Sunday, November 25, 2012

Isn't Mindfulness Enough?

Many Buddhist teachers, especially in the Zen tradition, would contend that the entirety of the dharma can be realized through clear and awake presence in this moment. Inasmuch as my own most powerful experiences of awakening have come through simple presence, I would agree with that sentiment. So, given that I acknowledge the power of mindfulness, and given its professional acceptance and empirical support in Western psychology, why do I want to spend time thinking and writing about other concepts and techniques of Buddhism?

My primary reason for doing so is that there are innumerable gateways to presence, and for many of us, training ourselves to stay with the breath (or body, sound, etc.) can be a difficult undertaking. As much as we want peace, we also crave constant excitement, and we live in an overstimulating world. For those of us accustomed to using our minds analytically and getting things done by force of will, slowing down and letting go can be exasperating. Unable to do something as seemingly simple as being still, we then add self-judgment. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve had thoughts like “I’m not cut out for meditation,” or “I’m a bad meditator.” Early negative experiences make it unlikely that we’ll persevere long enough to experience the fruits of meditation.

Those using mindfulness-based therapies have attempted to address this problem by utilizing brief initial experiences with mindfulness or employing techniques like walking meditation. While these approaches are certainly beneficial, I believe we should consider expanding our toolboxes by employing techniques not directly related to mindfulness. In particular, I often think of Buddhism as having two wings, mindfulness and compassion, and the latter has generally received short shrift in Western psychology (though that is beginning to change). In a society in which alienation and self-judgment seem endemic, I believe the development of compassion, especially self-compassion, is a valuable practice in its own right, and can also improve our ability to pay attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way—and to bring ourselves back when we notice that we’ve become lost in thought. For our own happiness and for the world we live in, an awakened heart is every bit as important as a receptive mind.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Preaching the Gospel

As noted in the Why Brahmavihara? section of the blog, my primary aim is to explore ways of using Buddhist ideas beyond mindfulness practice in therapy. Were I to have come across a blog with this purpose in my pre-Buddhism days, I’m fairly sure I would’ve been nonplussed—and perhaps more than a little disturbed. I would have viewed the idea of incorporating Buddhist ideas into therapy practice as appropriating other cultures’ beliefs and then attempting to impose them on unsuspecting clients. I think cultural appropriation is a valid concern, and I’ll have more to say about that in a future post. Here I want to focus on the issue of imposing values.

I should start by noting that I personally experience Buddhism as a philosophy of life and mind rather than as a system of religious beliefs. While Buddhist texts certainly include cosmological elements, and Buddhist practice in various traditions is carried out through a wide range of rituals, I do not see anything mystical or otherworldly in the core teachings of impermanence, the unsatisfactoriness of attachment to that which is impermanent, and the path to equanimity and non-attachment. In fact, the Buddha admonished his followers not to accept his teachings on faith, but rather to experience the truth of his words for themselves. (One key element of the teachings that does seem to contain a metaphysical component is the cycle of rebirth and the law of karma. I am uncertain about this area myself, and I want to raise some questions about it in a future post. For now I’ll just note that I don’t see belief in reincarnation as essential to Buddhist practice or the application of specific Buddhist principles to everyday life.)

Obviously, the fact that I view Buddhism through a philosophical rather than a religious lens has no bearing on how clients, other therapists, or other Buddhist practitioners view Buddhism. I raised the point because I want to clarify at the outset that my intent is not to inject religious dogma into secular therapeutic practice. As Western psychology has already done with mindfulness, what I aim to do is offer ideas and techniques that clients might choose to employ if they find the suggestions to be of benefit to them. As with any therapeutic intervention, there are value judgments implicit in these Buddhism-derived ideas and techniques, and therapists must be cognizant of the values they are conveying and their congruence with the client’s own set of values. A key difference between mindfulness-based techniques and the tools I want to explore is that the latter have not received empirical study and validation. Thus, such tools would need to be used with the same caution and disclosure required of the myriad other tools used in therapy that have not been studied sufficiently to garner empirical support.

Thus far, I have approached this post from the perspective of the mental health professional. From the perspective of the Buddhist practitioner, one might object to borrowing concepts or techniques piecemeal, not just because of the cultural imperialism inherent in such borrowing, but because the teachings have much greater power when viewed in their totality. As a therapist, I don’t see any way around this limitation, unless the client is explicitly interested in participating in Buddhist psychotherapy.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


by Martha Postlewaite

Do not try to save
the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
Instead, create
a clearing
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
until the song
that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself
to this world
so worthy of rescue.