Buddhist Psychotherapy as Skillful Means
This is Part I of an article I wrote in 2004 on integrating depth psychology with Buddhist meditation. A .pdf of the entire piece is available here
William James, the American writer and psychologist, predicted a century ago that Buddhism would deeply influence Western psychology. Far ahead of his time as usual, James’ prediction is beginning to materialise. Western psychotherapists are increasingly incorporating Buddhist principles and practices, applying them in ways suited to our own modern culture. We see this synthesis in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work with stress reduction, in techniques like Hakomi and Integrative Processing Therapy, and in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which uses Zen principles to work with personality disorders. A uniquely Buddhist psychology is being articulated by writers like John Welwood, Tara Bennett-Goleman, Mark Epstein, and Tara Brach.
What would a spiritually astute psychology look like, and where might it lead?
This new field is called presence-centered psychotherapy, or sometimes contemplative psychotherapy, after its meditative roots. It’s a way of working that uses the wisdom of the present moment, enhanced by a patient inquiry into body-centered awareness, to unfold our innate potential for healing. It sounds simple, but it’s radical in practice.
The blossoming of presence-centered psychotherapy provokes a still broader inquiry: What would a spiritually astute psychology look like, and where might it lead? How might basic Buddhist principles like awareness and compassion be applied in the consulting room? When mindfulness meditation is combined with depth therapy, what kind of synergy can arise? What happens when we apply pure awareness to what Daniel Goleman calls “the last great uncharted territory of the mind” – our own emotions?
Meeting the Dharma
In my own life, depth psychology and Buddhism have proven two mainstays of my personal path. I didn’t start off as a Buddhist practitioner – in fact, I managed to spend three or four years living in Kathmandu, working as a journalist and trek leader, before I became aware of a growing imperative inside me that said, Go see this teacher. Get to know him, let him get to know you. I wrestled with this inner knowing for a while (“Are you sure you’re talking to me?”), feeling excruciatingly awkward. Still, some part of me seemed to know that I would just have to give that up.
Finally I went down to the monastery and introduced myself to the lama. It was hard going for me, but I went back the next week, and the next, because that inner knowing was still there, still nudging me. A little later I went to a 10-day teaching, and found what was being shared to be pithy, grounded, and utterly to the point. It was hardly a dramatic conversion experience – no visions, no thunderclaps – but what I was hearing felt workable, and I knew I needed a spiritual discipline, or I’d risk wandering in the woods of dilettantism. At the end of the teachings, I made the decision to take refuge and become a Buddhist.
Meditation practice and psychotherapy are mutually supportive: each takes me to places the other doesn’t necessarily go; together, they open up new territory.
That was in 1988. Since then, I’ve studied and practiced in the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, which emphasises direct recognition of the nature of mind – the essential pure awareness inherent within each of us. Since 1999, I’ve practiced a form of depth psychotherapy that’s been deeply influenced by my Buddhist background. In my personal life as well as in my work, I have found meditation practice and psychotherapy to be mutually supportive. Each takes me to places the other doesn’t necessarily go; together, they open up new territory. The two traditions share a common bond in their focus on deepening and stabilizing awareness. I’ve also found each to be a profound source of strength in dealing with suffering, an aspect of life that is explicitly acknowledged in both systems — and almost as explicitly avoided by our present society.
Buddhism and psychology are both technologies of the mind. Buddhism excels in unbiased seeing, describing both ultimate reality and relative truth with a clear-eyed profundity and a philosophical astuteness that’s seldom been equaled. Like all great spiritual systems, it offers the possibility of breaking beyond the limitations of ego to a completely free and open experience of reality that’s known as enlightenment.
Psychotherapy, in contrast, delves into relative reality — specifically, the emotions, images and intuitions that shape our inner lives. Ultimate truth is not the goal here: rather, therapy strives to untie the knots of painful experiences by reworking past experiences and faulty perceptions. Depth therapy adds power to this enterprise by cultivating an active relationship with the unconscious, the uncontrolled but mighty hidden force that shapes our lives. Therapy’s forte is instigating emotional growth and refining interpersonal skills — areas that tend to be glossed over in many spiritual traditions.
Blending psychological and spiritual work thus offers the potential for a remarkably skillful approach, one that can both scale the heights and plumb the depths.
Quite often, therapeutic work and spiritual work are placed in different categories, with spirituality subtly valued as “higher.” But we need only take a look at our friends, our partners, or more importantly ourselves to acknowledge that a spiritually developed soul is not always emotionally mature. Spiritual ideals can provide the ultimate hideout from our unfinished emotional business.
John Welwood calls this “spiritual bypassing” – the temptation to go up into the head, into disembodied spirituality, as a way to avoid our messy, painful emotional and relational issues; to use our beliefs to defend against our feelings of inadequacy. The big problem here is that this strategy simply doesn’t work: our unfinished business eventually catches up with us, no matter how hard we try to “meditate” our way out of it. Whether you call it karma or just the nature of reality, a basic psychological truth is that that which is repressed only gains greater power, and that the only way out of an unpleasant situation is through.
Blending psychological and spiritual work thus offers the potential for a remarkably skillful approach, one that can both scale the heights and plumb the depths, working both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of reality – the spiritual and the embodied aspects of our lives. The two methods, in fact, have the potential to be mutually reinforcing. An awareness-based spiritual practice can support our emotional work, providing a spacious arena in which it can fully unfold. Meanwhile, by wholeheartedly voyaging into our own depths, we embrace the embodied and immediate aspect of our lives, mining the prima materia, the raw substance of spiritual transformation.
Exploring the depths of our own psyche can broaden our spiritual understanding, grounding it in our own bodily experience and honing our ability to compassionately connect with others. It’s not a matter of one method being “better” than the other, but rather a question as to what particular tool is appropriate for a specific aspect of a certain individual at this exact time.
By working both sides of the equation — emotional and spiritual, relative and ultimate, psychology and Buddhism – we are able to be grounded and open to larger realities, to “grow down,” in James Hillman’s phrase, as well as to finally grow up; to develop both a workable, comfortable human self and a broadened spiritual awareness.
Why Do Spiritual People Need Psychological Work?
Traditionalists may argue that formal psychological work was not necessary for the Buddha, for example, so why should it be for us? I’ve done a lot of thinking on this question, having spent much of my adult life outside the United States. It’s my observation that traditional cultures like Nepal (where I lived for more than a decade) do not experience the level of alienation, self-loathing, and doubt we suffer from here. The stress of life in a highly competitive, insanely fast-paced materialistic society creates an insidious form of psychological suffering that is no less painful for its subtlety.
Barraged with a constant stream of manipulative media messages, isolated from the intricate community and family structures that have traditionally support human growth, it’s easy for us to feel isolated and confused. A pervasive inner tension seems to distort our emotional lives, warping the natural unfolding of a human being from child to adult. For many of us, it seems, unconscious patterns from the past block our ability to be happy and fully present. We often feel separated from our own experience by an invisible blockage or vague fear, a subtle disconnection that cuts us off from our own nature.
When early traumas and missed connections have damaged ego growth, there is no sense of self, only a hollow void, or a storm of negative voices.
This is an area where our souls are begging for psychological as well as spiritual work. It may be that we suffer such a deep rift in our collective psyche – the ancient Western split between shadow and spirit, body and mind, materiality and spirituality — that we need a certain amount of psychological and emotional exploration to heal this primordial wound. Without at least grounding ourselves in this process, we may simply not be ready for intensive spiritual practice.
Tibetan Buddhist practices presuppose a normally obnoxious human ego, one afflicted by healthy dollops of aggression, desire, and selfishness. Within this context, an enormous range of techniques exists to skillfully allow egocentricity to blossom into a more spacious state of being. But when these fundamentally gritty human qualities are absent – when early traumas, missed connections, or distortions of the growth process have damaged ego growth — there is no sense of self, but only a hollow void, or a storm of negative voices. I recently read a transcript of a meeting between the Dalai Lama and a group of Western meditation teachers, in which he was stunned to hear the extent to which Americans in particular are tormented by what in psychological language is called “negative self-image.” This kind of “self-directed contempt” doesn’t exist in Tibetan culture, he commented.
Presence-centered psychotherapy offers a creative response to our society’s particular forms of emotional suffering. By blending Eastern and Western wisdom, we are learning to work with our own unique cultural neuroses in a transformative way, as we begin to understand ourselves deeply and compassionately enough to create the space for natural healing.
“Skillful Means” On the Road in Tibet
Thapla khepa or “skillful means” is the Tibetan term for the most effective transformative tool appropriate to a particular moment. Depending on circumstances, it may be placid or fierce, gentle or rough –- whatever best fits the situation. Compassion is considered the quintessential skillful means: together with wisdom, it constitutes the basis of Tibetan Buddhist practice. The bottom line is thus clear-eyed awareness and a fundamental sense of kindness and acceptance, applied to oneself and the world with equal generosity.
This is not just theoretical, conceptual truth: it’s the kind of truth that’s meant to be lived. I found the practical implications of these theories fleshed out in living color during my travels in Tibet in the 1980s. For four summers in a row I explored Western and Central Tibet, using my rudimentary Chinese and Tibetan to hitchhike rides on the backs of open trucks — the de facto method of public transportation. Over and over again, I met people who were both grounded and open-hearted, possessed of both a bawdy sense of humor and a bedrock spiritual faith that was unwavering despite forty-plus years of Chinese rule.
It would have been impossible to remain untouched by the stories I heard repeated in calm, matter-of-fact voices: parents killed, relatives imprisoned, families devastated, one blanket and no food for the children through the cold Tibetan winter. Nearly everyone I met had a story to tell, especially about the upheavals of China’s Cultural Revolution. They did so matter-of-factly, with little bitterness, but all were quietly adamant on certain things: they want their country back; they want their own government; most of all, they want the Dalai Lama to return. “When the Dalai Lama comes back, I can die happy,” my friend Tenzin would say. “If I die before then . . . I cannot die.”
They had a remarkable ability to deal with reality as it is; a complete openness to experience that is the essence and fruit of Dharma practice.
They had a remarkable ability to deal with reality as it is; a complete openness to experience that is the essence and fruit of Dharma practice.
Jolting down the dusty dirt roads with groups of pilgrims and rowdy Khampa traders, I sensed a spiritual grounding that allowed them to accept the ongoing flow of life, be it pleasant or painful, in a grounded and graceful way. When a truck would break down unexpectedly in the literal middle of nowhere, there was no moaning about the misfortune. People just naturally took care of what needed to be done: some gathered dried yak dung for cooking fuel, while others hauled jerrycans of water or set up black yak-wool tents. An emissary would flag down a passing truck to ride a hundred miles down the dirt road to obtain the necessary mechanical part, and the rest of us would settle in for a day, or two, or three, of spirited gambling. There was no sense of impatience, no complaining – just a remarkable ability to deal with reality as it is, rather than how they wished it could be, a complete openness to experience that I’ve come to identify as the essence and fruit of Dharma practice.
In retrospect, I can say that this was my first inkling that Buddhism was a practical spiritual path. If these people, shaped by a profoundly Buddhist culture, managed to live life so completely, I thought, there might be something to this. I don’t mean to paint an overly idealistic picture here: I also met up with some troubled individuals along the way. But on the whole I remain convinced that traditional Tibetan society grows exceptional human beings, people who are wonderfully and simply human. This striking combination of strength and warmth is personified most famously by the Dalai Lama, whose charisma radiates from his simple genuineness. You sense that there is no artifice here, just real human warmth, rooted in a deeper strength that is grounded in the transpersonal.
So my introduction to Tibetan Buddhism began not with the formal theory, but with the end result: the fully developed humanity, the cheerful strength and practical wisdom that is the natural result of Buddhist practice. The Buddhist perspective maintains that these qualities are inherent within all of us, and that the Dharma practices are tools to clear away the obscurations that block the full and radiant expression of our innately complete nature.
In rejecting our own experience, we reject our own being, and this becomes an ongoing source of pain, confusion and alienation.
Wisdom and compassion are thus matters of practical application, not just concepts. Presence-centered psychotherapy applies these principles of wisdom and compassion to our own internal experience as it is in the moment. Virtually all of us hold tight knots of holding and rejection embedded within our experience. With a little observation, it’s easy to see how when something unpleasant happens, we tighten up and reject this unwanted sensation. This kind of response seems natural — after all, it’s only common sense. Pushing away suffering in order to attain happiness is a simple equation based on Newtonian physics.
Unfortunately for us, Newton was wrong. We actually live in a quantum universe where all points are connected throughout space and time in an invisible web — and the sooner our emotional intelligence catches up with this reality, the better. Suffering and happiness, samsara and nirvana, are not mutually exclusive opposites; rather, they are as closely linked as the back and front of your hand. Buddhism points out that it’s our attitude towards experience, much more than the experience itself, which creates pleasure and pain.
By blindly grasping and rejecting, choosing and pushing away, we slip into a frantic tailspin of hope and fear. Our single-minded fixation only ends up creating more of the pain it seeks to push away. This tangle of emotions becomes like a chronically tight knot within our inner selves. In rejecting our own experience, we reject our own being, and this becomes an ongoing source of pain, confusion and alienation.
As a Buddhist, I am committed to the unfolding of awareness in the present moment. As a psychotherapist, I am in continual awe of the healing that occurs when awareness is brought to our old wounds, our contractions and rigidities. The awareness I am speaking of here is not conceptual awareness, of the “my- mother-did-this-to-me-when-I-was-five-years-old-and-I’m-still-screwed-up” variety. Rather, it’s awareness itself, awareness pure and simple, awareness of the type that is cultivated in meditation. This type of awareness applied in the therapeutic context is an exceedingly powerful skillful means, because it taps into what in Buddhism is known as “the spontaneous pure presence of natural mind.”
Postulating the human mind as inherently free and flawless is a radical statement, especially from the disease-oriented medical perspective of mainstream psychology. Our psyches, however, are not merely offshoots of our bodies; nor are they mechanistic pieces of equipment. Our culture errs in describing the personality exclusively through biology and brain chemistry, and errs further in overemphasizing chemical means of resolution for psychic pain. I’m not denying the blessings of psychopharmacology: rather, I’m saying that mainstream psychology desperately needs an enhanced spiritual awareness to open up its claustrophobically narrow view of the human soul.
The truth is that awareness itself is healing. In recognising the truth of our own experiences as they exist in the moment, they are released. The Dzogchen term for this is “natural self-liberation.” Recognising the essential nature of mind, our holding is naturally released, just as the snake uncoils itself out of a knot, just as a word traced on the surface of water disappears in the very moment it is written.
Mindfulness practice as embodied in meditation cultivates unconditional friendliness towards our own experience. It involves the radical practice of just being, without trying to do anything about how we are. To simply be with our own experience on a moment-by-moment basis and to treat it with a friendly attitude – this is the essence of mindfulness. It is a discipline, a skill, an art, a game, an endlessly fascinating pursuit with the potential to pervade every moment of life, awake and asleep.