About two years ago, and encouraged by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, I started Buddhist counseling at Vajrayana institute in Sydney, Australia.
I had come to Buddhism in a round-about way – from an intellectual fascination with the extraordinary edifice of philosophy more than a fully realized spiritual thirst, and after years of left-wing politics, feminism and a career. While others had gone to India, met the lamas, taken robes and founded centers, I had marched in demos in Berlin, emigrated to London and become a literary agent and editor. When I finally found the Dharma I was already close to middle-age, useful years gone, and Lama Yeshe merely a name. Such is the force of our karma.
When I eventually met Lama Zopa Rinpoche I was stunned by the impact he had on me, and helpless as to what service I could offer such a being. All I had were worldly skills: a mind trained at German universities, some business experience, and my newly acquired training as a psychotherapist. None of it seemed very relevant in my encounter with Rinpoche, which was to trigger what Nietzsche, another confused German, calls “die Umwertung aller Werte,” the transvaluation of all values.
I felt uncertain about the more devotional side of Buddhism, unclear about its function, inadequate about doing it right: when Lama Osel visited I had to be taught hastily how to do a full prostration before presenting a shaky mandala. I was an unimpressive Buddhist.
It seemed okay with Lama Zopa. When I asked him, somewhat to my own surprise, if I could set up a Buddhist hospice group he was enthusiastic. I emerged as a center director. Shakyamuni Buddha Hospice was set up. A group was formed. I tentatively started using what I knew a bit – psychotherapy, together with what I hardly knew at all – the Dharma. In the absence of any available model I began to explore how the two approaches could be combined for training volunteers who wanted to work with the dying and bereaved.
I studied and presented the teachings on death and dying, and the hospice group started working on becoming “empty rice bowls” – an expression my London supervisor had used for perfecting the skill of listening, dropping one’s own needs and expectations when working with clients, and for creating the necessary space into which the other could expand.
The mixture was exciting and creative, and it moved us towards what I hoped as a first glimpse of bodhichitta – universal not “idiot” compassion – through making an effort to sacrifice the self-cherishing attitude and becoming an “empty rice bowl” to anyone – friend, foe or stranger.
Combining some of the principles of psychotherapy and the Dharma on this level had seemed to work. So, when I handed over the hospice to another director and Lama Zopa encouraged me top start individual Buddhist counseling I felt a surge of excitement.
Surely, this new combination was immensely promising. I had already heard about a number of Buddhist therapists in America and Europe, and I recalled the polite responses by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Western psychologists during various meetings that explored possible areas of similarity. Perhaps psychology was indeed the vehicle for the Dharma to become truly Western.
I wrote a blurb for the Vajrayana newsletter, introducing Buddhist counseling as “solving everyday problems using the wisdom of the ancient Teachings for modern life dilemmas, and applying the tried and tested antidotes to the mind poisons that are the root causes of our unhappiness.”
After this confident announcement I found myself with an immediate problem. How would I actually go about offering these tried and tested antidotes? Which of the various “professional” approaches would cover this new enterprise – Existential Counseling with its many philosophic similarities, Communicative Psychotherapy with its focus on the frame and the client, the Rogerian method of reflecting back? Perhaps Psychosynthesis? Transpersonal Psychotherapy with its emphasis on the spiritual dimension. Gestalt?
I was confused. All approaches differed in the way they lent themselves to combining with the Dharma but none fitted completely or felt entirely right. This was unexpectedly tricky. If psychology was the mirror in whose facets the Eastern Dharma was to be reflected as a new form of Western Buddhism, which part of it was it to be?
In the absence of any insight I made a decision to keep everything as simple as possible, to forget about technique, to concentrate on offering a professional framework in the unusual setting of a Dharma center, and to opt for a modified form of Brief Therapy, that is, six sessions, with an optional follow-up session within six months. I chose Brief Therapy because it shortened waiting lists, and it avoided as far as possible the danger of long-term dependency and my turning into some kind of guru.
I decided to call the counseling “grass-roots Dharma,” and the way it has developed suggests that this was intuitively right. The counseling I offer is nothing else than a Dharma exploration, tailor-made to the specific problem presented.
Many of my clients are not Buddhists but they come because they want to know what Buddhism has to offer, and so I fearlessly tackle very confronting issues – karmic responsibility, no savior, no redemption, impermanence, uncertainty, the mind poisons. On the plus side: no guilt, the possibility of transformation, the essential purity of the mind, loving kindness, the eight-fold path.
I learn from my clients as I go along. The very first one suggested for example that he would like to do some meditation, so we did and I felt absolutely right. It became part of all sessions, together with setting my own motivation and a dedication of the merit at the end.
Listening is still paramount. Being the “empty rice bowl” in this type of Dharma exploration goes beyond professional empathy. Everything my clients present, without any exception is familiar territory: wading through the mind poisons together is two-way therapy.
Of course, what I offer on this basis can be done by anyone with some understanding of the Dharma and the ability to listen – and probably better. But it seems to me important to keep a few professional rules: absolute confidentiality, which when broken is devastating; no self-disclosure, which crowds and takes away spade from the client; a regular time-slot and venue to minimize insecurity and trauma; making the meeting room pleasant and safe from interruption; charging a set fee however small rather than a donation to reassure the client of the special and professional nature of the meetings; being punctual and reliable; refraining from sloppiness such as eating or drinking or answering the phone; avoiding physical contact. I also find it useful to sit in two facing chairs that are a comfortable distance away, but further than one would sit with a friend.
I mention to the client that inadvertent meetings at the center are possible, and that I will take my cue from him or here if they want to acknowledge me or not.
I make sure that the center keeps accounts anonymously with clients identified by first letters only.
It is useful to have some form of supervision, and regular study of the Dharma plus teachings are essential. I give homework, mostly in the shape of meditation, or developing a neutral observer’s attitude to strong emotions. Sometimes I tell clients to visualize past business, wrap it up, then drive to one of the cliffs surrounding Sydney Harbor, and throw it in the water. I am told it works.
I encourage them to exchange themselves with others, another powerful tool, especially for coping with relationship crises. We also do meditations for taking others’ suffering and giving one’s own happiness, breathing meditation, and visualizations taken from Kathleen McDonald’s How to Meditate.
Working with all of this regularly and for some time has of course been of major benefit to myself, and constantly telling my clients to use the mind as a lab forces me to work in my own, too.
Sometimes Grassroots Dharma Counseling works very well and there are real breakthroughs. But sometimes it does not because I am not skillful enough and my understanding is too shallow. I have had to learn to cope with a sense of deep inadequacy that goes beyond my usual ego worry of being seen as a charlatan or failure.
But when people make a sufficient connection with the Dharma to go on to the real teachings it is an elating experience and a great privilege.
Because I am using the barest minimum of psychotherapeutic techniques I have started to read up on how some of my colleagues work: Epstein’s elegant exploration of Buddhist psychotherapy from a Freudian point of view1, Moacanin’s discussion of Jungian theory and the Dharma2, Kornfield’s practical guide for using the Dharma from a wider Theravadin point of view3, Nissanka’s psychiatric approach4, and a few others. I find all of them impressive, very different in their approaches and undeniably Buddhist. But I am left with a feeling of unease.
Are we therapists who happen to be Buddhists, or Buddhists who happen to be therapists? What is being perceived from which perspective? Is Buddhism simply being assessed as yet another tool, equal to others in the whole range or psychological instrumentarium? Are the teachings being simplified and perhaps watered down so that they fit into vessels that are much too small?
A year ago I went to a conference about Buddhism and psychotherapy where I arrived with high expectations. I soon realized what I was thirsting for was the Dharma, but what I found was mainly psychotherapy with a bit of the Dharma – all the usual divisions albeit with a sense of harmonious mutual appreciation, the different approaches, techniques, interpretations. It was curiously disappointing.
What I really wanted was to study and explore the Dharma, for myself and with my clients. The Dharma, pure and simple. No agonizing over right approaches, techniques, the straight-jackets of ill-fitting comparisons and definitions. Making the decision felt like leaving instant-pot-noodles for bread, mirages for firm ground, brass for gold, band-aids for the life-saving operation. It was a revelation and I became a “fundamentalist.” I never looked back.
I think that in a very real sense “Buddhist” psychotherapy does not exist, cannot exist because the aim of Buddhism is infinitely more radical and complete. The Dharma guides us to beyond-imagination states of well-being, to an inexpressible non-dualistic experience of reality, to final liberation.
It teaches us that the causes of our suffering are our false views of reality, the distortion of our mind states – attachment, anger and, at the root of it all, ignorance; and – most importantly – that these causes can be eliminated completely and forever.
In Buddhism the only tool considered suitable to achieve this is actually the mind itself, not anything extraneous: the mind is perceiving itself, a strange and satisfying paradox where Buddhism leaps across the chasm of “observer-observed” created by Western science, avoiding the problem that Heisenberg described: “What we perceive is not nature itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”5 The nature of the mind is revealed only to itself.
This is true generally, but also specifically. Psychotherapy is forever struggling with the impossibility of entering the “black box”6 of someone else’s mind, and despite the naïve grandiosity of some approaches therapists will agree that “entering another person’s universe” is simply an attempt to keep a close rein on one’s own material, not an actual complete understanding. Moreover, psychotherapy offers only a temporary lessening of the more extreme states of mind delusion, and its declared aims usually confine it to this particular lifespan. But even those therapies that aim at “peak experiences” and transcendence merely lead us to the god realms of self absorption, not out of samsara.
I am aware that there is an increased interesting psychology among Dharma students, sometimes even culminating in turning away from the teachings, because “they don’t offer what is needed.” There seems to be an expectation that the Dharma itself is a form of psychotherapy that applies the band-aid and lessens the immediate pain.
But I agree with Jung when he warns against the dangers of perceiving it as such7. In fact, the rigors of spiritual practice are immensely demanding – after all they involve fearless analysis of all one’s mind delusions, renunciation, development of bodhichitta and the cultivation of wisdom in a spirit of accepting complete responsibility.
What the Dharma in fact offers is, as Ribur Rinpoche puts it, “the lifesaving operation without anesthetic.”
Opinions might differ as to whether one needs a full psychoanalysis before attempting to enter the spiritual path as Jung suggested, but a relatively balanced mind to gain optimum profit from the teachings would seem to be essential. Here psychotherapy has its rightful place. It can at least prepare and strengthen.
But here we should remember that if we choose any therapy from the many – Jung or Bandler, Klein or Assagioli, Bion or Kohut, Freud or Perls, or any other – we simply pick from the smorgasbord of human unenlightenment no matter how brilliant, where the partially-sighted are leading the blind. Western psychology can never become a substitute for the path itself.
If we do choose psychotherapy over the Dharma we are throwing away a gem, the “true therapy” of the four noble truths, that most radical of models where nothing isn’t ultimately psychological, and where the rare teachings of tantra surely stand as the most sophisticated mind tools ever offered.
Unlike Jung and others who glimpsed the treasure but had to try and make sense of the teachings without any guidance, we are fortunate that an incredible window of opportunity has opened in the past 30 years.
After occupation and genocide the Tibetans have lost their teachers but we have gained them, and as the teachings have tragically withered in their homeland they are now flourishing among us red-face neurotic barbarians. Due to the incredible kindness of our teachers we have access to wisdom which is far more profound than anything therapists could offer.
But we have to appreciate, recognize and be ready for it.