Hold fast to the Great Form within
And let the world pass as it may
Then the changes of life will not bring pain
But contentment, joy and well being
–Tao Te Ching, Verse 35
A woman I work with walks in and begins crying; covering her face, she is looking down, searching for some thing, some words to identify her experience. She speaks in anxious circles, words revealing nothing but the space that she cannot find comforting. She admits that her life is “dominated by thoughts” and that she is constantly mining for a jewel that will explain what is going on.
As she seeks to find meaning, to understand, I feel her suffering, but am also aware that I do not want to add to her experience with probing questions that would distract her. And I don’t wish to take away from her experience by offering soothing words that would only serve to temporarily mute her inner noise. Instead, I just sit with what is revealing itself, with what is arising in the present moment. In this being together, it is understood that nothing needs to change, that there is no pressure to interpret or to understand.
She squirms while watching me as we sit in this process of not adding to or taking away from her experience. She reports as she sits looking down, “It’s like I wake up and am in this body, and I wonder, ‘Is anything there if I’m not obsessing?’” She elaborates, “I’m looking for a mental formula that proves I exist, but I can’t find it!” She is genuinely curious about her experience of confusion. In this act of being present to one another (without an agenda that something needs to be different) there is a sense of completion despite her conflict, her anxiety, and her questions regarding what signifies an experience of being alive. This sense of completion arises from not needing to change or to maintain a condition. Just like in meditation, we view our thoughts, our emotions, and our sensations as passing conditions and don’t need to do anything about them.
The two main benefits of meditation are the attainment of another way of perceiving and relating to reality and more enjoyment of life in general. These benefits are cultivated by quieting the mind through concentration and insight practice. Sitting quietly, we place all of our attention on watching the breath go in and out. A few seconds later, we notice our leg feels stiff, our nose is running, there is a pain in our forehead. We are wondering what’s for dinner.
We notice we’ve been thinking with a sense of dread that there may be a problem in our relationship. As soon as we see we are distracted, we gently pull our attention back to the breath. There is no attempt to explore or understand any of the experience that distracted us. Instead of analyzing any “thing,” that arose, we work with the structure of the mind itself by strengthening its ability to not attach to the passing phenomena of experience with any emotional reactivity. The ability to learn how to rest and to feel at home in our body is cultivated in the practice of meditation. This practice is an invaluable adjunct to the psychotherapeutic process.
“Hold fast the Great Form within/and let the world pass as it may” is a description or an attempt to describe the indescribable. Mystics and seekers throughout time and from diverse cultures have sought to know the answer to “What is the Great Form within.” The Dalai Lama, during a mind-life symposium studying the effects of destructive emotions on brain functioning, was asked about whether every state of mind would have neural correlates. His answer is important, “There is no reason to believe that the very subtlest state—called ‘innate mind,’ the very essential nature of awareness itself, which is its luminous nature—would have neural correlates because it is not physical, not contingent upon the brain” (2003 Goleman).
Yet, this state, which is not a thing, and “not contingent upon the brain,” can have tremendous influence on our experience. Mind training affects a sense of moment-to-moment calm, a resting in the spaciousness that holds everything. Immediate contact with this spaciousness offers the experience of complete simplicity where nothing is missing and nothing needs to change. This process: just sitting and doing nothing, paradoxically transmutes any pain or suffering into quiet calm.
Pure awareness is beyond our ability to understand, to know as a thing. Therefore, unlike the woman above, it is possible to become more anxious before we learn to accept the space of not knowing. This is not a problem. In therapy sessions there is a constant reinforcement of noticing the present moment—whatever is being experienced. We also notice that the things that activate us have a history and a story associated with them, but we are not interested in participating with the thoughts and the stories as much as we are interested in letting them arise and then letting them go.
Our attachment to these stories can create increasing anxiety, but we just sit together and allow an increase in tolerance for the sensations within the body. It is not infeasible that a person might even get angry and say, “This isn’t what I expected. I don’t know what is happening.” So, we allow this and ask if they can notice that they are not their confusion, not their anger.
This can be hard, but not impossible, for someone who is not practicing some form of contemplative discipline. Yet, if they can just witness the passing of time and the moment-to-moment shifts they begin to rest in the sense that the ground of their witnessing is not changing. That ground is what we are looking to touch and hold in this process of feeling very identified with the emotion of confusion and anger. Familiarity with this ground and this baseline of neutrality helps when there is a perceived potent assault on our sense of safety.
The challenge in psychotherapy is to blend what is happening in therapy (all the conditions that are being experienced) with the openness of our essential nature, pure awareness. In any moment in time, we feel either contracted or expanded, and whatever arises is used to enhance the experience of effortless being, of freedom and spaciousness in the present moment.
A person enters the psychotherapeutic process because he or she is experiencing discomfort and emotional reactivity. The contemplative therapist responds from the space of curiosity monitoring the absence or presence of freedom and spaciousness in the present moment. The dance becomes the inquiry between the conditions that a person believes keeps him or her in discomfort, and what is immediately available in the present moment. We use whatever arises to reveal the presence of pure or neutral awareness, and we see how different conditions can be viewed from unconditional presence, the essential nature of pure awareness.
Goleman, Daniel. (2003). Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? New York, NY: Bantam Books. p 206
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