Buddhism & Psychotherapy: The Experience of Mystery

Last night there was an interesting program on PBS that explored the life and teaching of the Buddha. Among the many points of interest expressed, one really sticks out in my mind. And that is the point that Buddhism becomes a vehicle for the practitioner to experience the miraculous in the everyday life. Through the practice of meditation, one comes to see just how things are. And as the poet Jane Hirshfield talked about in the program, what is more miraculous than drinking a cup of tea from a beautiful cup on an ordinary morning. Really? How did this cup come into being? So beautifully crafted, so lovingly. And the tea, and the water… Buddhism teaches us that if we stop and reflect, particularly reflecting on the inner world, we can see the miraculous and feel awe right in front of us, every day.

And so I am thinking this morning about psychotherapy in this light. For psychotherapy, the unknown, the miraculous, is the unconscious. What drives us? What motivates us? Why do people sometimes do what is injurious to themselves? Why are people sometimes cruel? Sometimes kind? My clients and I pursue these questions, this mystery. And while there are certainly conscious motivations, what we find through the practice of psychotherapy is often hidden influences. We find patterns established long ago, often in childhood, which we blindly (unconsciously) follow. We find certain defense systems created to protect ourselves from emotional injury and pain. And how these defense systems have their own limitations, are often outdated or not needed today. And we find other people’s voices that have taken residence inside our own minds.

Psychotherapy is the investigation of the unknown. When we make discoveries and there is more awareness and insight, and indeed more change and more aliveness in our lives, we have moved from the unknown realm to the known. And sometimes it is nice to simply step back and appreciate the complexity of life. As another poet, W. S. Merwin, said in the program last night, what is known is just such a speck in the universe. What knowledge we have is like comparing the Earth to the rest of the universe and beyond. Very small.

But sometimes we can know a little more and that can enrich our lives. And that is the task of psychotherapy.

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