Buddhist Psychotherapy as Skillful Means
Part II of an article I wrote in 2004 on integrating depth psychology with Buddhist meditation. A .pdf of the entire piece is available here.
The simplest proposition is also the most radical: that our basic nature is open space infused with pure awareness. Beyond all our constructs and beneath all our holding, each of us is no more and no less than spacious awareness – the capacity to know, pure and simple. This “empty essence fused with luminous knowing” is our absolute true nature, shared by all sentient beings.
Rather than constantly trying to actualise ourselves, we wake up to our own actuality.
Simple but profound, this shift in attitude changes everything. We stop struggling with our own nature, trying to make ourselves into something that we are not. We stop identifying with the steady flow of conceptual thought that normally fills our mind, and start identifying with our essence. Rather than constantly trying to actualise ourselves, we wake up to our own actuality.
For most of us, this is not an overnight event, but the gradual result of study, investigation, and meditation practice, preferably under the guidance of an accomplished spiritual teacher. In the Dzogchen tradition, the nature of mind is directly “pointed out” to qualified students by a master who transmits his or her own realisation in that moment. Even if we lack the opportunity to receive such teachings, simply allowing for the mere possibility of enlightened essence can be psychologically liberating. The need to try hard, to improve the self, to struggle for perfection, is so deeply ingrained in the way we treat ourselves. Natural perfection is a radical doctrine, subversive in its simplicity.
A traditional Buddhist metaphor compares our essential nature to the sky, and the disturbing emotions we experience to clouds. In truth, the sky is always there behind the clouds, whether or not we see it — the sky, in fact, accommodates the clouds, without being the least bit disturbed by them. Our mind is the same, in its capacity to remain fundamentally pure as it accommodates these endlessly arising emotions and thoughts. The Tibetan yogi Milarepa said a thousand years ago:
In the gap between two thoughts
Thought-free wakefulness manifests unceasingly.
When this understanding is applied to our own inner being, we begin to relate to our problems from the spacious awareness that is our basic nature. We learn to embrace the ongoing process of life with a degree of calmness and acceptance. Problems become somewhat less tight knots to be struggled with, and somewhat more intriguing phenomena arising within our field of awareness. This is not to say that we pretend to like painful situations, or that we paste a smiley face over our very real pain. Rather, through patient practice, we somehow find we can allow space for our dislike, our suffering, and our confusion – our actual and own experience.
And here is the incredibly hard part -– we start to drop our addiction to knowing, to analysing, to working things out in our heads. Resting in mindfulness shows how all of these strategies are simply masquerades for the fundamental need to be in control. It’s not that conceptual thinking is bad, so much as it is irrelevant. It clutters our innate spaciousness, chopping up our intrinsic awareness into little bits.
Getting In Our Own Way
All too often, we simply get in our own way. We ornament our innate awareness with concepts, and soon these concepts become a confining prison – a prison we forget we ourselves created. Thinking is a vital skill, intelligence a saving grace. But used without attention to what the heart or the body or one’s larger awareness says about the truth of a situation, cerebral intelligence becomes unskillful means.
Letting go of concepts doesn’t mean we drop our ability to discern. Far from it! Freed from the fixation of judgment, we find ourselves keener observers, able to recognise the more nuanced aspects of reality and to respond to circumstances in a more flexible way. Discernment doesn’t require us to solidify our experience by holding onto concepts about something. We can let go of concepts and take in our experience in a direct, fresh way: the blue vase on the windowsill, the squish of rain-soaked leaves underfoot, the cap left off the toothpaste (again – and here a concept interjects itself).
The bottom-line truth is that our essential nature is awareness, pure and simple.
Relinquishing judgment also doesn’t mean we passively accept everything that comes our way. We can still hate the experience of the capless and crusty toothpaste tube created by our thoughtless partner. We can be fully aware of our aversion, and consciously decide how we are going to respond to the situation, rather than automatically reacting to it. Cultivating awareness doesn’t mean we turn into a bowl of mush. It does mean we have more tools at our disposal. We are fine-tuning our perceptions, a process which can be painful, but which over the course of time results in a more accurate experience of reality.
In the state of choiceless awareness that is mindfulness, we find the ability to just let things be, regardless of our like or dislike of the situation. This discovery can be remarkably liberating. Over time, it opens us up to a larger sense of trust. We are cultivating the ability to see through all the busy clutter of our lives to the core: to the bottom-line truth that our essential nature is awareness, pure and simple, and that this pure and simple awareness has its own healing energy, its own path and power.
Here’s another popular misconception: that mindfulness practice means detaching from one’s feelings. Again, this is far from the truth. If anything, we find ourselves feeling more intensely, once we’ve scraped away the overlay of neurotic angst that formerly filtered our experiences.
Feelings most definitely arise within a state of mindfulness, as strong and clear as ever. And they pass away, just as they always have. The goal here is not detachment, but a full and free experiencing of whatever arises in the moment, unobstructed by conceptual judgment. So often we hold ourselves back from our own experience, subtly freezing it into constructs and thoughts. This pulling back from the flow of life is itself the essence of suffering.
In my own life, it’s an ongoing process – I sometimes want to say “struggle” – to apply this knowledge to my everyday experience. Although I’m privileged to witness the transformative power of awareness first-hand as a psychotherapist, this doesn’t mean I always apply it gracefully to myself. But I do have the conviction, based on personal experience, that the practices of mindfulness and compassion have an enormous power to relieve suffering and generate healing.
Breaking Open The Heart
Much of this I learned the hard way. My husband and I awoke on a rainy March morning in 1993 to find our 15-month-old son Nicholas dead in his crib, victim of an illness that should not have been fatal, but was. The shock, the horror, the enormous guilt that I immediately locked away because it was too much to bear – it was all too much to bear. The event shattered my defenses utterly. That night, I laid down in a haze of grief and exhaustion and sensed a very fine pain at the core of my heart, like a straw had been inserted in a subtle channel deep inside. Heartbreak, it seems, is a literal experience.
I learned that if I could just embrace the emotions as fully and completely as possible, the storm would pass more easily.
I dragged a cushion into Nick’s room, and sat there every day with my grief, anger, and pain. Whenever I felt the waves coming up inside, I’d sit and be with my feelings with a ferocious intensity. Somehow the awareness took off some of the pressure. It let the waves flow in their own rhythm, battering the shore, then receding for a few hours. I learned that if I could just be present for whatever emotions arose, if I could just embrace them as fully and completely as possible, the storm would pass more easily.
I began to practice tonglen, the Tibetan meditation on ‘sending and receiving,’ in which you imagine yourself taking in the suffering of others with every inhalation, and with every exhalation send them all your happiness, all your joy, all your strength. This worked like nothing else did to ease my own suffering. In some mysterious alchemical fashion, the pain in my heart melted when I connected with the pain of others. I didn’t stop to think why this might be so, or how it worked. I simply sat and took in more, grateful for even a few breaths of relief.
Grief took away my life energy in the way that serious illness does. Those first few months, I’d wake in the morning to find my body lying peacefully in bed — then remember what had happened, and feel the physical weight of irreversible loss descend upon me like a ton of bricks. In the middle of the tempest, though, I found a sort of peace. Seated in the eye of the hurricane, emotional currents swirling all around, I experienced a steady sense of grounded presence that alone helped me bear the grief.
It became clear that this awareness was not going to run away, though I at times might choose to.It was always present, spacious and accommodating, despite the awful turbulence of my emotions. It was as if uniting with the seed impetus of those emotions allowed them to unfold as they would, unencumbered by the added pain of resistance. It was an awareness that was larger than thought, larger than emotion, an awareness that preceded and contained both of these
Mindfulness: The Practice of Awareness
Staying with our own experience as it unfolds moment to moment can be the hardest thing we’ll ever do. Painful feelings are avoided or repressed for good reason: they hurt. Facing the emotional traumas embedded in the body requires intention and a great deal of courage — the kind of courage that doesn’t deny the presence of fear, but rather acknowledges the fear and does it anyway, with consideration and kindness for one’s own pain. Spiritual practice is where the “Big No” — our basic rejection of experience — meets the “Big Yes” — our compassionate awareness.
It can take only a few weeks of self-investigation to reveal the suffering that arises when we freeze and contract around our own pain – a reaction which creates a whole new layer of suffering on top of the original pain. One could say it’s the essence of neurosis, the places where we block ourselves from letting in life.
Held in the open palm of awareness, painful experience has a chance to decompress, to gentle itself into its own true nature.
The key, the turn-around moment, is in just giving our own experience the space to exist: in paying attention to it and actually experiencing it rather than compressing or contracting or running away, rather than attacking or rejecting or judging it, rather than drugging ourselves numb against it or exaggerating our reaction into hysteria. Each of us has a virtuoso repertoire of negative responses to undesirable experiences. And life provides us with endless opportunities to realise that ultimately, none of them work.
Our fear, our disbelief, says, “What’s the point?” It believes that paying attention to painful things only leads to more pain. Obsessing or fixating on painful matters certainly does creates more pain — but open awareness is a different matter entirely. It’s the difference between being squeezed in a closed fist and resting lightly on an open palm. Held in the open palm of awareness, painful experience has a chance to decompress and expand, to gentle itself into its own true nature. So much of the pain we experience is in the contraction, rather than the original wound.
Connecting Directly With Experience
The key, again, is asking the simple question: “What’s going on right now? What am I experiencing in this moment?” Turning inside, we check out our experience at the inner level of felt bodily sensation, not the cerebral level of what the head says, yammering away. To be mindful is to be fully present in the moment, relinquishing the urge to control our experience. Just being aware, just noticing: the ache in my right shoulder, the breath going in, the hiss of a car moving down the rain-slicked street, a catch in my throat, a flutter of fear, a tightening in the lower back. Underlying this never-ending process, we subtly notice that which notices. Just noticing, just being aware.
Dzogchen does not involve suppressing our emotions or overcoming them, but simply allowing them to flow freely through us, without grasping.
Emotions are inevitable; they exist to the point of enlightenment and no doubt beyond. Spiritual practice in the Dzogchen tradition does not involve suppressing our emotions or overcoming them, but simply allowing them to flow freely through us, without grasping. The same applies to psychological health.
When we practice mindfulness, we are cultivating a deliberate vulnerability. As Ron Kurtz, the founder of Hakomi, succinctly sums up: “Mindfulness is undefended consciousness.” It is an exquisitely poignant process of dismantling our armor, our expectations, our efforts to control; a bittersweet unfolding of the pleasure and pain inherent in every moment. And this fuels the therapeutic process with some very high-octane energy. When we open up to our own inner process, we open the gates of self-exploration and new discovery.
Psychologist Eugene Gendlin has found that the single determining factor in a therapy’s effectiveness is how well a client is able to stay with his or her own experience. The type of therapy practiced, the duration of the work, even the particular therapist, did not matter nearly as much as this basic ability to simply experience what one is experiencing.
And this ability, Gendlin notes, is seldom taught in therapy (though he developed his Focusing technique around this very point). It seems that the client walks in the door either with it or without it, and flails away valiantly regardless. By bringing aspects of mindfulness meditation into the therapeutic process, we tap into the potential to go beyond superficial cognitive-behavioral solutions to the deepest roots of body, mind, and psyche.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche uses the term “fundamental sanity” to describe the solid and clear ground of our basic nature, our birthright as human beings. Dharma practice is meant to bring us back to this place of our original essence. It seems to me that we Westerners have developed a particularly imaginative repertoire of ways to cut ourselves off from this basic state. Apart from our superb collection of distractions, we can choose from addictions, denial, busyness, workaholism, rationalisation . . . the list of accredited, socially approved ways to flee our ourselves goes on and on.
One pattern I see quite often is how we give absolute credence to the ghost in the machine, the neurotic soundtrack that accompanies our lives, unleashing its negative commentary as our life unfolds. This superficial narrative cuts us off from our own complexity and depth. We believe the voices in our head as they unreel in a devastating commentary on our own self: “You’re too this, too that. Too shy. Too fat. Too needy. Too ugly. Too stupid. You never do that. Screwed up again, didn’t you? Who do you think you are? Why bother, it’s always going to be like this.” And on and on, endlessly.
It’s difficult to argue with these voices, because they are primed for debate. Apply the clarity of aware emptiness to this scenario, however, and gradually it starts to dissolve. Embrace it with compassion for the suffering involved, and it melts like the Wicked Witch. Rejection can’t hold a candle to compassion.
Awareness or mindfulness on its own, however clear it may be, is not enough to support deep change. Love, in the sense of basic warmth and compassion towards ourselves and our own experience, is also necessary. These twin qualities, self-awareness and basic kindness, are inseparable. In the Tibetan tradition they are called wisdom and compassion, or “warmth and wakefulness,” as Trungpa Rinpoche phrased it.
Compassionate attention heals our restless need to struggle with reality. Eventually, it heals our separation from our own selves.
The power of this “suffering with” – the root origin of the word “com-passion” — cannot be overestimated. It extends far beyond the unburdening we experience when we talk about our problems with a sympathetic friend. That kind of conversation often concludes with a bit of well-meaning advice or an attempt to cheer us up. That is different than exploring our difficulties in the presence of another who is open, relaxed, and aware; someone who is willing to completely be with us without having to change our situation in any way. In some mysterious way, being fully seen and understood by another, even if that understanding is entirely wordless, can support us in understanding ourselves.
It’s as if awareness is contagious. By being fully present for our difficult feelings, yet not needing to manipulate reality in any way, the other models self-compassion. This unconditional loving presence provides the context for deep emotional healing. It is profound, fundamental, open-handed love, with no expectations and no judgment. Compassion provides non-egocentric nourishment. It’s the kind of unconditional positive regard we all need as children, yet we don’t always get. However late it comes, it is always a most welcome experience. It creates the space in which we can unfold ourselves and grow.
Loving kindness applied to ourselves helps us fully experience our own feelings, however negative or difficult they might be. Breathing in, we embrace our pain with compassion. Breathing out, we stay with our present experience as it unfolds in the moment. It’s that simple. Over time, this process of compassionate attention heals our restless need to struggle with reality, to strive for something better or different or more. Eventually, it heals our separation from our own selves.
To be able to stay with our own experience and allow it to be just as it is -– this is the practice of awareness and compassion combined. Presence-centered psychotherapy uses these as tools for awakening and deepening. Through cultivating awareness, we create a container for our experience. Through cultivating compassion, we open this vessel to the world.
Awareness and compassion are thus two key elements of spiritually oriented psychotherapy – skillful means for the heart and soul. Unlike so many external goals we strive for, they are intrinsic to our nature. Unlike so many pop psych fads, they are grounded in millennia of actual practice. They manifest as regularly, as inevitably, and as naturally as the breath itself.
Presence-centered psychotherapy blends the wisdom of meditation and psychology. Psychotherapy uses the presence and awareness of the other – the therapist – to hone self-awareness. In meditation practice, we refine the application of awareness on our own. Quietly seated by ourselves, we become aware of the faintest aspect of the breath, the subtlest movement of the mind.
Therapy happens once or twice a week: the rest of the time, you might reflect on the hour and muse a bit, letting the resulting awareness percolate through your system. Meditation can happen any time, any place, but again, the process of letting the resulting awareness filter through the body/mind is as important as the practice itself. The precise methodologies differ, but the goal is the same: to immerse ourselves fully in the flow of life by embracing our awareness of our own experience.