activities of living—buying groceries, going to work, doing the laundry, fighting, making love, parenting, being parented, caring for the sick and dying, etc.—are the manifest field of relationship within which the endless cycling of the wheel of life and death take place. Out of all these activities something sacred emerges—life is preserved and the perpetuation of life through the generations takes place.

*Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D. is a Life Coach/hypnotherapist practicing in Los Altos Hills, California. He is a long-time practitioner of self-relations psychotherapy and Ericksonian hypnotherapy. With an abiding interest in music, art, yoga, and other body-mind practices, Dr. Rossel is also a long-time practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and has sought for many years to find ways to apply meditation and mindfulness in his psychotherapy practice. He may be reached at 10490 Albertsworth Lane, Los Altos Hills, CA 94024. Address all correspondence to his e-mail address: Rosselrob@aol.com.


Bachelor, Stephen, Buddhism Without Beliefs: A contemporary Guide to Awakening, New York: Riverhead Books, 1997.

Senge, Peter, et al., Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future. Cambridge, MA: SOL (Society for Organizagional Lerning), 2004.

Wilber, Ken, The Eye of Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad. Boston: Shambhala. 1997.

Wilber, Ken. The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion. New York: Random House, 1998.

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