Interview with Karen Kissel Wegela
Michael Green: To some extent Buddhism and psychotherapy come from different directions. Do you find it uncomfortable bringing these two together?
KW: Buddhism is much more interested in being fully alive, being a whole person, being liberated from suffering and understanding that the obstacle to being liberated is this belief in a false ego, clinging to an idea of permanence, clinging to an idea that we can be happy, that there’s a way to avoid pain. The irony is, of course, that when you stop struggling with the pain in your life it becomes very workable. Western psychology still has a training in getting rid of symptoms rather than seeing some sanity in them.
MG: Are there parallels between the Buddhist approach to psychology and transpersonal and Jungian approaches?
KW: Some but there’s a difference there also. One is a difference that I would call materialism; a lot of transpersonal therapies are interested in getting higher and better and achieving some future state that is different. I know a lot of them won’t say that is what they’re doing, but when I listen to them I always hear these words about higher or transcending. It may be a language question, but it does seem to me to reflect an attitude. Contemplation is very much based on an understanding that materialism, or ego, or therapeutic aggression, which are all related, is the problem. To want to be someplace other than where you are is the problem, not the solution. So that is different.
MG: The notion of brilliant sanity seems to be a core part of your approach?
KW: Brilliant sanity is understood to be our very nature. It is understood to be who we already are in that, when we relax, that’s what we experience. When we stop trying to be somebody else, it’s already there, we don’t have to go and find it. In fact from a Buddhist point of view it’s constantly coming through, it’s constantly showing up anyway. It’s more a question of uncovering than developing.
MG: Is the notion of brilliant sanity something that one would assume of oneself, others in the world and clients also?
KW: Well, I don’t know about assume. I would say investigate. Buddhism has long had a tradition of saying, don’t accept anything on faith, look into your experiences and see if it is true. If not, then discard it.
MG: Language is very important to you in not making something too concrete...?
KW: Buddhism is quite wonderful in that, whatever concepts it presents, it also presents a practice that recognizes that concepts are only concepts. The practice actually cuts through the thing that we learned. It keeps going back to experience.
MG: And the practice of sitting is a core part of the experience of Buddhism?
KW: Sitting is part of the training in Contemplative Psychotherapy, not just the training but the ongoing practice. If I miss practicing for a time then I find myself relying on concept, rather than a direct experience of what’s going on for the client. A unique feature of the Contemplative Psychotherapy program is the Maitri space awareness practice. Part of what they do is to go away as a group to a residential site and live together as a community.
MG: And Maitri means?
KW: Unconditional friendliness. It’s a product of meditation and it’s also there the first time you’re willing to sit down with yourself. It’s an expression of your urge to be with your experience. Friendliness doesn’t necessarily mean you like it. It’s that you’re willing to be with and see yourself as you are. That’s very friendly, the opposite of self-aggression.
MG: As you talk there is a sense of some shared approaches with psychodynamic psychotherapy in terms of dealing with what is there in the moment with someone.
KW: There’s a lot of emphasis in my work, certainly, on what’s going on in relationship in the room between me and the client. I’m not likely to have preconceptions about various theories about what it’s going to be like. The whole point of meditating is to keep dropping those preconceptions. At the same time I have an expectation that people will try to run habitual patterns, they’ll tend to do that with me. I don’t particularly present people with a blank slate. I’m more interested in a genuine relationship, so there is some variation there. The idea of Contemplative Psychotherapy, of unconditional friendliness to who you are, and by extension to who your client is, and to whom everybody else is, the idea is that you are also trying to discover what your style of working is. There’s no one way to do Contemplative Psychotherapy so some people use a psychoanalytic model, and some people do Gestalt.
MG: So you don’t have to be or become a Buddhist to do this training?
KW: There’s a lot of dissatisfaction for a lot of people with the Western approach that is often to ignore your own experience as a therapist. I almost find it incomprehensible that there is training that could be based on starting to work with the client, rather than starting with what you are bringing to the relationship, what are you filtering your observations through, what preconceptions, what expectations, what unfinished issues, all of the countertransference kind of things. It’s not enough just to talk about those; you have to experience them.
It’s shocking to me. I’ve had clients in therapy who’ve been students at other institutions. One client had some pretty severe problems and they sent her out on an internship. There was nothing in that training program that required that she look at her own mind. She dropped out. But I don’t think that was a particularly kind way to treat her, and if she had not dropped out...?
The psychoanalytic tradition has always had this idea of looking at oneself through one’s own analysis. I know some people continue doing their own self-analysis, and that seems important to me. Sitting is a really good way of recognizing what you have solidified and how you have solidified it and then letting it go again. We also have a particular style of case presentation that identifies obstacles, particularly in relation to the client and your own obstacles.
MG: How do you understand change and healing taking place for the client?
KW: For me it translates into helping clients become mindful. Virtually every good therapy teaches mindfulness. First, people develop the capacity to be mindful. Then they use that capacity to examine their own experience, and they start to see how patterns work, how cause and effect works. Often what happens next can have a quality of revulsion, discovering how what they are doing is harming themselves and others, and then taking some responsibility, exploring what arises in those moments and then experimenting with doing things differently, refraining from those same habits, perhaps replacing them with what might traditionally be called virtuous activities. At the same time as they refrain from whatever the negative thing is, they replace it with something less harmful, and we talk about a shift in allegiance, a shift away from neurosis towards sanity, more of a mutual collaborative relationship at that point. We work at helping people find some kind of path, some discipline of mindfulness that they can continue on their own. And along with that, and very important, is the development of maitri. Often when people reach that point of revulsion, a lot of self-aggression can come up. It is the job of the therapist to help them with that, to recognize that, and to point out that there is an alternative.
MG: So maitri is also about friendliness towards one’s own experience?
KW: Yes, it’s an antidote to self-aggression, which I think is rampant in our culture. And then people can continue on their own.
MG: As you talk, it all sounds remarkably simple!
KW: It is, but it is also difficult. The point is to really be there, to not push away your experience when you are with the client, that’s the difficulty. To be with the direct experience of someone else, that’s really what we have to offer. It’s not complicated, just difficult. To be willing to experience pain, to experience not knowing, to be willing to experience wanting to take someone’s pain away, but knowing that that might not be useful. We’re more interested in exploring what is happening than in getting rid of it. The conviction in basic sanity is quite important. If you stay with the experience, some sanity will usually come.