Mindfulness & Compassion - The Practice of Awareness By Kerry Moran
This article is the last of a four-part series exploring the emerging field of presence-centered psychotherapy. This is an East meets West story. Buddhist principles of meditative awareness have profoundly influenced western psychological practice. Part IV examines mindfulness and compassion as key elements of a spiritually-oriented psychotherapy.
It’s your resistance to your own experience that makes some situations so painful, more than the experience itself.
Staying with your own experience as it unfolds, moment to moment, can be the hardest thing you’ll ever do. No wonder. 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 will acknowledge the fear and ‘do it anyway’—with consideration and kindness for one’s own pain. Spiritual practice is where the “Big No” (your basic rejection of experience) meets the “Big Yes” (your compassionate awareness).
Mindfulness It can take but a short time of self-investigation to reveal the suffering that arises when you freeze and contract around your own pain—a reaction that creates a whole new layer of suffering on top of the original pain. I would go so far as to say that the essence of neurosis is found in such places. It’s where we block ourselves from letting in life.
Presence-centered psychotherapy works with these frozen feelings, thawing them into fluidity through the patient warmth of paying attention. This strategy goes counter to the norm, which is to run away from our own experience and avoid being present, because we are so unhappy. Yet we only make ourselves more unhappy by clinging to stories and concepts that further alienate us from what is going on, in the moment.
The key is to just give your own experience the space to exist: to pay attention to it and actually experience it, rather than compress or contract or run away, rather than attack or reject or judge it, rather than drug yourself numb against it or exaggerate your reaction into hysteria. Each of us has a virtuoso repertoire of negative responses to undesirable experiences. And life generously provides us with endless opportunities to realize that, ultimately, none of them work.
Your fear, your 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 create 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 aware-ness, 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.
The key is asking the simple question: “What’s going on right now? What am I experiencing in this moment?” Turning inside, you check out your 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 your experience. Just being aware, just noticing: the ache in the right shoulder, the breath going in, the hiss of a car moving down the rain-slicked street, a catch in the throat, a flutter of fear, a tightening in the lower back. Underlying this never-ending process, you begin to subtly notice that which notices. Just noticing, just being aware.
The essence of this process is direct experience: noting what arises, and staying with it as it unfolds. Slowly you discover that it’s your resistance to y our own experience that makes certain situations so painful, more than the experience itself. Even overwhelming emotions like grief can expand and blossom in the moment-by-moment attention to what is happening, and the commitment to stay with the experience for just one more breath. You learn to open to the actual quality of the feeling, the pure painfulness of the pain, rather than trying to control it or reject it. And it is in this precise attention to detail, this exquisitely scrupulous awareness of exactly what is happening, that the knot unties in space. You learn to ride the waves of emotion, to move with them rather than struggle against them.
Emotions are inevitable; they exist to the point of enlightenment and no doubt beyond. Spiritual practice in the Dzogchen tradition of Buddhism does not involve suppressing your emotions or overcoming them, but simply allowing them to flow freely through you, without grasping. The same applies to psychological health.
When you practice mindfulness, you 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 dismant-ling your armor, your expectations, your 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 you open up to your own inner process, you 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, you tap into the potential to go beyond superficial cognitive-behavioral solutions to the deepest roots of body, mind, and psyche.
Compassion 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, rationalization . . . the list of accredited, socially approved ways to flee 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 from the merciless mind 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. BUT—apply the clarity of aware emptiness to this scenario, 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 “wakefulness and warmth,” as Trungpa Rinpoche phrased it. Compassion is said to be an intrinsic quality of the nature of mind, radiating automatically and effortlessly from the empty, aware essence that is our basic nature.
Compassion plays a major role in psychotherapy as well, though it isn’t a subject taught in schools or discussed in seminars. Emotional healing requires a warm, receptive, attentive listener; someone who is willing to take in your own experience and feel it fully. The power of this “suffering with”—the root origin of the word “com-passion”—cannot be overestimated. It extends far beyond the unburdening you experience when you talk about your problems with a sympathetic friend. That kind of conversation often concludes with a bit of well-meaning advice or an attempt to cheer you up. That is different than exploring your difficulties in the presence of another who is open, relaxed, and aware; someone who is willing to completely be with you without having to change your situation in any way. In some mysterious way, being fully seen and understood by another, even if that understanding is entirely wordless, can support you in understanding yourself.
It’s as if awareness is contagious. By being fully present for your 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 yourself helps you fully experience your own feelings, however negative or difficult they might be. Breathing in, you embrace your pain with compassion. Breathing out, you stay with your present experience as it unfolds in the moment. It’s that simple. Over time, this process of compassionate attention heals your restless need to struggle with reality, to strive for something better or different or more. Eventually, it heals your separation from your own self. To be able to stay with your 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, you create a container for your experience. Through cultivating compassion, you 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.
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]