A friend of mine who has been a Buddhist monk for half of his adult life recently made a decision to leave the monastery in order to become a full time psychotherapist. The decision cannot have been easy for him, not only because the monastery has been his home for so long, but also because the monastic vocation seemed so natural for him. The silence, the spiritual fellowship and the long hours spent in meditation appeared to be quite fulfilling for him, though I am sure that like most monastics he must have also faced times of boredom and self doubt, which are the pitfalls of the monastic life. Still, when we talked about psychotherapy, I noticed how great his interest was. In fact, he had been a psychotherapist before he entered the monastery and even as a monk, he saw clients once a week in a nearby town. What I saw in him, quite apart from his fascination for the human condition (in my opinion, an essential trait for becoming a therapist) was the quality of his concern for people who came to him for help. We traded stories about clients, which might sound like engaging in work related gossip, but was really nothing of the kind. For not only were we careful to observe client confidentiality, we also had no interest in topping each other with therapeutic tales. Our true interest was much more about reaching people within their experiences of psychological suffering, which requires a certain sense of wonder about the varieties of human experience. As a Buddhist monk and a psychotherapist, my friend must have been especially sensitive to the central paradox of Buddhist psychotherapy, which is how to encourage clients towards self awareness within an overarching understanding of not-self. This, of course, has been a recurrent theme of this blog, but my friend's life experience puts him in a unique position to appreciate this paradox. For therapy represents a deep plunge into the self experience of the client with all its potential for conflict. In quite the opposite direction, monasticism represents a decisive turning away from any such potential to find a purity of awareness in which the self is barely allowed to cast its shadow. On the face of it, these would seem to be two radically different paths whose destinations could never be the same. But perhaps by looking at the two paths more closely we might see that they only diverge at the beginning and in some some cases, at least, may actually converge.
It should be obvious that psychotherapy is not the same as a monastic spiritual practice, as the latter usually, if not always, demands self denial. The Buddhist monastic discipline, for example, is meant to uproot any feeling or sense of self cherishing. By contrast, therapy often tries to promote self esteem in clients who may find nothing to cherish in themselves, at all. A Buddhist spiritual practice, then, seeks to deconstruct the self, while psychotherapy attempts to engage in self healing by encouraging a positive, as well as realistic view of the self in the client. But these are largely differences of aims or ultimate goals and there may be a common understanding of human experience that underlies each approach. As a Buddhist therapist, I often use the ideas of the three poisons of hatred, greed and delusion to help me understand what a client may be experiencing. I imagine monks use these ideas, too, and not simply as handy metaphors for making essentially moral judgements. We both would observe that mental poisons taint the mind much as actual poisons affect the body. And we would agree that just as there are antidotes for physical poisons, there are ways of counteracting hatred, greed and delusion, too. To be sure, a monk would probably apply such remedies to himself more directly than a therapist would able to do in dealing with a client. But when a therapist succeeds in helping a client realise that his attitude or behaviour is what underpins his recurrent suffering, the effect can be similarly liberating. But then who is supposed to be liberated? The monk or the psychotherapy client?
The answer, of course, is both, though liberation has a rather different meaning for psychotherapy than it does for a Buddhist spiritual practice. The monk's attempt to find liberation means nothing less than enlightenment as the complete escape from the round of birth and death. A client, by contrast, would usually settle for the relative release from his problems in living. But what about the psychotherapist whose position can hardly be neutral in the therapeutic relationship? The ideal that the therapist should act with complete impartiality might seem to shift the focus entirely away from any of his personal or spiritual interests. But like most ideals, the perfectly detached therapist is a largely imaginary, if sometimes helpful concept. Although a wise therapist will always try to be alert to his biases in order to be wary of their influence, at the same time he must be cognisant of his affinities, particularly those that deepen his capacity for empathy and increase his understanding of the client. For it is by recognising the humanity that he shares with his client that an empathic bond can be developed which enables the therapist to make insights that he could not otherwise make. But even before that, it is the humanity of the therapist that reaches the humanity of the client.
I spoke earlier about the fascination for the human condition that is so essential for becoming a psychotherapist, but that may sound rather too abstract. In fact, this fascination is really more of a form of identification which is based on the recognition that what others experience could be experienced by oneself, too; but not only by oneself, but also as a self, that is to say as a unique human subject whose complex of desires and needs thrusts him into the stream of life with a sense of bewilderment about how he got there. For a Buddhist, this might be called wandering in samsara, the round of birth and death. But for a psychotherapist who might have become all too familiar with psychological suffering, a client's painful life experiences could seem like just another day in the office. For a Buddhist psychotherapist, however, a day in the office can be taken as a moment in eternity which can uncover some of the essential truths of Buddhism. For suffering is the premier fact of existence, but there is a way out of it, though finding that way is seldom apparent, especially at the beginning of therapy. This does not mean that the therapist should take the client's suffering as an opportunity to proselytise or even push a Buddhist perspective on his client's affairs. But it does mean that what happens in the consulting room can have spiritual implications for both client and therapist.
When I used to visit the monastery my friend used to tease me about becoming a monk and said that I would look good with a shaved head and in robes. Now that he's out of robes himself--and perhaps with a head of hair, too--I am in a position to turn the tables on him and say what a great psychotherapist he'll be. But I wouldn't be teasing.