How has Buddhism used me in my role as a therapist? How have I used Buddhism? As I think about this year’s worth of work, I can see one thing very clearly. Let me put it in a nutshell: I introduce my patients to a meditative sensibility by the way in which I relate to them. Maybe this should have been obvious from the start! But in examining my method, I can see that while I am different with every patient, I am myself with all of them. I learned from meditation how to let myself be, and this is the quality that guides me. I do not model this sensibility by resting calmly in a meditative state while my patients free-associate. I engage actively. But I am very quiet inside when I am working; all of my concentration, all of my attention, goes to the person I am with. And I want to know everything, from the television shows they are watching to the food they are eating to their most dreadful thoughts and reflections. I believe in the power of awareness to heal. I want my patients to see how and when and where their egos, or superegos, are getting the best of them, because I know that if and when they can see this clearly, something in them will release. And their best chance of seeing it comes when my mind is quiet. Somehow, my inner silence resonates in them and feeds their awareness. Each person is like a koan I cannot solve with my rational mind. I have to give myself over completely, while staying very much myself, to let their koan and my response to it become one thing. When this one thing fills the interpersonal field, the hidden kindness in life, present in each of us, gets revealed.
I want my patients to see how their egos are getting the best of them. And their best chance of seeing it comes when my mind is quiet.
D.W. Winnicott, in his final major paper, came to a similar understanding about his therapeutic technique. He was by no means a Buddhist, but I believe he, too, healed by modeling being. He mostly used mother/infant vocabulary to describe his mode of relating, but this did not stop him from describing, in disarmingly frank terms, his own internal process:
It is only in recent years that I have become able to wait and wait . . . and to avoid breaking up this natural process by making interpretations. . . . It appalls me to think how much deep change I have prevented or delayed . . . by my personal need to interpret. If only we can wait, the patient arrives at understanding creatively and with immense joy, and I now enjoy this joy more than I used to enjoy the sense of having been clever. I think I interpret mainly to let the patient know the limits of my understanding. The principle is that it is the patient and only the patient who has the answers. We may or may not enable him or her to encompass what is known or become aware of it with acceptance.
The Zen of therapy rests on just this kind of attitude. People come with all kinds of strange sorrows. They want to understand their experiences and learn from them. They want to make sense of what happened to make them what they are. And while that is interesting to me, too, I know that learning from experience is not all that it is cracked up to be. There is more to a person than who they think they are. Sometimes therapy has to act like the unmoving shadow of the rose-apple tree, creating circumstances conducive for unlearning, creativity, and joy.
Learning by unlearning. How often have I disoriented people to the systems and explanations they have created for themselves? Disorienting systems is something both Buddhism and therapy can agree on. Things that feel fixed, set, permanent, and unchanging, like one’s self-righteous anger, are never as real as they seem. Problems are not hard and fast, selves are not static and motionless, even memory is nothing we can be certain about. The Zen of therapy wants to get things moving again. It wants to open things up, make people less sure of themselves, and in the process release some of the energy that has become stuck in the mud. Rational explanations have their place, but irrational breakthroughs, like those that come out of koan practice, are invigorating because they alert us to capacities we do not know we have.
As this year of sessions has confirmed for me, when enough trust is built up in the therapeutic relationship, there is a chance to release, and be released from, a self-preoccupation that is no longer serving a reasonable purpose. The path I have outlined eventually leads to the realization that simple kindness is the fuel of the peace of mind we all crave. When the mind object drops away, even for an instant, all kinds of latent interpersonal possibilities emerge—for connection, empathy, insight, joy, and, dare we say, love. How to make this happen remains the trickiest of questions. There is no formula to follow, no script that can be written that will ensure success. But this project has affirmed for me that therapy does indeed have the potential to catalyze such openings. Therapy can bring out the hidden intimacy that gives meaning to life. I have chronicled these sessions to explore what such openings look like when they occur and to describe what brings them forth. What risks I have sometimes taken with my patients! How brave and vulnerable they have been in response!
From The Zen of Therapy by Mark Epstein, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2022 by Mark Epstein.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.