When Meditation Isn't Enough
Going Beyond Acceptance to Healing
By Richard Schwartz
September/October 2011 www.SelfLeadership.org
As therapists increasingly incorporate mindfulness into their work, they’re discovering what Buddhists have known for centuries: everyone (even those with severe inner turmoil) can access a state of spacious well-being by beginning to notice their more turbulent thoughts and feelings, rather than becoming swallowed up by them. As people relate to their disturbing inner experiences from this calm, mindful place, not only are they less overwhelmed, but they can become more accepting of the aspects of themselves with which they’ve been struggling. Still the question remains of how best to incorporate mindfulness into psychotherapy.
A perennial quandary in psychotherapy, as well as spirituality, is whether the goal is to help people come to accept the inevitable pain of the human condition with more equanimity or to actually transform and heal the pain, shame, or terror, so that it’s no longer a problem. Are we seeking acceptance or transformation, passive observation or engaged action, a stronger connection to the here-and- now or an understanding of the past?
Many therapeutic attempts to integrate mindfulness have adopted what I’ll call the passive-observer form of mindfulness—a client is helped to notice thoughts and emotions from a place of separation and extend acceptance toward them. The emphasis isn’t on trying to change or replace irrational cognitions, but on noticing them and then acting in ways that the observing self considers more adaptive or functional. As an illustration, let’s consider how more traditional therapeutic approaches contrast with more mindfulness-based methods in helping a client dealing with the mundane challenge of feeling nervous about going to a party. A Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) intervention might begin by identifying the self-statements that are generating anxiety—a part of the person that says, in effect, “Don’t go because no one likes you and you’ll be rejected.” The client might then be instructed to dispute these thoughts by saying, “It’s not true that no one likes me” and naming some people who do. A clinician trained in a mindfulness-based approach like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) might have the client notice the extreme thoughts about rejection without trying to change them, and then go to the party anyway, despite the continued presence of the irrational beliefs. As this example shows, mindfulness allows you to no longer be fused or blended with the irrational beliefs, releasing your observing self, who has the perspective and courage to act in positive ways. This shift from struggling to correct or override cognitive distortions to noticing and accepting them is revolutionary in a field that’s been so dominated by CBT. There’s a large body of research on ACT, from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, and from the ground-breaking work of Marcia Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) with borderline personality disorder, suggesting that the shift is a powerful one. Clearly, learning to mindfully witness experiences helps clients a great deal, even those with diagnoses previously considered intractable.
A vivid cinematic example of this witnessing process can be found in the Academy Award–winning film A Beautiful Mind, in which we’re given a sense of what it’s like to be awash in an irrational thought system. In the beginning of the movie, the disturbed math genius John Nash (played by Russell Crowe) is so identified with the paranoid part of him (a black-suited FBI agent played by Ed Harris) that we, the viewers, are drawn into his scary world with him. Gradually Nash is able to separate from his paranoia—to observe his inner FBI agent with some distance and objectivity, rather than believing his conspiratorial rantings. With this mindful separation comes greater peace of mind and ability to function in his life. But while diminished in their intensity and their power to control his behavior, at the end of the film we see that Nash’s voices continue to reside in him. He’s simply learned to live with his extreme beliefs and emotions without being enslaved by them. But what if it were possible to transform this inner drama, rather than just keep it at arm’s length by taking mindfulness one step further?
The Second Step
As a therapist, I’ve worked with clients who’ve come to me after having seen therapists who’d helped them to be more mindful of their impulses to cut themselves, binge on food or drugs, or commit suicide. While those impulses remained in their lives, these clients were no longer losing their battles with them, nor were they ashamed or afraid of them any longer. The clients’ functioning had improved remarkably. The goal of the therapeutic approach that I use, Internal Family Systems (IFS), was to build on this important first step of separating from and accepting these impulses, and then take a second step of helping clients transform them.
For example, Molly had been in and out of hospital treatment centers until, through her DBT treatment, she was able to separate from and be accepting of the part of her that had repeatedly directed her to try to kill herself. As a result of that successful treatment, she’d stayed out of the hospital for more than two years, was holding down a job, and was connected to people in her support group. From my clinical viewpoint, she was now ready for the next step in her therapeutic growth. My goal was to help her get to know her suicidality—not just as an impulse to be accepted, but as a “part” of her that was trying to help her in some way.
In an early session, after determining she was ready to take this step, I asked her to focus on that suicidal impulse and how she felt toward it. She said she no longer feared it and had come to feel sorry for it, because she sensed that it was scared. Like many clients, she also began to spontaneously see an inner image, in her case a tattered, homeless woman who rejected her compassion. I invited her to ask this woman what she was afraid would happen if Molly continued to live. The woman replied that Molly would continue to suffer excruciating emotional pain. With some help in that session, Molly was able to embrace the woman, show her appreciation for trying to protect her from extreme suffering, and learn about the hurting part of her that the woman protected her from. In subsequent sessions, Molly, in her mind’s eye, entered the original abuse scene, took the little girl she saw there out of it to a safe place, and released the terror and shame she’d carried throughout her life. Once the old woman could see that the girl was safe, she began to support Molly’s steps into a fuller life and stopped encouraging her to try to escape the prospect of lifelong suffering through suicide. In this way, the “enemy” became an ally.
The Paradox of Acceptance
Years ago, Carl Rogers observed, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” In other words, carefully observing and accepting our emotions and beliefs, rather than fighting or fearing them, is a precursor for using that same mindful state to help them transform. Once people come to compassionately engage with troubling elements of their psyches, they’re often able to release difficult emotions and outmoded beliefs they’ve carried for years. For me, this process of compassionately engaging with the elements of our psyches is a natural second step of mindfulness. If you feel compassion for something, why just observe it? Why not engage with it and try to help it?
Actually, some prominent Buddhist leaders advocate taking this next step. Thich Nhat Hahn, Pema Chodron, Tara Brach, and Jack Kornfield all encourage their students not just to witness their emotions, but to actively embrace them. Consider this quote from Thich Nhat Hahn about handling emotions: “You calm your feeling just by being with it, like a mother tenderly holding her crying baby. Feeling the mother’s tenderness, the baby will calm down and stop crying.” So it’s possible to first separate from an upset emotion, but then return to it and form a loving inner relationship it, as one might with a child.
The Buddhist teacher Tsultrim Allione revived an ancient Tibetan tradition called Chod, which has practitioners feeding rather than fighting with their inner “demons.” She finds that once fed with curiosity and compassion, these inner enemies reveal what they really need, feel accepted and heard, and become allies. It’s possible to go beyond simply witnessing our inner world to actually entering it in this mindful state and interacting with the parts of our psyches with the same kind of loving attunement that creates secure attachments between parents and children, or between therapists and clients.
More than a Monkey Mind
This is harder to do if therapists consider clients’ inner worlds to be populated by an annoying ego or agitated monkey mind. In some Buddhist traditions, the myriad thoughts and feelings, pleasures and pains we have are considered to be the product of an ego, which is conditioned by the materialistic culture to become attached to transitory things and keep you from your higher spiritual path. If that’s your starting assumption, you may notice feelings of happiness and sorrow with acceptance, but you aren’t likely to want to spend much time getting to know them. You’ll fear that the more time you entertain such thoughts and feelings, the more attached you’ll become to the material world.
If, on the other hand, you consider your thoughts, emotions, urges, and impulses to be coming from an inner landscape that’s best understood as a kind of internal family, populated by sub-personalities, many of whom are childlike and are suffering, then it makes more sense to take that next step of comforting and holding these inner selves—as Thich Nhat Hahn advises—rather than just observing and objectifying them. All clients need to do to begin exploring this apparently chaotic and mysterious inner world is to focus inside with genuine curiosity and start asking questions, as Molly did, and these inner family members will begin to emerge. As the process continues, clients will be able to form I-thou relationships with their parts, rather than the more detached, I-it relationships that most psychotherapies and many spiritualities foster.
Once a client, in a mindful state, enters such an inner dialogue, she’ll typically learn from her parts that they’re suffering and/or are trying to protect her. As she does this, she’s shifting from the passive-observer state to an increasingly engaged and relational form of mindfulness that naturally exists within: what I call her “Self.” Having helped clients access this engaged, mindful Self for more than 30 years now, I’ve consistently observed that it’s a state that isn’t just accepting of their parts, but also has an innate wisdom about how to relate to them in an attuned, loving way. I’ve observed over and over clients’ enormous inborn capacity for self-healing, a capacity that most of us aren’t even aware of.
We normally think of the attachment process as happening between caretakers and young children, but the more you explore how the inner world functions, the more you find that it parallels external relationships, and that we have an inner capacity to extend mindful care-taking to aspects of ourselves that are frozen in time and excluded from our normal consciousness. This Self state has the ability to open a pathway to the parts of us that we locked away because they were hurt when we were younger and we didn’t want to feel that pain again.
As clients approach these inner parts—what I call “exiles”—they often experience them as inner children who fit one of the three categories of troubled attachment: insecure, avoidant, or disorganized. Typically, once one of these inner exiles reveals itself to the client, their Self automatically knows how to relate to that part in such a way that it’ll begin to trust the Self. These inner children respond to the love they sense from the Self in the same way that abandoned or abused children do as they sense the safety and caring of an attuned caretaker. As parts become securely attached to Self, they let go of their terror, pain, or feelings of worthlessness and become transformed—a healing process that opens up access to a bounty of resources that had been locked away. When that happens, there’s a growing trust in the Self’s wisdom, and people increasingly manifest what I call the eight Cs of Self-leadership: curiosity, compassion, calm, courage, clarity, confidence, creativity, and connectedness. In other words, they return to a natural state of groundedness and embodiment.
Attachment Theory assumes that healing occurs only when one person becomes a healthy attachment figure for another—a therapist for a client, one spouse for another, or a parent for a child—exhibiting the kind of engaged, active mindfulness we’ve been discussing. However, Self-leadership opens the possibility of a different kind of attachment-based healing within a person, which can lead to a deep sense of personal empowerment.
The observer type of mindfulness meditation can reinforce the effects of this inner attachment, so that therapy and meditation complement and feed each other. I’ve encouraged many of my clients to practice the observer type of meditation between sessions, and have found that their progress is hugely accelerated. The meditations help people practice separating from and accepting their parts, while accessing and trusting the mindfulness state, which increases clients’ ability for self-healing. The healing done in therapy, in turn, allows for deeper and less interrupted meditations. As clients become increasingly able to notice, rather than blend with, the wounded parts of themselves that are triggered as they go through their daily lives, they become clearer about what needs attention in therapy sessions.
The Therapist’s Role
With all this talk of self-healing, I don’t want to downplay the importance of the client’s relationship with the therapist. What does shift is the focus on the therapist from being the primary attachment figure to serving as an accepting container of awareness who opens space for the client’s own Self to emerge. To do this, therapists must embody their own fullest Self, acting as a tuning fork to awaken the client’s Self to its own resonance. To achieve this kind of embodiment, therapists must learn to be mindful of their own parts as they work with clients, recognizing that transference and counter-transference are, at some level, a continuing behind-the-scenes dance as therapists and clients inevitably trigger each other. The inescapable reality of therapy is that, if we do our jobs well, clients will do all kinds of provocative things that repeatedly test us. They’ll resist, get angry and critical, become hugely dependent, talk incessantly, behave dangerously between sessions, show intense vulnerability, idealize us, attack themselves, and display astounding narcissism and self-centeredness.
Some of this is because they have parts forged by relationships with hurtful caretakers that are stuck in the past and, as they sense our open-heartedness, all that gets ignited. The Self-led therapist is basically issuing the client an invitation: “All parts are welcome!” From the darkest corners of their psyches, aspects of clients that others never see emerge in all their crazy glory, and that’s a good thing. When we aren’t overwhelmed by our own parts and can remain Self-led, clients can get to know what’s going on inside them, and healing emerges.
But therapists aren’t Buddhas and regularly get triggered by the intensity of their interplay with their clients, whether they wish to acknowledge it or not. Fortunately, as you become increasingly familiar with the physical experience of embodying this mindful Self, you’ll be better able to notice the shift in your body when a troubled part hijacks you (you have a “part attack”). With that awareness —and lots of experience doing this kind of clinical work—comes the ability to calm the part in the moment and ask it to separate and let your fuller Self return. If I had a microphone in my head when I was treating certain challenging clients, you’d hear me saying repeatedly to myself things like: “I know you’re upset, but just let me stay and handle this. Remember it always goes better if you let me keep my mind open. Just relax and trust me, and I’ll talk to you after the session.” On my good days, those words produce an immediate shift in my level of Self- embodiment—my heart opens, my shoulder muscles release, or the crowd of negative thoughts in my head disperses. My client suddenly looks different—less menacing or hopeless, and more vulnerable. Between sessions, I’ll follow up by bringing the parts that my client aroused to their own therapy, to give them the attention they need. In this way, our clients become our “tor-mentors” —by tormenting us, they mentor us, making us aware of what needs our loving attention.
Working in this way can be an intense and challenging task, which regularly requires me to step out of my emotional comfort zone and experience “parts” in myself and my clients that I might otherwise wish to avoid. At the same time, on my best days, I feel blessed to be able to accompany clients on inner journeys into both the terror and wonder of what it means to be fully human. At those moments, I can’t imagine a more mindful way to practice the therapist’s craft. ***
Richard Schwartz, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Self Leadership and the originator of the Internal Family Systems Model. His books include Internal Family Systems Therapy and, most recently, You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For.
Psychology Networker Sept-Oct 2011 SelfLeadership.org
Jack Kornfield speaks to when meditation is not enough:
A PATH WITH HEART: A GUIDE THROUGH THE PERILS AND PROMISES OF SPIRITUAL LIFE • Jack Kornfield
Kornfield, Jack. A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Lif
In beginning this book I have emphasized my own personal journey, because the greatest lesson I have learned is that the universal must be wedded to the personal to be fulfilled in our spiritual life. In the summer of 1972 I returned to the home of my parents in Washington, D.C., head shaved and robed as a Buddhist monk, after my first five-year study in Asia. No Theravada Buddhist monasteries had been established in America at that time, but I wanted to see how it would be to live as a monk in America, even if for only a short while. After several weeks with my parents, I decided to visit my twin brother and his wife on Long Island. With my robes and bowl I boarded a train en route from Washington to New York’s Grand Central Station, carrying a ticket my mother had purchased for me—as a renunciate, I was not using or handling money myself. I arrived that afternoon and began to walk up Fifth Avenue to meet my sister-in-law. I was still very calm after so many years of practice. I walked as if I were meditating, letting shops such as Tiffany’s and the crowds of passersby be the same in my mind as the wind and the trees of my forest monastery. I was to meet my sister-in-law in front of Elizabeth Arden’s. She had been given a birthday certificate for a full day of care in that establishment, including facial, hairdo, massage, manicure, and more. I arrived at Elizabeth Arden’s at four o’clock as promised, but she did not appear. After some period of waiting, I went inside. “May I help you?” exclaimed the shocked receptionist as I entered. “Yes, I’m looking for Tori Kornfield.” “Oh,” she replied. “She’s not finished yet. There’s a waiting lounge on the fourth floor.”
So I took the elevator to the fourth floor. Coming out of the door, I met the waiting lounge receptionist, who also inquired in a slightly incredulous tone, “May I help you?” I told her I was waiting for my sister-in-law and was instructed to take a seat. I sat on a comfortable couch, and after waiting a few minutes, I decided to cross my legs, close my eyes, and meditate. I was a monk after all, and what else was there to do? After ten minutes I began to hear laughter and noises. I continued to meditate, but finally I heard a group of voices and a loud exclamation of “Is he for real?” from the hall across the room, which caused me to open my eyes. I saw eight or ten women dressed in Elizabeth Arden “nighties” (the gowns given them for the day) staring at me. Many had their hair in rollers or in other multiple fishing-reel-shaped contraptions. Several had what looked like green avocado smeared on their faces. Others were covered with mud. I looked back at them and wondered what realm I had been born into and heard myself say, “Are they for real?”
From that moment, it became clear that I would have to find a way to reconcile the ancient and wonderful teachings I had received at the Buddhist monastery with the ways of our modern world. Over the years, this reconciliation has become one of the most interesting and compelling inquiries for me and for many other people seeking to live a genuine spiritual life as we enter the twenty-first century. Most Americans do not wish to live as traditional priests or monks or nuns, yet many of us wish to bring a genuine spiritual practice to life in our own world. This book will speak to this possibility. My own spiritual life was triggered at age fourteen by the gift of T. Lobsang Rampa’s book The Third Eye, a semi-fictional account of mystical adventures in Tibet. It was exciting and thought-provoking and offered a world to escape to that seemed far better than the one I inhabited.
I grew up on the East Coast in a scientific and intellectual household. My father was a biophysicist who developed artificial hearts and artificial lungs, worked in space medicine for the space program, and taught in medical schools. I had a “good education” and went to an Ivy League college. I was surrounded by many bright and creative people. In spite of their success and their intellectual attainments, however, many of them were unhappy. It became clear to me that intelligence and worldly position had little to do with happiness or healthy human relationships. This was most painfully evident in my own family. Even in my loneliness and confusion I knew that I would have to seek happiness somewhere else. So I turned to the East. At Dartmouth College in 1963, I was blessed with a wise old professor, Dr. Wing Tsit Chan, who sat cross-legged on a desk while lecturing on the Buddha and the Chinese classics. Inspired by him, I majored in Asian studies and, after graduating, immediately went to Asia (with the help of the Peace Corps) seeking teachings and ordination in a Buddhist monastery. I began practice and when I was finally ordained and retreated to the Thai forest monastery at Wat Ba Pong, led by the young but later quite famous master Achaan Chah, I was surprised.
While I hadn’t necessarily expected the monks to levitate as they did in T. Lobsang Rampa’s stories, I had hoped for special effects from the meditation—happiness, special states of rapture, extraordinary experiences. But that was not primarily what my teacher offered. He offered a way of life, a lifelong path of awakening, attention, surrender, and commitment. He offered a happiness that was not dependent on any of the changing conditions of the world but came out of one’s own difficult and conscious inner transformation. In joining the monastery, I had hoped to leave behind the pain of my family life and the difficulties of the world, but of course they followed me. It took many years for me to realize that these difficulties were part of my practice. I was fortunate enough to find wise instruction and to undergo the traditional ancient trainings that are still offered in the best monasteries. This entailed living with great simplicity, possessing little more than a robe and bowl, and walking five miles each day to collect food for the single midday meal. I spent long periods of meditation in traditional practices, such as sitting in the forest all night watching bodies burn on the charnel grounds, and I undertook a year-long silent retreat in one room, sitting and walking for twenty hours a day. I was offered excellent teachings in great monasteries led by Mahasi Sayadaw, Asabha Sayadaw, and Achaan Buddhadasa. I learned wonderful things in these periods of practice and am perennially grateful to these teachers. Yet, intensive meditation in these exotic settings turned out to be just the beginning of my practice. Since then I have had equally compelling meditations in quite ordinary places, arising simply as a result of committed systematic training. I did not know what lay ahead at the time of my early training and left Asia still very idealistic, expecting that the special meditation experiences I had found would solve all my problems.
Over subsequent years, I returned for further training in monasteries of Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka and then studied with several renowned Tibetan lamas, Zen masters, and Hindu gurus. In nineteen years of teaching I’ve had the privilege of collaborating with many other Western Buddhist teachers to establish Insight Meditation, the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, in America. I have led retreats of one day’s to three months’ duration and worked in conjunction with many centers, Christian, Buddhist, transpersonal, and others. In 1976 I completed a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and have worked ever since as a psychotherapist as well as a Buddhist teacher. And mostly, as I’ve gone through these years, I have been trying to answer the question: How can I live my spiritual practice, how can I bring it to flower in every day of my life?
Since beginning to teach, I’ve seen how many other students misunderstand spiritual practice, how many have hoped to use it to escape from their lives, how many have used its ideals and language as a way to avoid the pains and difficulties of human existence as I tried to do, how many have entered temples, temples, churches, and monasteries looking for the special effects. My own practice has been a journey downward, in contrast to the way we usually think of our spiritual experiences. Over these years I’ve found myself working my way down the chakras (the spiritual energy centers of the body) rather than up. My first ten years of systematic spiritual practice were primarily conducted through my mind. I studied, read, and then meditated and lived as a monk, always using the power of my mind to gain understanding. I developed concentration and samadhi (deep levels of mental absorption), and many kinds of insights came. I had visions, revelations, and a variety of deep awakenings. The whole way I understood myself in the world was turned upside down as my practice developed and I saw things in a new and wiser way. I thought that this insight was the point of practice and felt satisfied with my new understandings. But alas, when I returned to the U.S. as a monk, all of that fell apart. In the weeks after Elizabeth Arden’s, I disrobed, enrolled in graduate school, got a job driving a taxi, and worked nights at a mental hospital in Boston. I also became involved in an intimate relationship. Although I had arrived back from the monastery clear, spacious, and high, in short order I discovered, through my relationship, in the communal household where I lived, and in my graduate work, that my meditation had helped me very little with my human relationships. I was still emotionally immature, acting out the same painful patterns of blame and fear, acceptance and rejection that I had before my Buddhist training; only the horror now was that I was beginning to see these patterns more clearly. I could do loving-kindness meditations for a thousand beings elsewhere but had terrible trouble relating intimately to one person here and now. I had used the strength of my mind in meditation to suppress painful feelings, and all too often I didn’t even recognize that I was angry, sad, grieving, or frustrated until a long time later. The roots of my unhappiness in relationships had not been examined. I had very few skills for dealing with my feelings or for engaging on an emotional level or for living wisely with my friends and loved ones. I was forced to shift my whole practice down the chakras from the mind to the heart. I began a long and difficult process of reclaiming my emotions, of bringing awareness and understanding to my patterns of relationship, of learning how to feel my feelings, and what to do with the powerful forces of human connection. I did this through group and individual therapy, through heart-centered meditations, through transpersonal psychology, and through a series of both successful and disastrous relationships. I did it through examining my family of origin and early history, bringing this understanding into my relationships in the present. Eventually this led me to an initially difficult relationship that is now a happy marriage with my wife, Liana, and to a beautiful daughter, Caroline. Gradually I have come to understand this work of the heart as a fully integrated part of my spiritual practice.
After ten years of focusing on emotional work and the development of the heart, I realized I had neglected my body. Like my emotions, my body had been included in my early spiritual practice in only a superficial way. I learned to be quite aware of my breathing and work with the pains and sensations in my body, but mostly I had used my body as an athlete might. I had been blessed with sufficient health and strength that I could climb mountains or sit like a yogi on the bank of the Ganges River through the fiery pain for ten or twenty hours without moving, I could eat one meal a day as a monk and walk long distances barefoot, but I discovered that I had used my body rather than inhabiting it. It had been a vehicle to feed and move and fulfill my mental emotional, and spiritual life.
As I had come to re-inhabit my emotions more fully, I noticed that my body also required its own loving attention and that it was not enough to see and understand or even to feel with love and compassion—I had to move further down the chakras. I learned that if I am to live a spiritual life, I must be able to embody it in every action: in the way I stand and walk, in the way I breathe, in the care with which I eat. All my activities must be included. To live in this precious animal body on this earth is as great a part of spiritual life as anything else. In beginning to re-inhabit my body, I discovered new areas of fear and pain that kept me away from my true self, just as I had discovered new areas of fear and pain in opening my mind and opening my heart. As my practice has proceeded down the chakras, it has become more intimate and more personal. It has required more honesty and care each step of the way. It has also become more integrated. The way I treat my body is not disconnected from the way I treat my family or the commitment I have to peace on our earth. So that as I have been working my way down, the vision of my practice has expanded to include, not just my own body or heart, but all of life, the relationships we hold, and the environment that sustains us.
In this process of deepening and expanding my commitment to spiritual life, I have seen both my effort and motivation change greatly. At first I practiced and taught from a place of great striving and effort. I had used strong effort of mind to hold my body still, to concentrate and marshal mental power in my meditation, to overcome pains, feelings, and distractions. I used spiritual practice to strive for states of clarity and light, for understanding and vision, and I initially taught this way. Gradually, though, it became clear that for most of us this very striving itself increased our problems. Where we tended to be judgmental, we became more judgmental of ourselves in our spiritual practice. Where we had been cut off from ourselves, denying our feelings, our bodies, and our humanity, the striving toward enlightenment or some spiritual goal only increased this separation. Whenever a sense of unworthiness or self-hatred had a foothold—in fear of our feelings or judgment of our thoughts—it was strengthened by spiritual striving. Yet I knew that spiritual practice is impossible without great dedication, energy, and commitment. If not from striving and idealism, from where was this to come?
What I discovered was wonderful news for me. To open deeply, as genuine spiritual life requires, we need tremendous courage and strength, a kind of warrior spirit. But the place for this warrior strength is in the heart. We need energy, commitment, and courage not to run from our life nor to cover it over with any philosophy—material or spiritual. We need a warrior’s heart that lets us face our lives directly, our pains and limitations, our joys and possibilities. This courage allows us to include every aspect of life in our spiritual practice: our bodies, our families, our society, politics, the earth’s ecology, art, education. Only then can spirituality be truly integrated into our lives.
When I began working at a state mental hospital while studying for my Ph.D., I naively thought I might teach meditation to some of the patients. It quickly became obvious that meditation was not what they needed. These people had little ability to bring a balanced attention to their lives, and most of them were already lost in their minds. If any meditation was useful to them, it would have to be one that was earthy and grounded: yoga, gardening, tai chi, active practices that could connect them to their bodies.
But then I discovered a whole large population at this hospital who desperately needed meditation: the psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, psychiatric nurses, mental health aides, and others. This group cared for and often controlled the patients through antipsychotic drugs and out of fear, fear of the energies in the patients and fear of these energies in themselves. Not many among these caregivers seemed to know firsthand in their own psyches the powerful forces that the patients were encountering, yet this is a very basic lesson in meditation: facing our own greed, unworthiness, rage, paranoia, and grandiosity, and the opening of wisdom and fearlessness beyond these forces. The staff could all have greatly benefited from meditation as a way of facing within themselves the psychic forces that were unleashed in their patients. From this they would have brought a new understanding and compassion to their work and their patients.
The need to include spiritual life in treatment and therapy is beginning to be recognized by the mental health profession. An awareness of the necessity of integrating a spiritual vision has spread to such fields as politics, economics, and ecology as well. Yet to be beneficial, this spirituality must be grounded in personal experience. For the reader who wants to learn firsthand, chapters throughout this book offer a series of traditional practices and contemporary meditations. These exercises are ways to directly work with the teachings presented here, to enter more deeply into your own body and heart as a vehicle for spiritual practice. The core of the meditations presented here comes from the Theravada Buddhist tradition of Southeast Asia. These are the mindfulness practices of Insight Meditation (vipassana), also called the heart of Buddhist meditation, which offer a systematic training and awakening of body, heart, and mind that is integrated with the world around us. It is this tradition that I have followed and taught for many years, and it is this central teaching that forms the basis of almost all Buddhist practice worldwide. While this book will draw upon my experience in the Buddhist traditions, I believe the principles of spiritual practice it touches on are universal. The first half introduces the ground of an integrated spiritual life: ways of practice, common perils, techniques for dealing with our wounds and difficulties, and some Buddhist maps of spiritual states of human consciousness and how these extraordinary experiences can be grounded in common sense. The second half of the book will speak more directly to the integration of this practice into our contemporary lives, addressing topics such as codependence and compassion, compartmentalization, psychotherapy and meditation, and the benefits and difficulties encountered with spiritual teachers. We will conclude by looking at spiritual spiritual maturity: the ripening of wisdom and compassion, and the ease and joy it brings to our life.
In beginning this book, I have emphasized my own personal journey, because the greatest lesson I have learned is that the universal must be wedded to the personal to be fulfilled in our spiritual life. We are human beings, and the human gate to the sacred is our own body, heart, and mind, the history from which we’ve come, and the closest relationships and circumstances of our life. If not here, where else could we bring alive compassion, justice, and liberation?
An integrated sense of spirituality understands that if we are to bring light or wisdom or compassion into the world, we must first begin with ourselves. The universal truths of spiritual life can come alive only in each particular and personal circumstance. This personal approach to practice honors both the uniqueness and the commonality of our life, respecting the timeless quality of the great dance between birth and death, yet also honoring our particular body, our particular particular family and community, the personal history and the joys and sorrows that have been given to us. In this way, our awakening is a very personal matter that also affects all other creatures on earth.
Kornfield, Jack. A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life (Kindle Locations 132-272). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.