Buddhism-Informed Contemplative Counseling – Faculty Interviews

Excerpt from: Psychotherapy in Australia (1998), Volume 4, Number 3, pp. 10-14

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: 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 & Buddhist Psychology, 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 & Buddhist Psychology 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 & Buddhist Psychology, 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 & Buddhist Psychology 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.

MacAndrew Jack, PhD, Director of the Graduate School of 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, their own life threatening disease, or simply awareness of their 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 & Buddhist Psychology they are 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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