How to Be a Help Instead of a Nuisance:
Practical Approaches to Giving Support, Service, and Encouragement to Others
Karen Kissel Wegela
Shambhala: Boston, 1996.
240 pp., $13.00 (paper).

Most of us have experienced, in a moment of pain or trouble, what a balm it is to feel that someone is really there for us, really present. The most authentic sacrifices, the most potent efforts people make for one another rest on the ability, first of all, to perceive with pure, open attention. Most of us who have practiced mindfulness meditation know what gets in the way. In this well-organized, unpretentious handbook for psychotherapists and other helping professionals, Karen Kissel Wegela, director of the contemplative psychology program at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, proves that the real-life effort to help others can provide a wonderful window onto the self.

Contemplative psychotherapy, according to Wegela, combines the techniques of Western psychotherapy with insights from “the wisdom traditions of Buddhism and Shambhala (a secular meditation program with its origins in Tibetan culture).” It is founded on the commonsense principle that to be helpful to others we need to help ourselves.

People can sense when a therapist is unwilling to be present to their anger or sadness or pain, even if the shift is very subtle. “Maybe the client won’t even notice,” writes Wegela. “But the chances are she will start to feel not much is happening in therapy and will soon stop coming. If I can’t be with the client, it doesn’t matter how much training I’ve had in how many wonderful traditions and techniques.”

In contemplative psychotherapy, learning to tolerate our own habitual thoughts and emotions means cultivating openness. It requires that we learn to be mindful through sitting meditation and that we learn the more subtle practice of maitri, described by Wegela as “a warm and friendly attitude that we can bring to ourselves and others.” It is through these practical daily efforts that helping professionals develop the confidence they need to help others.

Real helping occurs in a cycle, according to Wegela. “We begin by moving inward first, contacting our own resources and clarifying our intentions and understandings. This is followed by movement outward as we extend ourselves to others through genuine relationship and taking action.” Introducing the idea of “brilliant sanity” (the notion that our most basic nature is open, clear, and compassionate), Wegela explores the five kinds of wisdom that can be cultivated in ourselves and others because they are already there. First she discusses openness, encouraging readers to observe when they are open to their thoughts and perceptions, and when they shut down. The wisdom of appreciating experience is described as the ability to savor the richness and particularity of our own sense perceptions and talents. Clarity, the third type of wisdom, is discussed in terms of intellectual curiosity. Furthermore, she explains what is meant by the wisdom of hospitality (the feeling of relationship with other beings) and skillful action (extending ourselves into the world).

Wegela finds potential in even the most neurotic expressions of wisdom. “When the wisdom of appreciation is covered up it can leak out as a feeling of poverty or a sense that we are not worthwhile at all,” she writes. “It can also show up as the opposite of feeling bad about ourselves—as arrogance.”

The heart of contemplative psychotherapy, and the pivot of the book, is the faith that each of us contains this “brilliant sanity.” Within all states of mind, however disordered or confused, are the seeds of wisdom. “This understanding is very important for people who work with others, because if we think we’re trying to create health or produce sanity or inject clarity it won’t work,” concludes Wegela. “We can recognize sanity and health because the potential for them is already there. They are potentially there in any moment.”
Wegela’s examples of contemplative psychotherapy in action can seem disappointingly ordinary after such a promise. A haranguing mother might very well have the best intentions, she reminds us. And we long for the author to address the difficulty of accomplishing this transformation in the midst of our own terror or rage. Still, this plain-spoken guide to helping others affirms that the effort to open, the effort to see and understand our own lives, is a powerful way to study dharma.

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