A Path To Wholeness A Buddhist
psychiatrist who has been meditating for decades elegantly describes how psychotherapy
and meditation can help us manage our most powerful emotions--and make us feel
more alive and whole in the process.
"Stop trying to understand what you are feeling and
just feel," my first meditation instructor told me. This instruction
seemed insanely simple: the ability to just feel should come as naturally as
the ability to breathe. Yet, in twenty-five years as a psychotherapist and
practicing Buddhist, I have found that most of us have not learned how to be
with our feelings without rushing to analyze them, change them, or escape them.
If we really want to live a full life, both the ancient
tradition of Buddhism and the modern one of psychotherapy tell us that we must
recover the capacity to feel. Avoiding emotions will only wall us off from our
true selves--in fact, there can be no wholeness without an integration of feelings.
Both traditions have discovered that the way to plumb the full depths of our
emotional being is by letting ourselves go, by surrendering to who we really
are. And both traditions understand that we need a state of reverie in order to
know our emotions. Whether that reverie comes through meditation or the quiet
holding space of therapy, it is always necessary.
Buddhism has always made the self's ability to relax its
boundaries the centerpiece of its teachings. It recognizes that the central
issues of our lives, from falling in love to facing death, require an ability
to surrender that often eludes us. Psychotherapy, through its analysis of childhood,
has tended to turn us in a reflective direction' searching for the causes of
unhappiness in an attempt to break free from the traumas of the past. Too
often, though, it degenerates into finding someone to blame for our suffering.
But within psychotherapy lies the potential for an approach that is compatible
with Buddhist understanding, one in which the therapist, like the Zen master,
can aid in making space in the mind.
Many of us come to therapy feeling that we are having
trouble I letting ourselves go: we are blocked creatively or emotionally, we
have trouble falling asleep or enjoying sex, or we suffer from feelings 5 of
isolation or alienation. Often, we are afraid of falling apart, but the problem
is actually that we have not learned how to give up control of ourselves. People
come to me most often because they are unhappy with how they feel, not because
they are not separate or individuated enough. The traditional view of therapy
as building up the ego simply does not do justice to what people's needs
In my work as a therapist, I have adapted Buddhist
teachings to meet the needs of my patients, many of whom have neither the time
nor the inclination to pursue formal meditation practice. I have found that therapy,
through a reciprocal exchange of feelings, can also enable us to let go of the
defenses that block us. While the method may differ from formal meditation, the
intent is the same: to recover a capacity for feelings that we are all afraid
Cross-Legged on a
Meditation seeks to create an inner holding environment
for the raw material of emotional experience through non-judgmental awareness.
In this way, meditation acts like a stealth bomber, sneaking through all the defenses
and illuminating the central fortress of the heart. When I was first instructed
in what is known as "mindfulness meditation," I was taught to simply
note whatever I was feeling, pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. My observing
mind functioned almost as another person, watching the flow of sensation with
relative ease. This created a very different relationship with my internal
world from the one I was used to. My chronic tendency was to shrink from the
unpleasant and reach for the pleasant. Mindfulness meditation encouraged a
dispassionate acceptance of both.
Since feeling states are experienced primarily in the
body, the ability to maintain a continuous state of physical awareness gives an
enormous boost to the capacity to bear feelings. This is fortunate, because one
of the most common occurrences in beginning meditation involves the re-experiencing
of terrifying feelings. Even in meditation, these feelings can still seem
intolerable, but the entire thrust of meditation practice is designed to
increase their tolerability.
Because mindfulness of feelings involves the careful
attention to the flow of pleasant and unpleasant sensations in the body, there
is none of the usual picking and choosing that otherwise colors our experience.
Cross-Legged on the
Opening your attention to your body, feelings, and mind
does not have to be restricted to the meditation cushion. It's a process you
can attempt with all aspects of your life, and certainly one you can pursue
with a therapist. One teacher of mine told me that to achieve a dispassionate state,
he would pretend he was dying and that I there was nothing to be done.
"Rather than judging something," he told me, "take no position.
Stop leaning into circumstances I and rest in your own awareness."
Buddhism teaches us again and again that uncovering and experiencing difficult feelings
does not make them go away, but does enable us to practice tolerance and
understanding with the entirety of our being.
The same tolerance can be practiced in therapy. I remember
being asked in my first session with a therapist if I was aware that I was
sitting on the edge of my seat. I was not aware of it. I was sitting the way I
always sat when talking with someone. "What's wrong with the way I'm
sitting?" I wanted to ask. My therapist waited, as if to give me time to
get over my sudden self-consciousness and notice how I was sitting. He was
right. I was perched like a bird on the edge of my chair and was very
uncomfortable there. "You give yourself no support," he said softly.
I spent the rest of the session feeling what it was like
to sit back in my chair, making use of my whole body. Already, I was forging a
connection with the physical environment
that I had been denying myself. My body was the unconscious I was so interested
in plumbing. For all my meditation training, I still needed the help of a
therapist to show me where I was holding back.
My therapist, just like the Buddha, began with mindfulness
of the body. My therapist could just as easily have been a Zen master in the
manner in which he related to me. His teaching drove home the lesson of my
years of practicing meditation in a particularly vivid and helpful way.
This therapist did not present himself as an authority
figure who analyzed my psychic configurations. He did not interpret my Oedipal
dilemma. He was not remote and silent. He was very available, quite humorous
and playful, and paid particular attention to what prevented me from being part
of the relationship with him. My therapist was asking something of me that was
an improvisation. He was asking for meditation in action, not for a mere witnessing
of psychic debris.
If we stop backing away from our unpleasant feelings, we
are able to see how they color our experience and how scared we I are by them.
And we can learn to sit with these difficult feelings, I no matter how terrifying
When Betsy, a patient of mine, was learning meditation,
she discovered an anxiety in her chest that seemed to run through her like a
hollow core. At first, she was deeply afraid of that place. But with some
attention, she learned to rest her attention in the hollow core, and saw that
it was a rich source of mysterious feeling, sometimes sad and lonely, but at
other times filled with the energy and inquisitiveness of a child. The hollow space
became an enriching space as well as a scary one, filled with unanticipated qualities that expanded her sense of her own
It is my experience that emotions, no matter how powerful,
are not overwhelming if given room to breathe. Western therapy can learn to
make use of the Buddhist emphasis on acceptance of feelings rather than talking
and analyzing. The therapist and patient can create a situation in which these
unacknowledged emotions are finally given breathing space.
Love and Death and
The major obstacle to love, I have found, is a premature
walling off of the personality that results in a falseness or inauthenticity.
When someone is so uncomfortable with his own sense of emptiness that he
struggles to keep it at bay, he won't be able to be open with another person.
He will simply be too ashamed to reveal himself in any real manner. In this
case, therapy is effective when it allows a person to discover their own
capacity for connection.
All of our intimate relationships have intense emotional
exchanges that test our ability to know and bear feelings. When I first fell in
love, in my adult years, I traveled with my future wife to a rocky point on the coast of Maine
that had always been special to me. Embracing her with the surf pounding, we
were both filled with a sense not just of love, but of death, as if we were
holding on tightly to each other while our lives passed before us. These
feelings seemed linked with an implicit sense of the preciousness of our love.
In our hug on the beach, we were breathing each other's emotions, making them
make sense in a way we could only do with each other's help. Lovers often
inject breath into each other's emotions, as parents do in a different way with
their children, making those very feelings more tolerable by virtue of their
being held and known.
During orgasm, at the moment of death, while one is
falling asleep or ending a dream, the underlying luminosity of the mind shines
through. In Buddhism, this luminous mind is compared to a clear blue sky. But
we have a powerful resistance to experiencing the mind in all of its
brilliance. We are afraid to truly surrender to it.
THE FRUITS OF
Like meditation, psychotherapy can seem like a long walk
that suddenly opens up into an extraordinary vision of something that has
always been available but has been unrecognized. A long-time patient of mine,
Greta, came to see me every week as she navigated work and family, successfully
raising three children alone while working at a full-name job. She wanted therapy
because she felt lonely and was vaguely aware of how judgmental she was toward
most people. When disappointed or hurt by someone, Greta's tendency was to
write them off forever.
Over the years, we developed a very strong connection. My
work with Greta felt like untangling my daughter's knotted hair or like untying
a fine gold chain. 1 would get one little strand free, open up a little space,
and then start working on the next piece. One evening, after having been at my office
that afternoon, she was struck by a huge wave of love for me that made her feel
very peaceful. That evening she dreamed of herself with her father when she was
three or four years old and felt with great conviction the unconflicted love
she had for him at that time. In a second dream, she heard herself yelling at
him, "Can't you shut up? You're talking at me all the time."
She remembered how relentlessly he had pursued her as she
grew up, how needy he was. He would become irate whenever she disappointed him
and she finally had to close herself off from him in order to find some peace. "The
defense is what hurt," she told me.
Greta's breakthrough reminds me of an old Zen story about
an aged Chinese monk who asks permission to seek enlightenment in an isolated
cave. Taking his robes, his begging bowl, and a few possessions, he heads out on
foot into the mountains. On his way he sees an old man carrying a huge bundle.
This man is actually the bodhisattva Manjushri, who
appears to people at the moment they are ready for enlightenment.
"I am going to the furthest mountains," the monk
tells Manjushri, "to find a cave. I will stay there and meditate until I
die or realize awakening."
Manjushri then drops his bundle onto the ground, and
instantly the monk is enlightened. He, too, has put down his whole defensive
self, the entire burden.
But he's still a bit confused."Now what?" he
asks Manjushri. And the bodhisattva, smiling, silently reaches down, picks up
his bundle and continues down the path.
Putting down our burdens does not mean forsaking the
conventional world. It means being in that world with the consciousness of one
who is not deceived by appearances. Once Greta, for instance, had recovered her
love for her father, she could continue to fend him off with forgiveness
instead of rancor. She still needed her defenses, but she was not imprisoned by
And as the newly enlightened monk realized when he saw
Manjushri pick up his bundle and head back to town, everything had changed but
nothing was altered.
From the book Going to Pieces without Falling Apart by
Mark Epstein, M.D.
Copyright [C] 1998 by Mark Epstein. Published by
arrangement with Broadway Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing
Group, Inc., New York, New York. All rights reserved.
PHOTOS (COLOR): A Buddhist psychiatrist who has been
meditating for decades
Psychology Today,Vol. 31 No. 3 May/Jun.1998,Pp.46-53
Copyright by Psychology Today