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Tina Fossella, MFT, is a Contemplative Psychotherapist practicing in Seattle, WA and San Francisco, CA. She is passionate about the integration of psychological work and spiritual practice to support people in their healing and transformation.

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.

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  1. For an excellent discussion on spiritual bypass, please read my interview with John Welwood in the latest edition of Tricycle Magazine.
    http://www.tricycle.com/interview/human-nature-buddha-nature
    Note: you need to be a member to see the article and join the discussion.

  2. avatar Kate says:

    Dear Dr. Fossella (and others!),

    My name is Kate and I am reaching out in the hopes that you might be able to help me with an issue that is weighing very heavily on my heart and mind. I have been concerned about my dad for a long time now, feeling that something was amiss with his new-found devotion to Buddhist theory and practice (it is important to note that – while I am not Buddhist myself – my concerns do not lie with Buddhism but with my father’s relationship to his spirituality). In my search for more information – wanting to either confirm my concerns or reassure myself that all was well – I recently came across the term “spiritual bypass” and think it may be what my dad is suffering from. But – and I hope you can forgive me the lengthy correspondence – please let me begin at the beginning…

    About two years ago, my father began exploring Buddhism after formerly having no active interest in religion or spirituality. Over a very short period of time, he became increasingly interested in Buddhist practice, meditation and mindfulness, and particularly in the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh (TNH). At first he seemed elated with the discovery of this new (to him) spirituality, and he seemed unable to talk or think about anything else. As time went on, he spent more and more time meditating, put cards with TNH quotes up throughout the house, became vegetarian and then vegan, gave up alcohol, listened only to Buddhist music and read only TNH books. At first he seemed overjoyed with his discovery of Buddhist thought and – while I was a little shocked at his sudden and overwhelming interest in spirituality – I was happy that he seemed to have found a healthy way to better manage his work-related stress, which had – at times – caused our family to worry about his physical and mental health.

    However, the initial joy he felt seemed to wane and I started to notice that he was becoming more withdrawn and disconnected, isolating himself from friends and family to spend more time alone meditating. He started talking about all the wrongs and suffering in the world, and seemed to conceptualize every issue as a dichotomy between the few aware/mindful (or moral) people like him versus the unaware or uncaring mass majority (including me). I had a hard time understanding or accepting his – in my opinion – black and white idealism, and it caused a significant strain on our previously solid father/daughter relationship. Other friends and family members expressed feeling a similar rift as they felt less and less able to relate to my dad. My parents – after 35 years of a happy and healthy marriage – started to have issues and my mom told me she felt as though Buddhism had become “the other woman”.

    It is very hard to talk about my concerns with my dad because he gets very defensive about his practice. He insists that I (as well as my mom, sister and most everyone else in his life) don’t understand him because we don’t know the teachings. He has even said that he only feels he can be himself – and connect – with people in his sangha. My dad used to have a lot of friends and other interests, as well as very close relationships to his family members, but that seems to have slipped away as he has become increasingly engrossed in his practice. He is determined to convince us (and – from my perspective – himself) that he has never been happier, but that simply doesn’t seem to be true – how could he be happy when the people who were once most important in his life feel so distanced from him and vice-versa?

    I am deeply concerned that my dad is using his new-found spirituality and meditative practice as an “escape” from deeper emotional/psychological issues. I’m not sure exactly what prompted him to turn to Buddhism in the first place – after being a lifelong athiest – but the timing coincided with his father passing away, his children moving out, his mother suffering serious psychological issues associated with aging, and his going into semi-retirement. Further, my dad grew up in a very strict and judgmental household and has always been a perfectionist (and over-achiever). He tends to set unreasonably high expectations of himself and is a very harsh self-critic. I see this happening even within his practice, where he (in rare times of raw emotion) will express his extreme disappointment that – despite his hard work – he isn’t getting the positive results he hoped for his efforts (this admission was quickly recanted because I think he feels that – along with feeling anger, regret or frustration – being invested in any specific outcome is “un-Buddhist”).

    To clarify, I think Buddhism is wonderful but I am very worried that my dad is using it (with the best of intentions) in an unhealthy (even addictive or compulsive) way. I think he is suffering deeply (exactly how or why – I’m not sure) and is looking desperately for answers, but I do not know how to help him. I feel as though the best approach might be to find a therapist with a Buddhist background (since he seems to dismiss non-Buddhist – or at least non-spiritual – people out of hand) who has a strong grasp of the concept of “spiritual bypass” and how to treat the issues that may be causing it, but have no idea how to go about finding (let along accessing) that type of person. My parents live in Michigan and I have been unsuccessful – so far – in locating any promising leads. Please help if you can!

    Sincerely,
    Kate

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