Archives for the month of: December, 2012

Note: This is the last part of a multi-part series about the relationship between meditation and psychotherapy adapted from a paper I wrote for my Intro to EWP course at CIIS. For more information see the first post in the series. In this post I describe how undergoing therapy supports my meditation practice and offer a brief summary.-------- * --------
How Therapy Supports Meditation
Just as there were moments in which I’ve gained psychological insight through my meditation practice there were also moments in which I felt that I am denying myself a meditative insight through psychological blocks. The clearest examples of that are related to my fear of letting go that would block me even while in deep meditation. Working with my therapist I’ve learned that this fear is related to fear of death or more deeply a fear that I do not really exist. By slowly coming to terms with that fear and also building up a sense of safety and substantiality that does not depend on external conditions I was able to let go more and more and experience states of greater freedom and openness in meditation and in life.

Through psychotherapy and reflection I’ve come to reframe my view of myself as broken and in need of fixing; instead I recognize my potential for wholeness and am able to participate in an ongoing process of healing. This recognition allows me to find a felt connection to teachings that speak of my Buddha nature or True self. As long as I considered myself broken, it is very difficult to accept that there is some transcendent part of myself that is whole and beyond harm. Once I allowed for the possibility of wholeness, however, it became easier to catch glimpses of this core that is at once me and beyond just me.

As I described before, there were long periods of time when I found myself driven by a craving for awakening. While this particular craving mostly fell apart during a longer meditation retreat, I’ve found that there was an even deeper urge behind it that still exerts some influence; this urge is the need to be saved. Even as I sometimes discover glimpses of my true self, at other times I still feel unworthy of spiritual attainment and instead wish for some external savior to swoop in and fix everything that is wrong with me and with the world. This internal battle between the belief in wholeness and the belief that I’m not good enough is still ongoing. It will take more work, both psychological and spiritual, for this rift to heal but I’ve learned to trust the process enough to let it work through me in its own time and pace.

To summarize, I’d like to mention that although I tried to describe the way each practice affects the other as though these effects are separate and discrete, that is not my experience. The interactions I described above are recursive in nature. As I find more space through my meditation practice, I’m able to heal more through psychotherapy. And as I find healing and integration through therapy, I’m also able to let go deeper into my meditation practice, creating more space and equanimity. It has been my experience that the two practices are deeply intertwined and that it impossible to separate them clearly. As Epstein (1986, 1990) describes, I’ve found that some stages of meditation practice require a certain level of ego maturity and stability as I described in my experience of learning to let go further by resting and trusting in my own stability. And similarly to the model of the relationship between emotional intelligence and spiritual intelligence proposed by Wigglesworth (2006) I’ve found that my spiritual practice both requires and, in turn, supports emotional maturity.

Epstein, M., Leiff, J. (1986). Psychiatric complications of meditation practice. In K. Wilber, J. Engler, & D. Brown (Eds.), Transformations of Consciousness (pp. 53-63). Boston: Shambala.
Epstein, M. (1990). Meditation and the Dilemma of Narcissism. Journal of Contemplative Psychotherapy, 7, 3-19.
Wigglesworth, C. (2006) Why Spiritual Intelligence Is Essential to Mature Leadership. Integral Leadership Review, 6(3), 2006-08.


Note: This is part 3 of a multi-part series about the relationship between meditation and psychotherapy adapted from a paper I wrote for my Intro to EWP course at CIIS. For more information see the first post in the series. This post includes some of my personal experience merging meditation and psychotherapy.-------- * --------
Personal Experience: How Meditation Supports Therapy
One of the earlier insights into this relationship came when I was studying the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. The first noble truth teaches us that suffering is a natural part of human existence. This simple teaching brought about a sense of relief: “I was not chosen for special punishment, this suffering is not my fault, it’s just the way it is,” I thought. As my practice progressed and deepened I gained further insight into this teaching and my faith in the truth behind this teaching increased. As my faith increased, I found that it was easier to stay present even with difficult experiences and my need to escape lessened. This willingness to remain present was further bolstered by my meditation practice.

Through the practice of meditation I’ve developed a increased level of equanimity. This equanimity manifests as a stability of mind and a willingness to engage my experience more fully. Both aspects of equanimity are supportive of my psychotherapy process. I find that I am more willing to engage with parts of the psyche that I have neglected for most of my adult life; at the same time, I am less likely to be thrown out of balance when I engage even painful truths about myself, my history or my relationship. This willingness and ability to engage with the psyche brings healing to old wounds that I’ve ignored for far too long and even to some that I never quite knew about.

Another benefit of my meditative practice is a ongoing mindful attention to my experience as it arises. This form of attention allows me to work with habits, fears, and various other blocks as they come up. One method that I found to be helpful is engaging these blocks with kindness, compassion and understanding. Instead of ignoring or pushing these impulses away I try to hold them in kindness and to see what it is that they require. This inquiry sometimes involves some internal dialog but other times may just occur at a somatic level. Often I find that the internal entities (Jung’s complexes) behind these blocks need nothing more than acceptance and unconditional love; when I provide this acceptance myself, the need to get it from the outside world often vanishes and relief follows.

Finally, there were a few special moments when I was able to gain insight into deep psychological issues while on meditation retreat. The deep calm and stability of mind that are developed on retreat create a safe space to engage with these deeper issues. Most recently, while on a Zen sesshin, I was exploring resistance to opening the heart and in that exploration made contact with an inner child who was feeling scared and lonely. This experience was the beginning of a developing relationship with this important aspect of myself with which I’ve been out of touch for a long time. It also served as a starting point for exploring trauma from early-childhood and even later in life.

In the next post I’ll describe the other side of this relationship: how therapy supports meditation.

Note: This is part 2 of a multi-part series about the relationship between meditation and psychotherapy adapted from a paper I wrote for my Intro to EWP course at CIIS. For more information see the first post in the series. This brief post gives some background on my meditation practice in order to provide readers with some context.-------- * --------
Personal Background
I started on the Buddhist path after listening to an interview with Jack Kornfield and reading his book The Wise Heart. Practicing meditation felt close to impossible at the beginning but a dharma talk on the topic of patience got me over this initial hurdle. Once I got over that first resistance, maintaining an almost daily practice became much easier and within a few months I started noticing changes in myself, in my perception and in the way I interacted with the world.

Over the next couple of years my practice solidified and I got to know some of the communities born from mindfulness and Buddhist practice. I have found much support in those communities both online and in real life. After getting my first taste of retreat practice in May of 2010 I got hooked and had to get more. Over the next 18 months I attended 9 meditation retreats of various lengths. My practice evolved and changed over time. I was strongly influenced initially by Mahasi Saydaw’s noting practice and later combined it with the practice of anapanasati as taught in Ajahan Buddhadasa’s tradition. The intensity of my practice grew as did the length of each retreat peaking with a 30 day retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center where I found myself driven by a deep craving to attain stream entry. This craving suddenly vanished right as I came to a decision that I got what I needed from the retreat and was replaced by intense peace.

I emerged from this period of intense practice vastly transformed and yet at the same time, very much still myself. I have seen the intense suffering that is inherent in clinging to the idea of being a self and tasted some of the liberation that comes with letting go. My faith in the value of the Buddha’s teachings was now completely my own, no longer borrowed from books or teachers. With time, though, I realized that this was not enough. I still found myself tossed into bouts of depression, drifting aimlessly and lacking motivation. This realization drove me to enter psychotherapy.

In the next couple of posts I will describe my personal experience in bringing together meditation and psychotherapy and how each of those supports and, in turn, benefits from the other.

Note: This is part 1 of a multi-part series about the relationship between meditation and psychotherapy adapted from a paper I wrote for my Intro to EWP course at CIIS. It is written from the perspective of a medium-term (around 4 years) meditator undergoing therapy. This first post includes an introduction and a short review of academic literature on the topic. Follow-up posts will include more of my own experience. I hope that this will serve to show why I no longer see spiritual and psychological work as separate but intrinsically connected. Just as importantly I believe that psychological well-being is not separate from spiritual well-being and vice versa.
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Over the last two years my spiritual life has centered around Buddhist meditation practice on the one hand and psychotherapy on the other. Throughout this time I’ve found that the two practices complement and support each in various ways. I’ve found that meditation builds on the foundation created by therapy and vice versa. I’ve seen the two practices intertwine – one practice unfolding inside the other – to the degree that it can be difficult to separate them at times. I’ve read different theories about the relationship between the two practices (see next section) but I’ve yet to reach any conclusions for myself on the nature of this relationship.

In this series of posts I will describe my personal experience of the relationship between meditation and psychotherapy. From that experience, I suggest, arises a complex dialectic between the two practices that is hard to reduce to any simple model. I will divide my experience into two sections: 1) how meditation supports therapy; and 2) how therapy supports meditation but the interdependence between the two practices is so deep that even this simple division will break. I’ll begin, however, with a brief review of relevant literature.

Literature Review
The relationship between psychotherapy and spiritual practice goes back to the very early days of psychology as a science. William James (1902), considered to be the father of American psychology, studied religious and paranormal experience extensively. Carl Jung’s memoir (1963) describes Jung’s relationship with Christianity and its influence on Jung’s life and his work. Jung was also a student of Eastern spirituality and was clearly influenced by such systems of thought when developing his process of individuation (e.g. Jung 1929). More recently, however, and as Eastern spirituality becomes a more familiar part of Western culture, we see an increasing number of studies looking at the direct relationship between psychotherapy and various forms of spiritual practice such as meditation.

One influential researcher in this field is Jack Engler, a psychotherapist and Buddhist meditation teacher. In Therapeutic Aims in Psychotherapy and Meditation, Engler (1986) described a linear model with psychotherapy coming before meditation. He famously wrote “you have to be somebody before you can be nobody” (Engler 1986 p. 24), referring to developing a solid ego before turning to deconstructing the ego through insight meditation.

Epstein and Leiff (1986) describe meditation as a developmental process, the higher stages of which are “only accessible when the practitioner’s ego is sufficiently intact to withstand the regressive upsurge” (p. 57). They go into further detail describing the capacity for regression that is required to respond successfully to the different stages of the meditative path and the various pathological responses that are likely to occur at each stage. According to Epstein & Leiff, at least some of these pathological responses can be handled within the contemplative framework, for example pride and attachment to states of meditation may be made objects of meditation thereby allowing the meditator to pass beyond this hindrance. Epstein (1990) clearly breaks with Engler’s, now famous statement, saying that while it is clear that many with borderline personality structure will not benefit from intensive meditation practice, “this does not necessarily mean the the ego must be fully developed, integrated, cohesive, intact or in any other way ‘normal’ before the meditative experience can unfold” (Epstein 1990, p. 4).

Another model of the relationship between spiritual and emotional maturity comes from Cindy Wigglesworth (2006) who, following in the footsteps of Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence (1995), writes about spiritual intelligence (SQ). Wigglesworth (2006) defines spiritual intelligence as “the ability to behave with compassion and wisdom while maintaining inner and outer peace (equanimity) regardless of the circumstances”. The relationship between emotional intelligence (EQ) and SQ changes through life. Early in life (starting around age 22-25) spiritual intelligence depends on the development of EQ related skills such as empathy and emotional self-awareness. Later in life, however, as we focus on existential questions and following a desire for ego-transcendence the “SQ journey” begins. The development of SQ, at this point, reinforces the growth and development of EQ (and IQ as well). The model that Wigglesworth describes, then, contains a reinforcing feedback loop where emotional and spiritual maturity reinforce each other.

It seems that the linear model proposed by Engler (1986) is slowly abandoned in favor of more complex models describing a richer interaction between the practices of meditation and psychotherapy. In fact, in a more recent interview (Cohen & Engler 2000), Engler himself moves away from the simple linear model towards a less rigid structure. My own experience certainly agrees with the need for a more complex model of interaction. In the next couple of posts in this series I will describe my personal background with meditation and my personal experience in merging meditation and psychotherapy.

Engler, J. (1986). Therapeutic Aims in Psychotherapy and Meditation. In K. Wilber, J. Engler, & D. Brown (Eds.), Transformations of Consciousness (pp. 17-51). Boston: Shambala.
Cohen, A. (interviewer) & Engler, J. (interviewee). (2000). The 1001 Forms of Self Grasping. In What is Enlightenment? Vol. 17, 2000.
Epstein, M., Leiff, J. (1986). Psychiatric complications of meditation practice. In K. Wilber, J. Engler, & D. Brown (Eds.), Transformations of Consciousness (pp. 53-63). Boston: Shambala.
Epstein, M. (1990). Meditation and the Dilemma of Narcissism. Journal of Contemplative Psychotherapy, 7, 3-19.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Dell.
James, W. (1902). The varieties of religious experience. Cambridge: The Riverside Press.
Jung, C. G. (1929). Commentary on “The secret of the Golden Flower.” In Collected Works, Vol. 13, 1967 (pp. 1-55). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Jung, C. G. (1961). Memories, dreams, reflections. New York: Vintage.
Wigglesworth, C. (2006) Why Spiritual Intelligence Is Essential to Mature Leadership. Integral Leadership Review, 6(3), 2006-08.

Going at least as far back as Jung, we’ve seen psychologists promoting the view that psychopathology is not a disease but rather an attempt by the psyche to bring about greater wholeness. There are usually several common factors that go into this view of psychopathology:

  1. The reality of the psyche. In Jung’s view, the intra-psychic experience of an individual cannot be ignored. The psyche has its own life and cannot be reduced to biology or basic psychological drives. The psyche speaks to us through dreams, intuition, visions, synchronicity and more.
  2. The psyche as as self-regulating system. When there is imbalance in the psyche, the psyche itself will attempt to bring back balance and healing. This attempt to restore balance often occurs through the methods mentioned above (dreams, visions, etc.) but in some cases, when the imbalance is too powerful, may appear to be a form of psychopathology. The Jungian view invites to look at psychopathology in a new light.
  3. An archetypal and/or mythical view of psychopathology. By considering the two points above, many researchers recognize an archetypal or mythical element in psychopathology. A good example of this view is in (Lukoff 1985) where we see various symbols and archetypes coming up in the patient’s experience of psychosis. These symbols can be used to gain insight into the patient’s world during the episode and perhaps more importantly can be used later as a source of guidance and insight for the patient himself.
  4. A spiritual component of psychopathology. In exploring the similarities between manic psychosis and mystical states, Lukoff (1988) suggests that there may be unrecognized spiritual insight hidden in what we call psychopathology. This insight may be valuable to the patient personally and may even be significant for society as a whole. A theme that occurs often in this context is that of the Hero’s journey where the hero’s confrontation with monstrous perils (psychopathology in this case) ends up in victory and the hero returns to his people bearing gifts (of insight).

I would like to explore this view deeper, specifically as it relates to addiction. I begin this exploration with the following quote from a letter C.G. Jung wrote to Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) regarding a shared acquaintance and former client of Jung’s named Rowland H.

His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.

Jung equates here the alcoholic’s thirst for alcohol with the power that motivates the spiritual search, the the need for wholeness or a union with the divine. Jung goes on to talk about the ways to satisfy this craving.

The only right and legitimate way to such an experience is that it happens to you in reality and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads you to higher understanding. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism. I see from your letter that Rowland H. has chosen the second way, which was, under the circumstances, obviously the best one.

According to Jung the way to satisfy this thirst is through a spiritual experience which comes about through an act of grace, contact with friends or through spiritual practice. Jung sees the symbolic connection between alcohol and God in the shared latin root – spirit. Indeed the 12 steps of AA are designed to bring about a spiritual experience based on Jung’s formulation: spiritus contra spiritum.

Following in the footsteps of Jung, Stan Grof (1993) looks at addiction as a form of spiritual emergency. Spiritual emergency is an “evolutionary crisis” (Grof & Grof 1993), a difficult stage that is a natural part of the developmental process. Spiritual emergency can be easily misdiagnosed as a form of psychopathology since they share many common symptoms like changes in consciousness, perception, emotional or cognitive functioning and others. However, a person undergoing a spiritual emergency is usually able to form a healthy relationship with the process and see it as part of an internal psychological process.

Addiction as spiritual emergency is different, since the spiritual component is often masked by the addiction itself or by the addict’s destructive tendencies. However, once we take into account Jung’s thoughts expressed above, the spiritual connection becomes clearer. This is supported by the reports of some alcoholics who describe their first experience of alcohol as containing a numinous character.

Grof (1993) suggests that the addict’s journey through and recovery is similar to a process of ego-death and rebirth. We can see this process by looking at the 12 steps of AA.

To begin with, the addict must recognize that he has hit bottom and is powerless in the face of his addiction, he has lost control of his personal and interpersonal lives and is unable to repair this on his own. The addict is then invited to turn over control to something greater than the personal self. When the addict becomes willing to surrender his will to a Higher Power, he has set out out on the path of transformation.

Next, with the guidance of a sponsor, the addict makes a “fearless and searching moral inventory.” In this step, the addict looks at his old way of being and lists out all the way in which it does not serve him and others. This part of the work focuses on blocks: fears, selfishness, dishonesty, etc. By making this old way of being conscious through self-reflection and through sharing it with another, the addict becomes willing to let go of this old way of being and to create room for something new. It is worth noting the similarity between this part of the healing process and Ken Wilber’s description of self-growth as a process where “the subject of one stage becomes the object of the subject of the next.”

It is possible that through the moral inventory, confession and willingness to let go of the old way of being the addict is now discovering a new way of being. In order to integrate the personality and to bring it more fully into this new way, the addict now engages in shadow work through the practice of making amends. Through this practice, the addict brings the light of consciousness to places that before remained hidden. It is important to note that the process of making amends is not about making apologies or seeking forgiveness; it is a process of admitting wrongs and accepting the consequences. In this way the recovering addict integrates those acts into wholeness.

Once the process of integration comes to completion, the addict is ready to engage with the world from a place of freedom and security. He is now becoming established in a healthy way of being and is supported in it through community and by continuing the practices of moral inventory, making amends and meditation or prayer. And, like the mythical hero returning from his adventure, he now has something new to share with the world and is called to do so through a dedication to service.

Of course, this is not the path that every addict takes. Not even every addict that arrives at a 12 step program walks the entirety of this path. But for many, the spiritual component of 12 step work is crucial and for those, the work becomes more than recovery, it is a spiritual practice.

C. Grof & S. Grof (1993). Spiritual emergency: The understanding and treatment of transpersonal crises. In R. Walsh & F. Vaughn (Eds.), Paths beyond ego (pp. 137-44). New York: Tarcher Putnam.
C. Grof (1993). Addiction as spiritual emergency. In R. Walsh & F. Vaughn (Eds.), Paths beyond ego (pp. 144-6). New York: Tarcher Putnam.
Lukoff, D. (1985). The myths in mental illness. Journal os Transpersonal Psychology, 17 (2), 123-153.
Lukoff, D. (1988). Transpersonal perspectives on manic psychosis: Creative, visionary, and mystical states. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 20 (2).