In spiritual life I see great importance in bringing attention to our shadow, to those aspects of ourselves and our practice where we have remained unconscious. This has brought me to publish articles on the sex life of gurus (and their problems), and to bring up issues of misuse of power, teacher evaluation, and other difficult topics at our teacher meetings. Naturally, I believe firmly in vipassana. Intensive retreats can show us deeply the universal laws of the dharma. They can help us stop running, and in a unique way they can help us develop samadhi to dissolve our body and mind and our illusions of separateness. They can bring about certain kinds of deep healing and compelling insights.
However, because these positive aspects of sitting silent retreats are well known, I do not need to go into them here. Instead, to address the relationship of meditation and psychotherapy necessitates understanding the limitations, not of the dharma, but of the sitting practice taught in retreats. In speaking so directly of the limitations of intensive sitting I hope we can acknowledge what inner work remains and have the wisdom and courage to get on with our journey.
A Problem Honestly Described
I don’t want to be theoretical, but to answer from my experience and my heart. Some people have come to meditation after working with traditional therapy. While they found therapy of value, its limitations led them to seek a deeper spiritual practice. For me it was the opposite. Even in the Thai and Burmese monasteries, while benefiting enormously from the practice and training, I noticed two striking things. First, there were major areas and difficulties in my life, such as loneliness, intimate relationships, work, childhood wounds and patterns of fear that even very deep meditation didn’t touch. Secondly, among the several dozen Western monks (and lots of Asian meditators) I met during my time in Asia, with a few notable exceptions, many were not helped by meditation in big areas of their lives. Many were badly wounded, neurotic, frightened, grieving and often they/we used spiritual practice to hide and avoid problems—to avoid parts of ourselves and our lives.
When I returned to the West to study clinical psychology and then began to teach meditation, I observed a similar phenomenon. At least half of the students who came to three-month retreats couldn’t do the simple bare attention practices because they were holding a great deal of unresolved grief, fear, wounds and unfinished developmental tasks or business from the past. I also observed the most successful group of yogis—and this includes experienced Zen and Tibetan students as well—those who had developed strong samadhi and deep insights into impermanence and selflessness. Often, after many intensive retreats, these yogis also continued to experience great difficulties and significant areas of neurosis—fear, difficulty with work, relationship wounds, closed hearts—areas of attachment and unconsciousness in their lives. They kept asking how to live the dharma and kept returning to retreats looking for help and healing from sitting practice. Yet, the sitting practice, concentration and detachment itself often provided a way to hide, a way to actually separate the mind from difficult areas of the heart and body.
I see that these problems exist for most vipassana teachers as well. Many of us have led very unintegrated lives, and even after deep practice and initial “enlightenment experiences,” our sitting practice has left major areas of our beings unconscious, fearful or disconnected. Being a longtime teacher in the American Buddhist scene, I see this firsthand. Suffice it to say that many American vipassana teachers are now, or have recently been, in therapy, in order to deal with certain important issues in their lives.
It should also be noted that a majority of the twenty or more largest centers of Zen, Tibetan, Hindu and vipassana practice in America, there have been major upheavals and problems around power, sex, honesty, intoxicants, etcetera, centering on the teachers (both Asian and Western) themselves. Something is asking to be noticed here. If we want to find true liberation and compassion, what can we learn from this?
Some Helpful Conclusions For Our Practice:
1.) Buddhist insight meditation was supposed to do it all. As the “highest level” of practice, it was also expected to solve problems on all outer levels of our lives. It is important that we put out the message clearly that for most people sitting practice doesn’t “do it all.” At best, it’s one important piece of a whole deep path of opening.
I used to subscribe to the school that meditation led to the higher, more universal truths and that body, personality, psychology and our own “little dramas” were a lower, more separate vision. I wish it worked this way, but experience (and many great Zen masters) won’t bear this out. In order to end suffering and find freedom, these two levels of our lives can’t be separated. The Buddha says that the only purpose of his teaching is to see suffering and its end. Higher and lower are false distinctions. Attachment is attachment and fear is fear.
2.) The compartments of our minds/bodies are only semipermeable to awareness. Awareness of one foundation of mindfulness doesn’t carry over to the others, especially in the areas where our fear and wounds are deep. This is true for all of us as teachers as well as students. As teachers there are those of us who have had deep samadhi and awakening through breath and body practice, and who could dissolve the body into light, yet we found in therapy that we were terrified to feel our emotions. Other teachers among us have been insightful into the mind and mental states, but have had great difficult relating to or being aware of our bodies, our sexuality and our intimate relations.
Mindfulness will work only when we are willing to direct attention to each area of our suffering. This does not mean getting caught in our personal histories, as many people fear, but learning how to address them so that we can actually free ourselves in relation to the big and painful blocks in our past. It’s wonderful to have this experience and to see that such healing is really possible. It is important to note that such healing work is often best done in relationship with another person.
3.) Meditation and spiritual practice can easily be used to suppress and avoid feeling or to escape from difficult areas of our lives. Our sorrows are hard to touch. Many people resist the personal and psychological roots of their suffering; there is so much pain in truly experiencing our bodies, our personal histories or the limitations in our lives—it can even be harder than facing the universal suffering that surfaces in sitting. We fear the personal and its sorrow because we have not learned how it can be our practice and how it can open our hearts.
We need to look at our whole life and ask ourselves, “Where am I awake and what am I avoiding? Do I use my practice to hide? In what areas am I conscious and where am I fearful, caught or unfree? It is unfortunate that the retreat format of vipassana has not allowed deep continuing relations to develop between teachers and students, and that our retreats do not incorporate or value such questions in a significant way for practice.
4.) There are many areas of growth (grief and other unfinished business, communication and maturing of relationships, sexuality and intimacy, career and work issues, certain fears and phobias, early wounds and more) where good Western therapy is on the whole much quicker and more successful than meditation. These are big aspects of our being which can’t just be written off as “personality stuff. Freud said he wanted to help people to love and work. If we can’t love well and give meaningful work to the earth, what is our practice for? While meditation can help in these areas, if after sitting for a while you discover that you still have this work to do, find a good therapist or some other good way to address these issues and get on with it.
It is also true that there are many mediocre therapists and many limited kinds of therapy. Just as in meditation, you should look for the best. Beyond the more limited traditional psychology training of the 1940s and ’50s, many new therapies have been developed with a strong spiritual basis, such as psychosynthesis, Reichian breath work, sand play, and a whole array of transpersonal psychologies. Buddhist and Western psychology both recognize the power of the unconscious and past conditioned tendencies of fear, greed, aggression and delusion. Their roots—not just the stories but the attachment and solidity behind them—must be made conscious in order to be healed. The best therapy, like the best meditation practice, uses awareness to heal the heart, and is concerned not so much with our stories but with fear and attachment and its release, and with bringing mindfulness to areas of our delusion, grasping and unnecessary suffering. One can find the deepest realizations of selflessness and nonattachment not only in sitting practice, but through some of the methods of transpersonal psychology as well.
5.) Does this mean we should trade meditation for therapy? Not at all. Therapy isn’t the solution either. Consciousness is! And consciousness grows in spirals. If you seek freedom, the most important thing I can tell you is that spiritual practice always develops in cycles. There are inner times when silence is necessary, followed by outer practice needed to integrate and live the silent realizations, and times to get help from a deep relationship with another person. These are equally important phases of practice. It is not a question of first developing a self and then letting go of it. Both go on all the time. Any period of our practice may include samadhi and stillness, followed by new levels of wounds and family history, followed by great letting go, followed by experiences of the void, followed by more personal problems. This is actually how it happens. It is possible to work with all of these levels in the context of Buddhist practice. Teachers such as Achaan Chaa and Achaan Sumedho attend to all of these dimensions in a very integrated practice. Achaan Chaa was not impressed by meditation experiences—he simply saw them as tools to shine light on areas where we need to become free. He would continue to direct students to practice WHEREVER they still found fear, greed, aversion, attachment or unconsciousness.
Can We See It As a Whole?
We live in a time when the spirit, mind, body and heart have been split into separate parts, and these false splits have created enormous havoc and suffering. Profit/production split off from awareness of the earth has brought ecological disaster. Political ideals split off from awareness of our fragile planet have brought an unprecedented military buildup. If we long for peace, we must end this separation inwardly and outwardly. We can only separate “spiritual” life from “psychological” life, from “family” life, from the “life of the body and concern for the earth”—we can only separate out our “spiritual practice” at the price of fear, delusion and destruction.
There is another way. The Buddha saw the interconnectedness of all things through the principle of co-dependence. To meditate is to connect all the pieces of our life. Practice has the wonderful power to touch the universal and then bring it into the particular. In retreats I encourage students to switch awareness between content and process, so that they can be aware of whatever is actually present, rather than just a “higher” dimension. When someone comes to me with sorrow and fear, whether from attachment to the body, relationships, self images or spiritual ideals, it is all the same sorrow. And it is the same heart that asks for healing—the same mind that seeks freedom. It is only through the courage to face the totality of what arises in our lives that we can find this deep healing of our hearts and of the earth. In meditation the very limitations that we fear can become the places of our greatest freedom.
Clearly in our practice in the West we will draw on the strengths and the tools of Western psychology, and we are just exploring how to do that skillfully. We will also need to develop many other aspects of our awareness practice so that we can live the dharma as lay people in a twentieth-century society. We have to expand our notion of practice to include all of life. We need a way of practice in retreat and out that connects with all the parts of our being. Like the Zen oxherding pictures, this is a journey that takes us deep into the forest and leads us back to the marketplace again and again until we find compassion and the sure heart’s release in every realm.