Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy begins with some fundamental understandings about human beings and about the way life and the world works. These understandings form a basic part of the therapy itself. Most of us have misunderstandings regarding ourselves, life, and the world. These misunderstandings lead us to behave in ways that create problems.

One of the fundamental understandings that I begin with is that the healthiest commitment we can make is to the truth. Since the world and everything in it is what we are living with, the best way to find workability is to know the truth of ourselves and the world. This leads to a spirit of inquiry in psychotherapy – a willingness to go wherever there is to go, ìinsideî ourselves or ìoutsideî to others and the world, or to spaces where ìinsideî and ìoutsideî do not apply. With a commitment to truth we can go even (or especially) to the uncomfortable places, the scary places, in order to find what is reliable. Only an attitude of optimism will give us the courage to have this commitment to truth ñ that the truth will set us free. Optimism does not need to be automatically present. It can be learned. The presence of a therapist makes a huge difference (especially one who is a Buddhist practitioner!?), one who has already been introduced to well-being that withstands and eventually transcends severe discomfort.

Another fundamental understanding is that we are essentially open and free ñ in our being, just as we are, already. When we live in ways that support our essential openness and freedom, life flows. When, instead, we follow rigid patterns, life gets squeezed and contracted, so to speak. And that hurts. This doesnít mean that we can or should do anything we want. Then we would be mere slaves to our wills and impulses – a prescription many of us have been following that brings us to therapy! Some come to therapy from the opposite dynamic: codependent – not knowing and not responding to their own will. As we discover who we really are and what the world is, there is a natural aligning of our energies, what we want, what is possible, and what is beneficial. And we discover that, in relationships, both partners can be open and free and thrive, and find that supporting another is a part of that very freedom and openness. Or, we discover that the relationship works better without living together. (As one of my teachers has said, ‘You can you can add partners, but you canít get rid of any! They may be distant, but theyíre still there.’)

Now, the reasons for our squeezing, contracting and hurting are many. This is where the psychotherapist provides ìvalue addedî to the process. Psychotherapy is a process in which clients discover what the causes of their hurts are and they make changes that reduce or eliminate the distress. The first thing the psychotherapist provides is a space in which clients are, in fact, free and open. If the space were not free and open, psychotherapy would be just another occasion of squeezing and contracting – causing more hurt. In this open space, clients can discover more of their essential freedom and openness. A natural wisdom, knowing the truth of oneís experience, arises in this openness. In addition, the therapist has experience with many other clients and has oodles of models of how constricting takes place and how it can be relieved.

If we all deeply understood ourselves and the world, so that we provided for ourselves and others free and open spaces, we would live in a way that problems would arise, but would also naturally melt and disappear. Because our culture doesnít usually teach such wisdom and skill, it is actually normal to experience life as pressing upon us, squeezing and stressing us continually. Such stress becomes experienced as normal because we really think ìthis is the way the world is.î But it isnít the way ìthe worldî is, it is the way we have learned to experience the world. Furthermore, most of us have actually learned that we should correct ourselves and become happy by squeezing and constricting ourselves in the ìrightî way. But it is the squeezing and constricting that is the problem, so that approach just creates more hurting. Stress isnít the solution for stress.

Our understandings about life and our life habits are formed mostly in childhood, and we tend to cling to these even though we left childhood and our families long ago. These understandings emerged from our child intelligence in order to deal as best we could with our families of origin. They were not the expression of our mature, free and open selfhood and the complex world as it actually is now. So it is not surprising that problems arise when we behave in ways appropriate for the past, but not appropriate for the present. Culture ñ including the culture of the individual – is a two-edged sword. It conserves pattern that work; it conserves patterns that donít work. The work of therapy is discerning the patterns that donít work and through openness, choosing new ways that work better, or staying in openness so that spontaneity becomes the continual creator of new patterns, of new wisdom.

But we keep dipping into the well of understanding that helped us to manage our life in our family of origin. That world no longer exists! We need to learn to consult the ìmother of the present momentî rather than the ìmother of memory,î so that our actions and our attitudes are appropriate and healthful, guided by real wisdom. Only then can we be really happy, not just momentarily pleased.

Psychotherapy deals with the ìpathologyî of our ordinary misunderstandings and our lack of skill in living in the world as it is now so we can produce the happiness we want. Our lack of skill leads to common symptoms: depression, relationship stress, anger, acting out, anxiety, and so on. These are almost always the results of ways of living, not some inner defects that condemn us to continual hurt no matter what we do. There is nothing wrong with you or me; there are many misperceptions and misunderstandings that we need to overcome.

It is true that some difficulties seem to be ìhard wiredî in our bodies, rather than results of living – and these need to be worked with in their own appropriate ways. Part of being free and open is the freedom and openness to get appropriate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. This doesnít mean that most of us are OK, but some of us just have something wrong with us. There is nothing wrong with you, no matter what your condition. It means that we all have difficulties, and that these difficulties have specific forms and different treatments. Part of being free and open is the freedom to have the difficulties that we actually have – let life be what it is – and discover that no condition need condemn us to unrelieved misery. There is always something that can be done. A wise Buddhist teacher expressed this profound, outrageous faith that I have grown to share: ‘Every conceivable condition in every possible universe is workable.’

We all have physical problems as we exercise our bodies and grow old. We all have social obligations that are not initially felt as part of our freedom and openness. We all have internal conflicts, not doing what we think we want or should do. So we all struggle with hurt. The problem is not so much that we have these problems, because we all have them! The problem is how to deal with these experiences so they donít inhibit our freedom and flow and happiness. Our attitudes and our skills make all the difference. As the ancient philosopher Epictetus put it, “We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.” From my experience, it is possible for some of us to be radically free from distress, and for almost all of us to be able to manage our distress in ways that happiness and well-being continue to flow in abundance.

Psychotherapy helps us learn to claim our natural freedom and ease, understanding ourselves, our partners, our culture, and the world, to either experience complete freedom or to keep distress within manageable limits.

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