Wisdom and Compassion Buddhist Psychotherapy as Skillful Means by Kerry Moran
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 materialize. 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 Diane Shainberg.
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?
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?”), because I felt extremely shy and 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 seminar, and found the teachings to be pithy, earthy, and utterly sensible. It was hardly a lightning-bolt conversion—nothing dramatic, no visions or thunderclaps—– but it felt workable, and I knew by that time 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.
For the last 14 years I’ve studied and practiced in the Dzogchen tradition, which emphasizes direct recognition of the nature of mind—the essential pure awareness inherent within each of us. For the past five years, 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.
Ultimate & Relative Reality 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, by 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.
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 refuge from our unfinished emotional business. John Welwood calls this “spiritual bypassing”—the temptation to go up into the head, into unembodied 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 this individual being 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.
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 supported 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.
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 con-text, 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.
Kerry Moran, M.A., is a depth psychotherapist in private practice in Portland. She is a Buddhist practitioner in the Dzogchen tradition and the author of five books, including Kailas: On Pilgrimage to the Sacred Mountain of Tibet. She can be reached at 503-525-1172 or [email protected]with your comments on this article