Contemplative Chaplaincy, Psychotherapy, and Buddhist Ministry: Similarities and Differences

Foundations of Contemplative Care, NYZCCC, 2017

Contemplative Chaplaincy, Psychotherapy, and Buddhist Ministry: Similarities and Differences

I’ve just completed the nine-month Foundations of Contemplative Care program at the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care (NYZCCC) as a support for my part-time volunteer role as a chaplain associate in an acute-care hospital. I wish to express my profound gratitude to Koshin Paley Ellison, Robert Chodo Campbell, Evan Zazula, all the NYZCCC staff, and my forty Foundations co-participants who helped make the program such a profound learning experience. The following summarizes my view of how contemplative chaplaincy both shares features with and differs from psychotherapy and Buddhist ministry.


Japanese Tea masters are familiar with the saying, “ichi-go ichi-e”—“one time, one meeting.” It means that each time we meet is a unique, unrepeatable moment—something precious to be savored and treasured.

Volunteering in an acute care hospital with an average length of stay of just three days, I get to see most patients only once. If hospice chaplaincy visits are poems, acute care chaplaincy visits are haikus. Seeing people just once for, at most, an hour or so raises immediate questions. How can one make such visits meaningful? How can two people, meeting as strangers, have an encounter that makes a difference? What kind of difference does one want to make? I’m aware each time I enter a room that this is truly one time, one meeting. I enter with one question in mind: what’s possible between us as two people right now? How can this moment be of benefit in some way for the person I’m dropping in on?

While any brief encounter can be freighted with meaning, there’s something about being in a hospital that makes it more likely to occur. The patient is often in a heightened emotional state—fearful, angry, in pain—and may be encountering significant existential questions involving the possibility of death, disability, dependency, transfigured appearance, and changed habits, vocations, and relationships. The contemplative caregiver is entering the room in the role of “chaplain” with all the connotations the term carries for the patient. Contemplative chaplains are the bearers of the patient’s projections. We’re coming, in the patients’ imaginations, to pray for or bless them; to hear their confessions or doubts; to offer reassurance, comfort and solace; and to talk about ultimate things. Or else we’re coming to offer platitudes and hogwash; to be scolded, blamed, and berated; to be argued with or converted or whatever else being a “chaplain” signifies for the other. We are God’s intermediaries, purveyors of the opiate of the masses, authoritarian repressors, and the bearers of chicken soup all in one.

This blog post is an attempt to sort out my thoughts about contemplative chaplaincy and how it both shares features with and differs from psychotherapy and Buddhist ministry. In sorting these thoughts out, I’m comparing my chaplaincy experience with my prior experiences as a clinical psychologist and as a novice Zen priest. In thinking about this, it’s become clearer to me that there are certain skills and habits of mind that one acquires as a psychologist or a priest that carry over into and enhance contemplative chaplaincy. There are also certain skills and habits of mind one acquires as a psychologist or a priest that interfere with contemplative chaplaincy. It’s useful to sort out which are which.

By contemplative chaplaincy, I mean an approach to being with people who are troubled, sick, or dying that emphasizes presence and communicative intimacy without any specific predefined destination or goal other than establishing, maintaining, and repairing breaks in that presence and intimacy. The assumption underlying this approach is that accompanying a person on his or her journey is the most important feature of contemplative care—really being with him or her—and if one can make that happen—if the other person can experience the “being-with” of the caregiver, and can feel that he or she is heard and appreciated in the fullness of his or her verbal and nonverbal communication—then several beneficial things may happen in turn.

First, the fundamental aloneness that so many suffering people experience is, at least in that moment, changed and mitigated—that feeling that no one understands the specific and particular texture of one’s suffering and what it is like to suffer in exactly this kind of way, or that no one cares or appreciates or fully hears what it is the sufferer is trying to share, express, or convey. We can all remember what it was like as young children to be alone and afraid in the dark, and how it felt qualitatively different once a parent came into the room to lie down next to us, to hold our hand, and quietly talk with us. One can never underestimate the transformative power of being-with.

Second, there is an internal process that unfolds when one experiences being fully heard. When we feel we haven’t been heard, we feel we have to keep repeating what hasn’t been heard until someone finally “gets” it. Until that point we’re stuck and can’t move on. We aren’t ready to hear or discover something new that hasn’t been felt or acknowledged before. Once we are heard, there is an inner process that is ready to unfold. The stuck-ness is gone and something new is free to appear. That something else may be something we’ve never noticed before about our own situation or our feelings about it—some undiscovered or unacknowledged facet of what is implicit, waiting to be experienced. Every situation is infinitely intricate and complex, like a tangled ball of yarn, connected in some way with everything else we’ve ever known, thought, or experienced. Pull one end of the string a bit, and a little more unravels, revealing itself in the light of consciousness. By being with and hearing a suffering person, we co-create a shared space in which the sufferer’s experience can unfold in new and surprising ways.

Third, if the contemplative chaplain is sufficiently attuned to the rich and specific language that sufferers use—especially their lively use of metaphor, imagery, and symbol—it’s possible to help sufferers stay attuned to their own unfolding process in a way that facilities their discovery of new ways of experiencing their situation, with the discovery of new inner resources, and with a feelingful transformation of their relationship to suffering.

In addition to these three fundamental aspects of “being-with,” there are two other facets to contemplative chaplaincy that loom large in my experience: the “mobilization of healing energies” and the “witnessing of existential choices.” The first is the mobilization of the patient’s internal healing resources. While we still know comparatively little about the role psychological processes play in disorders involving the autonomic, endocrine, and autoimmune systems, one can make a good case that reducing anxiety and panic and mobilizing hope, optimism, equanimity, gratitude, acceptance, humor, and a sense of internal control can all have potentially beneficial effects on one’s suffering and maybe, also, on the disease process itself. There are also, however one wants to conceptualize it, energies and internal resources associated with religious archetypes (Jesus, Jehovah, Allah, Krishna, the Buddha, Kwan Yin, and all the various spirits, angels and saints) that can be mobilized through prayer and blessings and that have the potential to reinforce movements towards wholeness and well-being.

The second is witnessing the sufferer’s exploration of his or her existential choices. Many patients experience their illnesses as a kind of crossroads experience—as a wake-up call, or as an enforced time-out from routine that provides an unasked for opportunity for reflection. Patients often want to tell the chaplain how their illness marks some crucial turning point—how old ways need to be let go of and new directions sought out and begun. Witnessing and acknowledging turning points helps vivify and reinforce them, increasing the likelihood they may be instantiated in behavior once the patient has left the hospital.

In all of these five aspects of contemplative care—being-with, fully listening, linguistically tracking the experiential process, mobilizing healing energy, and witnessing existential choices—the chaplain is sensitive to whether, in fact, this is the kind of intimate contact the sufferer really wants in this moment. The chaplain is always assessing what is possible in the meeting between two people as these possibilities wax and wane throughout a chaplaincy visit. Sometimes people want company; sometimes they wish to be alone. Sometimes they want some specific other person to be with them—not necessarily the contemplative chaplain. Sometimes they are weary or in great pain and just want to obliterate consciousness. Sometimes they are not open to exploration that might dredge up feelings they would prefer to keep in abeyance. Sometimes they need to maintain a state of denial. Sometimes they need to pretend to have it all together, to be perfect, to be competent to deal with everything on their own without assistance, to be strong. The contemplative caregiver needs to be sensitive to this at all times, to give space when space is needed, to be superficial when superficiality is called for. We all go through life and death as best we can. Some people leave this life with grace, some go out kicking and screaming, and some need to pretend they aren’t leaving at all. The contemplative chaplain is never afraid to knock on any door—or rather, the contemplative caregiver is prepared to knock on any door however anxious he or she may be—but the contemplative caregiver is also always prepared to leave doors unopened when appropriate, or to have doors slammed in his or her face.

It’s all well and good to talk about “being-with” or “communicative intimacy” or “presencing,” but the question remains, what exactly are we talking about when we use these terms? These terms overlap to some degree with other frequently used terms such as “mindfulness,” “being in the here-and-now,” “openness,” and so on. If one is a meditator, it’s possible one has a leg up on understanding precisely what these terms convey, but it’s also possible to understand them without having any meditation experience—some people do it more or less naturally—and it’s also possible to be a meditator who engages in focused-attention meditations (as opposed to open monitoring ones), and never get the “feel” for engaging in these modes of being while in communication and interaction with another person. In understanding “being-with” and “presencing,” metaphors like “dropping down into the body,” “spaciousness,” “equanimity,” “silence” and “slowing down” also come to mind. We all know what it’s like when people are really fully paying attention to us, and when they’re only half-heartedly doing so. We know what it’s like when people are listening to us with their minds on their next reply, and when people are listening so they really “get” us. We all understand what it’s like when someone’s relationship with us is “instrumental”—they’re trying to use us or do something to us in some way, and when it is an “I-Thou” relationship involving “letting be,” that is, encountering us and letting us be just as we are.

The contemplative chaplain is interested in quieting his or her chattering, scheming, planning mind as much as possible. He or she is not worrying about what to say next or whether he or she is being liked, approved of, valued, successful, or competent. Or rather, all those concerns are there—noticed, and allowed to come and go in a more spacious field of awareness—one that also includes awareness of one’s body, emotions, and felt senses—an awareness that isn’t centered in one’s “head” but is more likely centered mid-torso or perhaps, in one’s hara or dan t’ian. This field of awareness is a bi-personal field (or if relatives, nursing aides, or friends are also present in the room, a multi-personal field) in which one is also aware of the words being spoken, the gestures, facial expressions, and tones of voice of self and other, and the reactions to those words, gestures, and expressions as they arise in oneself and the other moment-by-moment. Of course, it’s impossible to simultaneously attend to the richness of this field in all its complexity. One can only shuttle back and forth, dancing between various “internal” and “external” objects of awareness. To do this well, one must first slow down sufficiently to allow the back-and-forth awareness of the myriad complex facets of experience to arise—not rushing from one to the other, but allowing time for each facet to be savored, appreciated, acknowledged, and then let go of. This slow, gentle, dance of aware-ing occurs within a larger context, and it is the gestalt of this larger context that helps keeps these shifting aspects of awareness relevant to the purpose of “being-with.” It is the larger context of being curious about the other person, wishing to fully get to know and hear them, wishing to be fully present with them, and wishing to be of real benefit to them.

If there are similarities between this contemplative “being with” and meditation, the astute reader may also have already recognized the similarities between “being with” and certain forms of psychotherapy—especially those existential-humanistic psychotherapies (e.g., Rogers, Gendlin) that emphasize relationship, empathy, and the creation of the fundamental conditions that facilitate therapeutic change. In these therapies, the core therapist skills involve being a good listener, conveying accurate empathy (letting the patient know they’ve been accurately heard), being authentic, and helping the client stay in touch with his or her internal processing—especially somatic-affective-intuitive rather than cognitive processing—what Gendlin calls one’s “felt sense” of the complex, intricate whole of a situation.

How is the task of the contemplative chaplain different from that of the psychotherapist? The first important difference is that the psychotherapist assumes an expert role vis-a-vis the patient. The therapist is being consulted because, presumably, he or she knows something that the patient does not. He or she is an expert in something or another. That “something” may be “diagnostic categories” or “personality dynamics” or “cognitive errors” or “reinforcement schedules,” or “hypnotic inductions,” or “family systems,” or something entirely different depending on the type of psychotherapist he or she is. In contrast, the contemplative chaplain starts from the vantage point of “not knowing” and “beginner’s mind.” He or she may be an “expert” in establishing rapport and in checking with his or her own internal process, but he or she is not an expert in knowing the client, understanding the client’s problem—if in fact the client has a problem—or knowing what might be best for the client. The contemplative chaplain starts with an attitude of curiosity and being interested in finding a way to meet the patient where the patient is, but other than that, he or she has no idea of what might possibly unfold. He or she is equipped with a sense of adventure, a wish to be of benefit, and little else. There is no guiding theory other than trust in “being-with.”

The second important difference is that the therapist is attempting to fix a problem. You wouldn’t come to consult with a psychologist without one. There is a tacit or explicit assumption that there’s something wrong with the patient that needs fixing. The contemplative chaplain starts with no such assumption. The chaplain has not been invited into anyone’s room—he or she is entering the patient’s room unbidden. The patient hasn’t asked for a chaplain, and probably hasn’t thought he or she needed or wanted to see one. This strange, unknown person bearing a suit jacket and a nametag has wandered into the room. Perhaps the patient is curious, perhaps not. Perhaps he or she wonders what this person—the chaplain—wants with him or her, what the chaplain wants to do to him or her. Every other stranger who enters the room has a specific task and function—drawing blood, giving medication, taking vitals, changing bedpans, bringing meals. What does this person want? The contemplative chaplain is the one person walking into the room without an agenda, other than being-with. The chaplain doesn’t assume the patient has some problem needing fixing. The chaplain begins with the attitude that we’re all doing the best we can, that we’re here just to meet and be together as best we can. By “we” the chaplain means the patient and him or herself. We’re all the same, all of us in the midst of our complicated, messy lives. We’re all of us wounded, all of us competent. We’re all of us dying, some of us quickly, some of us more slowly. Whether we succeed as two strangers in meeting together or not, it’s the best we could manage in this moment given our respective limitations.

We can think of other differences between the psychotherapist and the contemplative chaplain as well. Psychotherapists plan out interventions; contemplative chaplains just have conversations. Psychotherapists want to change patients; contemplative chaplains have no investment in the patient changing. Psychotherapists carry out interventions: they teach, convince, exhort, reinforce, give homework, hypnotize, offer interpretations and advice, and so on; Contemplative chaplains offer their presence.

So far I’ve been comparing contemplative chaplaincy with psychotherapy. How does contemplative chaplaincy compare with Buddhist ministry? It should be apparent by now that there are skills one acquires in Buddhist practice that help foster the kind of skills that a contemplative chaplain needs. These include an understanding of the contemplative stance which shares so much in common with the meditative stance: mindfulness, spaciousness, embodied awareness, being present, being fully attentive, and approaching things whole heartedly and one-mindfully. There are also one’s Bodhisattva vows that orient one towards behaving beneficially towards others in conjunction with the path ethical elements of right livelihood, right action and right speech. Finally, there are the Buddhist emphases on equanimity and interconnectedness and the Buddhist de-emphases of ego-aggrandizement and goal-directedness and achievement. These are all helpful qualities for the contemplative chaplain to cultivate.

But there are also aspects of the Buddhist ministry that can get in the way of contemplative chaplaincy. For example, we might find ourselves leaning in favor of patients finding “Buddhist” solutions to their difficulties. As priests, we might prefer they find ways of dealing with illness and death that accept impermanence as a fundamental fact of existence, or that emphasize self-compassion, kindness towards others, and similar Buddhist qualities. We might find ourselves wanting to teach an anxious patient meditation, teach an angry patient loving-kindness, or a patient mourning loss of function how to be grateful for their remaining capacities. After all, the core of our first Bodhisattva vow is to not just to help others, but to help others “cross over” to enlightenment. This urge to “preach and teach” is antithetical to being-with, being present, and fully listening. It can useful to remember than in many of the Pali suttas, the Buddha was reluctant to offer an opinion on all sorts of things until he was explicitly asked to do so three times.

Additionally, the chaplain’s identification as a “Buddhist priest” can sometimes get in the way of the patient’s receptivity to his or her presence. “Buddhists” as a group are generally viewed positively by the U.S. Population. The general population’s view of Buddhists is roughly equivalent to its view of Evangelical Christians, and only slightly less positive than its view of Catholics, “Mainline” Protestants, and Jews. Nevertheless, there are religious groups whose views on Buddhism are somewhat more negative and who may not be open to a Buddhist chaplain’s visitation, or who may be called upon to try to “save” the Chaplain as a matter of religious duty. In principle, this barrier is no different than the way that atheists, for example may receive a “chaplain,” or the way a Christian might receive a Jewish Chaplain. The patient’s reaction to the chaplain’s identification becomes grist for the mill as the chaplain explores whether it’s possible for patient and chaplain to meet together in an authentic and beneficial way.

The patient’s spiritual path, the patient’s view of the chaplain’s role, and the patient’s view of the chaplain’s spiritual path intersect in complex and endlessly fascinating ways. Just this past week, for example, I visited three patients who exemplified these complexities.

The first was an alcoholic who’d stopped drinking a decade ago after miraculously surviving an assault. After eight years of sobriety, he’d resumed drinking and developed cirrhosis of the liver. That’s why he was in the hospital. He’d broken his promise to God to never drink again, but now God was also offering him another chance: his hospitalization was a wake up call. This time he wasn’t going to promise God he’d never drink again. Humans are weak and can’t necessarily keep their promises. Instead, he was going to pray God grant him the strength to keep his resolve one day at a time. He saw me as someone to confess to. After listening attentively, I asked if he would like us to pray, and together we devised a prayer that acknowledged his sincerity, his weakness, and his wish for divine assistance.

The second patient was distressed that her stay in the hospital was taking so long. We talked about her illness and its impact on her life, but her mind soon turned to religious themes and she asked me about my own beliefs. I replied that I ministered to all faiths– that while I was personally a Buddhist, I considered all religions valid spiritual paths to the sacred. She strongly objected to this: Accepting Jesus was the only route to salvation! Given her palpable concern for my well being, I asked if she would like to pray for me. She embraced the opportunity, praying that God open my heart to the truth. God had prolonged her hospital stay so that we could meet.

The third patient wasn’t interested in talking with me at all. He said, “Tell me what you want to tell me and get it over with.” Whatever it was I had to tell him, he wasn’t interested. He was apparently used to people telling him things he had no use for. I replied I had nothing to tell him; I was only there to listen. He responded by telling me that the doctors said his body was “riddled with cancer,” adding, “but I don’t believe in cancer.” “What do you believe in?” I asked. “Jesus,” he replied. I told him that I understood. He may have turned his body over to the doctors to do whatever they thought best, but his soul was with his maker.  We prayed together, saying that Jesus determines all things—who shall live and who shall die, who has eternal life and who does not—and that we trusted Him to always do what was best.

As Zen Master Dizang says, “Not knowing is most intimate.” One can never anticipate what direction spiritual conversations may take. In previous weeks, similar kinds of conversations had gone in uniquely different directions. Two weeks earlier, an atheist patient informed me that it was pointless for us to talk. When I suggested that wasn’t necessarily the case, he challenged me, asking, “What then should we talk about?” I looked around the room for some clue as to how to begin. “Tell me about your tattoos,” I said, seizing on the most salient aspect of his appearance. An exploration of his tattoos led naturally into a discussion of his life philosophy and how his deepest goals were at variance with his current life situation.

A month earlier, a patient had issued a full-throated cry for me to leave her alone: “Get out! There is no God!” I stayed and listened to her harrowing tale of being savagely beaten and miscarrying her baby. She told me how, throughout her entire life, well-intentioned people had told her they “cared,” but nobody really did anything to help. I was just another one of those people. We spent an hour in Hell together. I only hope it was better for her than spending that hour by herself.

The point of these vignettes is that none of these spiritual encounters had anything to do with my specific beliefs as a Buddhist priest, and that there are ways, if I wore my being a Buddhist priest too heavily, that being a Buddhist priest would have undermined my role as an interfaith chaplain. We are here to listen to and be with patients in whatever way seems beneficial; not to teach or preach. What my Buddhist training offers me, however, are the Zen Peacemaker Order tenets of “not-knowing,” “bearing witness,” and “compassionate activity.” These tenets are the very backbone of contemplative chaplaincy.

Allow me to conclude this comparison of the roles of the contemplative chaplain, psychotherapist, and Zen priest with a joke designed to capture the essential differences between them. It’s not a great joke—but I never claimed to be a comedian.

A Zen priest, a psychologist, and a contemplative chaplain walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Say, did you hear? Joe’s in the hospital!” The priest says, “I’ll go visit and teach him about impermanence and non-attachment.” The psychologist says, “I hope he doesn’t get depressed! I’ll go visit and encourage him to think more rationally.” The contemplative caregiver remains silent, as if meditating. “What are you going to do?” the bartender asks, puzzled by the silence. “What will you say to Joe when you visit him?”

“Tell me the whole story,” the chaplain replies.







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Dancer/Choreographer Sally Gross (1933-2015)

Dancer/Choreographer Sally Gross (1933-2015)

Sally Gross, the acclaimed minimalist avant-garde dancer and choreographer, passed away last week at the age of eighty-one.  If you’ve never seen one of Sally’s live performances, you might have seen her in the 1959 “beat” film Pull My Daisy (together with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac) or in the 2007 documentary, The Pleasure of Stillness, that noted filmmaker Albert Maysles made about her work. Sally was the friend of a friend, and I’d the good fortune to see her dance live over a decade ago at the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio. I also had the good fortune to have Sally accompany me on a journey five hours up to and five hours back from Toni Packer’s Springwater Center for Meditative Inquiry where we’d gone together on a seven-day silent retreat.

Sally wasn’t in the best of moods for our trip. Her long-term boyfriend, art dealer Richard Bellamy, had passed away in 1998, and if I remember correctly, there had been some dissension between Sally and his family in the wake of his death.  While my memory about the particulars is somewhat fuzzy, I distinctly remember Sally as still actively angry and grieving a she talked about Richard all the way up to Springwater.  At the time of his passing, Richard served as an art dealer for the work of only one artist, the abstract expressionist sculptor Mark di Suvero. I wasn’t familiar with di Suvero’s work, but I’d learned of his existence only a few months earlier when he received a Governor’s Art Award from New York Governor George Pataki in an impressive ceremony alongside the ancient Egyptian Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Temple of Dendur

The Temple of Dendur

I happened to be there because noted photographer Milton Rogovin, the father of a friend, was also receiving an award that night. Mark di Suvero gave a memorable acceptance speech that made a lasting impression on me, and as a consequence, when Sally mentioned his name, the name meant something to me.  At the time I thought it was interesting — I’d never heard of di Suvero before, and here he’d “turned up” twice in just a matter of a few months. Life’s funny that way. I decided that I’d have to familiarize myself with his work once I got home.  As a curious aside, di Suvero’s name came up for me once more a decade later when my daughter completed an artist’s residency at his Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City.

On the road back from Springwater, Sally told me that her entire retreat experience had been permeated, haunted, and dominated by Richard’s “presence.” She spent the entire week processing her complex feelings about their relationship and his death. We were still caught up in talking about this when I noticed with some alarm that I’d missed my exit off Route 17 where it intersected with Route 84. I had gone to Springwater several times in the past, and had never missed my exit before!

I got off the next exit, and rather than doubling back, tried making my way to Route 84 along some back roads.  Along one of those roads, we passed a country inn. The Inn was familiar to Sally —  she and Richard had stayed there once and she reminisced with me about it.  A little further along, we found ourselves passing the Storm King Art Center — an outdoor sculpture garden which I had never seen before — and Sally began pointing out an impressive series of giant di Suvero sculptures that were clearly visible from our car along the length of the road. Suddenly, missing my exit didn’t seem a mistake, but deeply connected in some mysterious way to Sally’s unrequited grief, as if Richard’s ghost was somehow guiding us.


di Suvero sculptures at Storm King Art Center

Psychiatrist Carl Jung coined a word for these kinds of seemingly meaningful coincidences — synchronicity — by which he meant temporally coincident occurrences of acausally connected events. Jung thought that events could be meaningfully connected through some principle of simultaneity distinct from the usual connectivity of sequential cause-and-effect. He believed that meaningful coincidences like these revealed something profound about the deep structure of the universe — something akin to the “spooky action at a distance“ in quantum entanglement.  In Synchronicity (1952), Jung provided an example of synchronicity at work in psychotherapy:

Psychiatrist Carl Jung

Psychiatrist Carl Jung

“My example concerns a young woman patient who, in spite of efforts made on both sides, proved to be psychologically inaccessible. The difficulty lay in the fact that she always knew better about everything. Her excellent education had provided her with a weapon ideally suited to this purpose, namely a highly polished Cartesian rationalism with an impeccably “geometrical” idea of reality. After several fruitless attempts to sweeten her rationalism with a somewhat more human understanding, I had to confine myself to the hope that something unexpected and irrational would turn up, something that would burst the intellectual retort into which she had sealed herself. Well, I was sitting opposite her one day, with my back to the window, listening to her flow of rhetoric. She had an impressive dream the night before, in which someone had given her a golden scarab — a costly piece of jewelry. While she was still telling me this dream, I heard something behind me gently tapping on the window. I turned round and saw that it was a fairly large flying insect that was knocking against the window-pane from outside in the obvious effort to get into the dark room. This seemed to me very strange. I opened the window immediately and caught the insect in the air as it flew in. It was a scarabaeid beetle, or common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), whose gold-green color most nearly resembles that of a golden scarab. I handed the beetle to my patient with the words, “Here is your scarab.” This experience punctured the desired hole in her rationalism and broke the ice of her intellectual resistance. The treatment could now be continued with satisfactory results.”

Of course, skeptics will dismiss this as “just coincidence.” In a universe with an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters, coincidences like these will inevitably appear, but they’re ultimately meaningless.

But then there are stories that seem so remarkable, they seem beyond mere coincidence.  Like the time my friend Victoria from Nigeria had the eerie feeling that something awful had happened to her brother back home.  Alarmed and disturbed, she called her parents in Nigeria, who assured her all was well. Several days later, however, she received another phone call from her parents.  Her brother was dead.  Unbeknownst to them, he’d died days earlier in a car accident while far from home — the very day Victoria had first called them. The police had just brought them the news.

The eminent psychologist, Charles Tart, posted one of the most convincing examples of synchronicity I’ve ever read on his T.A.S.T.E. (The Archives of Scientists’s Transcendent Experiences) website.

Psychologist Charles Tart

Psychologist Charles Tart

In 1974, Tart drove to pick up an East Coast psychologist named “Terry” who was visiting Berkeley California and staying at an address at 2924 Benvenue Avenue. They were going to go out for a cup of coffee.  As he was driving to pick Terry up, Tart’s mind was suddenly overcome by thoughts of violence:

“…I lost track of what I had been thinking about and instead found myself thinking about bad neighborhoods with criminal gangs in them…. The thought not only persisted, it quickly built into a frightening set of obsessions about being beaten up, about gangs of people with guns, shooting, violence, and the conviction that I would be mistaken for a burglar and shot when I walked between the houses to meet Terry at the kitchen door. I became very frightened and wanted to turn the car around and drive away as fast as possible. The closer I got to Benvenue Avenue, the worse I felt! … I felt intensely ashamed and embarrassed: I had to be crazy to feel like this! There was absolutely no reason for any normal person to feel this way! The psychologist part of my mind diagnosed me as having a paranoid schizophrenic attack of high intensity…”

When he finally reached Benevenue Avenue, Tart searched for a parking space, then walked back to where Terry was waiting for him.

“I was still quite frightened and I looked into every shadow and parked car, and between houses, looking for gangs or an ambush….  Much to my relief, Terry was waiting out in front of the house… We said hello, chatted as we walked back to my car, and drove off to a coffee shop…”

Tart didn’t tell Terry about his weird experience.  They were still in the process of just getting acquainted, and Tart didn’t want Terry to think he was crazy.  A week later, Tart received a letter from Terry, who’d subsequently returned back to the East Coast.  In the letter, Terry wrote that he’d had an almost identical paranoid experience to Tart’s while waiting for him to arrive.

“…While he was waiting for me in front of the Institute, he started feeling paranoid, worrying about people with guns and getting shot! He too felt pretty silly and ashamed. He was relieved when I arrived and we left for the coffee shop.”   

And then — the most interesting part of Terry’s letter!  As it turns out, at the very moment when Tart and Terry were experiencing their simultaneous paranoid episodes, several cars with members of the Symbionese Liberation Army were parked alongside Benvenue Avenue. They had already kidnapped mathematician Peter Benenson who was crouched on the floor of one of the vehicles, and they were preparing to kidnap Patty Hearst who lived at 2603 Benvenue:

“…Armed with their automatic rifles and pistols, they went down the walkway between the apartment and the adjoining house that leads to the apartment entrance and knocked. When Patty’s boyfriend, Steven Weed, opened the door, they rushed in, threw him to the floor, and began beating and kicking him. Patty Hearst was grabbed and carried screaming from the house. Weed finally managed to get loose and ran screaming from the apartment, while one of the men kept pointing his rifle at him with a cold smile on his face. A neighbor came to see what was happening: he was grabbed, beaten, and knocked unconscious to the floor, a floor that was already soaked with Steven Weed’s blood. Two women who came out of the next apartment were driven back inside as automatic rifle fire splintered the shingled wall beside them. Patty’s captors threw her in the trunk and fled in Peter Benenson’s car, with Benenson still crouching terrified on the floor, expecting that the next shot would be for him….”

One could perhaps say that Tart’s paranoid episode — one he had never had before or since — was just a panic attack and that its simultaneity with the Hearst kidnapping was mere coincidence, but then how can one account for Tart and Terry having simultaneous paranoid experiences?  A skeptic might say that the odds of these things coinciding by chance are infinitesimally small, but that given a nearly infinite universe, coincidences with infinitesimal likelihoods randomly occur from time to time.  I personally believe that occurrences like these reflect more than just mere coincidence, however. Whatever their explanation, synchronicity is a good label for them. They point to the incompleteness of the physicalist account of the universe, and remind us to keep our minds open about the ultimate nature of things. They point to a deeper interconnection between events that goes beyond sequential cause-and-effect — the kind of interconnection I’ve written about recently in my postings on Dogen and Whitehead.

In the meantime, here’s a link to Albert Maysles’s film about Sally Gross. 

I remember her fondly.  She’ll be missed by all who knew her.

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The Sky Above, the Mud Below

We all possess behavioral potentials that are consonant with our sense of self — and  potentials that are buried, rejected, submerged, or disowned.  The energy of those submerged or disowned potentials is cut off and unavailable to our personality.  The more potentials we disown, the more narrow our range of adaptation and the more enervated and weakened we become.  The more we attempt to perfect ourselves and live according to some idealized image, the more cut off and depleted we become due to the loss of rejected potentials that fail to fit the image.  Attempting to live up to some sort of Buddhist ideal of perfection —  serene, non-grasping, imperturbable, endlessly compassionate — is one way to choke off our sources of vitality.  We cut ourselves off from a wide range of human potentials — ferocity, passion, lust, and ambition, just to name a few.   An inherent tension exists between Buddhist teachings of perfecting ourselves by striving to live up to a Bodhisattva or Arhat ideal and the contemporary Western Zen notion of being present for all of life.

When we examine the ideal of non-grasping serenity, the first thing we notice is how far we are from it.  Most of our thoughts are centered on ourselves and the things we want or don’t want, and selfish thoughts and impulses vastly outnumber generous ones.  Ambition, greed, desire, jealousy, resentment, irritation, and anger are frequent companions.  The Pali Canon says if we follow the eight-fold path we can reach a state where all of that simply ceases — where desire, aversion, and delusion stop arising — the original meaning of the word “nirvana”.  When we observe the gap between the way we are and this imagined end-state, we’re as far from that end-state as we can possibly be.  We may also wonder just how desirable that imagined end-state actually is.  Do we really want to be that seemingly bloodless, endlessly calm, desire-less being?  Or do we just want to be more human, vulnerable, open, and alive?

Compare the Nirvana ideal to the life Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) recommends in his poem “The Guest House”:

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

Some momentary awareness comes

As an unexpected visitor.


Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

Still, treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out for a new delight.


The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

Because each has been sent

As a guide from beyond.

(Translation by Coleman Barks)

Rumi’s Guest House metaphor offers a Sufi parallel to the contemporary Western Zen ideal of Zen as a continual opening, widening, and acceptance of life as it is.  As we sit we create a space for our full human being —  no cutting off, suppression, or delusion about who or what we are in this moment.

How does the Zen ideal of fullness of being square with the aspirational aspects of Buddhism — the Bodhisattva vows — the widening of compassion, lovingkindness, and equanimity?   Because a part of us would truly like to be more compassionate and kind — to the extent this cruel and capricious life allows us to be.  Buddhism contains a variety of techniques like Theravada lovingkindness meditations and Tibetan tonglen meditations to help us develop our capacity for compassion and lovingkindness.   Can one widen one’s capacity for care for others without choking off the sources of one’s vitality?

We can if we stop pretending to live up to an ideal.

One can water the seeds of compassion without pretending to be more compassionate than one actually is.  One can hope over time that compassion will grow without denying that ambitious, competitive, and aggressive parts of ourselves exist and are an important part of who we are right now.  We can also do more than ruefully accept their continued existence, but develop a friendly ongoing relationship with them.  We are not trying to eliminate them, but to integrate them in with the other parts of ourselves — to, in essence, tame them and harness their energy for higher purposes — much like the fierce Tibetan protective deities were tamed by Padmasambhava and enlisted to serve the Dharma.  We have this idea in the West as well — Freud called it “sublimation,”  Jung called it “individuation,” and Perls called it “being whole.”

On one of my early ten-day meditation retreats, I had the following experience:  The more calm, serene, and peaceful I became during the day, the more violent my dreams became at night.  Not only were the dreams violent, but I was the perpetrator and I was enjoying it.  It was if a part of me was reminding me “I’m still here, don’t forget me.”  On yet another meditation retreat I became paranoid about a fellow yogi — fearful he was a serial killer and I was his next intended victim.  I’ve written elsewhere about how I overcame that fear, but it occurs to me now that this was another message about how I was disowning a part of myself  —  this other yogi was the container for my own projected aggressive capacity.  Two retreats, the same message.

American Buddhist teachers have a name for aspiring to be “spiritual” without really working through and integrating all of oneself to achieve a genuine reorganization of the personality at a higher level.  They call it “spiritual bypassing” — the attempt to take a short cut on the Enlightenment Superhighway.   It’s a good word.  We live in a world with the sky above and the mud below.  While we may reach for the stars, we’re grounded in the earth.  Like Prospero in Shakespeare’s Tempest, our inner world contains both Ariel and Caliban — the airy sprite and the chthonic mooncalf.  We move forward by integrating opposites, not by embodying one while denying the other.  We must honor not only the Sky God, but the Earth Mother as well.

This is an aspiration to a wholeness in which nothing is left out.  We move forward in the world with all our capacities, all of our energy, all of our engagement, and all of our complexities and contradictions.

As we practice Buddhism, let’s take care.  Let’s not put ourselves on a Procrustean bed.  We don’t need to kill our egos or deny our true being.  We don’t need to magically become the epitome of an imagined perfect Buddhist — calm, selfless, inhuman.  We bring our whole selves to practice. It’s our gift to the Dharma.  It’s the way we transform ourselves by becoming who we more truly are — only a better, deeper, more whole version of that self we imagine ourselves to be.







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Awareness and Happiness

We don’t pay enough attention to our lives.  Every passing moment is a potential moment of  intimate connection with our deepest selves, our loved ones, and the natural world. Every passing moment is a potential moment of wise and compassionate engagement with ourselves and others.  Every passing moment is a potential moment of insight into the question of what is the truest and most meaningful way for us to live our lives.

Instead, our lives pass us by.  We’re all too often disconnected from ourselves, our bodies, nature, and people around us. Our lives get caught up in the routine and humdrum.  Our minds run on old automatic programs — some written deep within our genes: our sense of ourselves as separate from others, our sense of our minds as separate from our bodies, our attraction to novelty, our pursuit of pleasure and flight from pain, our anger when frustrated, our fear of the unfamiliar — others learned in childhood: our respect for authority, our identification with a social class and ethnic group, our belief that personal worth comes from pleasing others or achieving outward success, our fear of being our true selves.

We create new automatic programs all the time.  Repeated practice allows tasks that initially require a great deal of attention to eventually run on pure habit.  Remember how difficult it was learning how to type?  At first, placing and moving our fingers was a slow, painstaking process.  Eventually our hands knew what to do without the mind’s interference.

William James called habit “the great flywheel of society.”  If we had to pay attention to everything we’d get precious little done.  Habit affords us economy of time and efficiency of action.  Habit also allows us to multitask: we can run well-learned behaviors in the background while devoting scarce attentional resources to more demanding tasks in the foreground.

Once behavior becomes habitual, however, it’s hard to analyze what’s gone wrong if the behavior proves problematic.  We know something’s gone amiss, but we can’t figure out what it is.  Solving the problem requires paying fresh attention to it: watching how a habit operates, what sustains it, and what it’s consequences are.

The Pleasure Principle

There are several key programs nature has written into our nervous systems which have a  profound and direct bearing on our ability to be happy.  Most notably, our nervous system seems to have been designed for pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain (what Sigmund Freud called the pleasure principle.)  At first glance this may not seem like much of a problem.  After all, we all want more pleasure and less pain!

There’s a serious downside, however.  There are a great many behaviors that lead to short-term pleasure, but long-term misery.  These include addictions like overeating, alcoholism, and compulsive sexual activity, achievement-undermining behaviors like  procrastination and carelessness, and relationship-destroying behaviors like selfishness and intimidation.  In fact, the list of behaviors that lead to quick satisfaction and long-term grief is practically endless.

Most of the “defense mechanisms” psychologists talk about are habits of mind that effectively  eliminate anxiety.  Psychologists talk about “denial” and “repression” which are mental processes that limit our awareness of thoughts and feelings that might disturb us.  The cigarette smoker who says cancer will never get him, the driver who won’t buckle his seat belt, the teenager who won’t wear a condom, and the alcoholic who thinks he can handle his liquor are all disregarding crucial information in order to avoid anxiety about doing what pleases them.  They’re also risking their own lives and happiness and the happiness of others around them.

Habits that bring immediate pleasure and eventual grief can only be changed by shining the light of awareness on them.  All too often, our attention is only focused on the pleasure such acts bring, and we disconnect from awareness of their harmfulness.  If each and every time we engage in these behaviors, however, we slow things down and consider the fruits of our actions, would we be able to keep the behavior going?  If we keep in mind what the smoke we’re inhaling is doing to our lungs, and remind ourselves what it’s like to have cancer with each and every puff of each cigarette — would we be able to continue smoking?

The Impermanence of Satisfaction

Our nervous systems are built so that we can’t stay happy for long.  Nature designed us that way for a reason: A permanently content squirrel wouldn’t gather nuts for the coming winter.  It wouldn’t nervously scan the environment for predators.  It wouldn’t live long enough to pass on its genes.  So it is with us.

Similarly, our nervous systems are built to pay less attention to sensations that repeat and fail to change  over time.  Psychologists call this habituation.  Sometimes habituation’s a blessing; it’s the reason why bad odors lose their potency over time.  Habituation makes sense in terms of biological survival.  We need to pay more attention to information that’s rapidly changing than to information that’s static.   It is more important to pay attention to a charging tiger than to the stationary tree that’s behind it.

Habituation comes with a cost, however.  The temporary, fleeting nature of pleasure means we’re restlessly driven to seek new pleasures which are equally fleeting in turn.  Even winning the lottery doesn’t lead to greater happiness over time — lottery winners are no happier a year after they win than they were the year before they won.

Another downside to habituation is that chronic problems never capture our attention the way emerging ones do.  We can see this at work in the way television handles news stories.  A fresh problem becomes an object of public concern, and television becomes consumed with covering it.  Three months later the problem hasn’t been solved, but the public is bored with it and television moves on to something new.  We mobilize national or world resources to solve a problem in Haiti or Somalia, then lose interest in what’s happening in those countries after the immediate sense of crisis is over.  Haiti is front-line news one day, but the grinding poverty that is everyday life in Haiti is never news. Even the very word news says volumes about the way we stay only fleetingly informed about the world.  All this is only natural.  We only have so much attention to spare.  We attend to the sensational, the dramatic, and the novel, and never get around to solving the basic problems which are the true ground of unhappiness.

The Reality Principle

Fortunately we’re not totally dependent on our programming.  We’re capable of learning from experience and modifying it.  We learn to bypass the easy pleasures that undermine long-term goals, and tolerate the short-term pain that helps us achieve them.  This ability to delay gratification and tolerate useful pain is part of what we mean when we talk about becoming an adult.  In Freud’s language, we learn to put the “pleasure principle” in service of the “reality principle.”  As children, if we’re lucky, our parents act as “mindfulness agents” warning us to pay attention to the long-term consequences of short-term pleasures.  We don’t appreciate our parents much for this as children, but if they haven’t done this for us we find ourselves in deep trouble as adults.  As adults we learn to become our own “mindfulness agents.”  We’re responsible to ourselves for becoming aware of how we derail our long-term happiness. This requires us to invest our lives with fresh curiosity and attention.  It requires us to look at ourselves in new ways, without the habitual blinders that prevent us from seeing ourselves as we really are.

The Big Picture

If there’s no enduring happiness in pursuing short-term pleasure, is long-term pleasure any better?  Isn’t it subject to the same rules of habituation, the same limitations of our nervous systems to stay permanently happy?    If the endless pursuit of pleasure seems meaningless, is there something else worth pursuing and basing one’s life on? Is there a state of being more worthy of our efforts? This is the question that religion and philosophy attempt to address.  If there are different answers proposed by various religions and philosophies, how can one go about determining what’s true?  What is the Good Life?  What is the meaningful life?

The answers to these questions can be found through learning to pay fresh attention to life.  As we observe ourselves more closely, we start to inquire into our relationship with the larger world of existence.  Who are we really? What should we be doing with our lives?  What is our place in the natural order of things?  We discover that we’ve all too easily accepted answers to these questions that have been handed down from family, religious authorities, and the Great and the Wise.  We become aware of how the dissociations that define us: mind vs. body, self vs. nature, me vs. you,  are arbitrary and porous.  They’re seen as constructions of the social mind that could have been drawn differently and elsewhere, not the contours of reality itself.  These dissociations gradually diminish in their persuasiveness as we develop our ability to see through them with greater clarity.  It’s as if, in allowing our attention to penetrate more deeply into the interstices of our daily life, we’re shining the light of awareness onto the problem of Being itself.  Every time we’ve freed an aspect of Being from the constraints of conventional wisdom, every time we’ve breathed awareness into the space and upon the ground in which we actually live, we experience a realm of existence which can only be referred to as the sacred and holy.  Sacredness doesn’t derive from any particular set of beliefs or dogmas.  It doesn’t exist as Idea.  We directly experience the quality of sacredness itself, the quiet that seems deeper than deep and purer than pure.  The experience speaks for itself without need of interpretation.  It’s there waiting to be attended to.  After the experience comes the search for words and labels, but the experience is prior to words and labels, and in the conceptual search, the experience itself is once again lost, tarnished, encrusted, constrained, and buried.  It waits to be freshly rediscovered in the next moment of awareness.


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The Psychotherapist’s Path

Vajrayogini, Rubin Museum of Art
The following is a revised excerpt from my chapter “Psychotherapy Practice as Buddhist Practice” in Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings which explores the relevance of the Eightfold Noble Path to the psychotherapist’s craft.  If you’re not a therapist, you might not find this all that interesting.  On the other hand, you could replace the words “therapist” and “client” with the words “myself” and “anyone I’m in a relationship with” and see if the shoe fits.

Psychotherapy is a form of right livelihood that depends on right speech, and as such, every encounter with a client can be a spiritual encounter.  Therapists are supposed to maintain mindfulness, avoid ensnarement in transient states of desire and aversion that can derail therapy, and skillfully employ compassionate and discerning speech with the intent of relieving suffering.  This kind of moment-to-moment attentiveness and compassionate non-egoistic focus elevates the therapist’s practice from the merely professional to the spiritual.  Being fully present with a client becomes not only a means of earning a living or fulfilling a moral imperative but part of the therapist’s path of spiritual development. Every client encounter becomes part of the therapist’s learning process, not just in terms of becoming a better therapist, but in terms of becoming more fully human.

In considering the practice of psychotherapy as a form of spiritual endeavor, it can be useful to explore the psychotherapist’s role and craft from the vantage point of the Eightfold Noble Path.   For purposes of convenience, we will begin by dividing the The Eightfold Noble Path into its three traditional components of sīla (virtue), samādhi (concentration), and pañña (wisdom).

Sīla (Virtue)

The Buddhist concept of sīla is best exemplified by the Five Precepts: 1) Desisting from killing other beings, 2) Not taking what doesn’t belong to one, 3) Not harming others through acts of speech, 4) Refraining from sexual immorality, and 5) Abstaining from intoxicating substances.  Making sure one’s mind is unclouded by intoxicants and guarding against sexual boundary violations are part of the therapist’s minimum standard of care, as is the duty to prevent physical harm to self and others.  “Not taking what is not freely given” is relevant to fair billing practices and ethical financial dealings with clients and insurance companies.

What do Buddhists mean by harmful or wrong speech?  The Kakacūpama Sutta states that speech can be “timely or untimely, true or untrue, gentle or harsh, connected with good or with harm, and spoken with loving-kindness or inner hate.”  In therapy our words must arise out of loving-kindness, and be gentle, timely, true, and spoken with helpful intent.  Following this precept requires that we mindfully monitor our moods, intentions, and communication to attend to our countertransference, and to guard against our own anti-therapeutic behaviors.

Samādhi (Concentration)

Samādhi consists of  “right concentration,” “right mindfulness” and “right effort.”   The most precious gift one can give anyone is the quality of one’s attention.  As therapists, our goal, over and over, is to attend to this client/therapist interactive field in this moment, just as in meditation our goal is to attend to this breath in this moment, over and over.  In meditation, the meditator quickly discovers how easily attention slips off of the breath and wanders, and learns to keep bringing attention back to the breath without judgment. In psychotherapy we quickly learn how easily attention wanders from bare attention to the client/therapist field, and learn to keep bringing attention back to the client/therapist field without judgment.  Mindful concentration is an essential ingredient to forming a positive therapeutic alliance and to the kind of deep listening that nurtures the interpersonal space where transformation and healing occurs.  Whatever theory we operate within, our very next intervention, our very next interpretation, our very next action,  proceeds from the depth of our understanding of this very moment in this particular client/therapist interactive field.

We are also mindful of our tendency to identify with or distance ourselves from our clients in each passing moment of our therapy sessions.  If unwatched, our tendency is to take what is said and happening personally rather than just hearing it openly and freshly, with curiosity and wonder.  If the client is critical or resists our interventions, we can become angry and defensive; if the client is compliant and friendly, we can be co-opted or seduced.   We can think/feel that the client is “one of us” or “one of them.”  Our sense of self can become inflated as a client improves, or deflated as a client’s illness festers despite our best efforts.   Mindfulness listens to and watches all of this impartially: the contracting and expanding, the distancing and merging, the openness and the defensiveness, the criticism and the appreciation.   It is for or against none of it.  It does not get ensnared and entangled, or if it does, it notices the ensnarement and entanglement with equanimity and compassion.

As we listen, we strive to maintain a friendly attitude toward the client, toward ourselves, and toward our own experience, an attitude marked by mettā (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), and upekkhā (equanimity). Loving-kindness implies an openness, receptivity, and willingness to accept ourselves just as we are and others just as they are, with equanimity, and without needing to distance ourselves.  We try not to become ensnared by states of aversion that separate us emotionally from the phenomena we are observing.

We can’t accurately understand clients if we emotionally distance ourselves from, feel separate from or superior to, or condemn or feel disgusted by them.  This doesn’t mean we approve of all our clients’s actions; we recognize how clients contribute to their own misery and the misery of others.  We understand, however, the conditions out of which these actions arise, and how we, faced with similar causes and conditions, might act no better.  We also understand how condemnation and disgust creates feelings of humiliation, shame, and rage, closing clients off behind walls of defensiveness, and making clients less able to comprehend the consequences of and their responsibility for their actions.  Words of instruction can be spoken from a compassionate heart, and decisive action to prevent harm can emerge from care and concern rather than anger and aversion.

Our friendly stance towards the client’s experiential world supports the client’s  acceptance, toleration, and integration of thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviors that have previously been objects of self-aversion.  Our ability to be with clients in a friendly, experience-near way is a precondition for clients to take a friendly, self-nurturing stance towards their own experiencing, which can ripen into wholeness and appropriate self-regard and self-care.  In many therapies this shift from self-loathing to appropriate self-caring is the turning point on which a successful outcome depends.

Pañña (Wisdom)

Wisdom refers to an understanding of dukkha (suffering/unsatisfactoriness), anicca (impermanence), anattā (non-self), and śūnyatā (emptiness/interbeing).  It posits that all phenomena are impermanent, devoid of a solid, unchanging essence, and co-existent as aspects of the entire web of being. As a corollary, all phenomena are ineffective as permanent solutions to the existential unsatisfactoriness of the human condition.

Dukkha (Unsatisfactoriness). Unsatisfactoriness is not only an essential fact of the client’s life, but also our own.  As we conduct a psychotherapy, we experience many unpleasant moments.  We need to sit unflinchingly with the client’s pain.  We also need to sit with our own pain: the ache of our own uncertainty and insufficiency, our moments of discouragement and hopelessness, our moments of boredom and disinterest, our own myriad personal distresses which reverberate in sympathetic harmony with the client’s problems.  If we withdraw emotionally or attentively, or react without mindful attention, breaks in the therapeutic alliance are inevitable.  If we can be attentive to these states, accept them, and hold them within our own spacious being, the therapy is more likely to succeed.

Annica (Impermanence). There is no solidity to existence; existence is always in a state of transformation.  Everything is always on its way to becoming something else.  This is as true for our world as for the client’s.  We often get caught up in psychological constructs which reify clients rather than seeing them as changing, fluid beings:  To the extent that we assume a static and unchanging world we become blind to the possibilities for change within each moment.

We can also cling rigidly to an idea of what it means to be a therapist.  Our own changing, flexible, protean self can become encrusted within a rigid conception of our role;  Our ability to flow and adapt can be obscured by a social role or personal character armor.  We can lose our ability to see the genuine therapeutic possibilities of this moment right here, right now, which may just call for something original, daring, and never-before-thought-of.  In a world that is constant transformation, the possibilities inherent in this moment may never come again.

In understanding anicca we understand that we are subject to causes and conditions just like all other beings.  One moment we’re attentive, the next moment lost.  One moment we’re brilliant, the next moment befuddled.  One moment we’re compassionate, the next moment threatened and self-centered.  We must be at home with all of this, as attentive as possible to our shifting mental states, accepting of change, and ever ready to seek a new state of balance.  In addition, we must be willing to allow the role of client to change as the client’s needs shift due to  either growth or deterioration.

Anattā (Non-Self). Since things are in a constant state of flux, there can be no such thing as an immutable identity to things.  Anattā is often misunderstood as being primarily an ontological statement, but it actually is intended to serve the pragmatic purpose of liberating us from our selfish preoccupations.  The more we understand anattā, the less likely therapy will be about the selfhood of the therapist.  Why work so hard to protect an identity that has only a quasi-existence?  Why cling tightly to images of ourselves as better, smarter, healthier, more knowledgeable, or more right than our clients?  If a client is angry with us, why get caught up in an identity narrative about being the aggrieved helper?  If the client improves, the value of our self doesn’t have to go up ten points, nor does our stock need to decline when therapy fails.  The client doesn’t need to get better for or stay sick for us.  With less of a sense of self to protect, we are freer to hear and open to the client.  When self-identification loosens, a natural connectedness to and caring for the suffering of others can manifest freely.  That connectedness and care is impeded by the need to protect oneself, and flows when attention to “me” and “mine” abates.

Śūnyatā (Emptiness/Interbeing).  Śūnyatā is usually translated as “emptiness,” although Thich Nhat Hahn’s “interbeing” seems a more helpful translation.  Interbeing is a natural consequence of impermanence and non-self,  pointing to the interconnectedness and interdependence of all phenomena.  Nothing exists except in interrelationship with everything else.  Clients do not exist separate from their families and social systems; clients and the clinical phenomena which they exhibit in therapy do not exist separate from the client/therapist interaction; Phenomena do not exist by themselves, but only as part of a field, and the arrow of causality within that field is always multidirectional.

While these insights aren’t new, it’s often hard to directly perceive the interdependent nature of things.  Western culture has a bias in favor of emphasizing independence and autonomy over interpersonal relatedness.  Our cultural and personal biases cause us to continually lapse into unbalanced and simplistic modes of thought that fail to take interbeing into account.  It’s often hard to see how we and our clients co-create phenomena during the complex and intense emotional pushes and pulls we experience within the therapeutic relationship.  Buddhist practice is one way to ground ourselves in an appreciation of interbeing during the most emotionally charged therapeutic interchanges.

Psychotherapists are supposed to know how to monitor their own emotional processes, to see complex interpersonal transactions with a minimum of defensiveness, and to use this monitoring and seeing in service of maintaining a therapeutic relationship that is focused on relief of the client’s suffering.  These expectations are taught in graduate school, but the emotional skills required to achieve them rarely are. All too often, training in psychotherapy has to do with the acquisition of skills that can be externally measured and quantified: the mastery of a body of facts and theories, the development of specific communication skills, the adherence to a manualized protocol.  Buddhist practice can be an important vehicle for developing emotional skills that are vital for the successful practice of psychotherapy, (and interpersonal life in general!) but are harder to teach: openness, receptivity, awareness of internal process, equanimity, compassion, and an enhanced sensitivity to inter-relatedness.

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Working with Fear

My wife and I just spent two weeks traveling the Colorado Plateau, that astonishing five million year-old uplifting of sedimentary rock that makes Southern Utah and Northern Arizona (as well as parts of Colorado, and New Mexico) so amazingly unique.

We toured some of the National and Tribal parks that dot red sandstone country: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Mesa Verde, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon.  Those of you who have been there know words are inadequate to describe the awesome natural beauty of the high desert plateau with its myriad canyons, arches, windows and hoodoos.

A few days into our journey my wife and I decided to trek down into the Bryce Canyon amphitheater to get a closer view of the erosion-formed hoodoos at its bottom.

As we started snaking down the switchbacks that led to the canyon floor I became aware, for the first time in my life, of an overwhelming fear of heights.  I was terrified of the closeness of the trail rim and the precipitous drop that lay to my right.  My knees weakened and when I couldn’t see around a narrow stretch of switchback I became fearful I’d trip and fall, and refused go any further.  I apologized to my wife, who was enjoying the descent, and told her I had to turn back.

Now if you look objectively at me beginning down that trail (see below) you’ll see the trail is really fairly wide, but that I am nevertheless clinging to the left side of the trail where there’s a high wall and no drop off.  If I’d tripped and stumbled there’s no way I’d have plunged to my death.  I’d have skinned my knees at the worst.   I was suffering from a sudden case of acrophobia.  I was mystified!  Climbing up ladders or doing housework on the roof had never been my favorite activity, but I’d always been able to do it.  Young children were hiking that trail without any difficulty, for heaven’s sake!  I felt thoroughly ashamed!

This event reminded me of another time in my life when I’d experienced significant irrational fear.  I was on my second ten-day meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts.  My first retreat had been heavenly bliss, so naturally I expected my second to be a repeat of my first.  Oh, dread beginner’s naiveté!  Beware of expectations!  They always come back and bite you!

A few days into the retreat I developed a paranoid fantasy about one of the other yogis, an eccentric individual who kept showing up at the outdoor spots I’d picked for my walking meditation.  Only he wasn’t doing walking meditation.  He was doing his own thing.  He’d stand motionless for ten minutes, then take off running towards me at full speed, then suddenly stop a few feet in front of me resuming his previous stillness.  I was baffled and unnerved, and began thinking that his intentions were malevolent.  Perhaps he was a serial killer and he’d selected me as his next victim?

He seemed to be everywhere.  I’d go for a walk around the loop of roads circling IMS after lunch and hear someone clearing his throat behind me.  I’d turn around, and there he was!

My paranoia intensified.  I was wearing  a baseball cap with the name of my daughter’s college written on it.  What a mistake!  After he killed me, he could go after her!

A part of me recognized that this thinking was seriously disturbed and I tried using logic to derail it, but to no avail.  Another part of me thought that my meditation had made me super-sensitive and that I could read his energy or thought waves.  I wasn’t being paranoid, I was just tapping into his aura!

This paranoid episode lasted for several days, and I was thoroughly miserable.  Then one evening one of the teachers at the retreat gave a talk about fear.  How perfect! How excellent! How well timed!  When the pupil is ready, the teaching appears!

The teacher, Michael Liebenson Grady, discussed his own fear of unleashed dogs on the loop around IMS.  Once when confronted by a growling dog, he recalled the tale of how Ajahn Maha Boowa recited metta verses to a tiger he encountered during his nightly walking meditation.  Maha Boowa had escaped unscathed.

Ajahn Maha Boowa

Michael decided to try the same method on the dog by reciting the metta verse “May you be happy!”  The dog bit him.  Michael quipped that perhaps that was what made the dog happy!

On a more serious note, Michael went on to say that the only way out of fear is through it. Instead of trying to argue the fear away, he suggested being mindful of the physical sensations and fear-generating thoughts, just watching them without any effort to change them.  That evening I tried Michael’s suggestion, and the fear magically dissolved and melted away.  It became completely insubstantial.  I was amazed!  I was at ease with my would-be serial killer for the rest of the retreat and saw him as just a harmless eccentric. The retreat ended with yogis being invited to share parting comments.  One older woman singled out my killer for praise, commenting on his great kindness to her during the retreat.

Several days later on the Colorado Plateau my wife and I went on a hike to see the petroglyphs that an ancient Puebloan had inscribed on one of the sandstone bluffs at Mesa Verde.  Our trail guide rated the hike as “easy.”  About fifteen minutes into the hike, however, the narrow trail began following the canyon rim with a precipitous drop off to my right.

Once again my knees weakened and I began to feel the fear I’d experienced at Bryce Canyon.  There was even one point when the trail went up 90 degrees over sheer rock.  One had to put one’s right foot onto a toe-hold off to one’s left and then pull oneself up the rock.  It was worse than Bryce!  They had to be kidding!

This time I was going to go about things differently, however.  I mindfully noticed the weakness in my knees as sheer sensation, and my thoughts of falling as just thoughts.  I also did some stimulus avoidance, trying to keep my eyes straight ahead and slightly to the left to avoid staring into the abyss off to my right.  Once in a while, however, when the trail widened a bit, I’d sneak a peak and appreciate the grand vista off to my right from a safe distance.

I wish I could say my fear totally vanished like it had during my IMS retreat.  It didn’t.  But it was manageable in a way it hadn’t been at Bryce, and I now look back on the petroglyph hike as one of the highlights of our trip

Ancient Puebloan Petroglyph

Behavior therapists say that exposure is the best cure for phobias, but the exposure has to be lengthy for it to work.  I guess the two-hour petroglyph hike was long enough for exposure to work some of its magic.

A few days later my wife and I walked part of the rim trail around Grand Canyon.

I was able to walk it comfortably, although I didn’t walk as close to the edge as my wife did.  There were some intrepid teenagers walking the same trail who stood on the rocks and ledges on the canyon’s edge posing for pictures, fearless as mountain goats.  How I envied their courage!  I wasn’t totally over my new-found phobia, but it remained manageable, and I enjoyed the hike.

So here’s a recipe for coping with fear: One part mindfulness, one part exposure.  Instead of believing the fear-talk, see it as mere thinking.  Notice the weakness in your knees as mere sensation.  Don’t get caught up in being fearful of the sensations and believing the thoughts. (“Oh, no!  My knees really will buckle and I’ll tumble into the abyss!”)   Don’t try to make the fear go away, but just mindfully observe it in all its manifestations. Mindfulness is itself a form of exposure: one accepts and explores the fear rather than pushing it away.

Lastly, do the thing you fear, don’t avoid it.  Expose yourself to it for a sufficiently long time (at least ninety minutes!) without avoidance.  I cheated a bit by avoiding looking to the right when I was climbing the Mesa Verde petroglyph trail.  But I was only cheating myself.  Who knows?  If I’d forced myself to look I might have become one of those courageous teenage mountain goats posing on the Grand Canyon ledge!

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Two Truths: Causation and Choice

An earlier version of this post was published in Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings [1]

Trying to reconcile the objective truth of causation with the experiential truth of choice is exceedingly difficult.  Buddhism insists, however, that we find a middle way between these irreconcilables, and that dismissing the reality of either causation or choice is an error.

Our everyday functioning requires that we talk in terms of choice, but the language of choice doesn’t yield the deepest understanding of the way things are.   The experience of choice is like the computer “desktop” metaphor: we can talk about “desktops,” “folders,” and “files,” but at a deeper level there are only photons or electrons that either change state or don’t in a binary fashion.  The desktop is semi-real: one can see it and do things on it.  At another level of discourse, however, there is no desktop.  This is similar to the disjunction between our everyday perception of common objects and what physicists say about them.  They appear solid, but at the atomic and subatomic level are mostly empty space.  Our everyday perception is good-enough for most purposes, but the physicist’s description of reality opens up powerful new ways to see and use the world.

Many of our actions occur without our being aware of either the actions themselves or our reasons for them.  We mostly operate on automatic pilot.  A moment ago I noticed my hand rubbing my eye.  I didn’t “choose” to do it.  Some part of my brain must have registered some irritation around my eye, and my hand was there in an instant.  Most of the time that my hand is touching my face I’m not aware I am doing it.  Similarly, I don’t usually “choose” to swing my arms when I walk, or decide what to look at and notice while walking.  Our experience of most behavior is that it “just happens.”  When we retrospectively try to come up with the reasons why we did one thing or another, our answers are often only guesses based on what we think we must have been experiencing.  Our guesses are often no better than an outside observer’s guesses.

When do we become aware of “choosing” our actions?  When a snafu has developed in the automatic pilot program; when our usual way of resolving a problem non-consciously is not working and a metaphorical warning light blinks on.  Perhaps there’s a conflict between two equally strong action tendencies, or an awareness that the action we’re about to engage in has had painful consequences in the past, or an awareness that what we’re about to do conflicts with a high priority goal.  When that warning light blinks on, the brain allocates more workspace to the problem,  putting more of its computing power in service of a solution.   The brain does this because when conditions like this occurred in the past, allocating more resources led to a happier outcome.  As a fuller range of associations, memories, and acquired problem solving algorithms are brought to bear, we are more likely to succeed.  This is the process we experience as “choosing” which feels so different from our automatic pilot behavior.  But the main difference between “choosing”  and “automatic” is the greater degree of resources involved, not some newly acquired freedom from cause-and-effect.  A bigger computer is being used to solve the problem, but the solution still relies on the structure of the brain and our past experiences.

One reason why the experience of “choosing” feels “free” is that we’re unaware of most of the antecedent processes that go into making a “choice”. The brain doesn’t receive feedback from most of these antecedent processes, and their final product just seems to pop into our heads from the void, uncaused as far as we’re aware.

While our internal decision-making process isn’t free from causality it can be relatively free in other senses of the word.  For example, it can be relatively free from the salient pushes and pulls of the immediate stimulus context, or from the influences of parental, social, or religious authority, or from short-term self-interest.  Our capacity to have larger segments of our brains go on-line as part of the process of  “making decisions” makes these kinds of relative freedoms possible, and these freedoms are the most crucial freedoms from the point of view of ethics and morality.

So we don’t have to choose between causation and choice.  There is an experiential process of choice which feels real and suffices for everyday understanding, and a “deeper” process underlying it which is based on causation.  I use the term “deeper” with trepidation, because the word implies one reality is more true than another, whereas they are really just two different levels of description of reality,  just like chemistry and quantum physics are two different levels of description.

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  1. [1] Segall S. (2003). On Being a Non-Buddhist Buddhist: A Dialogue With Myself in Segall, S. (2003). Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings. SUNY Press: Albany, NY

Spiritual Maturity

A few years back I described a model of adult development that included the idea of spiritual development. [1] The model posited adults as advancing along multiple developmental lines which were semi-independent but which could exert mutual influence on each other. Exceptional levels of functioning in one developmental line could exist side-by-side with pathological levels of functioning in another, and unremarkable levels in yet a third. In Piagetian terms, there were decalages between these semi-independent developmental lines, but the functional level of one line could assist or hinder progress in another. The model included the following developmental lines:

  1. Self-definition [2]
  2. Interpersonal relatedness [3]
  3. Cognitive Ability [4]
  4. Morality [5]
  5. Spirituality

A spiritually developed person would be wise, compassionate, aware, intuitive and authentic. These qualities are not the sole provenance of any particular religion or philosophy, although it may be that some religions or philosophies might be more effective in developing and cultivating them than others.

In this model, spiritual maturity involves the development of a variety of attitudes, capacities, and understandings including:

  1. Self-Decentration
  2. Integration of the Intuitive and Analytic Information Processing Systems
  3. Mindfulness
  4. Intimacy with Being
  5. Care and Concern for an Ever-Widening Circle of Beings.

It might be useful to say a few words about each of these five aspects of mature spirituality.


Piaget described how the developing child saw himself as being the center of the universe. For Piaget, cognitive development involved a series of decentrations in which the child gradually realized that the universe did not really revolve around himself. At first, for example, young children, noticing the moon’s presence in the night sky whether they were at home or at grandma’s, would think that the moon had followed them around. Later they understand the moon’s position is governed by natural law that doesn’t involve them personally. In the same way children learn that two people looking at the same object from differing vantage points see the objects differently. At first they assume that everyone sees things from the same vantage point they do. The understanding of Cartesian space, that spatial coordinates exist independently of our bodies, is yet another decentration. As the scientific revolution progressed, humankind’s understanding of its place in the universe underwent a similar series of decentrations. The earth was no longer the center of the solar system, the solar system was no longer the center of the universe, and human beings were no longer the center of the natural world.

This concept of decentration can also be usefully applied to the domains of interpersonal relationships and to social identification. Mature interpersonal relations require the ability to see others as having their own unique desires and points of view, and the ability to provisionally leave one’s own framework and see things as they might. They require the recognition that others’s desires and points of view might have equal existential standing to one’s own, even when one does not fully share them. They require the ability to put others’s needs before one’s own under a multiplicity of circumstances.

We are born with the tendency to draw an inclusive boundary around social groups we identify with, and then assign those outside the boundary to a lesser existential status. Mel Brooks, acting as the Two Thousand Year-Old Man, joked that the world’s first national anthem was “Let ‘Em All Go To Hell Except Cave 76.” Our identifications with family, clan, religion, political party, and region can be profound. This demarcation of our in-group against their out-group is a primary feature of teenage social behavior and is part of the process of identity formation. It is also, unfortunately, one of the primary factors underlying social discrimination, civil war, and genocide.

The ability to move beyond identifications with family, clan, class, religion, politics, and nationality and to see other groups and cultures as having equal rights and value is a process of decentration that continues (or doesn’t!) throughout adult development. Being able to see others as like ourselves and treat them fairly is an integral part of wisdom.

Integration of the Intuitive and Analytic Information Processing Systems

Psychology has long been aware that human beings have two separate information processing systems. Freud recognized this when he made a distinction between primary process and secondary process thinking. Seymour Epstein has made a similar distinction between intuitive-experiential and analytic-rational thought processes.

Analytic-rational processes involve linear thinking in words. They are organized and directed thought processes that use hypothetical-deductive reasoning and problem-solving algorithms to arrive at conclusions. They weigh and sift evidence and test theories. They take a bit of time to figure things out. They are the mainstay of science, mathematics, logic, and philosophy.

Intuitive-experiential processes provide information though imagery and subtle bodily sensations. They are vaguely sensed and operate according to non-linear gestalt principles. Information often emerges and manifests without directed effort. Intuitive-experiential processes are fast and dirty. They provide us with an amorphous intuition that something is not quite right long before our analytic abilities can figure out exactly what has gone awry. It is what we talk about when we talk about trusting our gut, or feeling something in our bones. It’s the mainstay of poetry, art, and mysticism.

Everyone has potential access to both of these systems, but some people rely more heavily on one than another. Wisdom requires an ability to tap into both, and to achieve an integrated balance through a process of shuttling back and forth between systems. Carl Jung was aware of this when he wrote about adult individuation as being, in part, a process of learning to balance thinking, feeling, sensing, and intuiting. Intuition without the check of logic can turn into prejudice and mistaken conviction. Logic without intuition can miss feeling, nuance, and common sense. Wise people know how to reason logically, but also know how to listen to their deepest selves.


Mindfulness allows us to drop into the immediate present. It allows us to leave the business of mental proliferation, multitasking, and sensory overload and find a place of inner stability and stillness. It allows us to increase our awareness of both intuitive-experiential and verbal thought processes. It allows us to develop our sense of aliveness. Mindfulness serves an an antidote to obliviousness and impulsivity, and is an important component of wisdom.

Intimacy with Being

This refers to a sense of in-touchness and rootedness in the unfolding present moment that develops as a consequence of increasing mindfulness. As we increase out capacity to abide within the moment, in our bodies, and in intimate connection with whatever phenomena manifest within the circle of our awareness, we feel more deeply connected to ourselves, others, and the natural world in heartfelt way.

Care and Concern For An Ever-Widening Circle of Beings

This is an emotional capacity that develops as one decenters from one’s social identifications. The sense of caring and concern we have for loved ones can extend to friends and acquaintances, and eventually to strangers and even enemies. It can also extend to the non-human realm of animals and plants. In the traditional Pali lovingkindness chant we extend kind intentions to “sabbe satta,whatever beings there are. Kindness and compassion are talents or skills that can be enhanced through practiced intention. As we develop spiritually, we open our hearts to others we could not have cared about earlier. Spiritually developed persons are not only wise, but compassionate as well. The spiritually mature person lives at the intersection of wisdom and compassion, the two qualities both balancing and reinforcing each other. As the saying goes, “wisdom without compassion is not wisdom; compassion without wisdom is not compassion.”

These five qualities point to a concept of spiritual maturity but do not exhaustively define it. Readers might be able to think of other qualities that are also necessary features of spiritual maturity. Virtues like equanimity or courage, for example, or a wholesome sense of humor. Please feel free to add to this list in your comments below.

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  1. [1] Segall, S. (2005). Mindfulness and Self-Development in Psychotherapy, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 37 (2), 143-163
  2. [2] For more information about this see: Blatt, S.J. (2008). Polarities of Experience: Relatedness and Self Definition in Personality Development, Psychopathology, and the Psychotherapeutic Process. Washington, DC: APA
  3. [3] For more information about this see: Blatt, S.J. (2008). Polarities of Experience: Relatedness and Self Definition in Personality Development, Psychopathology, and the Psychotherapeutic Process. Washington, DC: APA
  4. [4] For more information about this see: Piaget, J. (1997). The Child’s Conception of the World. London: Routledge
  5. [5] For more information about this see: Kohlberg, L. (1984). The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Good News For Amateurs

At age sixty-two, I’m a beginning classical piano student. I’m usually pretty disciplined and practice most days. I’m terrible at it, but love everything about it, including the hours of practice I put in each week. I suspect I’ll never be very good at it. I lack a certain natural aptitude and I’m getting a late start. I’ll never be a concert pianist.

My meditation practice is a little like my piano playing. I love everything about it, but I’m never going to be an olympic-level meditator. My concentration is only fair. I’ll probably never go on a traditional Tibetan three-year retreat or even a three month insight meditation retreat. I’ll never spend years sitting in a Himalayan cave. I’m strictly amateur.

Why practice either piano or meditation despite the fact that I’ll never advance beyond amateur status?

A) Because I love the practice itself.

B) Because there are benefits to each.

Playing piano increases my understanding and appreciation for music. I can hear and appreciate more when I listen to Chopin’s nocturnes and Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Meditating builds mindfulness and equanimity in my daily life. It allows me to understand and appreciate life more deeply.

Jean Kristeller, the Director of the Center for the Study of Health, Religion, and Spirituality at Indiana State University, first brought this idea of different levels of meditative practice to my attention in her chapter “Finding the Buddha/Finding the Self: Seeing with the Third Eye” for my book Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings (SUNY Press: 2003).

Jean noted that while she found meditation practice extremely valuable, she was not a “natural contemplative.” She went on to say:

“While more practice may bring with it better ability to access the contemplative side of being, there is a danger in imposing expectations better suited to those seeking a particular state of “enlightenment” or level of mastery. Considering a parallel to training ourselves in other aspects of human endeavor, such as music or athletics, is helpful. We now realize that maintaining physical fitness is a process, the effects of which can be best understood as lying along a continuum, rather than in a dichotomy of the “unfit” versus the star athlete. Even elderly individuals in nursing homes are now known to benefit remarkably from mild exercise. A less dramatic contrast can be considered with musical training. Few would argue that virtually everyone has some ability to appreciate and understand music — and that such understanding is improved with even modest training. We don’t mistake the skills needed to provide such training to school children with the discipline and skill needed to become a professional classical musician, nor do we minimize or disparage the value to the individual of whatever level of musical experience someone wishes to seek out.”

Amen, Jean!

So it was with great interest that I read a recent scientific study suggesting that even very modest meditation experience can make measurable changes in the brain.

The study is called “Short-term Meditation Induces White Matter Changes in the Anterior Cingulate,” and it will appear shortly in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Its authors are Yi-Yuan Tanga, Qilin Lua, Xiujuan Geng, Elliot Stein, Yihong Yang, and Michael Posner. The study involved the collaboration of researchers at the University of Oregon and the Institute of Neuroinformatics and Lab for Body and Mind, Dalian University of Technology. Long live East-West collaboration!

In this study, forty-five college students received a mere 11 hours of training in what the authors called “integrative mind-body training,” or IMBT. IBMT involved body relaxation, mental imagery, and mindfulness training. It involved “no effort to control thoughts, but instead a state of restful alertness that allows a high degree of awareness of body and mind.”

Sounds a lot like mindfulness meditation, huh?

Here comes the technical part:

After the college students received the 11 hours of training, the researchers performed a type of brain imaging scan called Diffusion Tensor Imaging to examine the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of their brains. The ACC is responsible for monitoring and resolving conflict among competing response tendencies. Problems in ACC activation have been implicated in a wide variety of mental disorders including attention deficit disorder, addictions, dementia, depression, and schizophrenia.

The results? The college students who were trained in IMBT showed increased fractional ansiotropy in brain regions associated with the ACC, meaning that the neural fiber tracts in that region either underwent a certain degree of reorganization or increased their myelination. In plain English, there were measurable brain changes associated with the meditation. Were those brain changes beneficial ones? Prior research with IMBT showed that it could improve conflict scores on an attention network test, lower anxiety, depression, anger, and fatigue, decrease stress-related cortisol, and increase immunoreactivity. It sounds all good to me.

There have been previous studies that have shown brain cortical changes in meditators. Back in 2005, Sara Lazar and her colleagues found increased cortical thickness in dedicated long-term insight meditation practitioners. What’s remarkable about this new study, however, is how little practice was needed to result in measurable brain changes.

So, fellow amateurs, keep up with your meditation practice, even if your practice is not perfect. Even if you don’t sit every single day. It’s good for you. (This is not, by the way, an invitation to slack off in your practice. More practice, more improvement.)

Not that you needed any brain studies to tell you that. You knew that already, didn’t you?

Still, for those of us who love and respect hard science, its nice to see science “validate” what we already know from our own introspection.

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Why Aren’t We Happy Yet?

So why aren’t we happy yet?  What’s the problem?

Well, as it turns out, there isn’t just one problem, but a whole bunch of them.  (Things are never that simple.  I’ve gone ahead and bundled them into seven categories. I’m a bit of a category nut):

  1. The Problem of Conflicting Desires
  2. The Problem of Illegitimate Desires
  3. The Problem of Enchantment: Translating Desires into Needs
  4. The Problem of Supply and Distribution
  5. The Problem of Impermanence
  6. The Problem of Other People’s Imperfections
  7. The Problem of Our Own Imperfection

Each of these problems needs a little bit of explanation and elaboration.

The Problem of Conflicting Desires

We sometimes have several desires at once which are incompatible with each other.  For example, we want to eat everything that appeals to us, but we also want to be thin.  Or we want to have lots of money, but we don’t want to work too hard.  Or we want to have a relationship with Sally, but we also want one with Joan.  Or we want to please our parents, but we also want to do things our own way.  We want to have our cake and eat it too. This is our unfortunate human condition.  The world seems to have been arranged so that we just can’t have everything we want because the things we want are contradictory and exclude each other.  In fact, it seems to be a general rule that whenever we chose something, we are not choosing something else.  Every time we make a choice we are closing off other options.  There is nothing we can do about this problem: this is something we just have to suck up.

The Problem of Illegitimate Desires

Sometimes we have a desire, but we’ve been told by our parents, partners, or teachers that we shouldn’t have it.  We’ve been taught that the desire is illegitimate.  When this happens, we may blame ourselves for having the desire, or we may pretend the desire doesn’t really exist.  For example, you may be told that you shouldn’t have certain sexual desires: you shouldn’t feel like masturbating, or having sex outside of marriage, or having sex with a member of the same gender or a different race.  Or you may have been told that you shouldn’t be selfish, or acquisitive, or independent, or aggressive.  Or that you shouldn’t be soft-hearted, trusting, or sentimental.  Or that you shouldn’t be curious, questioning, and innovative.

If one is going to think sanely about this issue, it is important to make a distinction between having desires and acting on them.  Desires just happen, and we don’t ask to have them.  We don’t ask, for example, to be homosexual or heterosexual, or have high or low sex drives.  We just have certain desires or we don’t.  We also can’t ask not to have them without ending up pretending and lying to ourselves.  We do have the ability, however, to decide whether to try to fulfill those desires or not.  A person might discover, for example, a desire for sex outside of his or her marriage and decide that it would be morally wrong to act on that desire.  The important thing here is not to blame oneself or someone else for having the desire in the first place. So much human misery has been caused by the self-blame and low self-esteem that comes from believing one is bad because one has illegitimate desires.  It is wiser to accept oneself fully in terms of recognizing one’s true desires; then one can control the satisfaction and frustration of those desires in accordance with the way one wants to live.

It’s a simple fact that we can better manage our desires when we see them and understand them correctly and without blame.  The alcoholic who denies he’s really an alcoholic doesn’t make the decision to avoid alcohol at all costs.  The alcoholic who is honest but not self-blaming can make wise choices and stay out of the bar.  The alcoholic, however, who recognizes the desire but labels himself or herself as “bad” for having it just has one more reason to go out and get drunk.

When we don’t properly appreciate and understand our own desires, we often end up making our lives and the lives of others around us miserable.  Think for a moment of a male homosexual who denies to himself that he is “gay,” and marries a woman just to prove to himself that he is “straight.”  You can predict the results a few years down the road: an unhappy husband, an unhappy wife, and in the wake of the probable divorce, unhappy children.  You see this same predicament in people who choose the wrong profession for themselves, or in couples who marry when they only think they are in love.  Socrates’ injunction to “Know Thyself” involves our ability to know our true desires.

The Problem of Enchantment: Translating Desires into Needs

One problem with desire is that we often magically over-evaluate the thing we desire.  On a ten-point Intensity of Desire Scale, we often assign the desired object a score of “11”.  When we are in love, the person we love has no flaws, and is more wonderful than any other person who ever lived.  We would give up everything to win their love in return; sometimes we do.  When there is stylish dress, or a new cutting-edge electronic device, or a classy automobile we just have to have, the item we want changes from an object to an obsession, and there is enormous energy that arises as part of the yearning and wishing.  Once we actually possess the loved one, or the dress, or the car, our evaluation of it begins to decline: our desiring loses some of its charge, excitement, and energy.  How often have you noticed that our anticipation of attending a social event, for example, is often more fun that the event itself?

This initial intense charge, this infatuation, makes for a certain kind of enchantment by things: the desired object has us in its power.  We are bewitched.  What ought be just a desire has become a need in our own mental calculus.  Once a desire has been turned into a need, it takes on a pre-eminent importance to us above what it should have, and this means that we will give more to obtain it than we ought to.  It also means that if our attempts to obtain it are frustrated, we become angrier and more frustrated and upset than we would otherwise be.  It can become something we would die for, or would kill for.

Learning to see desires as just desires and not as needs is an important part of making things right-sized in our lives.  We can see how irrational our teenage children are when they need a special brand of clothing, or need to attend a particular party.  From our special place of hard-earned maturity, we can see how childish they are.  What is harder to see is just how childish we are when we need that bigger house, or that boat, or that promotion, or that elective office, or that early retirement.  Or when we need to be thin, or to not look old, or to not become infirm.  Learning how to live with what is reasonably possible, and to accept what is inevitable is an important part of learning how to be happy.

The Problem of Supply and Distribution

Economics has been called “the dismal science” because one of its central axioms is that desire always outstrips the ability of the world to satisfy it.  There isn’t enough money, oil, gold, or diamonds to meet everyone’s wishes for them.  There aren’t enough supermodels and hunks to go around as spouses for everyone.  There aren’t enough brainy genes to make everyone a genius.  Scarcity often makes things more valuable: the more rare it is, the more people want it.  On the other hand, if something isn’t desirable, there often seems to be more than enough to go around: more than enough flu viruses, more than enough dust, more than enough mosquitoes.

To make things worse, when things are desirable, they aren’t distributed evenly.  The powerful and important people get more than their fair share of things, and the rest of us make do with less.  Or none.  That’s not just true in capitalist societies.  In feudal societies the nobility had it all and the peasants had next to nothing.  In communist countries, the commissars had their dachas (vacation homes) on the Black Sea and the special schools for their children, and the best of healthcare, and the masses shared the poverty of the collective farm. The old joke has it that under Capitalism man exploits man, while under Communism, it’s just the opposite.

While some societies share the wealth more fairly than others, Western Europe, for example, is more equitable in sharing its wealth than is the United States, no society has even remotely done away with inequality.  Some people are born into more advantaged families, genders, nations, or races, or they are bigger, faster, brighter, stronger, more beautiful, or more unscrupulous than others, and voila, there you have it: inequality.

As a result, you will never have everything you want, and there will always be someone who has something more than what you have. For some people this is an unmitigated  tragedy and a cause of unending bitterness, for others it is “just life.”  You get to choose which attitude you want to take towards it.  Guess which one makes you happier?

In saying this I am not arguing in favor of inequality, and I am not suggesting we should not make real efforts to try to make the world fairer.  I am just arguing for the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer that is recited in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings: May you be granted the serenity to change the things you can, accept the things you can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference between them.

The Problem of Impermanence

If you succeed in getting the thing you desire, your next problem is that it won’t last.  Nothing lasts forever.  People grow old and sick and die.  They fall out of love and they move away.  You get that great new job, and the boss changes, or the company gets bought out or folds. Houses need painting and repair, car engines wear out and get thick with sludge.  Mountains erode, climates change, nations rise and fall. Objects decay, entropy intrudes, times change.  Eventually the sun will burn out and the universe will run down.  Trust me. The Buddha said that all “compound phenomena are subject to decay.”  By “compound phenomena,” he meant things that were made up of other things, namely, everything.  Heraclitus said “You can’t step in the same river twice.”

Not only is the world constantly changing, but our feelings about the world are constantly changing too.  There is a psychological law called habituation which basically says that the brain tires of responding to the same old same old.  The first bite of Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk Ice Cream is sublime.  The 100th bite, not quite as delicious.  The first time you hear that new hit song, it’s delightful.  After a while you feel like you’ll scream if you hear it one  more time.

Not only is the world always changing, and our emotional response to it always changing, but the contents of our minds is always changing, too.  If you just sit and observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations, you will see how they are all constantly changing.  We are continuously learning new things and forgetting old things (unless we have Alzheimer’s Disease, in which case we forget the new even faster than we forget the old).  We change our moods, our opinions, and our minds.

Our desires change as well.   The books and movies we love as teenagers are not the same books and movies we love in old age.  As a youngster I hated olives and anchovies, now I love them. The vocation you aspired to in grade school is not probably not the same vocation you are in, or want to be in, today.

While the law of impermanence says we can never be permanently happy because what we want changes and the things we acquire change, there is a bright side to it: it’s not all gloom and doom.  If there was no change, we would never grow wiser or smarter, we would never overcome bad habits, and we would not learn new skills and information.  We would never better our condition or invent or create something new.   Change allows for the good as well as the bad.  So let’s hear one cheer for the Law of Impermanence: Hooray.

The Problem of Other People’s Imperfections

Nobody’s perfect.  And when it comes to other people, nobody’s even close.  In fact, to tell the truth, most people are disappointing and annoying a reasonable percentage of the time.   Even, or maybe especially, the people that you love.   They have all these bad habits, and they do all these dumb things.  Part of the problem is genetic.  Half the population is below average.  And humans share over 99% of their DNA with chimpanzees, so other people really aren’t much smarter or better behaved than chimpanzees.  How could they be?  Their biggest problem is that they don’t always put our own interests first.  They often care more about themselves than they do about us. How selfish!  And they aren’t always sufficiently attentive and appreciative of us.  Can you imagine?  They don’t hang on our every word, they don’t think all of our ideas are great ideas, and they don’t always anticipate our every need and satisfy them.

Even the best of people have all these flaws.

The Problem of Our Own Imperfection

There’s no doubt about it: We’re not perfect either: We’re not powerful enough to control the world.  We’re not powerful enough to control our bodies and stop them from aging or becoming ill.  We’re not even powerful enough to control our own minds.  If you need proof of this, just try counting from one to ten without thinking about a white rabbit.  Or try to have no thoughts at all for the next ten seconds.

There are certain kinds of errors we’re prone to making just simply because we’re human beings.  As a species we tend to be irrational, impulsive, and overly focused on short-term gain.  Think of those as design flaws.

In addition, we have limited vision and tend to be short-sighted.  When chess masters are playing an opponent, they try to anticipate how their opponent will counter their next move, and what they will do in response, and how their opponent will respond to that.  But even the best chess masters can only see several moves ahead.  Our brains are only so big.  As a result, our actions often have unintended consequences which we failed to anticipate.

As a result of our limited vision, all of our solutions to problems seem to create new problems.  This is why there will never be a problem shortage.  When the automobile was invented it was seen as an ingenious and affordable method for getting rapidly from Point A to Point B.  No one back then guessed it would contribute to global warming, to air pollution, to dependency on the Middle East for oil, or to tens of thousands of deaths and brain injuries per year.  When Thalidomide was prescribed by European gynecologists for morning sickness in their patients, they didn’t anticipate it would lead to an epidemic of birth defects.  When air conditioners and cooling systems were invented to make the summer heat more tolerable, no one anticipated that they would become reservoirs for the microorganism that causes Legionnaire’s Disease.  When Paris took Helen to be his wife, he didn’t expect the Trojan War.

As much as we try to think ahead and come up with “environmental impact statements” or other guestimates of the future impact of our decisions, we’ll always be woefully wrong.  The variables that affect the future are so numerous, we can never fully take all of them into account.  We’re like people lost in the night-time fog with little flashlights.  We can shine the flashlight on the ground and see a few footsteps ahead, but not much further.

So there you have it.  The seven reasons why you aren’t permanently and deliriously happy yet.     I hope you’re satisfied.

I wish I could be satisfied with the list, but I’m not.  I must have left something out, given my own imperfection.  If you come up with any additional reasons, please post them here.

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