Contemplative psychotherapy, unlike many western models of psychotherapy, does not see the individual as ill. Pathology is not the focus of treatment, rather it is present moment awareness of just what is happening that forms the foundation of therapy. The core belief that we all suffer, and that suffering is inevitable, is the basis of the work. The Buddha taught The Four Noble Truths, which identify that suffering exists, what the cause of suffering is, and how we can be released from suffering. Symptoms, ranging from unresolved grief of a partner to fixation on physical appearance, offer an invitation to enter into our shared human suffering. Any aspect of our mental or physical preoccupations can become a vehicle that assists us in uncovering what keeps suffering in place.
Chogyam Trungpa is considered the father of contemplative psychotherapy, having been the first Tibetan lama to introduce Buddhist teachings in English to the United States. Fundamentally, he was interested in bringing the core values of meditation, loving-kindness, and concern for all beings into the mainstream. His teachings had a profound impact on many influential writers and students. He taught individuals how to be fearlessly human, how to bring tenderness and courage, aspects of what he called “basic goodness,” into life. He died in 1987 leaving a legacy of dharma talks, writings, poetry, and art designed to open the heart of anyone willing to be present to his or her life.
How do we bring an attitude of gentleness and courage to our lives? Mindfulness is a basic tool that is taught in meditation. It involves concentration and being in the present moment without any judgment of what is happening. This presupposes that we know what we are doing in any particular moment. We often become so busy living that we put ourselves on automatic pilot. We don’t really notice what is happening. For example, how many times have you even noticed that you are breathing today?
“Gathas” are short verses (in use for 2,000 years) which, when recited, can assist in establishing present moment awareness. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk who has been teaching Zen Buddhism in the US since the early ’60s, offers poetic practice in the use of gathas in his book, Present Moment, Wonderful Moment. So, let’s say you are brushing your teeth, using a mirror, changing your clothes—all of these activities would be accompanied by a short recitation of a verse to bring you into the direct, immediate experience of what is happening right now.
Significantly, present moment awareness requires accessing a lot of bodily energy that is stored from the neck down; in other words, you need to be embodied and feel yourself in your body to be in the present moment. Unfortunately, most of us store our energy in areas above the neck. We are extremely cerebral and analytical; we need to bring this energy down into our whole body in order to create a more “holistic” experience. We can effect this through the use of gathas or slogans, which slow us down, center us in a sense of “being” rather than “doing.” There is power in slogans. The efficacy of slogans is demonstrated in the AA movement where “keeping things simple” and “one day at a time” have assisted countless individuals in their recovery process.
When we bring together the idea that all beings suffer, with the tool of mindfulness, or noticing what is happening in the moment without judgment, we begin to understand the way contemplative psychotherapy interfaces Buddhist thought with a practice for psychotherapeutic inquiry. Yet, you do not have to be a Buddhist to enjoy the benefits of this integration of philosophy and methodology.
An individual calls and let’s me know that he doesn’t feel he is living his potential. He feels stuck in his anxiety and can’t get out of his own way. Firstly, there is the phone call and the description of his struggle. Accompanying that description is the belief that there is a “problem” to be fixed. Inherent in that belief is a judgment. The whole idea of needing to talk to someone in our self-sufficient, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps society can feel stigmatizing. It is this bias that contemplative psychotherapy attempts to refute, by maintaining the premise that individuals are inherently healthy, but their perception of this health is obscured.
In the Vajrayana, or tantric, school of Buddhism, there is no place to go on the path, no end of the road where we will one day satisfy our longing for freedom. Why? Because the very thing we are looking for—wakefulness, freedom—is right here with us right now. So, how do we discern this? We learn about our inherent health by examining direct experience. So, the young man who called and wants to be less anxious—the first thing he needs to notice is the difference between his negative thoughts about what is happening and his immediate, direct experience of what is happening. As he learns to sit with surrendering to this difference, he becomes attuned to what his body is doing and what his mind is thinking. By allowing his observations to remain neutral, he facilitates the experience of “neutral awareness.” This novel experience becomes the stepping stone to supporting an environment of less suffering. This is the beginning of deconstructing his beliefs that have held his suffering in place.
Contemplative psychotherapy posits that only when we have a genuine and abiding desire to free ourselves from suffering can we enter a path of inquiry to do so. Individuals suffer and the wish to suffer less is instinctive. The path to the cessation of suffering can be learned. Contemplative psychotherapy views suffering as the vehicle which can guide us into freedom by looking at the nature of the mind, just as it is; this authentic contact with what the mind thinks, and how it attempts to create a reality, becomes an intimate experience in revealing what we have found unacceptable about ourselves. Once we become friendly with whatever we notice, whatever it is becomes a guest in our home—a guest we invite to tea and let stay for a while, without fearing it will burn the house down.
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