During my first months (maybe more accurately years) of meditation practice I discovered that on retreat, as my mind started to settle down, issues which I thought had been resolved in therapy began to reappear. Often they would reappear accompanied with their attendant symptoms. I would think, “I thought I was finished with this stuff years ago!” Nevertheless, there it was again. I began to notice, however, that the experiencing of difficult events in my life had been different in therapy than it now was in meditation. I recalled that in therapy I had remembered and relived difficult experiences and the process had seemed very intense and painful because I had been totally caught up in it. I realized that as my old experiences paraded by in meditation I could simultaneously be feeling them AND recognizing that this whole drama was arising and passing away. It wasn’t that pain didn’t feel like pain. It DID. It just didn’t matter so much. It was like watching a movie.
Over a period of time, at various retreats, all of my worst stories reappeared, hung around a little, and disappeared. Because I tend to reflect about these kinds of things, and because I also noticed that I was feeling better (freer?), I hypothesized that this replay of earlier experience had afforded me another level of conflict resolution. My sense was that if this was a more profound level of resolution, it had been facilitated by whatever calm and equanimity were present in being concentrated.
I remember feeling glad at the time that I had done lots of psychological work on myself before I had started meditating. I felt that it had given me valuable tools for recognizing and understanding conflicts as they arose. Also, some of the stuff that came up for me was quite “raw,” and had I not been quite familiar with the contents of my psyche I probably would have been upset and uncomfortable.
My experience since starting to teach meditation is that it is fairly usual for meditators to be presented with psychological residues as the mind settles down. My best advice to people is to try to use whatever calm and composure they have to just stay present. It is the same advice I give people working in therapy. In both cases the advice is “Don’t duck! Just stay there and stay awake.” In both cases people discover that they CAN stand to stay present (and mostly we think we can’t). Also people discover that IF they stay present, whatever it is passes away. In therapy situations I guess I tend to reflect with people on how come whatever it was has been difficult for them, what the etiology of it has been, what the ramifications of it are in their present life, etc. In meditation practice the emphasis is not on reflecting or analyzing but on the fact that the experience passes. I believe that both kinds of insights have a place and a value.
I think it is true, in general, that western psychotherapies consider our experiences of this lifetime (family of origin, particular traumatic events in our developmental history, etc.) as pivotal determinants of psychological unhappiness. Based on this notion, psychotherapies use a variety of techniques to facilitate the recall, abreaction and “working through” of these events on the assumption that bringing our history to consciousness, facing it and learning how it governs our lives will free us and allow us to be happy. A good part of the psychotherapy I do is based on this idea and often it seems to work.
I also think it is true, in general, that meditation psychology sees our unhappiness as a reflection of the fact that we struggle so much with the events that happen to us, not as a factor of the events themselves. In other words, our happiness, in this system, rests on our ability to accept what was and what is and to forgive ourselves (and everyone else in our lives) for not being what we would have wanted. (Lest there be any possibility of misinterpreting this last sentence, let me immediately assert that this does not mean being passive, not taking a stand, not working as hard as we can to make our own lives more gratifying and less painful.) The insights of meditation practice, i.e. that all experience is temporal, that pain is ubiquitous and permanent satisfaction illusory, and that there is no enduring self to which experience is happening, make it possible (I believe!) to struggle less and therefore suffer less. This is another way to understand happiness.
What I’ve just outlined are what I believe to be the principal insights of each system. It is important to mention that neither system excludes the other. It is certainly possible, in therapy, to realize the truth of impermanence. It also happens that in the stillness of a concentrated mind we suddenly become aware of our patterns of interrelating, of how our world view based on this life’s experience conditions the choices we make. Neither system excludes the other. I think it is truly a matter of emphasis.