“The doctrine of two truths—the absolute and the relative—holds that there are two ways of viewing the world: as things appear to be, and as they are. In other words, existence is both relative (or conventional) and absolute. The relative or conventional explanation of reality is what we know and experience, while the ultimate or absolute truth is inexpressible, empty (sunya), and lies outside of conventional experience and language. The conventional truth about something is its dependence on conditions. The ultimate truth is its emptiness”
This teaching from the Buddha has been helpful when needing to explain to prospective clients (and the trainees therapists I work with) how the spiritual and psychological can be integrated. The absolute view (and often the basis for a “non-dual therapy“) is that we are already awake and whole; and there is nothing to do other than realise and recognise this – which can be done in any given moment*. The relative view is that we human, and prone to getting caught up confusing the contents of our experience as the truth of who we are. I love how Rupert Spira explains that in experiences such as “I am sad” or “I am angry”, the “I am” remains the same. The “I am” is the absolute; the sad / angry / happy / fearful is the relative experience.
The most often used metaphor in spiritual traditions is that of the ocean and the waves. The ocean is the very depth of being, our true nature; a completeness that is independent of any cause or condition. The waves are a play of energy that come to be known through emotions, thoughts, perception. When we live a life aligned with the ocean, there is no problem, no-where to get other than here. The waves are simply a dance of energy in the space. On the other hand, we experience suffering when we identify with the contents of what is arising in experience. We believe we are the sadness, the anger, the fear…even to believe we are the happiness is a problem because it is short-lived and changes, not something to rely on like we can rely on ceaseless being.
The “perennial philosophy” explains that all wisdom traditions point to divinity as the nature of this ocean: it is “one, timeless, and universal”. At first glance, this might be advocating for the spiritual path being all we need. In some sense, this is indeed the case. If we can simply get out of the turbulence of the waves and drop deeper into the depths. However, that can be confused with a turning our back on life, suppressing our aliveness, denying our experiences (including our wounds). This is what John Welwood coined ‘spiritual bypassing’. A spiritual path lived faithfully is to align with the ocean, trust that as the nature of our being, our home base; and to fully feel the ups and downs of the waves.
Importantly, a non-dual view understands that the absolute and relative whilst not, the same are not different either. Think of the waves – they arise from the ocean and they return there without ever really leaving (or becoming separate). Both the ocean and the wave are made of the same essence i.e. water. Waves are merely an expression of the ocean; just like emotions and thoughts are an expression of our inherent being.
Buddhism explains that our suffering comes down to our mis-identification with the waves. And so, the question becomes what part can psychotherapy play? In my experience, working with a therapist has helped me understand the nature of the waves: their pattern, when they occur, and how they drown me. Ask any surfer, they will tell you all the research and experience that goes into knowing the waves. Yes, on an absolute level I can see through the waves as not who I am; but psychotherapy helps the ‘stickiness’, the vortices to lessen – and we are less likely to be submerged. Western psychotherapeutic language gives us many concepts that explain the currents that lead to emotional waves: scripts, complexes, conditions of worth.
A non-dual therapy, one that integrates spiritual view with the skilful means of psychotherapy helps to experience the waves fully: to know them, to stablise in them, to learn to ride them (and not take them to heart).
Western psychological and Eastern spiritual traditions can seem distinct; and this is one way in which I have come to appreciate the teachings of the Enneagram. Whilst often adopted as merely a personality typing system**, the Enneagram contains the wisdom of both absolute and relative views. It is a map that brings together the View of our true nature with a GPS that shows us where we are off course and trapped in the waves of personality and experiencing. I have shared previously that I identify with the enneatype Six. Recently, I have found myself “yearning for space”. It’s as if the yearning is a call from the very depths of the ocean to “come home”. Knowing the enneagram and my type’s propensities, I can see more clearly the waves that block that path.
Before explaining Six process, a reminder of some key enneagram terminology:
- the ‘passion’ of a type is the reaction to the wounding from our childhood;
- this emotional process supports the ‘fixation’, the intellectual processes.
The passion of a Six is Fear: ultimately, a fear that “I am not made of the same essence of true nature” i.e. I am not the ocean. And so, in losing touch with the ground of this being (the ocean), the Six has a fixation ‘cowardice’ or “It’s not safe”. We are the royalty of distrust and projection, seeing danger and threat everywhere, and so try to create security and nail-down certainty. And so, historically I have got caught up in the turbulence of complexes and old scripts that sabotage the attainment of spaciousness. Very often I would feel the compression of a very busy life, and yet in the fear of “who am I without doing?” I put in structure and plans. The enneagram has helped me put together the experience of “not trusting” my experience with the “doubt” that I am of the same essence as the true nature of being. Historically I would mimic an okayness through all I could do to firm up, to gain certainty. Argh!!!
Now as I feel this yearning, I am learning to release old patterns. My practice helps – settling deeper into the body, trusting ground, I can let go into the depths. Here, I am aware of the waves breaking over me. I feel the pull to act, to plan – and rather than play those fantasies out, I simply rest – like I am paddling along the shoreline. I cannot tell you how much relief comes from this shift.
Obviously, not all non-dual approaches to therapy require use of a system like the enneagram, but for me it has been a way to bring a consistency in integrating the spiritual and psychological.
As the spiritual teachers of the enneagram often impart, the enneagram tells us “who we are not”; it shows us how we disconnect from our true being, our Buddhanature. It can be likened to a disguise, how we parade as a wave, one that obscures our real being as ocean.
*Of course, not as easy as it suggests!
**This is such a limited (and wrong!) view