P1030704What is therapy anyhow? When I put this question to clients, they usually mention talking, personal problems, and solutions, which everyone seems to assume lie within you.

The insurance companies that pay me would ratchet up the definition to specify medical problems or, more specifically, mental disorders. Managed care covers only treatment for illness, so you’d better be sick if you don’t want to pay out of pocket.

But suppose nothing is wrong with you.

Suppose you are perfect as you are, though you could be even better. You just don’t like some features of your life: your suffering, your loneliness, your fears. Confronted by stress, you run away from it, try to change it, or work at responding differently to it. Is there a better way?

Last week I attended a five-day workshop on Cape Cod taught by T. Flint Sparks, a clinical psychologist and a Zen priest. The subject was mindfulness for therapists. As I look back on the experience, I am struck by the stark contrast between the professed aims of therapy and those of Buddhist meditation.

While therapy wants to fix your problems and send you off to live happily ever after, true meditation doesn’t favor looking inward. Rather it teaches us to turn toward experience, both the internal and the external. We must try to stay in the present moment and not wait for some future event.

Buddha started with the question, “How do we deal with suffering?” Rather than focus on attaining happiness, the Buddhist asks how we should live and where we should go to find out. We are not trying to reach a specific state of mind. Instead we are building a container for all states.

Therapists often draw clients’ attention to experiences missed in their families of origin. But consider the possibility that the trouble arises not from what we missed but from our insistence on organizing our lives so that we keep on missing it.

Sparks spoke of how we get fascinated by what’s in our mind and forget to think about the environment in which the mind is immersed. Suppose we focus simply on awareness. We might begin by viewing consciousness as separate from our self.

We are, all of us, on a lifelong quest in pursuit of openness, a hallmark of true, lasting maturity. Ideally we connect with our fellow humans in the search, and we respond to suffering with kindness. We are seeking not new experiences but a new relationship with experience.

Our conditioned nature, fixed by the time we are six years old, filters our thoughts, our emotions, and our perceptions, for instance our worries and our preoccupation with money and problems of daily life. But the mindset and habits that give us trouble now originally came into being to protect us.

Our nature is actually boundless. Rather than battle our fears we can accept them. We can free ourselves not from them but in them, by holding still, accepting them, and moving beyond. The keys are said to be curiosity (ask more and more questions) and patience. To the extent that we can exhibit these qualities, we can be fully alive.

We can consider three horizons of awareness: (1) our readiness (what am I ready for?), (2) relevance (interpret this as a container that grows ever larger through mindfulness), and (3) responsibility (for example, what is the extent of my responsibility to my therapy clients?).

In the mindfulness context, it’s not just what you do, it’s who you become while you are doing it.

Mostly in the real world we let our thought emotions (the two blend together) interfere with our awareness. They show us how we try to make the world unsafe or how we make an unsafe world worse. Rather than mistake our stories for reality, we can simply view them as creations of our body/mind. Then we can bear witness.

Our brains grapple with three questions relating, respectively, to attachment, attunement, and love. Are you there? Do you see and hear me? Do you choose me?  Psychotherapists often view secure attachment as a predictor of happiness.  Buddha tells us to attach to nothing.

You and I are separate but also the same. We are different but also one in our shared humanity.  Our nature is dual.

In our lives, everything changes constantly, everything is contingent on everything else, and discomfort is inevitable. Rather than retreat from a fear of being hurt or of being overwhelmed by emotion, we can bring our true self to the task of meeting life as it is. The qualities we draw on include connectedness to each other, curiosity, compassion, clarity, calmness, courage, confidence, and creativity.

The real cause of our distress, Sparks suggests, is our demand that life be different, our refusal to face our circumstances as they are out of fear that our situation is unworkable. In our struggle to withdraw from pain, we pull away and in the process become divided against ourselves and the world. We must seek not bliss without suffering but the peace of not being trapped by suffering.

We would feel better if we could notice, accept, and hold the feelings, containing them in the moment. We can help others in pain by showing them loving kindness and compassion. To understand love, we must embrace suffering. To relieve suffering, we must be able to love.

Once we step aside from the products of our thinking brains, the way is clear. We can abandon the search for the truth and our opinions. We can let go of longing and aversion. We can opt for responsiveness rather than reactivity.

The mindful person is reflective (spacious), engaged (grounded and connected), imaginative (creative), and embodied (alive). Mindfulness can be seen as just another term for aliveness. Parents can teach their children these qualities in the same way that therapists model them for clients.

There are degrees or domains of attention, each one progressively more focused. First we become alert: do you notice what is happening? Next we become aware, opening up our interaction to appreciate its significance in terms of the relationship between us. Finally we strive to become awake, open to challenge and accepting of it. At each stage, the frame of reference expands. Meditation helps us become more awake.

Mindfulness encompasses nonviolence, organicity (all parts contribute to the whole), unity, mind/body wholeness, and experience in the present moment.

We can practice opening ourselves and becoming more fully awake in silence, in stillness, and in solitude (with ourselves and with others). We can engage in relaxation, attention, and invitation. We can use meditation, journaling, and visualization.

Distress diminishes when the sufferers change their attitude toward it. A gong struck to call monks to prayer bears the following inscription: “The important matter is life and death. All is impermanent. Wake up. Time is passing.”

“The mess is part of the miracle of life,” says Sparks, “but in attending to the mess, we often forget the miracle.” The path of mindfulness leads between hope and despair straight into uncertainty. “Make uncertainty your friend.”

As we seek a new relationship with experience, we honor a primary vow: “I will take care of myself, and I will be responsible for my life no matter what happens.” With practice, self-care will ultimately reveal itself to be care for everyone and everything.

At the close of the workshop, the sixty-odd participants, mostly therapists, formed a circle and joined in a communal chant. May my body be at ease, may my heart be open, may my mind be boundless, may I awaken. If you want to try it, you can add verses, as we did, replacing my/I with your/you, our/we, and all/everyone.