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A Buddhist Framework within Psychotherapy

In considering the Dharmic framework for Psychotherapy one may need to consider the existence of duality within human experience. Perhaps this duality is within the context and process of action and inaction, of contemplation and meditation. The need we all have for movement and action to achieve a goal or to change the way we are in the world. All of this somehow coupled with the Buddhist principal of acceptance of all that is.

It is duality that provides something of a dilemma. Potentially a question arises; on what basis and with what objectives does a psychotherapist operate. Within our society it is difficult if not impossible for us to stop, take refuge, and spend years in contemplation and meditation. To truly follow the eight fold path of right action, right livelihood etc. Yet moments of clarity can be found in looking towards these goals.

Within these questions can come an acceptance of the Buddhist principals of The Four Noble Truths. From the acceptance that there is always Dukkha (suffering) through to the cessation of Dukkha (Nirvana) and of course the journey towards Nirvana. The psychotherapists roll or aim being one of relieving suffering, not so much as an act of taking away or distancing the client from there suffering. But more as path to help clients really see the cause or origin and inevitable existence of their own and universal suffering and connect with universal clarity and compassion. In effect to find a way of being with suffering without being overwhelmed by it.

The Buddhist framework begins with the central acceptance of the four noble truths. These represent the reality or bedrock of human experience (and indeed universal existence) and it is perhaps the acceptance and understanding of the nature and existence of suffering which can make a Buddhist based psychotherapy so much more than simple cognitive psychotherapy, by going beyond pure cognitive skills and assessments which tend to go through the categorisation of client states and their diagnosis.

As the acceptance and understanding of Dukkha grows so does our ability to see beyond it. To see that no matter how terrible things may seem, they are not all that we are. Suffering arises from mind and is an impermanent state of being. By observing these states we can also transform our relationship with them.

Although suffering arises from mind our sense of this feeling may stem or arise from feeling tones, body sensation, and perceptions but perhaps most importantly from mental formations.

It is perhaps in accepting that suffering is ever present that the relationship to suffering can be transformed. Not so much by looking deeply at the cause, but by looking beyond what may seem like external causes; we can thereby transform or shift our attitude and relationship to the pain and suffering. By bringing awareness beyond mind to our relationships with the world a greater understanding can develop, thereby relieving the sense of suffering. That inner sense may suggest that we remain with the suffering, not to become it but to abide or observe its path through our consciousness.

 

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The journey towards the relief of suffering is in some sense an attachment, but I consider it to be a healthy one.

Our relationship to suffering can be transformed in some of the most difficult circumstances, this was very well illustrated by Brian Keenan during his time in captivity at the hands of terrorists. He came to feel love for one of his captors despite the brutal conditions and treatment he received, this represents well a real depth of feeling which goes beyond mind alone. Although Keenan does not put in Buddhist language, he had perhaps experienced the suffering of another as if it were his own. He went beyond what was being done to him and saw the pain and suffering as a shared existence, in that moment, which for me bought forward the true depth of human existence, that of Mett Loving kindness.

It is in the acceptance of our interconnected nature to all things that can bring relief and help us in developing a deeper and clearer understanding of the nature of our experience. This also brings to mind the duality of our existence. The suffering of self and other and the recognition that suffering is universal yet also a product of I, and yet it is also purely a state of mind. Once we let go of preconceptions and expectation we can truly be with what is present. The duality of knowing ones own state or sense of good and bad and the acknowledgement that it is ever present. That within all people there is a core of goodness filled with compassion, and acceptance.

In order to understand or perhaps better stated as in order to truly accept our experience, it is necessary to look deeply within our own experience. It is to take the time to be with, and really experience what arises from within that a level of clarity can be found in each of us. Not what was, or what will be, but how it is now in this moment. Simply put as being present.

To be present one needs to find clarity, yet to find clarity within a sense of suffering can be horrifying, enclosing and overwhelming. Especially when considering all suffering (That of Dukkha). When we truly sense the feeling of our own suffering and that of others, past, present and future. When considering current conflicts around the world, the senseless death and destruction, abuse, and not least the recent carnage in America and Afghanistan. This can be overwhelming, lacking in clarity and completely enclosing. When universal suffering is compared to our reaction to stubbing a toe or not getting what for Christmas, it may seem tremendously selfish and self centred. Yet all is suffering. All is unfulfilled want, desire, and expectation. Millions die every day, and millions are born, each represents life and death, both are suffering! Since there is no life without death, no good without bad, and so on.

If we are to be with all this suffering we may risk getting too close and can become the pain and anguish which would be totally overwhelming. Yet by touching into it without becoming it we can get a true sense of it, providing a sense of what is present and how it is without being overwhelmed.

Mental judgement from conditioning can often cloud our relationship to discomfort and pain. If I do not get what I want I may feel pain. I can also squash the painful feeling by drawing comparisons with others, I can draw on ego to dismiss the feelings that may arise. However, this does not really help, it simply swaps one feeling for another, or rather, places one feeling on top of another. To be with and accept what arises will help to transform it.

So, in order to be with our own and our sense of suffering in others without being either overwhelmed or closed off to it, it is important to find some distance from it. This is best described as spaciousness. Spaciousness is for me a duality of being with what is present and being empty or free of expectation. Being with but not becoming. To be with what arises without becoming it requires sufficient distance to observe the feeling tone of what arises.

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Having the space to deeply observe within the client/therapist relationship requires an understanding of our own process, an acknowledgement of our own historical and current triggers. Having a sense of what evokes our own conditioning, knowing just what makes us react and what is our relationship to that reaction is our "reaction". How we then respond to what arises within the encounter; our response to this is a major player within the therapeutic relationship. It is not a question of getting rid of these feelings, but to know they are there without getting carried away by them.

So in order to be with suffering without becoming it we need to find the space to see clearly. To see clearly, we need to have cleared away, (or perhaps acknowledged) and put aside expectation, judgement, grasping, wishful thinking, self serving and desire. This to a large extent involves finding inner stillness, for me this comes back to the core. Meditation provides the opportunity to be physically still, quiet, and thereby know what is present within I (and when it goes well, a stillness, receptiveness, and an energetic opening to what is really present)

However difficult it sometimes seems, we are not always within the realm of suffering, either what we may consider as our own, or that of others. The antelope suffers at the hands of the lion, but the lion would suffer without the antelope. All is part of the cycle or wheel of life.

Beneath all that pervades all of our experience lies our inner still point or Core, that part of our human experience that knows what suffering is and indeed what joy and freedom are. This Core is the element within each of us which witnesses when we are happy, sad, or moving from state to state. Not as a judgement but simply put as an observation.

The Core or witness self is that part which is able to observe, the part which sees without judgement, conditioning or desire. The unconditioned mind or wise mind which has the innate and boundless capacity to show compassion. Perhaps it is not excessive to call this the enlightened mind.

To some extent that this enlightened mind offers absolute clarity, compassion and spaciousness, yet it resides within our conditioned selves and this is why it is so important to acknowledge our conditioned self as part of the therapeutic encounter.

It is a question of nurturing this part of our experience that we can come to truly be with our experience without becoming it. It is within this Core that true compassion arrises, the natural human depth that calls to each of us to feel the love of our experience and indeed our existence.

Perhaps a psychotherapist is with a client and is only present with their own conditioned mind, perhaps busy dwelling on what happened yesterday or whats supposed to happen tomorrow they may be blocking both their own and the field of relationship from coming into view. They would not in effect be truly present. They would be out of touch with wise mind. They may offer a narrow and perhaps self absorbed, un-spacious, or un-clear.  Any compassion may well be replaced with a mechanical sympathetic tone or attitude. A client who is present with difficulty, will, even if subconsciously, notice this absence and may well withdraw or feel abandoned. This would especially be the case in client work within Borderline States or the analytical Passive Aggressive Schizoid personality

Feeling or rather thinking sorry for self or other is not compassion; sympathy is in many circumstances born of ego. It does not come from an open space; rather it comes directly from the conditioned narrow self or I.

Of course to some extent this is a play on words, yet compassion arises from a deeper more universal awareness, a shared rather than separate place.

The phrase to encompass the three constituents of clarity, spaciousness, and compassion which expresses this innate human depth is Brilliant Sanity as written about extensively by Karen Kissel Wegela.

Brilliant Sanity touches on or perhaps into Nirvana A place of absolute clarity, peace, compassion, and spaciousness.

It is by connecting with (our own) Brilliant Sanity that we can clearly see what is present without attachment or expectation, in the moment as it arises. It is not simply wisdom, for wisdom comes from knowledge and experience, yet Brilliant Sanity includes wise mind. This can also bring a desire to attach to this core of clarity but as said this may be a healthy attachment.

It is perhaps not so much a question of this or that and more of a this and that It is by spending time in contemplation and reflection that universal truth arises. Thinking alone can provide many answers but these truths are not the stuff of true human experience. They are conditioned responses, 2+2= a conditioned response rather than a deep awareness.

Brilliant Sanity is our innate ability to accept and be with our experience without attachment, desire or judgement. Yet in saying this a question also arises in relation to attachment are we attached to nirvana, to wise mind, to enlightenment. Yes!, but in saying this there is somewhere within this desire, an acceptance that it may come and go, it is not for most of us a permanent state of being. It is like the ebb and flow of the tide. Or the coming of night and day. It is perhaps the work of Magya, finding and following the path to the cessation of suffering. Within Buddhist teaching this is achieved in part by following the eight fold path of right action, right mind etc.

This path does not preclude our cognitive skills and past conditioning from being present within the therapeutic relationship. But it is perhaps our ability to recognise and to move beyond this conditioning that brings an awareness which offers the holding and presence necessary within the therapeutic encounter without exhausting the therapist. It is this that allows client and psychotherapist to truly meet, to provide the hearing and compassion which will help the client to heal themselves, to offer the space, compassion and clarity which may well be much of what a client needs in order to find peace and understanding within their own process.

For the psychotherapist to be with what is arising within the therapeutic encounter also requires a number of cognitive skills, for instance, a mental recognition of transference and counter transference within the therapeutic encounter. Within this there is the acceptance of inner and outer process What is mine, what is clients and what arises within the relational field. This understanding can come in a number of ways but perhaps most deeply and importantly its growth comes from building space within the Psychotherapists own being which has come from and leads to a deeper self awareness. To build this understanding requires time for contemplation, meditation and self reflection, which can with care lead to a degree of both self knowing and a broader awareness and acceptance of how it is rather that how it should be or how it might be. This could be Brilliant Sanity, not enlightenment or even Nirvana, but an ability to be with, and bare witness in a non judgmental way. Being with what arises without attachment, rejection or desire. It is a balance between cognitive judgement coupled with acceptance of what is present.

Brilliant Sanity is an acceptance of all that arises coupled with an ability to feel what comes at a cellular level, to be with and witness what is invoked from conditioning, to then bring this feeling to cognition. To find and offer the space and compassion for what is present within the field of relationship and perhaps share it with the client, thereby offering something more that pure cognitive knowledge or judgement.

Never the less, with all this said, it remains difficult to clearly define how the process of meditation and the acceptance of the four noble truths, the eight fold path, the skandas, and other Buddhist teachings can help within the psychotherapeutic relationship in isolation. This is perhaps a question of the dualistic nature of our existence and our desire to pin things down that creates questions   the desire for Ah! thats how it works.  Returning to the 2+2 example, a simple cognitive calculation. But what about 2 +2 / (9210 x E2) or whatever, suddenly more thought is required (and a calculator!).

In relationship we do not have an external calculator, yet we do have a sense of how it is, a deep yet extremely complex understanding and connection which is for the most part beyond calculation, beyond words, it simply is. Of course much of this can be attributed to body language, vocal tone, gesture etc. But there is more, a great deal more to communication; this is the interconnected nature of the universe. Something far beyond mental formations and something that does not require mental calculation.

There is a need to accept the basic human condition and also move beyond this to a place of accepting these natural states by letting go of them and making use of them at the same timea dualistic human holding and letting go.

Here it lies before the meditators feet like the serpents worn out skin a lifeless heap of thin and wrinkled thought tissue. Once it had seemed to be so full of alluring beauty this proud and deceptive idea of I and Mine

Nyanaponika

It is this balance of letting go and being with that presents the dualistic dilemma within the psychotherapeutic relationship, yet it is born, purely born from I  purely from ego.

It is of course also a balance between what is my stuff, what is the clients stuff and what arises within the field, much of what arises will be influenced by personality, conditioning etc. However, to bring an awareness of Brilliant Sanity to the therapeutic relationship enhances the following three qualities and relieves the mirror side of each.

Greedlessness
Hatelessness
Undeludidness

It is in effect to really be with all that is present and to bring universal reality into awareness, together with our conditioned self, with compassion, clarity, and spaciousness. To really do this within the therapeutic encounter. These qualities offer understanding without condition or expectation that will enable healing to arise.

Useful Links

Core Process Psychotherapy
The Eight fold path
The Four Noble Truths

 

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