July 13, 2011

Contemplative Therapy: Relaxing into Freedom.


A young woman walked in my office recently and shared the intimate details of her childhood abuse and neglect. She spent most of her adolescent years in and out of treatment, hating herself so much that she would inflict acts of violence onto her own body. As a result, she had been locked up multiple times in psychiatric hospitals. She was alone, had no one to talk to, and didn’t know how to process the rage and hurt from what she described as ‘the nightmare of her life.’ During our first session, she told me that she had hit bottom, and felt entirely hopeless about the possibility that her life could ever be different.

While listening to her story, I was blown away by the uncanny similarity to my own life’s story. It was like looking at myself twenty plus years ago from an entirely different vantage point. I knew that she wasn’t crazy and was merely treating herself in ways she had been treated. It was easy for me to make a genuine connection with her and begin our healing work together.

Most of us recreate the subjective worlds we experienced as young children. When we come into this life we don’t know who or what we are. We depend on our caretakers to reflect back to us how lovable we are until we can see that in ourselves. Depending on how clear or distorted those reflections are, we develop a true or false sense of ourselves and capacity to be in relationship with others. Most of us continue to unconsciously recreate the dream of our childhood long into our adult life. That is until something or someone wakes us up.

For me, it was meeting my teacher, Ponlop Rinpoche while I was attending Naropa University in Boulder, CO. It was an experience so compelling that I became inspired to go very deep in my dharma practice, while completing my degree in psychology. When I was getting ready to take my licensing exams I met with him and shared my fears about becoming a professional therapist. “Shouldn’t I have it figured out by now?” He encouraged me to move forward in my career and to use all those imperfect moments as opportunities to develop empathy and understanding for humanity. “You should make no separation between your dharma practice and your therapy practice. It’s all your practice and way to benefit others through compassion.”

The past ten years I’ve been working in private practice as a psychotherapist. In this time, I’ve noticed that whatever psychological or emotional issues are “up” for me can, at any moment, come walking through the door as a client’s current life circumstances. It’s a wonderful opportunity to work with the issues more directly and from different perspectives, helping both my clients and myself. A benefit of studying dharma and practicing meditation is that you learn to recognize the inherent goodness and purity in yourself and all beings. When you can see and make a connection with someone else’s deeper nature, they will eventually recognize that wholeness in themselves. This unconditional presence can help relieve their suffering and support them in letting go of the confused ways they have attempted to cope with their situation.

The experience of seeing “my stuff” out there didn’t just come up in therapy practice or in the groups I facilitated. It was happening with every interaction I had on a day-to-day, moment-by-moment basis. Over time, I realized that everything I see in my outside world is merely a reflection–a projection of my mind in response to what’s going on for me internally. In the end, there’s really no separation between the internal and external, between client and therapist, and ultimately, between self and other.

In the Buddhist tradition, “stuff” usually means some version of the five turbulent emotional states called klesas: desire, aversion, pride, jealousy, and ignorance. The Aspiration of Samantabhadra is the primordial Buddha’s prayer for all of us to attain liberation from suffering. The prayer beautifully illustrates how by not rejecting or accepting these states we can transform them into their corresponding wisdom states: discrimination, clarity, equality, enlightened activity, and luminous mind. What I love about the prayer is that it reminds us to just relax and stop the struggle in order to get rid of any negative experience we’re having. We don’t need to identify with the turbulent emotions, nor spend all of our energy trying to get away from ourselves. We can take a step back and work with situations from a wider perspective.

I now find myself in a number of supervisory roles where I offer advice to other therapists in training. Lately, I seem to be giving the same advice to everyone, “All the ‘stuff’ you witness through the people in your life—your clients, your lovers, your family, your coworkers, and even your friends—is merely a reflection of some aspect of yourself that you may or may not yet see. If you’re reacting negatively to someone, if you’re judging or criticizing them, it most often means they’re reflecting back to you, like a mirror, some part of yourself that you have not yet come to terms with. If you see someone as crazy or bad they won’t get better. If you see someone as whole they will heal.”

All our relationships are like mirrors, and it is through our relationships that we meet our weaknesses and celebrate our strengths. The Aspiration of Samantabhadra lays out the entire path to working with our projections. In the moment of our reactivity we can bring our attention back to ourselves and and inquire as to which of the five klesas we are caught up in. Then we apply the instructions of refraining from rejecting or holding onto anything as mine or yours. Instead, we relax and let go, seeing the inherent wisdom and teaching in this moment. We allow for things to just be the way they are, and it is in this relaxation that we find our freedom.

The Aspiration of Samantabhadra on the Five Klesas

May desirous beings

Not reject the longing of desire

Nor accept the clinging of attachment

By relaxing cognition as it is

May their awareness take its seat

May they attain the wisdom of discrimination

Through the emergence of a subtle, fearful cognition

Of externally apparent objects

The habit of aversion grows.

Coarse enmity, beating and killing are born.

When the fruit of aversion ripens,

How much suffering there is in hell through boiling and burning.

Through the aspiration of myself, the buddha,

When strong aversion arises

In all beings of the six states,

May it be relaxed without rejection or acceptance.

Awareness taking its seat,

May beings attain the wisdom of clarity.

One’s mind becoming inflated,

An attitude of superiority to others,

Fierce pride is born

One experiences the suffering of disputation

May beings with inflated minds

Relax cognition as it is

Awareness taking its seat

May they realize equality

Through the habit of developed dualism,

From the agony of praising oneself and denigrating others,

Quarrelsome competitiveness develops.

Born as an asura, killed and mutilated,

One falls to hell as a result.

Through the aspiration of myself, the buddha

May those who quarrel through competitiveness

Relax their enmity.

Awareness taking its seat.

May they attain the wisdom of unimpeded activity.

Through the distraction of mindless apathy

Through torpor, obscurity, forgetfulness,

Unconsciousness, laziness and bewilderment.

One wanders as an unprotected animal as a result.

Through the aspiration of myself, the buddha,

May the light of lucid mindfulness arise

In the obscurity of torpid bewilderment.

May non-conceptual wisdom be attained.

For the complete prayer and in-depth commentary on the Aspiration of Samantabhadra, and in-depth commentary, see Penetrating Wisdom by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.


Elephant Spirituality is now on twitter… Click here to follow us!

Elephant Spirituality is an example of Elephant Journal’s commitment to the Mindful Life. We look to provide a fresh and practical perspective on traditional spirituality. If you would like to follow Elephant Spirituality on FaceBook click here and become a fan of Elephant Spirituality by clicking the “Like” tab at the top of the page.

Read 3 Comments and Reply

Read 3 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Tina Fossella, MFT  |  Contribution: 2,660