My introduction to Tibetan psychotherapy (lojong) occurred during an encounter with the late Serkhong Rinpoche, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s philosophy tutor. Serkhong’s brow wrinkled up in a smile that made him seem like a giant, red-faced Yoda, the gnome-like teacher in The Empire Strikes Back. When I brought him home to meet my family, the Rinpoche was visibly moved upon meeting my mother, who greeted us at the door. When he lifted her outstretched hand up to his cheek, tears filled his eyes as if she were a long-lost child. For years I’d been inspired by the Buddhist teaching of recognizing every living thing as kin, but what had seemed a great idea suddenly hit home as a profound way of being.

Image: Plain Air, Dove Bradshaw, 1991. Courtesy Sandra Gering Gallery.
Image: Plain Air, Dove Bradshaw, 1991. Courtesy Sandra Gering Gallery.

After meeting Serkhong, my medical education was never the same. Behind every hospital wristband loomed a lost relative. Every cell I studied weaved humanity closer. It seemed to me that even mitochondria, the tiny lungs of our cells, were unraveling their RNA like an emerald lifeline reaching back, breath by breath, across the entire sea of evolution. Yet Serkhong’s lesson did not stop there. To my ears evolutionary theories in medical anthropology sounded like repetitions of an ancient Buddhist truth: we evolved from mammals who took caring and sharing to radical lengths. The latest medical breakthroughs became echoes of Buddhist precepts as well. Self-alienation, hostility, and attachment, the Buddha’s “three poisons,” do make us prone to disease. Self-analysis, self-disarmament, and self-transcendence, the “three elixirs,” are the essence of contemporary mind/body medicine. Finally, I learned that psychoanalysis, like Tibetan psychotherapy, reawakens the parent-child dynamic to help break destructive habits.

Is this empathic ability to heal otherworldly? Or something that only monks and nuns can feel? Is it religion or medicine, magic or therapy? Although selflessness has been a key to Buddhism all along, it was especially stressed in the later Mahayana teachings designed to bring the spiritual science of the renunciate life into the heart of the domestic sphere. The healing power of these teachings stems from how they unite insight and kindness in unconditional compassion, what the Indian sage Nagarjuna called “the profound, awesome practice of enlightenment, the openness that is essentially empathy.”

Used to this day, Geshe Chekhawa’s Seven Point Psychotherapy, compiled in the twelfth century, deals surgically with the cancer of self-alienation. His precept, “Drive all blame into one,” turns the habit of blaming others on itself, pointing the finger at the enemy within – our alienating self-will. Self-alienation is like a timebomb, easily triggered into reactive hostility. Once disarmed, its energies can fuel humanity: “Cultivate great kindness towards all.” The rest of the seven-point process unpacks the twin facets of self-disarmament and self-transcendence. In “giving and taking” (tonglen) we combine these facets by learning to take responsibility for others and to offer loving aid. The practice is effective when we “mount giving and taking on the breath.” Every in-breath becomes an opportunity whereby we take others’ needs into ourselves and transform hurt into care; every out-breath is a chance to share that caring energy with the world. Increasingly, current medicine proves that this ancient diagnosis can be life-saving; relatedness, self-disarmament, and caring generally help to treat people with cancer or heart disease live twice as long. The ancient psychotherapy of Tibet is state-of-the-art: “Transform adversity into a path to enlightenment; Abandon any hope for results; Apply the prime practice right now; Don’t wish for thanks.”

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