American Buddhism & Psychotherapy
Part II: Psychotherapy as Preliminary Practice
Clients begin their journey in psychotherapy with similar intentions to the ones Buddha had when he set out on his spiritual journey. What is the truth about my life? Who am I and why do I do things the way I do? Why am I still unhappy when I have everything? Therapy is all about getting real. We begin close to home assessing the current state of affairs of our life and relationships. We start with our neurotic self and look at the ways we try to get personal freedom, love, and connection, but only suffer and come up empty handed. Similar to when we begin meditation, we can only start from where we are.
In therapy, we review the past to get a sense of the origins of certain core beliefs about who we are. Clients begin to see how their whole identities are based upon things that their early caregivers said repeatedly over time. The Buddha also talks about how many of our beliefs about the way things are, are nothing more than things we have been told. Part of the reason we go on this therapeutic journey through history is to process through the emotional pain we were unable to as little ones. Many of us endured abuses as children, and even people who came from healthy families suffer from never feeling seen or loved for who they were. We developed identities to compensate for what we believed to be our imperfections and from there we created lives that made no sense to us because they had nothing to do with who we truly were. Processing through this is challenging and therapy is a safe and effective place to work with and pacify these disturbed emotional states that create so much havoc in our lives.
A good therapist can play a pivotal role on the path by serving as a temporary bridge until the client catches a glimpse of their own awakened state. There comes a moment when a client looks you in the eye as if suddenly the clouds have parted, and they see the light, “Oh my god. All these years, I thought there was actually something wrong with me!” The therapist can foster this by creating an environment of space and love, providing reassurance and trust, and soothing the client’s basic sense of fear and worry about the appearances and false beliefs that make up their subjective world. This “holding environment” says, “Relax, it’s okay, I’m here,” until the client begins to calm down and function better.
Therefore, the goal of therapy is similar to the preliminary stages of meditation where new dharma practitioners achieve a state of tranquility and mental stability. The ocean is calmer and there is less mental and emotional turbulence. When clients experience this, they sense the possibility of change. Might this also be an initial step towards catching a glimpse of the luminous space, free of any reference point? At this point on the journey, clients will often say, “I don’t know who I am anymore!”
I have found that in the latter stages of therapy, many clients develop an interest in meditation and spirituality simply because it feels good to be relaxed and in touch with their body and breath. Like a mother bird, I feel happy to send them on their way to deepen their journey of self discovery. If we are creating the identity of American Buddhism, I think it serves us to include psychotherapy. People have changed, their needs have changed, and I dare say that people are more likely to call up a counselor than visit a dharma center to face the truth of their life. To create the most benefit for sentient beings in these challenging times, it seems wise to work together in intimate partnership.