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Lions Roar : March 2017
Of course, contemplative therapists are interested in their cli- ents’ stories, thoughts, and past, but they are less likely to turn therapy into an intellectual exploration of what went wrong and whom to blame. They are more interested in how what happened in the past is still manifesting in the present, not in the past for its own sake. Obstacles to Experiencing Brilliant Sanity If we have fundamental sanity, why are we so out of touch with it? Buddhism teaches that it is because we mistakenly believe we have some kind of solid and fixed identity. Some- times this is called “ego,” but it is the same way the word is used in Western psychological theory. Unfortunately, this causes a lot of confusion. The common use of the term “ego” refers to a sense of agency, an ability to use logic, or an ability to know one’s experience. These are not a problem. What is a problem is our attempt to create and hang on to our sense of self as perma- nent, separate, and solid. This is the way Buddhist psychology uses the word “ego.” Buddhism teaches that we don’t have such an identity, and all attempts to maintain it are doomed to failure because we are actually made up of experiences that keep changing. A mistaken idea many have about Buddhism is that it’s about giving up ego. But we don’t have to give up something we don’t have. From the contemplative viewpoint, we never actually had such a fixed identity, so there’s nothing to give up except our mistaken beliefs about it. The good news is that by letting go of our struggle to maintain a fixed sense of self, we can be more creative, flexible, and responsive to what arises in our experi- ence and in our relationships with others. Another mistake we make is believing we are completely separate from each other. However, our experience is always interacting with and being influenced by the environment and other people. Thich Nhat Hanh says that we “inter-are.” Mod- ern neuroscience also points out this interdependence. In the language of Contemplative Psychotherapy, we exchange with each other. If I am working with a client who feels very angry, I might start to feel the bodily signs of anger in myself. I might feel agitated and hot; I might start to have angry thoughts. There could be several things going on, but one thing is that I could be exchanging with my client. It can be a relief for some clients to learn about exchange, because it can help them make sense of past experiences. A cli- ent of mine grew up with a very depressed mother who could barely get off the couch most of the day. Realizing that she was exchanging with her mother helped my client let go of her belief that she was inescapably fated to being depressed herself. The Truth of Suffering The earliest teachings of Buddhism are about how suffering arises and how it can be reduced. The Buddha taught that there is pain simply in being alive. But he also taught that we add unnecessary suffering by trying to grasp that which inevitably falls apart, like our identity or anything material we think will bring us happiness. So Buddhist psychology makes a distinction between the inevitable pain of being alive—the pain of birth, old age, sick- ness, and death, according to the traditional Buddhism formu- lation—and the unnecessary suffering that results from our attempts to escape or deny reality. These include our misguided attempts to maintain a solid identity, to escape unavoidable pain, and to aggressively reject what we don’t want. Sometimes people complain that Buddhism is negative because it teaches that pain is inevitable. What I have seen is that knowing pain is part of being alive can be a big relief. It means that being in pain is not a sign that we have done something wrong. Many of us are quite well-practiced at self- judgment. Blaming ourselves for being ill or experiencing pain is fertile ground for more unnecessary suffering. Whatever the sources of our pain are, including oppression and injustice, we need to take responsibility for how we respond to them. For example, internalizing the messages we might receive about being lesser because we are a member of a mar- ginalized group can be particularly difficult to recognize and address. Undoing such damaging beliefs about ourselves is part of the path of reclaiming our natural wisdom and compassion. Mindfulness, Awareness, and Loving-kindness The Buddha taught that the way to stop perpetuating the habits that cause us unnecessary suffering is to bring mindful- ness and awareness to all aspects of our lives. In contempla- tive approaches to therapy, counselors work with their clients to develop mindfulness—the ability to bring nonjudgmental attention to the details of our experience. This means paying attention less to the content of our thoughts and more to what is happening in the present moment. When I work with clients, I listen for what they already know about developing mindfulness. Many clients know a good deal. For example, anyone who has a disciplined approach to playing the piano, or practices the specific skills of basketball, or cooks attentively, or knows a lot about butterflies already knows how to attend to details and to let go of mistakes. So together we explore how to bring what they already know to whatever issues they are dealing with. Awareness is a larger sense than the close attentiveness of mindfulness. It is helpful for clients to learn to take a larger LION’S ROAR | MARCH 2017 58