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July 19, 2011

I am Not Your Therapist ~Karen Miller

“Buddha was not the first psychologist. He was the last psychologist.”

I nearly stopped myself from posting this for fear that it would offend some readers who are therapists or who have therapists, but as those individuals already know without a doubt that I am not their therapist, I concluded it would cause no confusion.

There is a therapist somewhere in the Midwest who has a name and an email address similar to my own. I know this because of the volume of emails I receive which are intended to be seen only by this same therapist. The messages usually arrive early in the morning or late at night, long and anxious missives about upsets, ultimatums, and breaking points between parents and their children, or couples on the verge. Often they say, “I know we have a session later today but I wanted to tell you this in advance,” or “I wanted to get this off my chest,” or “I’ll call you later and see if you have any advice for me” or “I am worried about what will happen before our next appointment.” Sometimes they are simply business or professional messages, notices of meetings and deadlines, for instance. Some are invitations to parties, and others are haughty reminders to respond to previously misaddressed messages.

Emails from therapeutic clients are intensely personal, and I am reluctant to even open them. But as they arise from a psychological crisis, I think the most compassionate response for me is to reply with this instruction:

“Please correct the address on this email as it has not reached your intended recipient.”

I have sent that message dozens of times over many years. Never once has anyone responded to me, not even the therapist who must now realize from patients and colleagues that private emails are frequently misdirected.

I’ll leave aside the question of how email has corroded our interpersonal communication skills. I’ll leave aside the question of whether email advances the therapeutic model. I’ve seen enough messages to appreciate the position of the therapist, however. Perhaps the messages don’t really matter that much—

crises pass, marriages mend or end, children and parents reconcile or not. Feelings change, emergencies blow over, and time will tell. The protagonist in a psychological saga is, above all, a storyteller, and the emails are simply one more page in the story someone is telling himself.

Seen in a jaded way, there is nothing new in them, nothing urgent or revealing. They are a story—the same story—being repeated over and over. What bothers me is the fear and panic they uniformly convey. The confusion, the despair, the helplessness. I would hope that the clients would do something more than send a late-night email, something more than pound out their heart’s desperate wail and send it to the wrong address.

I am not your therapist.

What brings this to mind is something that I’ve seen proliferate and take root in Western Buddhist dialogue—the notion that Buddhism is akin to psychology, or even that Buddha was the first psychologist. Positioning Buddhism in that way certainly makes it seem more approachable, doesn’t it? More palatable, more relevant, more modern? More familiar and accessible? Less esoteric and religious? I can see why people think that way, particularly those with a comfortable grounding in psychology.

Some might see a parallel between Buddhism’s silent introspection and psychological reflection. Between Buddhism’s meditative observation of ephemeral thoughts and sensations and the psychotherapeutic instruction to own and express your feelings. Between Buddhism’s radical redefinition of Mind and psychology’s delineation of projection, or externalization of anxiety. I can see the parallels at the onset, but they end rather quickly. As a practice, Buddhism aims to end those parallels, as it aims to pierce the illusions produced by our conditioned, delusive thinking about ourselves and the world we embody. Buddhism isn’t a way to change the stories we tell about ourselves, but to end them altogether.

Buddha was not the first psychologist. He was the last psychologist. And if you have a pinprick of anxiety about who you would be without your story, then that is something you should most definitely explore for yourself, through Buddhist practice.

Buddha has also been called the first scientist, the first doctor, and the first ethicist. All these things are true, up to a point, because all things are true, in a relative sense, up to a point. But I want you to see beyond that point. I want you to see the absolute truth of what you are: a buddha, living in an enlightened world. You will only see that when you practice Buddhism as nothing less than the practice of enlightenment.

And by all means, there is nothing wrong with therapy or therapists. Let’s keep them in their place. If you need one, get a good one. If you are one, be the best one. Practice Buddhism, and you’ll know the difference, as many honest, ethical and compassionate therapists do.

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Karen Maezen Miller is a Zen Buddhist priest and teacher at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. She is the author of two books on spirituality in everyday life: Hand Wash Cold and Momma Zen, and blogs regularly at karenmaezenmiller.com Click here to follow her on twitter.

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