Glimpsing the Buddha Through Johari's Window
Okay, I hope I’m not totally overselling this post by choosing such a title, but I think that after reading it you’ll agree that I simply couldn’t pass it up! You see, I’ve been talking a lot about seamlessness lately and what that means from a Buddhist point of view. I’ve also tried to flesh out that idea with more contemporary concepts regarding authenticity, spontaneity, and congruence (see previous post, Seamlessness and the Self). Let me continue in that vein, then, by bringing into this discussion of seamlessness a versatile little heuristic device that has helped people understand interpersonal and organizational relationships for over fifty years – the Johari Window.
First conceptualized by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham back in 1955, the Johari Window has been used extensively in individual and group counseling contexts, and in team-building exercises, etc. Do an internet search on the phrase and you’ll have more than enough reading to keep you busy for quite a while! The Johari Window is essentially a 2x2 matrix that can be thought of as one of those old-fashioned four-paned windows wherein each “windowpane” represents a unique pairing of either known or not known to self with either known or not known to others. A picture is worth a thousand words, so here goes:
Keep in mind that the window in its entirety represents the individual self in its entirety, and each windowpane represents a different aspect of that self. Looking at the upper-left pane, quadrant 1, we see those attributes of the self that are known both to the individual and to others. Generally speaking, it’s a good thing for this quadrant to be as large as possible. I’ll say more about that later. The upper-right pane, quadrant 2, represents those attributes of the self that are known to the individual but not to others. Now, while the existence of such a private self is not inherently a bad thing, it is fairly clear that an inordinately large private self may not be the healthiest of realities. The lower-left pane, quadrant 3, represents those attributes of the self that are known to others even as they remain unknown to the individual. Hmmm…, for now why don’t we just call that a non-optimal situation. The last pane, quadrant 4, represents those aspects of the self that are just flat out unknown. Well, I suppose that’s better than quadrant 3. At least in quadrant 4 everybody’s ignorant! Let’s examine each of these quadrants more closely.
Quadrant 4: So just what sort of attribute of the self might be unknown to both the individual and to others? Well, the way the Johari Window is usually interpreted, this quadrant might contain those experiences that the individual has repressed – experiences that are not accessible to his or her conscious mind. In Freudian terms, such experiences might be so traumatic that they become “walled off” from consciousness in order to protect the ego from further harm. With the possible exception of someone who might have witnessed or perpetrated such trauma, nobody knows of its existence. One of the goals of psychoanalysis is to bring that which is unconscious into consciousness, where it can be dealt with directly and no longer influence the individual in unconscious ways.
Okay, you’ve probably been waiting for me to ask this question: Did the Buddha have a quadrant 4? Well, I just have to say that I find the prospect of the Buddha having repressed experiences totally anathema to the concept of his being awakened! Presumably if such repressed material existed, the Buddha would have awakened to it. After all, the Buddha was purported to have even known his past lives. Now, I would think that knowing your present life in its entirety would be a prerequisite to knowing your past lives, but that’s just me. Seriously, given the fact that I interpret ‘past lives’ in the moment-by-moment sense, I am inclined to think of the Buddha’s knowledge of his past lives as him being awakened to the nature and effects of karma in its entirety. Perhaps a slightly different way to look at quadrant 4 from a Buddhist point of view would be to consider it the realm of nescience. Recall that nescience refers to our most basic existential ignorance, our ignorance of the nature of reality, our ignorance of the true nature of the self. Once again, this is precisely what the Buddha awakened to.
Quadrant 3: Alright, what sort of attribute of the self might be known to others even as it remains unknown to the individual? So often we are blind to how we appear to others. We may come off as being arrogant even as we think of ourselves as humble. We may think of ourselves as generous even as others see us as cheapskates. We may think we’re open-minded even as others think we are about as opinionated as they come; and so on, and so forth. “Oh… to see ourselves as others see us” is a quote from a Robert Burns poem that reflects this reality of our social existence. Did the Buddha have some foible or idiosyncrasy that all the monks around him were aware of but that he was not? It almost seems silly to think of the Buddha in such a way, but let’s not forget that the Buddha was a mortal human being who did not always possess the wisdom of his later years. For instance, I’m wondering what people thought of the young Prince Siddhartha prior to his chariot ride outside of the palace – the ride on which he encountered for the first time the reality of sickness, old age, death, and spiritual practice. I’m picturing the charioteer thinking to himself: “Oh, you poor sheltered prince, you really did just fall off the turnip wagon, didn’t you!”
Quadrant 2: Quadrant 2 represents our private world – our deepest thoughts, our most embarrassing truths, our fears, dreams, and desires. We can’t escape this reality of human existence – that huge swaths of who and what we are remain unknown. Thankfully so, you might be thinking! However, the reality that we can never truly be known by another individual is also the source of some of our deepest existential sorrow. And the Buddha? Shortly after his awakening, the Buddha met up with some of the mendicants with whom he had followed more ascetic practices than that which ultimately led to his enlightenment. Upon meeting once again, the mendicants were thinking that they were encountering that slacker, Gautama, who’d given up the difficult practices that they were still engaging in. It was only after spending time with him and hearing the Buddha’s teaching that they became convinced that, yes, the Gautama that they once knew is now the Buddha, the Awakened One. In other words, that aspect of the Buddha’s private world became public. Was it gone for good – that private world? Well, no. The Buddha continued to reflect upon how much of his private world to make public. Was his teaching ready to be received? How might it be misinterpreted? Would it help to alleviate suffering or only increase it? One story tells of the Buddha picking up a handful of leaves and asking his disciples to compare that handful of leaves to those of the forest around them. “Even so, bhikkhus, of what I have known I have told you only a little, what I have not told you is very much more. And why have I not told you (those things)? Because that is not useful… not leading to Nirvana. That is why I have not told you those things” (Rahula, 1959, p. 12).
Quadrant 1: Quadrant 1 represents that realm of the self known to both the individual and to others. Here is authenticity, congruence, spontaneity. There is nothing hidden and nothing to hide. After becoming awakened and beginning to teach, the Buddha’s ‘self that is not other’ must have been predominated by quadrant 1. He lived with others, went on alms rounds with others, ate with others, slept in the vicinity of others, got sick and became well with others, weathered heat and rain with others. Even the temptations that arose as he sat in meditation became known to others. There was virtually nothing about his life that was not known to others. Perhaps the only aspects of his life that remained private were those “leaves in the forest” that he refrained from discussing for pedagogical or compassionate reasons.
Generally speaking, we can all benefit from quadrant 1 being as large as possible. Quadrant 1 expands in two ways. We can either learn more about ourselves than we otherwise knew, or we can disclose more about ourselves to others than we have otherwise disclosed. Learning more about ourselves might require soliciting feedback from others, engaging in meditation, or undergoing therapy. Of course, this is not always an easy process. It is often safest to remain in that place where we only know what we’ve grown comfortable knowing. Disclosure, likewise, is potentially fraught with difficulty. How much should we share? Why should we share it? Will it help the world in any way? Will it cause harm in any way? We’ve all experienced that feeling of someone (or us) revealing ‘too much information.’ It takes a certain amount of wisdom to know just how much to disclose. Thus, we might want to consider in what ways the expansion of quadrant 1 might be part of our spiritual journey, and undertaken mindfully.
Luft, J., Ingham, H. (1955) The Johari window, a graphic model of interpersonal awareness. Proceedings of the Western Laboratory in Group Development, UCLA.
Rahula, W. (1959) What the Buddha taught. Grove Press,
. New York
Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank