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Wisdom and Compassion: The Practical Wisdom of Presence-Centered Psychotherapy

Wisdom and Compassion: The Practical Wisdom of Presence-Centered Psychotherapy by Kerry Moran

In the previous edition of Alternatives, I began a four-part exploration of the emerging field of presence-centered psychotherapy, which is based on Buddhist principles of meditative awareness. Part II takes a deeper look at the power of compassion and awareness in the therapeutic context.d, Tara Bennett-Goleman, Mark Epstein, and Diane Shainberg.

Thabla 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. Four years 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 the Chinese 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.”

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 solid yet 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.

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 recognizing the truth of our own experiences as they exist in the moment, they are released. The Dzogchen term for this is “natural self-liberation.” Recognizing 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.

We can explore and apply this type of mindful awareness in formal meditation practice. Several thousand years of Buddhist teachings detail the stages of this process, and the extraordinary results that can grow from this seed. Presence-centered psychotherapy has a more immediate, less ultimate goal: relieving inner suffering and tension. By bringing the spaciousness of mindfulness into the therapy room, we create a space in which we can perhaps experience at least a taste of the wisdom and compassion inherent in our basic state.

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]

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