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Lions Roar : March 2017
as he had, that he was pretty hopeless. Instead, I said some- thing like, “Oh, you’re not so bad.” I don’t remember saying that, but, as he told me, he had understood that I really did believe in his goodness. “That’s why I kept coming back,” he said. I’m often asked by clients like Elliot what to expect from some- one who describes herself as a “contemplative psychotherapist.” Here are some of the key principles of contemplative counseling and psychotherapy that I would outline for a potential client. As I have studied and practiced mostly in the Vajrayana tradition of Buddhism, what I say here reflects that school’s approach. Brilliant Sanity Contemplative Psychotherapy is based on the view that all of us, no matter what our problems, are fundamentally awake and healthy. In some schools of Buddhism this is called our bud- dhanature, and in the Shambhala teachings it’s called our basic goodness. In the Contemplative Psychotherapy program here at Naropa University, it’s referred to as brilliant sanity. The premise of Contemplative Psychotherapy is that we already have what we need to connect with our inherent wis- dom and compassion. Therefore, a contemplative therapist is concerned primarily with helping clients reconnect with and develop confidence in their own inherent sanity. We are not, of E LLIOT KNEW from our first session together that I saw him as basically a good person. As he remembered it later, he had told me his personal saga of relationship and work failures, and he expected I would conclude, course, always in touch with it—we have only to look around us to see there is much suffering, confusion, and violence in the world. Yet the contemplative approach is an optimistic one, because it points to our capacity for clarity, compassion, mind- fulness, and awareness. Catching a Glimpse The experience of brilliant sanity cannot be completely captured in words. Instead, we tend to glimpse it in moments of clear-see - ing and tender-heartedness. We might have a sense of being fully present when something surprises us. We might experience it in a time of unexpected joy, or in a period of intense grief or fear. In such moments, we are simply right there with an open heart. Such glimpses have qualities of sharpness, tenderness, and letting go of thoughts. They might last just a few seconds, or they could last a lot longer. For example, when people are about to have a car accident, they may see precisely what’s happening and take whatever steps they can to avoid further damage. They might feel slowed down and very clear. Then afterward, they might have lots of thoughts crowd in about what might have happened. They might have angry thoughts or frightened ones. As they get caught up in their thoughts, they lose touch with the sense of immediacy and clarity that characterize glimpses of brilliant sanity. Direct Experience It is only in the present moment that we can experience our basic sanity. Because we can experience it, even if we can- not nail it down with words, therapists with a contemplative approach emphasize what their clients directly experience. They may ask questions like, “What are you noticing in your body right now?” “What do you feel inside as you are talking about what happened last night?” and, “As you look around the room, what do you see and hear?” KAREN KISSEL WEGELA, PhD, is a psychologist in private practice and a professor in Naropa University’s MA Contemplative Psychotherapy and Buddhist Psychology department. Her most recent book is Contem- plative Psychotherapy Essentials: Enriching Your Practice with Bud- dhist Psychology (Norton). LION’S ROAR | MARCH 2017 57