A few days ago I went over to the Seattle area (about 3 hrs each way) to confer with my mentor, Michael Baugh. He was my first supervisor and that was at New Perspectives Center for Counseling in San Francisco where he was clinical director. He has been an important teacher and group leader of DBT, Dialectic Behavioral Therapy. This is a very interesting psychotherapeutic approach that seeks to hold the opposites, seemingly incompatible views. “You’re beautiful and perfect just as you are. And, you really can’t go on this way. Something’s gotta change.”
Next week he is giving a presentation at a conference in D.C., an ACBS conference. That’s the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science. I love these names. They are like word puzzles. “What could that possibly mean?” Anyway, he called me to ask if he could use me as a practice audience for his presentation. Yes! What a great way to really get the direct transmission about what ever it is.
The subject for the day was ACT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. “The lynchpin for ACT is the Self as context.” In that short statement a whole universe, THE universe, hides. The point is for us to keep referring back to the witness consciousness, that which observes changes but is never changed. The Self that holds all experience, the Self that is the context for everything we can know. That’s a pretty big frame. And, I agree with this approach; when we shift to that frame we are in the greatest possible place for spontaneous healing. Of course, very few of us can hold that perspective for long. That is the work of mindfulness practice, to just observe what arises without pushing, pulling, or judging. The observer, big mind, does none of these. Big mind accepts it all. Then we can more easily align with our core values and undertake to live with integrity.
Since that day I’ve been drifting in a happy bemused cloud of possibilities, a vague smile in my heart, and not at all sure how to use these ideas. You see, I’m a new transplant to this area and I have very few clients. Yes, there is the meditation groups I have going but I’m teaching a different approach there, basic mindfulness. An important tool but still a tool. The ACT approach, the nondual teaching of Adyashanti and Ramana Maharshi does not seem to be a tool in the way I think of therapeutic approaches. It goes right past tools and workshops altogether. And, if we can make that shift, we are left smiling with very little to say.
I think so much of our problems stem from the compulsive use of language and thinking. The most beautiful and meaningful elements of life are nonverbal. Can we hold our experience without the commentary?
I’m working on it.
Things have been very slow in my therapy practice and I have been feeling unfulfilled. Lots of potential just idling away is a recipe for anxiety. Plus, the local community has few opportunities for Dharma practice which has long been a staple for feeling connected to myself and having a meaningful life. To work on both these fronts, in April I undertook to offer an Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation 6-week series. Ran a community listing in the little local paper and whala… 16 people showed up for the first night. I was asking $30 for the series as a token of commitment to help stabilize the group numbers and I found the group to be eager and receptive to the basic teachings of mindfulness.
Being in the front of a group and giving presentations has always been an uncomfortable position for me. It’s not something that I ever wanted to do much of. In this case if I did not start a sangha there would not be one for me to attend. The discomfort of stepping into the role of a presenter was matched with the discomfort of having no mindfulness or Vipassana style meditation group to attend.
Initially, I set out to make a clear distinction between about my role. I was uncomfortable with the label of teacher so I pointedly referred to myself as the “presenter” of this material. During a week long retreat with a Thai meditation master in June I had a discussion with a seasoned western buddhist nun. She urged me to drop the issue, let people refer to me however they liked, and furthermore, “If you sit up front and talk the dharma, you are the teacher.” Since then I’ve begun to refer to myself as a Buddhist teacher, at least for purposes of the flyers I’ve posted around our little town.
When that series was finished I opened the time slot to the larger community. We now have a pretty solid group of committed meditators every Tuesday evening 7-8:30. I’ve started a second introduction series on Wed. evenings and already have people asking when the next one will start.
Now here’s the real payoff… the boost to my own practice! My daily sitting practice has gone from once a day to usually 3 times a day now. Every week I prepare a dharma talk by listening to the talks of respected teachers in this lineage, comb through the Pali Text Society’s site if I need to get the original teachings, and ponder the material from my meditation background. I have not felt so close and intimate with the dhamma since the two years I spent living and working at IMS in Massachusetts. Almost over night my whole life feels changed and revitalized. I can’t easily say how important this is to me. I never have imagined myself as a dharma teacher and now I kind of wonder about that, about my view of my own practice and how it might benefit others. My background in Buddhist practices is significant. In the 27 years since I sat my first retreat I’ve sat more than 5o 10-days or longer which adds up to more than 2 years of silent intensive retreat practice with a long list of great teachers. Looking back on this now I feel exceeding fortunate. And now I feel even more so.
How do I think about therapy… therapy is a relational healing workspace. Our lives are often organized around our relationships with others. Psychotherapy can serve as the working field where we train and practice for the important relationships in our life, kind of like vocational training for the heart and mind. This work allows us to develop new ways of looking at ourselves and our relationships and then to have other behavioral options.
I think that most unhappiness arises out of our reluctance to meet life head-on. Sometimes the life we wish we had interferes with the life that, in fact, we have at this time. This stepping up to meet ourselves can be aided by the help of another, a skillful guide who knows this territory. As someone said, “My mind is a dangerous neighborhood. I don’t like to go there alone.”
Mindfulness is the basis for the work I do with clients. Mindfulness is a simple technique to direct and sustaining our attention wherever we choose. This is especially important because how we use our attention is the only real freedom we have. Mindfulness creates an inner space that allows us to move through pain, fear, and confusion.
From another perspective the job of the therapist is to hold the mirror for us to see ourselves more clearly. Real changes comes from clearly seeing our patterns over time, and not ducking out via food, drugs, drink, sex, TV, or other compulsive behaviors.
In addition to psychotherapy and counseling I also offer training in mindfulness meditation. My grounding in mindfulness comes from many years of practice and work in Buddhist meditation centers. I have a MA in Counseling Psychology from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, CA. and have worked effectively with teenagers and their families, couples in difficulty, and individuals dealing with life-changing upheavals, chronic pain, depression, anxiety and grief.