American Buddhism & Psychotherapy
Part I: Building an Intimate Partnership
If one of the goals of Rebel Buddha (the book by Dzogchen Ponlop) is to have a true merging of ancient wisdom with the modern world, how can we not talk about psychotherapy? Rebel Buddha says that to keep the ancient tradition fresh and alive, we need to consider all ways the dharma intersects with the modern psyche. In my experience, there is no better place than a therapist’s office to test whether a tradition is truly bringing awakening and freedom to those who practice it. This is the place where people are genuinely relating to their lives and asking the questions, “Who am I now and what has happened to me?”
This post is my first of three geared toward initiating a conversation between American Buddhism and psychotherapy. I begin by introducing the idea of “spiritual bypass” to bring our attention to the difficulty many of us have in integrating our relative and absolute natures. The second post considers psychotherapy as Preliminary Dharma Practice. In the third and final post I imagine Rebel Buddha as a modern psychotherapist providing consultation from her awakened heart.
“Spiritual bypass” is a term coined by John Welwood, Ph.D., to describe the tendency for dharma practitioners to use their practices and the teachings to avoid their personal psychological and emotional issues. I learned about spiritual bypass the hard way. I went through a painful breakup with a man who I thought would have been the perfect Buddhist boyfriend. He’d been meditating for years, had received all the empowerments, and knew the names of all the Rinpoches. When he started misbehaving, my dharma friends consoled me by saying, “Yes, indeed, he has all the qualifications, except that you forgot to check the emotional availability box.
In that same year, there were a number of interpersonal conflicts in my sangha amongst people who I knew really loved each other. Old friends were suddenly not talking to each other and gossip and rumors were flying everywhere. I couldn’t understand how people who were so devoted to the dharma and had been practicing for years, could be so out of touch with their feelings, needs, and relational patterns. Further, within the context of sangha life, there was little forum to talk through and work things out. People would throw up their hands and say, “Oh, it’s supposed to be messy in sanghas!”
I question that assumption and challenge us to consider how we can use the practices and the teachings to get along better as a community. In Rebel Buddha, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche says, “Being a good meditator does not necessarily mean we have good communication or interpersonal skills.” If we are truly practicing generosity, patience, and compassion, how can there be so much interpersonal conflict and complaining? We hear about harmony from our Asian teachers, but I fear this has translated into a belief that we should sweep our issues under the rug and pretend that everything is “fine.” Over the past ten years I have been a client, a therapist, and a dharma practitioner and I know how difficult and humbling it is to integrate my Buddha nature with my humanity. We teach what we most need to learn.
At this time when so many American people are meeting the Buddha, a good question to ask is, “How can American dharma students learn from American psychotherapists to create healthy and sustainable dharma centers? Rebel Buddha says that the Buddhist community should change as needed in order to remain contemporary and relate harmoniously with society. In order for American Buddhism to thrive, we need sustainable communities to nourish it, so that the seeds of dharma can ripen in the minds of American people. My intention here is to propose an intimate partnership in which American Buddhism and psychotherapy can nourish, learn from, and benefit each other.