Lion's Roar

Readers’ Essays: Therapy

Buddhadharma readers share their experience of Buddhist practice in everyday life as it relates to therapy.

By Lion’s Roar

There are some gung-ho Zen students who disparage therapy and think that going to a therapist is a weakness. I used to be intimidated by such people but now I feel quite ready to take them on, as I watch them one by one falling into their own karmic traps. It’s easy to find numerous Zen students—and teachers—who have ongoing unresolved psychological issues. And that can make us doubt what we’re doing.

My teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, said once, “If your direction is clear, then you can use any technique to help your practice.” I’ve personally found psychoanalytic therapy helpful in clarifying karmic issues that weren’t being addressed by my Zen practice. And having a therapist who isn’t a Buddhist has forced me to bring my practice to the marketplace. I can’t just repeat dharmic clichés and expect them to be taken as truth.

Without therapy, my practice was stuck. But I couldn’t have survived the rigors of therapy without my practice. On the other hand, therapy by itself could never have given me the direction for my life that I got from my teacher.

I don’t confuse my therapist with my teacher—my therapist doesn’t have that kind of wisdom—but neither does she claim to have it. What she does have is an unusual ability to listen and to be empathetic. She gives me a point of view about my own karma that I never get on the cushion.

Mu Sang Sunim
Los Angeles, Calif.

I am a Zen practitioner, a social worker and clinician in private practice, trained in psychoanalysis and family therapy. Last year I made a commitment to bring my sitting practice into my clinical practice. Since mindfulness-based treatments have been developed for many clinical conditions including depression, anxiety, addiction, recovery and so on, it is not hard to find a rationale as to why patients should begin a meditation practice. However, Zen is not a treatment, nor does it separate people into diagnostic categories. I teach my patients about the value of meditation through experiential workshops. But in session I focus on their unique sense of life as-it-is and on my experience of being with them.

As clinicians we learn a variety of theories about who we are and why we behave as we do. Many of these are as subject to fashion as hemlines. As a young therapist, a generation ago, I tried to find a theory that felt right to me. Sometimes that meant I squeezed the patient into the theory. But as a patient myself, I learned the pain of feeling like an object in someone else’s schema.

Pain, or the fear of it, drives us to contain life, to wrap our experience in beliefs, habits, theories and conclusions upon which to build more theories, forever seeking a perfect fit. In doing so, we constrain our capacity to be fully human, to be with the moment-to-moment flow of existence, to fully connect with ourselves and others. We learn from sitting that life as-it-is, with all its richness, complexity and unpredictability cannot be contained.

John T. McInerney
New York, N.Y.

When I first started practicing about ten years ago, I had so many unresolved issues that they became hindrances to making progress in my practice. I went for psychotherapy on a couple of occasions and found the insights and techniques that I learned very useful. I was able to clear away some of the things that had been obstacles to practice and to my life in general.

But while psychotherapy can be useful, I believe that Buddhist practice is the ultimate “therapy.” Recently I have had some issues with anxiety, and traditional forms of psychotherapy have not been effective. Buddhist practice helped me deal with anxiety in two ways. First, it taught me that mind-states like anxiety are impermanent and empty, in that they are not truly real. Buddhist practice also taught me that “attachment” creates an endless chain of thoughts that perpetuate negative or difficult emotions, and that this is the problem. Better we should feel the emotion, acknowledge it and just let it go.

Conventional therapy provided mainly rational explanations and techniques that didn’t account for the raw, almost physical power of emotion, nor how to deal with it in the moment. Meditation practice, on the other hand, provides space for emotions to arise, but allows us to let them arise without attaching anything to them. When you experience the emotion in this context you can see for yourself that it is impermanent and empty, and that if you don’t attach thoughts to it, it will indeed pass. And at the same time, the raw energy of the emotion is transformed by the practice.

Colin Bondi
Portland, Oreg.

As a guy who has been a psychiatrist/psychotherapist for fifteen years and a Buddhist practitioner for about as long, the distinction between psychotherapy and Buddhist practice vanished long ago when it dawned on me that attention, compassion and insight underlie both endeavors. The structural cosmetics and immediate goals might appear to be different but the essence is the same.

What we call “psychotherapy” and “Buddhist practice” are simply different methods (that include their own terminologies and epistemologies) to help alleviate suffering and sow the seeds of lasting happiness. Wherever we are on the path to buddhahood, there is a method that can aid us and take us one step further. Sometimes it’s relating more deeply to our autobiographical stories, being received, witnessed and understood by another. Sometimes it’s recognizing that our attachment to these very stories contributes to the cause of our suffering and that the stories do not define us. Either way, and many gradations in between, we all need our own awareness, as well as loving and wise mentors, guides, teachers, gurus, spiritual friends, healers and doctors who will walk with us on the journey.

Jeff Berger, MD
Portland, Oreg.

Six years ago I drove home from my first month-long meditation program glowing from the experience. And yet the intense practice had unearthed so much pain I could not stop crying. Within a month realized I really needed help. Eileen was the first therapist to return my call.

Soon after I returned from the program, I met with one of the other participants and spoke about my troubles. I was probably not very coherent, and he didn’t understand. He said I didn’t need therapy, I needed more meditation. I wondered if he thought meditation was a cure-all, or that therapy was somehow off the path.

I don’t find such anti-therapy and pro-meditation sentiments to be two sides of the same coin; I find them shortsighted. Buddhist culture, with its emphasis on discipline and passionlessness, can appear masochistic to newcomers, whereas therapy can appear self-indulgent. Anti-therapy sentiments seem to accompany the idea that Buddhists should be able to tough things out, especially when it comes to our emotional pain. But for the majority of practitioners who cannot simply plunge into the practice of Buddhist meditation and emerge healed, therapy is our means to stay on the path.

Ravenna Michalsen
New Haven, Conn.

Sitting in my comfy armchair, opposite someone pouring out their suffering in words, I feel that my intuition has been strengthened since I took on a Buddhist meditation practice four years ago. I am more willing to go with my gut sense because my heart now feels more connected to the person who is talking. My daily practice—a blend of mindfulness meditation and Vajrayana prayers and chants—has brought freshness and precision to my perception of what is going on over there, here, and between the two of us. I am more confident as I switch methods and approaches in the session, going from family-of-origin work to relaxation meditation to gestalt therapy body awareness.

“Essentially complementary,” is how I would describe the relationship between Buddhism and psychotherapy. In my experience most people derive benefit from both. The best timing for each is specific to each life situation. For many of us it will not matter which one we first engage.

Just as Buddhism and psychotherapy are complementary in nature, so also are they reciprocal in their effects. For example, through the meditation “All beings have been your mother,” we may confront preoccupying resentments that just will not diminish. Psychotherapy may speed working through such an issues. By the same token, starting a Buddhist meditation practice toward the end of a series of psychotherapy sessions may be an excellent way to continue the deep self-exploration that was first started with the help of another.

Christopher Ross
Waterloo, Ont.

Both the Buddhist model of mind and psychotherapy’s model of mind give me the relief of distance: they take me out of the emotional hurricane and allow me to view it from a place of safety.

Psychotherapy gives me distance by putting labels on habitual patterns. This helps me gain a keener awareness of what patterns are causing problems and pain. Of course, I also get caught in the downside of analysis, which is always trying to fix myself, and I sometimes find that the psychotherapeutic labeling has a negative effect on my morale.

Buddhist mind offers relief from this dilemma with the idea that I am already a complete and perfect whole. There is nothing I need to do, to learn, or to prove. Further, I find that meditation provides a shortcut to problem solving which seems to bypass the conscious mind. When I return from a meditation retreat, I always go through a pleasant phase where I have fewer interpersonal problems. I assume this is because my negative habitual patterns have dissipated.

Name withheld by request
Columbus, Ohio

I am a psychotherapist and have been in psychotherapy for seven years. I’ve also been meditating for five years and practicing guru-deity yoga preliminary practices for two years.

Buddhism made a big hole in my psychotherapy window and ruined all of my basic working assumptions about the permanence of self, the real-ness (now very tenuous) of psychological/diagnostic labels and treatment interventions that I see now are loaded with all kinds of inflexible assertions and limitations about how we are and what human beings can do about their pain. Buddhism also pulled the plug on my belief that it was an essentially good thing to assert my anger, needs and desires.

My therapy insights were changed by Buddhist practice. In psychotherapy, I learned that I had a personality and erected defenses against pain, and that I had to create a new self. However, I had to step beyond therapy to do so. In Buddhist practice, through understanding and experiencing the emptiness of all things, my pain and insecurities melted away into the stream of constant change and impermanence. The “self” I built is a kind of no-self and is not a structure or thing.

I guess psychotherapy was my ladder, necessarily a solid and limited thing, that I had to climb onto to really see the great expanse of the dharma, only then to take the next step and find that dharma is not a thing to be seen.

Name withheld by request
Woodland Hills, Calif.

I was lucky to find a wonderful therapist, whom to this day I consider to be one of my teachers. When I was going through difficult states of mind and would ask him for help, his response always was “Can you stay with it?” Without psychotherapy I would never have decided to try meditation.

For me, psychotherapy did not provide as broad or detailed an exploration of mind as I later found in Buddhism. At some point psychotherapy became uninteresting and no longer necessary. And since I’ve been committed to the Buddhist path, Buddhist practice has continued to be more than enough to meet my needs, and has carried me as far as I want to go in terms of self-exploration, study of mind, and dealing with difficult issues that arise.

I don’t see a conflict if a Buddhist practitioner at any point feels he or she needs the help of a therapist. It’s not an either/or kind of thing. What’s extremely important is to find the right therapist and to stop seeing someone if the situation doesn’t feel right or is in conflict with your Buddhist view.

Natalie Dawson
Halifax, N.S.

When I initially encountered Buddhist teachings, I was not searching for a spiritual path. What struck me was that Buddhism addressed the issues that had long eluded me in my journey to become a psychotherapist who could truly benefit others.

As my understanding of Buddhism continues to grow, I have become convinced that this path offers not only powerful practices but also a perspective on the nature of emotional suffering and its healing that counters the dehumanizing perspectives within Western models. Healing within Buddhism is grounded in the belief that sanity is a fundamental human experience. It can also help us see that working with our own minds is the key to benefiting others and that our confusion and emotions are a source of wisdom.

I am grateful to be practicing both psychotherapy and Buddhism at a time when rich dialogue between the two traditions has commenced.

Nancy Newton
Chicago, Ill.

Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

Lion’s Roar is the website of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly the Shambhala Sun) and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, with exclusive Buddhist news, teachings, art, and commentary. Sign up for the Lion’s Roar weekly newsletter and follow Lion’s Roar on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.