I was recently approached by the editor of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy’s spirituality journal “Thresholds” to write a piece for their upcoming Ten Reasons: a series that will focus on why therapists chose to integrate their faith as part of their therapy work. It was timely, as I have felt these past few weeks the need for a writing prompt that got me sitting at my desk and putting pen to paper. Not that I am short of thoughts, reflections, questions…but rather, having something crystallised and focused is much appreciated as I sail through some ups and downs.
And so, here I share some of my initial thoughts. The edited and final piece will appear sometime in the Spring 2024, and I would welcome any feedback that I can usefully fold into that final version. Here you are, my Ten Reasons to develop and commit to a Buddhism-informed psychotherapy.
1. A very sophisticated model of mind and reality
It is said there are 84,000 dharmas or teachings in the Buddhist canon and so it is hard to pinpoint how they have all impacted me. Thankfully, the Buddha categorised them into the “threefold trainings” of sila (discipline or ethical living), samadhi (concentration), and prajna (insight or wisdom). Starting with that final one, as a therapist the Buddhist wisdom teachings offer not just a sophisticated psychology (with descriptions of the self, how that self comes to suffer etc) but an exquisite ontology, epistemology, and methodology scrutinising the nature of reality and of mind. These have all been incredibly powerful in augmenting what I have already come to learn and appreciate from the existential-phenomenological view within the humanistic tradition. More recently, I have been enjoying integrating East and West, science and philosophy, non-dual teaching and neuroscience to explore “the hard problem of consciousness” in my teaching of therapist trainees. As therapists we know the power of facilitating client awareness, and in my experience, having deeper roots in my own awareness has been assisted by such teachings.
This one has caught me by surprise, as I didn’t start practicing meditation to find a spiritual path; and faith is an interesting theme for a Buddhist to speak of given it is a non-theistic tradition. What is it that we have faith in therefore? Especially since becoming a practitioner in the Vajrayana – the more esoteric teachings of the Tibetan schools – I have come more deeply into relationship with life through “being with” things as they are. The practices encourage that fluidity: a surrender to whatever life brings. That requires, and develops, faith. One of the main emphases of the Buddha was to work with the teachings as an invitation: if they don’t work, disregard; and the more the Buddha’s teachings point to my actual experience, the deeper that faith goes. In that respect, none of the teachings are doctrine, they are an experiment. And I love that as a Gestalt therapist!
When I completed the research for my Masters dissertation, one participant described how her Buddhist path was like a “mothership”, a home to come back to. I really appreciated that offering, and I have held it in mind ever since. There is something very powerful in having only one, clearly defined life purpose – to “wake up” and serve others so they may do the same. No matter how challenging a client day has been, or how rewarding a teaching day, there is a place I come back to; a container to rest within, a lens to make sense through. The further one goes along the Buddhist path, the more emphasis is placed on “post-meditation” – and as I write about in my book, there is less distinction between Helen as Buddhist – Therapist – Educator: the thread through all is simply a practice of human being.
4. Contextualising of suffering
It is said by many authors who write about the intersection of Buddhism and psychotherapy that both traditions explore suffering: one on the general level, one on the particular. And I do value how they mutually inform: the Buddhist view examines and explicates, and beautifully in my experience, is that suffering is inherent in life, yet not intrinsic to our nature. We all must go through birth, old age, sickness, and death – there is no escaping those givens and the associated pain. But how we respond to each determines how much we suffer. Things going “wrong” in life is not a personal failing, nor do we need to (or even could) rid ourselves of pain. The task of being human is to change our relationship to the uncertainty of pain of a human existence. I have found this incredibly enabling in my work: to help shift clients from a sense of personal lack to seeing the deficiency arising from the conditions within which they have lived.
5. A deepening appreciation and understanding of the humanistic tradition
On our training courses at the University of Brighton, we take a cross-modality approach affording our trainees the opportunity to look at their chosen modality (eg. humanistic) through the lens of the other (e.g. psychodynamic). Honing this capacity for critical thinking is likewise something I have benefitted from – looking at my humanistic practice through the Buddhistic lens. I have been called upon to deeply examine how East meets West, the overlaps, the complementarities, and indeed the places where they are NOT consistent. And with no doubt, this has taken my practice as a humanistic / Gestalt psychotherapist deeper. I understand existentialism more thoroughly because of Buddhist philosophy; and I practice the phenomenological method with more conviction (and trust) because of my Buddhist meditation.
6. Reflection upon an arc of development
This is related to the above point and another way my appreciation of the humanistic tradition has deepened since bringing Buddhism into sight as a therapist. Gaining more confidence in the “value added” of Buddhism in my work opened the door to exploring the various branches of transpersonal working. I have always valued the work of Jung (seeing him as a bridge between the humanistic and the psychodynamic), yet now I am familiar with the work of other transpersonal advocates and the history of how this tradition was deeply informed by those founders of humanistic movement. To cut a long story short, through the work of Maslow, Wilber, Washburn, Rowan et al, I see an arc of development that we can offer clients through the humanistic onto the transpersonal frame: wholeness of self, to an expansion into / integration and beyond that self into Self. I can locate myself as a practitioner that in the main holds a transpersonal view yet works on the cusp of where these two wisdom traditions meet. A foot in two worlds which are not the same and yet not different either. A seeming duality held in a non-dual view.
7. Offering clients of all faith traditions a place to bring their spirituality
I was fortunate to spend some time with John Welwood in 2016 shortly before he died. John was the originator of the phrase “spiritual bypassing”, and I believe this to be an important phenomenon for anyone working in the transpersonal domain to keep in mind. It has become a powerful motivator for me to offer practitioners – no matter their denomination – a space they can bring their practice path and ensure a grounding of spirit. In the past I have worked with a wide range of “seekers” of truth, from Catholic, Jewish, to Advaita; atheists and agnostics. I see one advantage of being a practitioner of a non-theistic path is that I can provide a benign and benevolent space in which no judgement is made nor any need to proselytise. There are many paths to the mountain top and forming relationship with the divine or true nature of reality (whatever our language is). Maybe the “mindfulness revolution” and its conveyance of meditation as a secular practice has encouraged people my way: as maybe meditation can be of assistance across all contemplative paths?
8. Practice, practice, practice
Speaking of meditation, samadhi is the second of those threefold trainings mentioned in the first point: and here I will fold 3 aspects into 1 point because they outline how I came to build meditation as support within my therapeutic work. As I detail in my book, at first I viewed my practice of Buddhism as very much for me; residing in the background and being how I came to settle my busy, busy mind. You could say it started within a programme of self-care. It then became apparent (through initial explorations of how my Buddhist study and therapy training might be mutually supporting) that meditation augmented my presence and therefore being-there-for- and with- the client; and readers will undoubtedly be aware of the research literature and therapy theory as to the importance of therapeutic presence. And now, perhaps most significantly as I have developed a Buddhism-informed practice, I see my own meditation as becoming more deeply (and subtly) aware of direct experiencing within bodymind, and the power this brings in my feeling-into the relational space and the quality of contact (to use the Gestalt language). We might summarise these three as the use of meditation in service of self, other, and relationship.
9. From empathy to compassion
Returning to suffering…we Buddhists ALWAYS return to suffering! Many of us practicing in the humanistic tradition will know the importance of empathy in our client work. Held by the Buddhist view that contextualises suffering and its causes and placing it central, I have come to have compassion (suffering-with, if we look at the etymology) more in my awareness. Readers might know of the work of Christopher Germer and Kristin Neff; studying their research and mindfulness meditation teachings has given me a language for the distinction and shift from empathy (the feeling of the other’s pain) to one of compassion (where we are moved to action that will help alleviate other’s pain). This also includes to myself! Given suffering is universal and not personal (as described above), I have come into a very different relationship to my suffering – so rather than trying to “fix” my human being, I have come to soften to my own sense of struggle. It is very humbling – and a great leveller – to sit in a room with an Other knowing we are both being all it is to be a human.
10. A system of ethics and values
Sila, or ethical conduct, is the last yet no means least of the threefold trainings mentioned at the start of this piece. This aspect is part of that “mothership” or container principle for my life as practice of human being. To hold benefience and non-malevolence at the fore of my consideration before I act is not so much an ethical (I should be kind) stance, but one that is more from within and based upon personal values and integrity. When the Buddha set out the Eightfold path and the ethics of skilful action, skilful speech, and skilful livelihood, he wasn’t saying “you should”: it was (again) an invitation to notice what we do is linked to what happens next. To speak honestly and kindly benefits not just the recipient of my words but also me and my piece of mind. With clients, when I am more present, I can trust that speaking from my direct experiencing of them, of us is in service of the client. This has been invaluable as I hold in mind what I often describe to our therapist trainees as the difference between “being nice and being kind”: avoiding collusion and trusting the empathic challenge.