Less personal, more intimate

I had the luxury of a day to myself yesterday; a chance to bathe in “sabbath” and commit the whole day to my practice. From just after 7am in the morning until 5pm, I alternated between periods of meditation and the fourth of the Ngondro practices: a visualisation and mantra practice called “guru yoga”. As a Vajrayana student of Buddhism, I am not at liberty to give the details of the practice, but one thing I am enjoying about this practice is its flexibility. It’s a practice that can be done both formally (on the cushion) and in everyday life while on the move. And so it was, I opened the practice in front of my home shrine, and then took the Guru for a countryside walk over the Downs, mindful to reduce the volume of my mantra recitation whenever unsuspecting dog walkers came into sight!

It was a beautiful day yesterday, the Spring finally sprung and hinting at the summer months ahead. It was thus an environment in which I was already falling “in love with the world” as my teacher Mingyur Rinpoche describes in his book of the same name. Yet what I am learning through this final practice of the Ngondro (a system of practices I have been doing since the autumn of 2019) is how naturally heart opening the resting in the visualisation and mantra are: the practice is designed to surrender to our own, naturally awake being.

In a place of surrender, what is invited forth is an opening that eventually dissolves the solid, sense of self that we tend to carry in our world. Life is painful, and in the face of it we tend to contract our life force. Rather than a self, we act through a self-concept: all those strategies that defend at an attempt to keep out the pain. Therapy helps us look at the futility of those strategies to again reveal the self; the Buddhist path advances us a little more, toward a non-self. Doesn’t sound too enticing I know…but this is not a disappearing, rather a dissolving to reveal that in fact, we are not different to our world, others, nature. This was felt viscerally yesterday – after some two hours of walking, visualising, reciting, I began to feel something of a centreless of experiencing. Helen was dropping away, and a sensing, experiencing, loving remained.

The warmth of the sun on my back, the sight of the blue sky and spring green trees, the sounds of the bees and seagulls – it was a sensorial invitation to being-in-the-world. My heart was opening, and I felt like I was not just love, but love itself. In fact, the words that came to mind were an experience of taking myself on a date…or more accurately, the non-self! And yet, I know from these experiences that it is not all fun and bliss. Such openness (like one experiences on retreat) can leave you open to the sudden “sting” when life re-enters. Indeed, this can be the arc of a psychedelic trip. From the centreless and vast being, through a re-entry that can get bumpy as the dose wears off, and the world rushes back in. I had something similar happen as I chose to walk down the seafront to find coffee and breakfast. Walking in open awareness, undefended; encountering others, the noise and feeling the physiology of my body wanting to close back up.

It was as if I could feel the ego come back online; this helps me see ego as a necessary function to navigate the world. As I write, one of my favourite Thomas Merton quotes comes to mind…

As I write to in my first book* being able to weave two paths into one is really important to me. My path as a therapist and path as a Buddhist may not be the same, but neither are they different: a bit like Self and non-self. And so, this sabbath adventure – on Downland, along seascape – sought understanding and context relevant to my therapy work (with clients, with supervisees, with trainees). This is especially true and figural for me right now as I try to deepen my own understanding of the humanistic tradition in order to become a better teacher of it and convey my understanding in this current book.

Sunday came after a Saturday teaching on the “relationship weekend” to our outgoing, second year trainees / soon to qualify counsellors. With just days left on their course, this final weekend brings together humanistic and psychodynamic students to give an experience of what both modalities share: that healing comes from the relationship between therapist and client (even if we theorise it slightly differently). In the afternoon session, a colleague and myself were sharing some of our experiences of going into private practice – and one thing I spoke to was the importance of developing support. Going into private practice can be an isolating experience, and in order to ride the waves of loneliness and hold the emotional demand of the work, we need other “lone wolves” to gather with, community. As well as understanding friends and likeminded peers, reliable therapists, and encouraging supervisors, I personally benefit from my spiritual practice. My sabbath was not merely “self-care” (which is one aspect yet not all it brings); it nourishes the non-self. How is that important for my work?

Over these past 15 years as a Buddhist practitioner, I have certainly become more self-less. And, since becoming a Vajrayana Buddhist, that process is ramping up – or as I write in my journal at the end of my day of practice…

In taking life less personally, I feel it more intimately.

As I walked along the seafront toward my favourite breakfast vending bakery, the presence of weekend tourists became more and more evident; I felt the urge to close down and became the narrative “maybe I should just go home” – that urge to run away, withdraw. While this is something familiar to me, as an introvert, the sensitivity, clarity, the transparency in my practice container magnified it all. I held the “desire to run” and its bodily “flight” within the container with love, openness, receptivity. This is what Jung called the transcendent function; what Gendlin hints at with the felt sense – in being open to the whole situation, pendulating awareness across openness and contraction, brings new possibility. After making my breakfast order, I stood in the corner of the crowded, noisy bakery. I joked with my bakery server friend “what are all these people doing in MY bakery!” But underneath I was feeling my heart racing and getting hotter and hotter; visualising and reciting, calling upon the support of the lineage.

Experiences like these, while benign or maybe seemingly uncalled for allow me to lean into something that is there very often for me, and certainly a lot of the time in therapeutic dyads. To be sat opposite Other with a less defended self allows the therapist to invite the client into the intimate space. A space that might well hold a both / and quality for our clients: the desire to be seen, the terror to be known. There is something so propounding intimate about residing on this contact point with clients. And the more confident I can be on that edge of love and fear, to feel the murmuration of feeling within, I am able to be of better service.

Undoubtedly, I could not be the therapist I am today without the Buddhist path, especially the turn it has taken since practicing the Vajrayana. Each round of Ngondro has peeled back the onion: from self-concept to self, opening to Self, revealing the non-self.

  • Through the physical practice of prostrations and taking refuge, so much of my underlying self-concept was shaken up into view
  • In the practice of visualising Vajrasattva and the mantra alongside, I was able to bring self-centred behaviour to the fore and be gentle on myself to let it go
  • My time doing the mandala practice illuminated the natural generosity there when ‘I’ steps out of the way and interdependence is clearly seen and experienced

I still have a fair way to go with this fourth practice of Guru yoga; and so it is hard to speak to the impacts on me. I am about one quarter of the way through, so another year, and I will probably be ready to check in! It is useful to be writing about this today though, as next week I fly to Canada for the next round of empowerments. In fact, this is considered THE empowerment of the Vajrayana path – where I will receive my Yidam practice, in what becomes the root practice for life.

Witnessing my relationship to this path over the past 15 years, the past 5 in particular is fascinating; a fascination that I put under the psyche-naut umbrella. I am fascinated by all things “mind” – whether that be my own, others; whether that be in therapy, in meditation, in relationship. I feel so many points coming together, so many connections in this interdependent, Indra’s net.


*still getting used to this phrase now I am writing book two!

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