“In this first column for the Sun I wanted to introduce myself to you. My plan for the columns to come is to address topics in which psychological understanding and spiritual practice are mutually supportive.”
In 1986, in the early afternoon of the mid-point day of a two-week mindfulness retreat on the big island of Hawaii, the bell to end the meditation period rang only ten minutes after the session had begun. The teacher said, “We’ve just been notified by the Civil Defense that an earthquake off the coast of Japan has caused a tidal wave and it’s crossing the ocean in this direction. It’s expected here in three hours. Since we have only one car here and seventy people, and there are no available buses to send from Hilo, we cannot leave. They’ve told us how to prepare.”
We had only two-story bungalows along the beach. The best we could do to “take high ground” was go upstairs. And, we had no “further inland” to go to—we were ringed by thick jungle.
We filled the upstairs bathtubs with water, lest the water supply be cut off. We took matches, food, mosquito repellent and flashlights and went upstairs to resume the afternoon meditation. Our teacher told the story of an ancient Zen master, who was asked, “What would you do if the waters of the north and the south and the east and the west all rose around you?” He was reported to have said, “I would just sit.” Then, we just sat.
I closed my eyes and felt my heart pounding. I opened my eyes and looked out at the horizon. I wondered what a wall of water moving toward us would look like. I felt very cold. I closed my eyes and realized I was trembling. The room was still. I took a breath, and felt it. Then I said to myself: “This is my experience. Heart pounding. Cold hands. Frightened. ‘Take a breath, Sylvia.’ Heart pounding less. ‘Take another breath.’ Pounding stopped. Hands warm. I’m okay. Whatever will happen, will happen. I’m okay. It’s okay.”
I opened my eyes. It seemed windier outside and I could see the palms swaying. I imagined that the horizon looked closer and I felt frightened again. I looked around the room. Many of the people there were strangers to me, but some I knew well, and my good friend James was sitting right next to me. I thought about James’ wife, Jane, at home in Berkeley and pregnant with Adam, and wanted very much for us all to survive so that James could be home when his child was born.
I thought about the people with whom I was in relationship. I noticed that James’ hands were folded in his lap, as were mine. I reached over and tapped his knee and held out my hand. He reached for it and we both closed our eyes and sat for a long while, holding hands. By and by, we let go; each of us again folded our hands in our own laps, and continued to sit.
It’s possible, of course, that my responses on that Hawaii afternoon would have been just the same without my previous experience of both psychotherapy and meditation practice. But I don’t think so.
I think I might not have reached for another’s hand for comfort had I not learned in therapy the habits of my psyche—its sensitivities, its areas of blindness and its hesitancies, especially in asking for help. If my habitual thoughts presented themselves (I’ll be intruding, I’ll be making a demand, I’ll be showing fear), my more mature understanding (showing and asking for love is never a burden or embarrassment) was able to override it.
And equally, I think it was the repeated discovery in my meditation practice of connecting—regardless of turmoil and distress in my mind or body—with a core experience of feeling profoundly and unshakably safe that supported me in holding my own hand.
I became a psychotherapist when I was thirty years old after several years of being a client in an intense form of analytic therapy. I was impressed with how much I had benefited from the experience of feeling cared for by my therapist, and from my increased awareness of how unconscious fears and unrecognized coping patterns circumscribed my relational life as an adult. I decided that I wanted to offer to other people the same care my therapist had shown me.
Ten years passed. I was feeling better. I think the people I worked with felt better. I liked being a therapist. (I still do.) I wasn’t fearless, but I was more aware of my fears, and I thought of my coping patterns more as a character style than as stumbling blocks. I imagined that was “as good as it gets.”
It got better.
I began practicing mindfulness meditation when I was forty years old. I went on my first mindfulness retreat because that’s what the people I knew were doing in the 1970’s. If I had expectations, I think they were of exotic spiritual experiences. I did not know that what was being offered was freedom from suffering. I did not know that what I most wanted was knowing—through my direct experience—that a peaceful mind is possible, even in the midst of challenge. I did not know that hearing the Buddha’s insights into the cause and the end of suffering—verified by my own experience in meditation—was a key to that freedom.
I recall hearing dharma talks in which my teachers made a distinction between “psychological insights” and “spiritual insights.” The first were discoveries made through self-reflection about one’s own unique way of encountering the world, the second universal truths that presented themselves in meditation as spontaneous and intuitive revelations. Since they mentioned personal insights first, and since it seemed to me that understanding my own story would only be useful for me in personal relationships, I thought they were the lesser insights. I decided that spiritual insights, universally true and so useful to everyone, were those with power to liberate. I also imagined, incorrectly, that “psychological” insights would all happen first and be finished with, and then be followed by the more important “spiritual” insights.
I think differently now. I think every insight, every moment of clarity where there has preciously been confusion, is liberating. And although experiences of insight are not permanent and require ongoing practice, I think that they are, over time, cumulatively effective. I know that all of my insights, on all levels, support me.
My ability to engage in meaningful, intimate relationships sustains me. And I am also sustained by my ability to feel the truth of karma, to experience my life as part of an amazing, lawfully evolving world of connections in which there are beginnings and endings that bring joys and sorrows but not cause for alarm. I feel at ease. Not fearless yet, but working on it. And, better able to love.
So I’m still a psychotherapist. And I’m a mindfulness teacher. I feel just the same when I sit with people in a psychotherapy session as I do when I sit with them in a meditation hall, but I am aware that each venue has a particular focus and agenda. The tools of each place inform what response I bring to the moment.
In this first column for the Sun I wanted to introduce myself to you. My plan for the columns to come is to address topics in which psychological understanding and spiritual practice are mutually supportive.
And, the tidal wave never arrived. It passed south of Hawaii. But when we emerged from the bungalow after the “All Clear,” we saw that the volcano clearly visible in the distance was beginning to erupt. That’s a truth of our psyches and a dharma truth as well. There’s always something.
These days, when James and I are sitting next to each other to teach, the story of the tidal wave sometimes comes up. Often, I’ll reach over and he’ll take my hand and hold it as I tell the story. I think the gesture becomes a part of the talk that students understand intuitively, as an insight about personal connections as well as the enduring power of kindness. Is that a psychological insight? A spiritual insight? Is it both? Is it always both?