November 17, 2011

What To Do When There Is Nothing To Do.

Helpful Tools When Caring for Others.

“To me it seems that at the root of healing, at the root of feeling like a fully adult person, is the premise that you’re not going to try to make anything go away, that what you have is worth appreciating.” -Pema Chodron

Some of the more challenging moments as a therapist are enduring those long awkward silences that permeate beginnings, middles, and endings of sessions. Therapists-in-training always want to know, “What do I do?” When I respond by saying, “Nothing…” I’m often met with rolling eyes and frustrated faces. Clients want to change things and therapists want to fix things. No one, myself included, wants to sit with painful and uncomfortable emotions.

Yet those silences are often potent and fertile opportunities to help us relate more directly with the suffering of others as well as our own. We can move closer and become curious about what is going on for  other people, rather than attempt to protect ourselves from it. We can stop running away from painful feelings whether they’re our own or someone else’s. My clinical training at Naropa University helped me understand that it is through deepening our capacity to relate with our own suffering that we learn to be with another person’s. The contemplative therapeutic approach emphasize two meditation practices: 1) shamatha and 2) tonglen. These practices are like gold and you’ll be surprised how often you make use of them once you get the hang of them.

Shamatha Meditation

Shamatha practice has three stages:

  1. Sit upright with legs crossed. If you are sitting in a chair, place your feet on the floor. Rest your hands on your thighs. Straighten your back, relax your shoulders, and soften your gaze.
  2. Become aware of your breath as it moves in and out. Twenty-five percent of your attention is on the breath and the other seventy-five percent is on your senses; sound, sight, smell, taste, touch–noticing the overall quality of the space.
  3. When you realize your mind has wandered, say to yourself, “thinking” and come back to the present moment. It doesn’t matter if your thoughts are brilliant and insightful or embarrassingly aggressive, just label them all as “thinking” and return to your breath.

Long awkward silences are a great time to practice shamatha. Simply relax your body, your breath, your mind, and just be right there. Your open presence has the potential to fill the space with warmth, love, and tenderness. It is as if you say with your whole being, “I am here with you and whatever’s going on is okay. We can just be with it here together.” Often we have to quiet our own anxious thoughts that tell us we’re not doing enough, that we have to make something happen, and we have to make this person feel better.

This is a very different way of working than being directive, agenda focused, or making suggestive statements and affirmations. No matter how well intended, all of these interventions may collude with a deeper belief that says who I am or what I am in this moment is not good enough. It may serve us well in our healing work to set down our brilliant interpretations and just be there in the awkward discomfort. No matter how intuitive we have become, we never really know what’s going on for another person because we are not them. By learning to “be with” we can help both ourselves and our clients stay open to what is and be with the ever changing flow of experience.

When we meet our pain directly, it never lasts as long as the twenty plus years we’ve spent running away from it by overeating, overworking, over-anything that will temporarily distract us. Memories and feelings, when met directly, pass very quickly and there is enormous relief in giving up the struggle. Tonglen practice also helps us move closer to what we normally run away from. We can practice for ourselves and for other people. Because we’re totally interdependent, in the end it doesn’t matter “who” it’s for as long as we do it.

Tonglen Meditation

Tonglen practice has four stages:

  1. The first is called “flashing absolute bodhicitta” which means in a flash, bring to mind whatever opens your heart fully, instantly, with no hindrances.
  2. Focus on the breath; breathing in a quality of darkness and heaviness and breathing out a feeling of spaciousness and light.
  3. Breath in whatever situation of suffering is before you, e.g., a client’s grief. Breath in the heaviness of grief and breath out a sense of lightness, ease, and freedom, whatever you imagine would be healing for that person.
  4. Extend this practice to all sentient beings who are feeling the same thing in this very moment, e.g. all beings who are suffering from loss. Breath in the heaviness and breath out peace.

Grief is a good example because after a death of someone we love, there really is nothing to do, except grieve, which means feel what we feel until it passes. Truth be told, all varieties of human experience are like that since nothing lasts forever, nor is anything, including ourselves, truly solid. Therefore, no matter what anyone is talking about, before we launch into our litany of all the ways we can make this situation better for this person, take a few moments to practice. Consider times when we have experienced this same feeling or predicament, breathing in and breathing out, creating a sense of connection and movement of energy.

By accepting ourselves and own uncomfortable feelings we can help others a lot better because we understand from the inside out. When we are honest with ourselves about the truth of our own feelings, we are better positioned to be genuinely empathic rather than thinking we get someone from our ideas. We can remain curious about what’s happening in the present moment for us, them, and between us. Remember that other people, especially those we feel aversion towards, are helping us by showing us aspects of ourselves that we cannot yet see.

The other conundrum that comes up in therapy is “goals.” People want to feel like they’re getting something for their money and going somewhere with their treatment. There is nothing wrong with having goals, but it is important that goals and aspirations come from within and that we don’t expect other people to be who we want them to be. We all know that falling in love with someone’s potential is a recipe for unhappiness because we are living for the future and not here where life is happening. People who postpone their happiness until some imagined day when they are different from how they are now, e.g., when I lose weight, stop being so busy, feel better about myself, etc., never seem to get there. As long as we’re fixated on either the past or the future, we cannot just relax and appreciate who we are and what we have right now. This is a very important point to get about the healing process in general because so much of our suffering comes from our unwillingness to accept that everything is changing all the time. Nothing is solid, separate, or permanent. There is a lot more possibility when we accept things as they are, especially those situations where we cannot do anything about the external circumstances. We can always change the way we relate to our lives and ultimately everything becomes very workable. However, the continual search for what we imagine will be better when we are a more improved version of how we are right now will make us increasingly unhappy.

Therefore, when working with other people shamatha and tonglen meditation practices are invaluable. We can practice them everyday no matter where we are or what we’re doing. We can be both honest and gentle in our work with others. People don’t trust feeling loved, but not seen. At the same time, people who feel seen, but not loved feel judged. We can be clear, compassionate, and free from ideas that we have what others need to be happy, that there even is one who has it and one who doesn’t. We can accept whatever is happening with openness, curiosity, and kindness.


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