Psychology and Buddhism: what they share, how they differ, and do we need both?
One of the world’s first great psychologists, the Buddha often said that he taught one thing and one thing only: suffering and its release. Mental health, he seemed to say, rests on the willingness to acknowledge mental distress. There is no pretending in Buddhism, no effort to seem healthier than one really is. One is simply encouraged to admit the truth—that anxiety, pain, fear, and grief are our constant companions.
Somehow, this internal honesty creates healing reverberations. The composer John Cage used to say that his favorite Zen story was of the master who said, “Now that I’m enlightened, I’m just as miserable as I ever was.” Nothing changes, even while something fundamental shifts. We suffer because we misperceive, taught the Buddha. We experience ourselves as all alone in the world: disconnected and struggling. We exaggerate our aloneness and operate as if we are always on the defensive. If we could see things through his eyes though, the Buddha affirmed, we would see that we are already living in bliss. Our misery would no longer be the last word. We could start celebrating now.
The Buddha was constantly refining his message, adapting his approach, changing his tune. To one person, he would say one thing; to another person, he would say something different. Sometimes he taught that there was a self, sometimes that there was no self, sometimes that there was neither. He was nothing if not flexible, improvising to meet the needs of his listeners. Buddhism, too, has been in an almost continual state of evolution throughout its history, yielding a multiplicity of forms, practices, teachers, and approaches. Constantly shifting to meet the needs of new cultures and populations, the Buddhist path twists and turns and keeps on going, now having entered the terrain of psychotherapy. Today, the Buddhist path is still opening into new vistas.
The following discussion is evidence of this evolution. It is heartening to find Buddhist teachers in frank conversation about the place of therapy in the Buddhist constellation. There is evidence of a profound paradigm shift in process. If Buddhism is complete in itself, what need is there for therapy? If it is not complete, what does that say about Buddhism? But is not this tendency to try to make something complete unto itself, be it an ideology or a religion or a self or a neurosis, the very thing that the Buddha warned against? Didn’t Freud echo this warning, cautioning against the ego’s defensive attempts to freeze or fix the self?
Both therapy and Buddhism enlighten by making us conscious of what we don’t know. They mock our vain attempts at self-sufficiency and celebrate the inspiration that comes unbidden when we relax the grip of our misperceptions. As John Cage put it after attending Zen philosopher D.T. Suzuki’s lectures at Columbia in the early 1950s, “A sober and quiet mind is one in which the ego does not obstruct the fluency of things that come in through our senses and up through our dreams.” Buddhism and therapy, like sensations and dreams, are agents of surprise, allies in the continual human struggle with reality. Why should either Buddhism or therapy have to be complete in order to be useful?
Freud delighted in undermining the human tendency to place the self at the center of the universe. He found new ways to talk about the infinity within and without. In spirit, he was very much in the Buddhist tradition. Like Copernicus insisting that the sun does not revolve around the earth or Darwin claiming that man bears “the indelible stamp of his lowly origin,” Freud treasured his discovery that man is not even master in his own house. The absolute self, the self that exaggerates its own solidity, the target of the Buddha’s own psychological teachings twenty-four hundred years earlier, came under renewed attack in Victorian Vienna. The Buddha would have smiled to have seen such an unlikely avatar of his teachings. One hundred years later, we are still working on integrating the two perspectives.
–Introduction by Mark Epstein, M.D.
Buddhadharma: Some commentators have said, or at least implied, that the Buddhist path is lacking some things offered by Western psychology that Westerners need to fully address their problems. Do you think Buddhism is a complete path to liberation, requiring no practices outside of itself, or does it need the techniques of Western psychology?
Jack Kornfield: Of course Buddhism is a complete path to liberation that requires no practice outside of itself. It offers an enormous number of practices and skillful means, all of which are rooted in the fundamental understanding of liberation, emptiness, and compassion. That being said, it would be too facile to say that since Buddhism is complete, we can just forget Western psychology and therapy. We can have a wiser and more nuanced conversation now, one that transcends the stereotypes we might have clung to thirty years ago.
Even though Buddhism is a complete path, students do not always have access to the complete teachings in an environment where they can spend a great deal of time with a teacher. I had a very close relationship with my teacher Ajahn Chah, but today people often don’t get to have the regular, close relationship with a teacher that they need to work through everything they’re going through.
Also, there are many different kinds of teachers and they specialize, so one teacher alone may not be offering the complete package, which is understandable and fine. There are scholars, who may not know how to work with emotions or relationship or trauma. There are retreat masters, who know how to work in retreat and who know a great deal about luminous states of consciousness, but they may not be skilled at working with right speech, right action, and right livelihood—those parts of the eightfold path having to do with outer activity. There are teachers who focus on emptiness but may not really be skilled in helping their students in other ways. I know, for example, a beautiful dharma teacher who was trained in the Zen tradition and who works with veterans using the practices of his tradition. But he’s not actually that comfortable with anger and conflict. He doesn’t have the kind of Western psychological training that can help one deal with people in those states, so I’m not sure he’s actually that good at helping them with intense anger.
Yes, Buddhism is complete and it’s wonderful. But there are also a variety of very helpful, skillful means coming from Western psychology that complement what someone can get from a given teacher and a given practice. These have been used by the majority of our Buddhist communities in the West. There’s tremendous benefit that comes from the tools of Western psychotherapy because they can allow a person to be present as a witness. They also have good technologies for going into the body and working with the content of experience, something that particular teachers or techniques might not offer.
Harvey Aronson: I like to look at this whole issue from a cross-cultural perspective. In traditional Tibetan Buddhism, for example, there was a lot of cultural stability. There was an extended family system with extensive contact between child and parent. Buddhism worked extraordinarily well in that context, and in terms of spiritual life, it did what it needed to do. Analogously, the Tibetan medical system offered a great deal, but there were several things that Tibetan medicine could not do, such as deal with something like leukemia, which they probably couldn’t diagnose and certainly couldn’t treat. For many ailments, you would die sooner and die naturally, and that would be that.
When we try to transplant the traditional Tibetan approaches to spiritual life into the modern West—which is dramatically different in terms of values, language, child rearing, ideals, expectations, and so forth—we will almost certainly run into difficulties. There are a host of problems that individuals have that Buddhism was never designed to address, including the whole spectrum of mental illness, from anxiety to depression to psychosis, and to the nuts and bolts of couples’ issues. When Buddhism came to the West, we injected it into our culture under the rubric of mental health, and that was to some extent an arbitrary injection. It could have come in under religion or philosophy, but there was a lot of interest in Buddhism in the mental health world. As a result, some of us probably carried a misguided expectation that Buddhism would offer everything to everyone. I’ve heard teachers say, “Take care of meditation and it will take care of you,” with the implication that it will cure everything by itself. But I have seen students of these teachers suffering from psychosis, and the teachers didn’t know what to do with it.
Buddhism is a system that is full of techniques and wisdom. It is a path that leads successfully to liberation—that is clear. But it is also clear that there are people in the West practicing these paths who have medical, emotional, and mental health issues that few, if any, Buddhist teachers can address.
Judy Lief: Buddhism is a complete path to liberation and it existed as such long before psychotherapy developed. Yet I do know many practitioners who have without a doubt benefited from the skillful methodology of various forms of psychology and counseling. I would say, though, that the entry of Buddhism into our society using psychological metaphors so strongly may have led some people to think of Buddhism as a kind of magic pill, as a way to go beyond problems that we might not have wanted to face personally or as a society.
The goals of psychology and the goals of buddhadharma have often been confused as well. In the bargain, buddhadharma can turn into a means for becoming a remodeled, better person—a new and improved version of yourself—able to cope with difficulties of all kinds. This is a very different approach from looking directly at who you are, as you are, and mining the wisdom within that. There is a radical difference of view there. Buddhism has a very strong trust and belief in some quality of basic goodness, no matter what your moment-to-moment traumas and states of mind are or what your personal history might be.
The confusion between Buddhism and psychology also goes the other way. I’ve seen students ask Buddhist teachers questions that seem to me appropriate to talk to a friend or a psychologist about, with the expectation that Buddhist teachers should know everything. For example, a person will sometimes ask a monastic teacher detailed questions about how to deal with relationships or parenting.
Jack Kornfield: Or how to raise their children.
Judy Lief: Yes. Why on earth would you ask a monk how to raise children? That comes once again from the misguided idea that Buddhism is designed as a problem-solving methodology. Overall, Buddhism comes from the ground of coming to understand the qualities of your basic nature. So one does not need to feel deficient or engage in self-doubt and self-hatred, wanting to somehow reject oneself in the hope of constructing the better self we envision.
Jack Kornfield: The liberation that’s offered at the core of the buddhadharma is indeed beyond the self. The realization of selflessness and of emptiness is not found in very much of Western psychology. There are a few transpersonal and perhaps even spiritual perspectives that come into that terrain, but for the most part it is based more on what Judy called the remodeling of the self.
Western psychology has focused on healthier functioning, but there’s a possibility of liberation and freedom offered by dharma practice that is far beyond what is encompassed in the normal vision of human capacity in Western psychology. It’s as if we could take Western psychology’s DSM—the voluminous listing of all the diseases and mental illnesses—and reverse it and create a DSM that showed all the possible positive capabilities of enormous love, compassion, inner luminousness, and freedom that Buddhist practice causes a human being to realize. Those are far beyond what is normally a part of the discourse of Western psychotherapy.
Harvey Aronson: Yes, I would agree.
Judy Lief: That’s a great idea, Jack. I think you should produce that reverse DSM.
Buddhadharma: So you all seem to agree that there is nothing lacking in Buddhism per se, but that people in certain circumstances may need something more.
Judy Lief: I would add that the very notion that Buddhism is supposed to do everything for everyone can bring up a tremendous sense of potential failure for people. That can make it hard for them to realize that they do need some help. I know people who feel they must have failed as practitioners. They keep asking themselves why their practice hasn’t worked and why they still need help. That’s an unfortunate way of viewing the dharma or, for that matter, of viewing themselves or therapy.
Harvey Aronson: Frankly, I don’t think it’s so important to emphasize the idea of a complete path. I’m even willing to be agnostic about that. I think we can simply say that there are practitioners in certain circumstances who, for whatever reasons, do not have important needs met.
At the same time, I would say that there is a very powerful assimilation of Buddhism in the West to a certain kind of pragmatism, hedonism, and peak performance. That trend represents an almost unconscious slipping away from the traditional motivations, vision, and orientation of Buddhism, which is liberation and compassion. The worldly orientation that uses Buddhism to facilitate wellness and performance—to optimize our life as a material, hedonic experience—can have benefits, but it’s a far cry from what the vision really offers and from what I think inspired our involvement with Buddhism.
Judy Lief: I think of dealing with stress, physical pain, and illness as applied Buddhism, in the sense of applied science, as opposed to the deep exploration of pure science. It’s helpful, but it’s not the core.
Jack Kornfield: Yet within the Buddhist tradition, there’s a lot of applied science: right speech, right action, right livelihood, Buddhist personality theory, teachings on community relations and many other forms of wisdom. It’s important not to establish a hierarchy that says that emptiness and liberation are the great thing that Buddhism teaches and that the applied methodologies that might fit with it are only lower class. The absolute and the relative are different dimensions of our experience, and the dharma approaches both of them through a wide variety of skillful means, through form and emptiness, two different aspects of the dharma.
Harvey Aronson: The applied science part of Buddhism is extraordinarily important, but when that is emphasized in a way that divorces it from the view, and from the extraordinary teachings on compassion, we end up with something that loses contact with what I think is uniquely a contribution of Buddhism to the culture of humanity. At that point, the true beauty of Buddhism is not communicated.
Judy Lief: One could lose the genuine acting out of Buddhism in everyday life, or one could lose the view. Either would be half-baked Buddhism.
Buddhadharma: If we agree that Western psychological approaches can complement the applied aspect of Buddhism, what are those Western approaches particularly good at?
Jack Kornfield: A teacher who’s very good at training people in the highest states of samadhi came to me looking for help, because half the students who came to him couldn’t do the practices he was teaching. They were suffering from depression, anxiety, and trauma, and he wasn’t trained in how to work with people encountering such extreme states. Dharma can of course be applied to such situations, but so can some of the skillful means of Western therapy that follow dharma principles. Western approaches are particularly helpful for the trauma and historical injury that a lot of people in our culture carry. These approaches can be very helpful for people who are practicing meditation and then find the history of suffering we carry in our culture starting to arise as they sit. Without help, someone can get caught in, or lost in, that trauma for a long time.
Buddhadharma: How would traumas have been dealt with in traditional Buddhist societies?
Jack Kornfield: In a traditional context, you would have close and intimate access to the teacher. Someone working with Ajahn Chah, or certain lamas or Zen masters, might live with them for years in the monastery. As difficulties would arise, they could be more easily met with compassion and non-identification and wisdom, allowing the student to pay attention to the trauma in a way that would allow that to release. But if you go to a meditation retreat for a month, you might get good instruction and lots of attention for the time you are there, but when you go home and a lot of trauma comes up, you don’t have the teacher and the environment so close at hand.
Also, I have seen great teachers offering traditional practices who didn’t know what the hell to do when people were going through intense personal difficulties, and they would just offer Buddhist scholarly teachings that left people stuck. A teacher needs to be present for the content of experience as well as the emptiness of it, and some teachers do that better than others.
Harvey Aronson: Because of our democratic culture in the West, it’s also very hard for us to make use of authority in the way that people were able to in a traditional culture. In addition, they would have had a variety of traditional means of ritual healing that we don’t have in our culture.
Buddhadharma: Are there aspects of Buddhist tradition and practice that we may be leaving out or overlooking that would accomplish some of what Western psychotherapies do?
Harvey Aronson: This is a complicated issue. It’s not so easy to put something into operation when you don’t have the supporting system. If you consider, for example, the way that pilgrimage, sangha, and respect worked in traditional culture, these kinds of practices were not just external protocols. They also had internal affective behavioral elements, emotional elements, that all contributed to a certain mind state. The way of life altogether embodied and fostered a religious vision, and it also created a communal holding that may have prevented some of the kinds of emotional issues we run across so frequently in our atomized culture.
There are many aspects of the tradition that we haven’t been able to adopt in a whole-hearted way because they’re just so far away culturally. Even if we have three hundred people meditating in a hall together, they’re really three hundred atoms who don’t usually feel very connected. The people meditating in the hills of Tibet would feel very connected to the village at the bottom of the hill because of the whole context within which they were working. That provided an embedded dharma, an implicit dharma world, that’s very hard for us to duplicate in the West.
Jack Kornfield: Of course that culture has a shadow side, which is a kind of complacency. In this atomized culture, our shadow is a kind of individualistic materialism. In some sense, we have to bring the mandala of dharma here so that we can become free of it.
Buddhadharma: What about practices that are intended to activate compassion, such as lojong? Can we make use of these in some cases where others might use therapy?
Harvey Aronson: Lojong is wonderful and very important. There are all sorts of practices for absorbing other people’s suffering into one’s own, being aware of one’s own kleshas, one’s own afflictive emotions, and absorbing others’ klesha activity into one’s own being, especially the darker emotions of envy, hate, and anger. But most people do not have the capacity to recognize that deep under their own anger lies sorrow, pain, disappointment, and trauma. Not seeing this and not knowing this intimately, they act out. Without professional assistance, many people are not able to make that turn away from acting out their fear, sorrow, loss, and unhappiness. They act it out in anger, and shaming and blaming behavior, and it takes a lot of supportive holding and guidance to help people go from that dysfunctional process to a much more functional way of being able to say, “It hurts me when you scream at me.” Most people don’t even know where to begin to do that.
Jack Kornfield: When you’re sitting in meditation, or doing compassion practice, often you’re more or less on your own, even if you are sitting with other people. Many traumas and injuries, such as those that stem from abuse and from childhood, don’t show themselves very clearly until you are back in relationship. You can sit in meditation and not even have the stuff come up, or you can be practicing and when the stuff comes up, you get so triggered by it and so lost in that identity, you are overwhelmed. A therapist, or a skilled dharma teacher who knows how to work with these kinds of difficulty from a Western perspective, can create an ongoing relationship with that student, so that their sufferings can be held in a field of wisdom rather than a field of identification and belief. But meditation alone in many cases doesn’t reveal to people what’s really going on with them.
Harvey Aronson: Also, when the meditation gets good enough and you start to threaten your sense of self, you may get more reactive rather than less reactive. There may be a heightening of vulnerability, a susceptibility to feeling threatened. You may react more strongly and angrily to things because you’re trying hard to reconstitute the self that is under pressure and slowly dissolving.
Judy Lief: That’s supposed to happen. A certain irritability and hitting those walls in practice is a good thing. But when people hold on to a false sense of how together they are, it gets in the way of their working simply and honestly with their experience. When they’re practicing, they are seemingly together—until they get into any kind of relationship or visit their family. Then suddenly they realize that all of this unworked-with material is still there. People’s view of Buddhism and Buddhist practice can stray into nothing more than repression—a repressed, romantic view of buddhadharma—which can even spread and be fostered in a community of practitioners. For example, in many of our communities, the expression of any anger or criticism whatsoever is suppressed. There’s an attachment to a kind of niceness and false gentleness that leads to very passive-aggressive group situations.
Jack Kornfield: There is a fear of conflict in a lot of Buddhist communities, since we are not really skilled or trained at how to work with this stuff when it comes up. As long as you keep your mouth and your eyes shut, it will be fine. But as soon as it actually comes out, it scares everybody. They don’t know what to do, and they haven’t had the modeling from teachers for how to work with it in an active way.
Harvey Aronson: The closer the relationship, the more older imprints will become activated. So couples and families are hotbeds for this sort of thing. As the people in a couple or a family practice meditation, they may see things that they will react to very strongly. These are points that require close attention, and most dharma teachers are not in a position to offer the specialized guidance it takes to work with families and couples.
Buddhadharma: How do you know whether it’s better for a meditator who is having psychological difficulties to seek psychotherapy or to do more or different Buddhist practices?
Harvey Aronson: When people come to our Buddhist center, they’re not explicitly looking for therapy, so my default is that people are seeking to improve their lives not using therapy. Since I am a therapist, I do pay attention when things seem to move outside a certain range. Once you get to know people and see how they’re practicing, you notice if something is going into the range where their turmoil is affecting their functioning in life; for example, if they’re reporting that their appetite is off or their interest in life is waning or they’re not sleeping well or their anxiety is extreme, I certainly think that’s worth some attention. If we’ve been working together for a while, and there hasn’t really been any movement in those particular areas, or they are getting worse, I feel very comfortable suggesting that somebody seek therapy.
Buddhadharma: Is there a difference going to a therapist who is a Buddhist practitioner?
Jack Kornfield: Any good therapist will have to have some appreciation of the principles of mindfulness, compassion, forgiveness, and non-identification that are central to the dharma, or their therapy won’t be very helpful. They don’t have to be Buddhist or know Buddhism so much as be skilled in what they do and supportive of the spiritual path of that person. They have to be respectful of the student’s spiritual practice and understand that it offers dimensions not offered in the therapy.
Judy Lief: Just because you’re a Buddhist and a therapist doesn’t mean you’re a good Buddhist therapist [laughter].
I’d rather have someone go to a good therapist no matter what their tradition is. There’s a kind of fundamentalism in the notion that you have to go to a Buddhist therapist, which automatically means they’ll understand you and be good. Nonetheless, the question of when to advise someone to seek therapy is sensitive. I have definitely done so, when I felt someone was a little off kilter. But I find it very important to counsel someone when they are going to therapy not to identify with their problem and use it to define themselves. It’s vital to see the problem without covering it up, but on the other hand it’s just as important not to grasp on to it as a solid identity: victim, addict, depressed, anxious, phobic. I would try to lighten the identity but not diminish or dismiss the problem.
Buddhadharma: Some people say, well, Buddhism didn’t work for me but therapy did.
Jack Kornfield: You can’t say Buddhism “didn’t work.” A particular practice with a particular teacher may not have been helpful to that person; that’s all that you can say. The close relationship and listening they received in Western therapy might have been quite helpful to that person. On the other hand, they might have been able to have that same close relationship, deep listening, compassion, and non-identification with a different Buddhist teacher or a different Buddhist practice. It’s fundamentalist to say Buddhism does this or is that, or works this way or that. That is a very limited way of seeing the multiplicity of Buddhism. At Spirit Rock many of our finest Buddhist teachers are also trained as psychiatrists, psychologists, or psychotherapists, and they draw on those skills when they’re needed. The point is to listen to what frees the heart. If you are stuck, you need to find whatever skillful means you can to help free the heart. That’s really what Buddhism teaches. The freeing of the heart may come in the framework of a Buddhist center or a Buddhist practice, or it may come from a skillful therapist.
Judy Lief: Working or not working is beside the point. The Buddhist path is a way of life that has its ups and downs like anything else. Sometimes it seems to be working splendidly and other times you wonder why you’re doing it. Appreciating things not working is one of the best parts of the path.
Jack Kornfield: I still have suffering. Samsara includes suffering. Can we fix that?
Judy Lief: No, no, no. Let’s not do that!
Buddhadharma: You’ve talked about how Western therapeutic work can offer something of value to Buddhist practitioners. What does Buddhism offer to Western psychology?
Jack Kornfield: Of course, just as it is dangerous to talk about Buddhism monolithically, the same goes for Western psychology, which includes an enormous number of methods of study and many different therapies. We could say that the Western psychologies—plural—tend to be oriented toward the healing of a certain level of mental distress and coming into a healthy sense of functioning. In some ways, Buddhist practice almost assumes some healthy functioning. It hasn’t been the Buddhist focus to try to take people from mental illness to a level of healthy functioning. Buddhism has a vision of what is actually possible for a human being that goes way beyond healthy functioning, and that vision is something we can offer not only to Western psychology but also to the West at large. That is huge.
Harvey Aronson: I wonder really whether mainstream psychology would ever attend to those vast teachings, which are indeed an addition to the vision of what is humanly possible. They are Buddhism’s great contribution to world culture. On a nuts-and-bolts level, though, the thing that has contributed most to the practice of psychotherapy is mindfulness. At this point, you could find mindfulness taught in books on just about every mental-disorder syndrome. There’s lots of research work also going on into the effects of mindfulness, which is helping to change how many people view human potential. It’s interesting that the authors of the book Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression talked about their struggle with the idea of practicing mindfulness themselves. Initially, they thought they might just apply it as a therapy for depression, but they became converted to the vision that if they didn’t practice it themselves, they could not offer it to others.
Judy Lief: Beyond mindfulness, one of the things that Buddhism offers is the acceptance of a wider range of possible human experiences as valid expressions of who you are and how to live. Things are becoming narrowed to a few acceptable ways of being human, and therefore the number of treatable conditions lying outside of that is becoming larger and larger.
Harvey Aronson: Buddhism certainly encourages us to appreciate the value of working with the mind directly. In my work, at a certain point during a patient’s treatment, I might hear from an insurance company that if a patient doesn’t get on medication, they’re not going to support further therapy. I’m not opposed to it when it’s appropriate, but it’s clearly being overdone.
Jack Kornfield: The idea that we just give someone a pill so he or she can go back to being a productive worker runs completely counter to the vision of who we are as human beings—a vision that lies at the heart of dharma. Medication can be helpful at times, but Buddhism also offers a vast view that isn’t evident in most of what passes for mental health care at this point.
Judy Lief: In some ways it goes right back to the first noble truth. If we accept a certain amount of discomfort and pain as part of being a human, then instead of just trying to free ourselves of hassles, we take a much richer view of what it means to be human.
Buddhadharma: Given the difference between a spiritual and a scientific approach, is it realistic to suggest that this broader view of what it means to be human can actually make inroads into mainstream Western psychology?
Jack Kornfield: Scientific research in neurobiology will continue to show a much richer view of human possibility and affirm the power of meditation and other forms of practice and training. The good research of people like Jon Kabat-Zinn will show that there are skillful alternatives that bring people back to paying attention to themselves, rather than relying on quick fixes or over-medication. That said, however, we live in such a materialistic world that there’s a missing piece that goes beyond ordinary well-being. It’s remembering our incarnation and what we are here for and who we really are, connecting back to our buddhanature and the possibility of liberation. This is a big stretch for our culture.
Judy Lief: If there is a meeting point between Western understandings of mind and the Buddhist view, I think it has do with the nature of consciousness. If there is evidence that Buddhism actually does have some insight into what consciousness is all about, it becomes another tool for Western scientists to look at a big question they’re trying to figure out. Buddhism has been looking directly at the nature of consciousness for thousands of years. The fact that Western science is taking an interest is an exciting development.
Jack Kornfield: This whole discussion of the Western approach and its relationship to Buddhism is not an either/or proposition. There are important things to learn from psychotherapy and science that complement and support deep dharma principles. That’s the dance we’re involved in. We have to become comfortable with paradox.
In the early years, meditation was going to do everything. You would sit with certain Vipassana teachers or Zen masters or lamas and if you said depression or anxiety or fear or sexual abuse trauma was coming up, they would just say it’s all empty. There was so much focus on emptiness that respect and compassion for the world of feeling and form was not really valued. But it’s actually through our suffering, our conflicts, our trauma that we understand what real emptiness is. We can find the necessary healing in our lives and use the skillful means of interpersonal relations—close relations with teachers, therapy at times—and ground them in the great vision of dharma. That’s being a mature dharma student. Anything else would be a one-sided, fundamentalist view, rather than the view of someone who is thoroughly dedicated to the liberation of their own heart.
JACK KORNFIELD is a clinical psychologist and founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock. His new book, The Secret Duty: Buddhist Psychology for the West, will be published in February 2008.
JUDITH LIEF was a senior student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and is now an acharya in Shambhala International. She is the author of Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality.
HARVEY ARONSON is a licensed therapist in private practice in Houston and the author of Buddhist Practice on Western Ground: Reconciling Eastern Ideals and Western Psychology.