Archives for category: Spiritual Life

In this post I will present a model of change based on the conscious competence model and Stan Grof’s Basic Perinatal Matrices (BPMs). This simple model will describe each stage people go through as we try to change existing habits using practices based on mindful awareness. In my own work of personal development I have found this model to be a helpful container for the process of change. It was especially helpful to remember this model in the difficult stages, when progress is difficult to detect and as a result things appear to be hopeless.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll keep the theory short. if you’d like, you can learn more about the conscious competence model, see here. You can think of the BPMs as an archetypal description of the process of birth which (because of it’s archetypal  nature) we can apply to other things in life. If you want to read more about the BPMs, see this link.

Conscious Competence Learning Model

The conscious competence learning model, also known as the four stages of learning, describes the process of progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill. The origins of this model are not clear; it has been used by Gordon Training International since the 1970s and is also reference in a technical paper from 1974 authored by W. Lewis Robinson. It is often attributed to Abraham Maslow, but no reference to the model exists in Maslow’s work.

The conscious competence model describes four stages in the process of learning a new skill. The process is often described as a matrix or as a ladder. It is a simple and essential model of learning, designed to support trainers imparting new skills. The four stages are as follows:

  1. Unconscious incompetence – at this stage one is not even aware that one is lacking a particular skill or competence.
  2. Conscious incompetence – one is now aware of the need to learn how to do something but is still incompetent at doing it.
  3. Conscious competence – at this point one is able to achieve this particular task as long as they are very conscious about every step.
  4. Unconscious competence – at this final stage, one has finally mastered the skill and can complete it without even thinking about it.

Progression through the stages is sequential, moving from 1 to 2 and so on. It is not possible to skip stages, but it is possible to regress if one does not practice the new skill. The progress from stage to stage is often experienced as an “awakening” or feeling that “things click into place.”

The Conscious Competence Model and the Process of Change

We can generalize the conscious competence model and apply it to more than acquiring new skills. I am personally interested in the process of creating change in individuals both for my own process of growth and for my work as an Integral Coach. I have observed my own process of change and discovered that it can be described using a model very similar to the conscious competence model. I will also use Grof’s BPMs as a way to describe each stage from an experiential perspective. The BPM lens will help  highlight important aspects of each stage of the model including forces that both support and hinder progress.

  1. Unconscious habit (BPM 1, primal union with the mother) – This is the stage of blissful ignorance. In this stage we are not yet conscious of the habit. Like the fetus in the womb, we are free from worries.
    Counter forces: ignorance – unconscious habits tend to remain so until the light of awareness is directed there. As mentioned above, this intervention can come from an external source or from internal self-awareness.
  2. Conscious habit (BPM 2, the state of no exit) – At some point we become aware of this habit and the suffering that comes with it; perhaps this has been pointed out to us or we’ve noticed it through self-reflection. At this early stage we usually only notice the habit in retrospect or when it is already too late to change our actions. Like the fetus in that initial stage of birth, we feel the suffering inherent in our situation but are unable to change it. We may speak with a teacher or therapist and take on a practice. However, at this point it seems that all our efforts to create change either fail or quickly regress. In fact, our growing awareness of the situation may serve to increase the suffering as, through practice, we are now becoming increasingly aware. We may feel helpless, frustrated, or stuck. This is the most difficult and challenging stage of the change process when we are most likely to drop our practice and give up.
    Practice: mindful awareness and compassion – at this stage it is most helpful to become more familiar with the habit. By making it more conscious we are taking away some of its power. If we bring a critical awareness to this habit we create an antagonistic relationship with it, likely creating more suffering. However, with compassionate awareness  we begin to establish a friendly relationship with the habit leading to deeper understanding of the internal forces that support it.
    Counter forces: suffering and ignorance – the pain and suffering we begin to uncover at this point may push us into avoidance, thereby falling back into unconsciousness (ignorance).
  3. Conscious freedom (BPM 3, the death-rebirth struggle) – If we continue with our practice, we notice that given time, awareness, and applied effort things begin to change. We are sometimes able to notice the habit in real time and stop from engaging with it. There is a clear sense of hope here, but the struggle is far from over. Due to our practice, we’re now more aware than ever of the suffering brought about by our habit and we may also be gaining glimpses into the deep origins of this habit. The pull between deep psychological conditioning and the desire for freedom can be frustrating and painful. At times we may relapse into the previous stage and feel, once again, stuck. At other times, we may gain glimpses of freedom.
    Practice: conscious change – at this stage we may get more traction with practices that actively support new patterns. Keeping up the practice of mindful awareness we can supplement it with some form of compassionate intervention.
    Counter forces: suffering and resistance – as we begin to change our patterns we will likely encounter resistance. Bringing the same kind of compassionate awareness to the resistance is helpful.
  4. Unconscious freedom (BPM 4, the experience of death-rebirth) – If we continue with our practice we can create sustainable change. At this stage, the new pattern becomes natural and eventually unconscious. There is a subtle vulnerability at this stage as, after a while, one might become complacent and either fall back to earlier stages or miss the formation of new unhealthy habits. To guard against complacency it is important to develop an ongoing practice of mindful awareness and to maintain this attitude a part of one’s life.

This model can be applied to the process of undoing an unhealthy habit or to the process of acquiring a healthy one with just a small change in emphasis. Awareness of where we are in this model can help us to focus our efforts in the most effective way and serves as a reminder that even in our bleakest moments, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

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As currently practiced within the Catholic tradition, confession or rather, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, is often a structured ritual performed within the hierarchy of the church. However, in some Protestant traditions, confession may be practiced with a peer and in some cases it may be practiced without a witness at all. Pennebaker et. al (1987) looked at the effectiveness of confession in several settings; working with the assumption that inhibition creates stress, leading to disease they began with the hypothesis that disclosure of a traumatic event would lead to a reduction in stress. The researchers discovered similar reduction in stress when writing, speaking to a tape, and speaking to a confessor. They also noted a change in language and presentation when speaking to a confessor, suggesting increased inhibition in some participants. One key conclusion from Pennebaker’s work is that there are different ways to practice confession effectively; we must each find the form that works best for each of us wherever we are on the spiritual path. In light of this conclusion I will not offer specific instructions for practicing confession but instead will include some suggestions and guidelines for the reader to experiment with.

Medium. We may practice confession verbally or in writing; both mediums appear to be useful. According to (Pennebaker 1987) merely thinking about the events appears to be less useful.

Higher Power. It may be useful to practice confession in the presence of one’s divine image. Whether we ask for forgiveness or simply being witnessed, the act of including the divine in our confession supports the spiritual container of the practice. Meister Eckhart writes:

It is to God that we should confess sooner than to men, and if we are guilty of sin, it is our confession and our self-reproaches before God to which we should attend carefully. And if we want to go to the sacrament, we ought not to neglect this confession before God in favor of external penance, for it is in our intention as we perform our works that is just and godly and good.

Ritual. Some people find that creating a ritual around the practice of confession supports the practice as well. For example taking a kneeling position may remind us of our intention to surrender and ask forgiveness. Many sources recommend finding a regular time of day (for example, at the end of the day before retiring) for this practice supports consistency and serves as a daily reminder of one’s commitments.

Witnessing. We may practice confession in solitude or in the presence of a witness (i.e. a confessor). We may also share a written confession with a witness after the fact. This last option may allow for the greatest flexibility, especially when combined with technology like E-mail. While some people find the presence of a confessor to be inhibiting (especially when combined with asymmetrical power dynamics) there is power in being witnessed.

The Twelve Step tradition makes great use of confession; including it in several of the steps and as a regular tool in meetings. Step five in that tradition reads, “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” In this tradition, we see, confession (often related to the process of taking moral inventory) is practiced in the presence of one’s God and another person. Practicing confession in the presence of another person is a humbling experience and one that requires us to look squarely at our shadow. Being compassionately witnessed in this way also leads to greater freedom and serenity. Reciprocal witnessing of confession with a peer (or possibly, group of peers) can lead, over time, to a sharing of trust and intimacy allowing the participants to dive increasingly deeper into their own vulnerability in the practice.

Evolving engagement. Like any other form of practice, confession evolves over time. One particular form of doing the practice may work well today but not tomorrow. Understanding that our ability to engage with a practice changes and evolves over time allows us to keep practicing, slowly deepening, even through difficult or dry times. As you mature in the practice, be prepared to challenge yourself in new ways; perhaps aspects of the practice that did not work before can become the leading edge of the practice.

Last, a few guidelines based on advice from experienced practitioners, Ona Kiser and Jamison Wiggins:

  • Be honest! This practice is an invitation, not a requirement. You are invited to share as much as you are willing.
  • Confess only your own sins! This isn’t the time to make excuses or explain away your actions based on someone else’s actions. This practice is about you.
  • Remain engaged with the practice with both heart and mind. The purpose of this practice is not to accurately describe one’s mistakes but to reflect on the event in its entirety, especially in the emotional realm. We may invite surrender, a feeling of contrition, and a intention to accept one’s limitations while reinforcing one’s commitment.
  • Recognize the relief that follows the practice and allow it to sink in. You may notice gratitude arising as well – to yourself for your dedication or perhaps for divine forgiveness.
  • Understand that more will be revealed. As you confess your transgressions, more will become apparent; perhaps more subtle aspects of your motivations or insights into your own personality structure. This process of coming back to alignment requires sustained effort, time and humility.
  • Let resistance show the way. As you recall your transgressions, you may notice an internal resistance to visiting certain memories or feelings. Take note; these difficult places in the mind are pointing at wounds which have yet to heal. Over time you will learn to see resistance not as a problem but as a navigational aid on the path.

References

Anonymous (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc.

Eckhart, M. (2005). Counsel 21: Of zeal. In Griffin, E. (Ed.), Meister Eckhart: Selections from his essential writings. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Murray-Swank, A. (2003). Exploring spiritual confession: A theoretical synthesis and experimental study. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses; 2003

Pennebaker, J.W., Hughes, C.F., & O’Heeron, R.C. (1987). The psychophysiology of confession: Linking inhibitory and psychosomatic processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 52(No. 4), pp. 781-793.

“There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.”

~Oscar Wilde

The practice of confession is familiar to many Christians, especially those in the Catholic tradition, although it is by no means limited to Christianity. According to Murray-Swank (2003) confession is a widespread cross-cultural phenomenon and “diverse spiritual traditions have developed variety of rituals and methods of confession.” However the popularity of this powerful practice, especially as it was traditionally practiced, appears to be diminishing over the last few decades. While weekly confession used to be the norm among many Catholics, Murray-Swank (2003) cites a study from 1990 that found 80% of Catholics attend confession twice a year or less. There are probably many reasons for this decline, however, they are beyond the scope of this work. In this section I will describe the benefits of confession and offer a few variations on the practice that I believe will be helpful for a modern audience.

Before describing the benefits of confession I would like to expand the definition of the practice to include two main forms: individual confession and communal confession.

  1. Individual confession is similar to the practice of confession as practiced in the Church. This may be practiced in private, with a witness, or in the presence of one’s divine image.
  2. Communal confession is practiced by an individual in the presence of a community (often a community of fellow practitioners). Communal confession allows one to ask forgiveness when the transgression involves another person or persons. Being witnessed by one’s community in this way make this a powerful practice.

The practice of confession serves several functions; I will mention a few here, focusing on confession in the context of a spritual practice. For a more detailed overview of this topic see (Murray-Swank 2003) & (Pennebaker, Hughes, & O’Heeron 1987).

  1. Reducing guilt and shame. Guilt and shame are often mentioned as a reason to seek confession. Studies have also found a reduction in guilt following confession. Through confession we can make guilt into a “healthy” emotion. When guilt motivates us to seek confession we may act to repair relationships, seek forgiveness (interpresonal or divine) and self-improvement.
  2. Seeking social connection. The feeling that we have somehow sinned or transgressed a social boundary is isolating. Confession between individuals or in a group is likely to promote connection. For more on the effects of confession in a group see (Weiner, Graham, Peter, & Zmuidinas 1991).
  3. Seeking meaning and coherence. Discolsure of a transgression and related feelings may allow us to find meaning and emotional relief in an otherwise difficult experience. It may lead to a more comprehensive understanding of ourselves and insight into troubling habits. As we make progress on the path we may notice that the topics that come up in confession are changing as we are able to notice more subtle elements of our experience. In this way regular practice of confession can be a tool for integration and reflection on our path as a whole.
  4. Coming back into alignment with the sacred. To understand this point more clearly, I would like to introduce the concept of Sin as explained by theologian Paul Tillich (1999):
    “In any case, sin is separation. To be in the state of sin is to be in the state of separation. And separation is threefold: there is separation among individual lives, separation of a man from himself, and separation of all men from the Ground of Being.”
    At times we transgress in a way that leaves us feeling separate, lost, disconnected, or misaligned from whatever it is that we hold sacred, be it God, nature or a set of values. The act of confession requires that we face that transgression, in effect facing part of our shadow, and allows us to come back into alignment with that which we hold sacred. Facing the shadow element is integral to psychological and spiritual growth. Turning again to the words of Paul Tillich, we can say that confession is a way to come back into grace.
    “Grace is the reunion of life with life, the reconciliation of the self with itself. Grace is the acceptance of that which is rejected. Grace transforms fate into a meaningful destiny; it changes guilt into confidence and courage.”

Next

In my next post I will offer suggestions and guidelines for the practice of individual confession.

References

Murray-Swank, A. (2003). Exploring spiritual confession: A theoretical synthesis and experimental study. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses; 2003

Pennebaker, J.W., Hughes, C.F., & O’Heeron, R.C. (1987). The psychophysiology of confession: Linking inhibitory and psychosomatic processes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 52(No. 4), pp. 781-793.

Tillich, P. (1999). The essential Tillich: An anthology of the writings of Paul Tillich. Church, F.F. (Ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

The Hakomi Method is a form of psychotherapy developed by Ron Kurtz in the late 1970s. Hakomi is influenced by Eastern philosophies and practices like Buddhism and Taoism, and by Western forms like systems theory, Gestalt therapy and Reichian body work. Over the last year I have experienced Hakomi both as a student of the method and as a client. In this paper, I would like to describe Hakomi through the lens of nondual psychotherapy.

Hakomi is grounded in five core principles. These principles serve to guide the evolution of the method, the process of training, and the work itself. The principles serve as a container for the work, “Like a babe in its mother’s arms” (Kurtz 1990, p. 22). As the principles are so intimately intertwined with the method and the work of Hakomi, I will use them as a gateway into the method, describing each principle briefly and showing the relationship with nonduality from the perspective of each of the core principles.

1. Organicity: Living Systems

The first principle states our belief that the as an organic, living system the client is the only one capable of healing himself. The therapist’s role is not to fix or repair the client, rather to support the process through which the client finds answers or healing. Kurtz (1990, p. 25) tells us that, “Healing is an act of self-recreation.” This principle is grounded in an understanding of living system that, “Self-organize, self-create, self-maintain, and in many ways, direct their own evolution.”

The principle of organicity leads to seeing the person as intrinsically whole rather than somehow wrong or broken. The wounds that we suffer over our lives are not something to be rid of but natural reactions to the environment around us at the time. From a nondual perspective, we could say that the wounds are not different from the wholeness or to use the example of the clay pot, the clay doesn’t care if the shape of the pot isn’t “perfect,” it retains its clayness no matter what the shape is. As we learn to recognize that, we can find great freedom even while being stuck in old patterns; we’re also able to bring equanimity to difficult situations thus bringing healing to deep wounds.

Adyashanti (2003) speaks to embodying the organicity aspect as a living-system in an interview quoted in The Sacred Mirror.

A lot of the embodiment is simply remaining completely real and completely honest to our own experience in a very deep and authentic way, without necessarily trying to change it. Our conditioned tendencies are allowed to unfold into the field of awareness. It’s the true spiritual alchemy that takes place almost entirely by itself, if we can just get out of the way enough.

2. Mindfulness

According to (Kurtz 1990, pp. 26-28), mindfulness is seen in Hakomi as both a core-principle and a state. As a principle, mindfulness guides the therapist to trust in consciousness, to recognize “the organicity, openness and sensitivity,” and to allow “the inner wisdom of the other to create change through awareness rather than effort.” Mindfulness allows us to slow down experience enough such that the organizing principles of our personality, which normally are unconscious, may be noticed. The practice of mindfulness supports the client’s well-being in the therapeutic container and outside of it as well.

Sheila Krystal (2003) has seen how clients learn to trust in their own organicity and wisdom by using mindfulness supported by an understanding of the nondual ground in EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing); she writes:

As clients’ mindfulness develops, they begin to discern more clearly and quickly when awareness has become distracted from itself. Clients learn to come back from suffering and dysfunction to the eternally present, underlying peace. They learn that life takes care of itself endlessly in the moment.

In my own experience, using mindfulness as a client in therapy allows the mind to clarify. Much like the story of the water buckets, as the muddy water of the mind settle and clarify, it is possible to rest with the clear experience of the sun; resting in that experience as a psychological resource, I am able to look at the products of the mind more clearly, to recognize that these thoughts and feelings do not define who I am, and, finally, to shine the light of awareness even into difficult experiences that may otherwise be overwhelming.

3. Nonviolence: Reverence for Life

Nonviolence, says Kurtz (1990, p. 29), grows out of a recognition of organicity; understanding that, “using force against a living system is asking for resistance” we choose to go “with the grain.” In Hakomi we recognize that psychological defenses are attempts by the client to manage their experience. Instead of opposing this attempt to organize experience we try to support it so that the client may feel safe and free to explore his experience. Another aspect of this principle is “placing the emphasis on experience rather than advice or interpretation.” By following the client‘s process we allow what is alive in the client to emerge, rather than forcing our own agenda or perspective.

Nonviolence invites the therapist to take on the attitude of a supportive friend who is actively interested in the client’s living experience. As we hold this supportive attitude we encourage the client to develop internally a similar attitude. This inner friend that the client develops may be a powerful resource throughout the healing process and beyond.

From the therapist’s perspective, it may be difficult to truly rest in the principle of nonviolence. Resting in this principle requires some degree of emotional and spiritual maturity. As I started on the path of training in Hakomi I found it difficult to allow for silence and space for the client’s aliveness to emerge. The empty spaces in a session were filled with anxiety and worry: Am I not doing enough? Am I doing too much? What should I say next? The change came when I started to realize that the session is not about me; it is not about what I do or do not do, rather it is about the client’s experience unfolding at whatever pace it requires. Being able to untangle my sense of self from the way that the session proceeded gave me the freedom to rest in mindful presence, thus, supporting the client by offering them a safe space to be and from which to explore their experience.

4. Mind-Body Holism

Hakomi sees the mind and body as a complex whole. We are especially interested in the influence that, “deeply held beliefs, guiding images and significant, early memories have on behavior, body structure and all level of physiology.” (Kurtz 1990, p. 30). Judith Blackstone (2007) explains that nondual consciousness “is not just a mental or cognitive experience. It emerges along with a transformation of our entire organism. Nondual realization is the experience that our own body is saturated with consciousness.” It is exactly this embodied consciousness that Hakomi engages with constantly throughout the process of therapy; sometimes studying the effects of beliefs on the body and at other times studying the meaning that arises out of bodily experience. Wherever the focus lies, this principle brings the recognition that mind and body are not separate but part of a whole organism.

5. Unity: A Participatory Universe

Finally, Kurtz (1990, pp. 31-33) explains that the fifth principle of Hakomi, unity, is about “belonging, being part of, about hearing and being heard”; it is about the parts communicating to create a healthy system and the way that such systems break when communication stops. Unity recognizes that self-other separation is based in faulty perception or ignorance. To further explore the nature of this ignorance we can turn to Advaita Vedanta.

Anantanand Rambachan is a scholar of religion who has written about and practiced Advaita Vedanta. In The Advaita World View, Rambachan (2006) explains that, “Ignorance of the specific nature of the self causes one to fully and incorrectly identify the self with the attributes of the body, senses, and mind and to superimpose the finitude of these upon the self.” This ignorance, says Rambachan, is “the original cause of the sense of want and inadequacy experienced by human beings.” When we act out of this sense of want and inadequacy we create suffering and perpetuate the belief that we are not whole. In Advaita, freedom or liberation is found through the removal of these false assumption about the self or self-knowledge. However according to Carol Whitfield, the path of Advaita may not be enough for Western students of Advaita.

In The Jungian Myth and Advaita Vedanta, Whitfield (2009) writes:

The Westerner has to take his or her route to mental purity through the unconscious, not around it or in spite of it. Only the assimilation and integration of unconscious materials into consciousness will provide the mental health and maturity that is needed for the Vedantic techniques dealing with the conscious mind to become meaningful.

Re-integration of those parts of our personality that have been split-off is an important aspect of the process of healing. However, the principle of unity goes beyond the personal; it is the recognition that the universe is a web of relationships. By supporting communications between elements that have been split-off or ignored we allow wholeness to emerge and healing to take place. In this way Hakomi supports wholeness in individuals, families and at every level of being.

Seeing through the lens of unity we recognize the deep connection that we share with our clients. We do not shy away from pain, rather we engage it with compassion. We see the full humanity of each person sitting across from us and together we explore the mysteries of being alive. We can access our own wholeness, relying on empathy and intuition, as well as technique and theory. We work to bring together all parts of the person, trusting that the system knows how to heal itself. And, just as importantly, we know that the work we do with one person filters out farther and farther to bring benefit to countless beings.

Summary

To summarize, I have described the Hakomi method through its five core principles: 1) Organicity; 2) Mindfulness; 3) Nonviolence; 4) Mind-body holism; and 5) Unity. I have shown how each of the five principles and the method itself are grounded in nonduality. Because of its grounding in the nondual and its emphasis on transformation I believe that the Hakomi method is a powerful tool for psychological healing and one that would be of great support to spiritual seekers on their path to self-realization.

References

Adyashanti (2003). Love returning for itself. In Prendergast, Fenner, & Krystal (Eds.) Sacred Mirror: Nondual wisdom and Psychotherapy. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.

Blackstone, J. (2007). The Empathic Ground: Intersubjectivity and Nonduality in the Psychotherapeutic process. New York, NY: SUNY.

Krystal, S. (2003). A nondual approach to EMDR. In In Prendergast, Fenner, & Krystal (Eds.) Sacred Mirror: Nondual wisdom and Psychotherapy. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.

Kurtz, R. (1990). Body Centered Psychotherapy: the Hakomi Method. Mendocino, CA: LifeRhythm.

Rambachan, A. (2006). Chapter Seven: Liberation. In The Advaita Worldview: God, World, and Humanity (pp. 99-116). New York, NY: SUNY Press.

Whitfield, C. (2009). Chapter four: The Western way to wisdom. In The Jungian Myth and Advaita Vedanta. Chennai: Arsha Vidya Research and Publications Trust.

Buddhist Geeks recently posted a great interview with Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray. In the interview Reggie describes the two veils that separate us from our awakened nature. The first veil is the veil of emotional defilements (negative emotions like anger, desire, jealousy, etc.). The second veil is characterized by ignorance, that is, not recognizing the true nature of reality. Here’s what Reggie had to say concerning the second veil:

But there’s a much deeper level that is really really critical. And this level is generally not addressed in modern Buddhism. And this deeper level is what’s called, it’s the obscuration to being able to see, if we want to put it this way. And what it is is, it’s these patterns that we acquire probably before we learn to speak as babies. They are emotional predispositions. They are emotional assumptions about what reality is that are entirely unconscious. And you know some of us feel that life is basically just a lot of hard work. Some of us feel incredibly lonely.  Some of us feel fundamentally resentful and angry, but these are all unconscious attitudes. And we actually think that’s the way reality is. And that gets between us and actually what we’re looking for.

Reggie goes beyond any description of ignorance I’ve encountered in my studies of Buddhism. It sounds to me like he’s recognizing the psychological element of spiritual practice and the need to work with psychological blocks on the way to awakening. In Hakomi we call those “emotional assumptions” core beliefs. Core beliefs are the way we make meaning of our experience. They are unconscious beliefs or assumptions about the world and about ourselves. Often core beliefs can be limiting (example: I am not good enough, or the world is not a safe place) and Hakomi aims to make those conscious and to help people find new ways of being in the world, to be free from those limiting beliefs.

Reggie describes how he works with this material as a spiritual teacher:

… this is what we need to work on together. We need to take a look at your life. We need to work together. I need to look at you and see where you get stuck. We need to work on this. Simply handing people practices and giving them [inaudible], it’s just not good enough. It’s not going to do it. Trungpa Rinpoche said, and my experience really bears it out, the relationship between the teacher and student, there’s only one other relationship in life that that’s intimate, and that is the one with a beloved partner if you happen to have that kind of relationship. It’s the only other one that even comes close.

This sounds a lot like the relationship and the work one might do with a therapist: take a look at your life, see where you get stuck, etc. This part of the interview really helped cement my belief that spiritual practice and psychotherapy are not separate but, in fact, are intimately intertwined with each other.

Listen to both parts of the interview on Buddhist Geeks.

At the recent Nondual
Wisdom and Psychology conference
, John
Prendergast
briefly introduced a simple, 3-stage model
for awakening. Here’s my understanding of this model:

  1. Waking up – this includes the spectrum of spiritual
    openings that people describe.
  2. Waking down –
    integrating the waking up experience into life. Bringing it down
    into the body.
  3. Waking out – expressing
    awakeness in the world.

The second step is
an interesting one; it is not all that different from the process
of psychological healing that one may undergo in therapy. This is a
time of transformation, healing and moving towards wholeness.
During this part of the process we face difficult emotions and melt
away entrenched habits as we give up anything that is no longer in
accordance with the true self. Everything I have described so far
can happen in therapy as well, so where’s the difference? The
difference lies in what becomes available during the first step.
The first step wakes up the fire of awareness. My experience of
this fire was of a withering internal gaze; withering because it
would cause internal blocks and momentary delusions to melt away.
This fire of awareness makes the transformation that happens in the
second step faster and easier. I could go as far as to say that it
takes over the process of transformation and all one can do is step
out of the way so as to not slow it down. I think that there is
more to the first step. I think it actually makes a deeper
transformation possible. This deeper transformation takes the
ego-transcendence of spiritual practice and brings it right into
the middle of life. It opens us up to a greater intimacy with
everything and everyone around us. It allows us to be flexible
where before we were rigid. From this place we can radiate out our
particular flavor of awakeness everywhere around us – this is the
third stage, waking out. You may have noticed that I described the
first stage as a spectrum. That’s because awakenings come in
different shapes and sizes and it seems to be pretty rare that
someone goes “all the way” in just one hit. This leads me to the
spiral process of awakening wherein we experience a spiritual
opening and once the dust settles begin the process of integrating
that opening into our lives. This transformation period is fueled
and guided by the opening we just experienced; its depth and impact
are likely also related to that experience. Having gone through
this period of waking down and having emerged on the other side
transformed, we now live from this newfound freedom to the best of
our ability until we hit the next insight and begin the process
again. Bringing this into the world of therapy, I believe that this
model shows how helpful spiritual practice is to finding
psychological well-being. It also shows that spiritual practice and
psychotherapy aren’t easy to separate. And, it tells me that any
amount of spiritual insight can be helpful on the road to
wholeness.

The following two pieces are from a treatise by Catherine of Genoa a Christian mystic from the late 15th century. I added some of my own commentary in between.

“Chapter VIII: Of the Necessity of Purgatory and How terrible it is.

When I look at God, I see no gate to Paradise, and yet because God is all mercy he who wills enters there. God stands before us with open arms to receive us into His glory. But well I see the divine essence to be of such purity, greater far than can be imagined, that the soul in which there is even the least note of imperfection would rather cast itself into a thousand Hells than find itself thus stained in the presence of the Divine Majesty. Therefore the soul, understanding that Purgatory has been ordained to take away those stains, casts itself therein, and seems to itself to have found great mercy in that it can rid itself there of the impediment which is the stain of sin.”

The beginning of this paragraph is absolutely beautiful to me: there is no gate to Paradise; God welcomes all with open arms. Such a succinct image of divine love and acceptance! If only she had stopped there… but then it wouldn’t be much of a treatise on purgatory. The rest of the paragraph I understand as a clear description of human nature: comparing ourselves to an unattainable image of purity, we deem ourselves unworthy and choose to live in a purgatory of our own making so that we may one day be worthy. God is standing there, willing to take us in, just as we are, but we say “No! Not yet!”.

“No tongue can tell nor explain, no mind understand, the grievousness of Purgatory. But I, though I see that there is in Purgatory as much pain as in Hell, yet see the soul which has the least stain of imperfection accepting Purgatory, as I have said, as though it were a mercy, and holding its pains of no account as compared with the least stain which hinders a soul in its love. I seem to see that the pain which souls in Purgatory endure because of whatever in them displeases God, that is what they have willfully done against His so great goodness, is greater than any other pain they feel in Purgatory. And this is because, being in grace, they see the truth and the grievousness of the hindrance which stays them from drawing near to God.”

I think that in the second paragraph it’s possible that the author is projecting her own self-judgement onto God. She already said that God is willing to accept us just as we are, so where is this displeasure coming from if not from our own lack of acceptance? I would like to suggest that the only thing we need to purge ourselves from is this self-condemnation and the one thing we need to learn in this purgatory-on-earth is the ability to show ourselves the same acceptance and love that God is offering us at the gateless gate of heaven.

Having grown up in Israel in the 1980s and 1990s, I have a complex relationship with judaism as a religion and as a culture. As a young child I enjoyed studying the stories of the bible at school and would even read through the bible on my own occasionally. In later years, around middle-school or high-school, we took a more critical and analytic view of the bible, looking at it as an important text but not taking it for granted. This approach fit very well with my rational mind and I found the different layers it revealed to be interesting. Looking at the bible as a constructed artifact as opposed to a God-given text served to solidify my secular stance in regards to judaism and religion in general.

Later in life, some sociopolitical shifts in Israel pushed me even farther away from religion. I watched the ultra-orthodox parties grow in power and then use that power in order to gain unfair advantages to benefit small segments of the population and to promote a way of living that I did not agree with. This became the beginning of a new split in Israeli society and in this split I chose to be squarely and without a doubt on the secular or modern side.

In later years I’ve come to find a way to relate to spiritual matters that was not as dogmatic and seemed to allow more room for me to be the way that I am. It may have taken moving to California and discovering Buddhist practice but through this practice I was able to come to terms with a part of myself that had very little opportunity for expression until this point. A large part of my practice over the last year has been to integrate the rational and spiritual aspects of myself. Decades of conflict between these two forces just about convinced me that this kind of integration is not possible but I’m finding that to be false.

Today, I am more interested in looking back at my own roots as represented by jewish religion and israeli culture. Through my spiritual and psychological practice and probably as a result of growing older, I find that I’m more easily able to come into relationship with those aspects of myself that I’ve left behind. I could see that in my recent visit to Israel and I see that in a new-found interest in the jewish view of the mystical experience.

I first learned about Kabbalah through the story of the four sages who entered the Pardes: one died, one went insane, one became an apostate and only one – Rabbi Akiva – exited in peace. This story serves as a warning that it not enough to be wise and studious before studying the Kabbalah, one must also be psychologically grounded, pure and able to withstand the subtlest temptations. At the time, I doubted the message of the story but, still, did not explore further. Today, I know that there is at least some truth to this story as I’ve experienced some of the difficulties of the spiritual path. Having done so, and finding my self ready to come back into relationship with my jewish roots, I think this is a good time to venture in.

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.

Summary
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.

References
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.