Interview with MacAndrew Jack

MacAndrew Jack, PhD, Director of the School of Graduate Psychology, shares his thoughts on two frequently asked questions:

 What do you look for in a prospective student?

The Admissions process involves meeting a lot of interesting and wonderful people at a critical juncture in their lives. We get to see all this intelligence, heart, and tenderness in the applicants, many of whom are drawn to the program for very personal reasons. In this process, I love seeing people’s sense of humor. It is just fun that way. And it can really show an individual’s light touch with the world.

I guess I also look for people who are drawn somehow to understanding the nature of awareness. This usually involves a great deal of curiosity and openness, as that kind of exploration can bring uncertainty and groundlessness. While often this is found in individuals with some life experience, in a few instances individuals closer to their undergraduate education have had a dawning sense that this inquiry is important to them.

So we have the curiosity about the nature of awareness, which cuts under the illusions we usually carry, leading us to encountering the world as it is, as opposed to simply the way that we try to pretend it is. By this I mean that individuals in this program come more face to face with the heartbreaking parts of life, like we are going to die, our bodies fail us and register physical pain, and the suffering of others is also our suffering. This takes courage and commitment.

But I don’t want to give the sense that we look for people who are demoralized and stuck in attachment to pain and loss either. Because there is of course so much more to our lives too. So the capacity to experience joy and upliftedness is also important.

Then there is the part about training in the particular path of psychotherapy. I look to see that a prospective student is really interested in working directly with the suffering of others. I see this as coming out of egoless heart, beyond actions designed to solidify and consolidate the individual self. So there is an ability to trust and rest in one’s interdependent nature.

In the MACP, we often see prospective students who have experienced significant suffering in their lives, through the loss of a loved one, his or her own life threatening disease, or simply awareness of his or her own restless mind, etc. Many times this seems to have opened them to a direct experience of something larger, of interdependence maybe and the natural arising of their interest in relieving suffering in themselves and others.

Lastly, I would say that I look for prospective students who are interested in learning about themselves in community. That is, while we learn a lot on the cushion in meditation and on retreat, we also learn a lot through our relationships with each other. In the MACP, we establish a particular kind of space in which the students go through the program together with their group of classmates. This brings a richness, sometimes irritation, and ongoing relatedness which is very helpful to learning how to counsel other human beings in the intimate relationship of psychotherapy.

So there is so much brilliance and sanity that is really pretty easy to see in prospective students.

In your opinion, how does the program prepare students for clinical work?

At the most basic, the program teaches students how to be in human relationship. The research on therapeutic effectiveness repeatedly finds that the quality of the relationship, beyond the specific orientation of the therapist or specific interventions used, is the biggest factor in outcome. But how does a student of psychotherapy learn to attend to the relationship?

In the MACP, we offer an intensive approach to relationship. This begins with establishing an attentive and compassionate relationship with one’s self. Basically, the first year is devoted to space for the student’s introspection, self-understanding, and insight. But insight itself is precarious, as often we have reactions to what we find out about ourselves. We take care to help students to foster friendliness to what they find in themselves. That is called Maitri. So students go through a pretty rigorous process of developing self awareness and in that precarious space of discovery they also learn warmth, forgiveness, and softness for their own humanness.

The perspective of the MACP is that it is out of this awakened heart for oneself, that generosity and helping for others can spring. Students also develop a first hand understanding of the vulnerability of a person in pain, and a steadiness and trustworthiness with that vulnerability. So while we sit with another in pain, we have all kinds of reactions and discomfort ourselves as therapists. Training in non-impulsiveness at this point is essential, and quite subtle, in order to discern what of these impulses is likely to be helpful at any given point. We offer specific training in how to identify motivations that are geared solely toward the comfort of the therapist, and practice with not acting unconsciously on these impulses.

So I would say that we train the most fundamental ground of relationship, both with oneself and with others. The students have many, many opportunities to see disowned parts of the self, ways that they don’t like themselves or others, as they study and progress through the program as a community. There are supports from the program for this in the form of training in small and large group process, working with a personal Meditation Instructor for the three years of the program, and intensive retreat practice.

Of course, though, the program is not actually a therapeutic community, so we are not all here to work through every member’s issues or struggles. Many students find it an excellent time to be in personal therapy to really address the challenges that are stirred up by the program.

We also stress that graduate training is a beginning and not an end in professional development. We encourage students to seek additional specialized training in their areas of interest including Dialectical Behavior Therapy, EMDR, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, addictions counseling, and so on. Some of that they will get in the program, but in the scheme of things, three years of graduate study that is broad based can only be a beginning in any given area. All techniques rely on the sound judgment of the therapist, on the ability to discern what intervention to use when. The MACP provides this ground for whatever techniques one gravitates toward in their professional life.

So when a student graduates with a Masters in Contemplative Psychotherapy he or she is extremely well prepared to encounter the intensities of intimate therapeutic relationship, which is the space where real help and healing can take place. Agencies both locally and increasingly nationally, know this about our students and seek them out for positions where maturity, trustworthiness, and steadiness are called for. Sometimes this takes the specific form of working with people in extreme states, like psychosis or suicidality, but it is also helpful simply working directly with suffering in whatever form.

If I were to sum it up, I’d say our students learn to awaken the wisdom of their own open heart, and how to work with this in the everyday, grounded reality of human relationship. I’d say this is what psychotherapy is really about.

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