COMPASSION IN A DHARMA-INSPIRED THERAPY
Understanding the Healing Power of Compassion
In the simplest of terms, I draw on 30 years of experience as a transpersonal/Buddhist counselor, therapist and coach, and blend that with over four decades of meditation and spiritual practice. This body of experience offers clients insights, philosophical reflections, techniques, and modalities that fit the client where she or he is.
The next aspect of this Buddhist approach to therapy and coaching has to begin with a clear understanding of wisdom and compassion, simplifying what those are for the client, and how they might be relevant for her particular situation and time. Or sometimes, depending on the client, we begin with the Four Noble Truths and the timeless insight that suffering and its avoidance is what drives so much of human behavior. The Buddha, much like Socrates, believed that the path out of suffering requires a special kind of medicine, which he called the Eightfold Path. But however we start our discussion about Buddhist therapy, please keep in mind that we need to keep cycling back to new and allied questions about this approach to life. In later articles and posts on my blog, I will try to address various facets of this larger question about Buddhism, healing, and growth.
For the purposes of this section on therapy, I will focus on the practice of therapy, and then, in the next section, focus on coaching.
Compassion Is Where It All Begins —
Our Mothers Offered Its Fruits from the First Day We Were Born
Except in those rare and tragic cases of neglect or abandonment, most of us learn from our very first breath what it feels like to be loved without conditions. This is why in Buddhist practice we often refer back to all the mothers of our previous lives with gratitude, and to the deity Tara, who is the mother of all the Buddhas.
As the client begins to relax and feel not judged, seen for who she is, feeling that there is a moment-to-moment curiosity about her, then the helper can encourage her to generate a greater and greater sense of compassion — for herself and for her loved ones. Such exercises as Tonglen, or the evocation of Arya Tara are helpful here. These compassion exercises start simply, spreading loving kindness to oneself and one’s dearest family and friends, and then expanding to eventually include all sentient beings.
When we look at the neuro- and social sciences that study human well-being, it is crystal clear that we need to completely revamp our thinking about what happiness is, and the importance of positive emotional and mental states to our health and well-being. What these scientists are discovering actually validates the thousands of years of emphasis on compassion and ethical living in Buddhism, and the other sacred traditions.
Studies done at the HeartMath Institute, Dr. Dan Siegel’s work at UCLA, the studies on love by Dr. Barbara Frederickson at the University of North Carolina, and self-compassion by Dr. Kristin Neff at the University of Texas, and many others, all point to the scientifically validated truth that our emotional and mental well-being depend largely on the maturity and expansiveness of our emotional connections with others.
In addition, such long-term studies on health and longevity, such as the Grant Study at Harvard, going on for 70+ years, also validate the importance of healthy and vital social connectedness for well-being. Of course all of this is not to deny the value of material success, financial security, and the realization of one’s professional potential. But they are part of a greater whole, and the love, joy, and kindness of a happy social life is irreplaceable.
These findings are also supported by many studies on what heals in psychotherapy, and the importance of the therapist or counselor being warm, empathic, present, emotionally available, kind and compassionate. It follows that the more the therapist or coach is a student and practioner of compassion, then the more likely it is they will have these necessary attributes in the treatment room. These qualities will increase the likelihood that the client will then begin to experience more compassion towards themselves and others.
Until I became a counselor the real power of compassion was abstract and far more of an intellectual concept than a real living and breathing experience in my daily life. Being on the spiritual path I, of course, knew about it, and tried to bring such virtues into my life. But, as in all things, the rubber really meets the road when we have to deal with the strictly horrible face of human cruelty and suffering. . .
My real-world training in the power of compassion happened when I had my first paying job as a therapist in the 1990’s, in south Texas, in a non-profit youth and family counseling agency. It was my privilege to work with children whose karma was incredibly tough. Some were even going through the Dickensian horror of being neglected, or abused, or seeing a parent die from a terminal illness.
Several months into the job I began to despair about how my efforts could possibly help heal the profound psychic injuries I was witnessing. Stories of the most unrelenting sexual abuse, physical violence, and abject neglect were so common that I felt my own spiritual strength tested every single day. How could these people survive and not turn into monsters, I wondered. How do I not get burned out in the first year of my practice?
After one particularly gruesome day I went to my supervisor, Dr. Lavery, and voiced my concerns. . .
“Yes, this is very tough work, Mark,” she said. "But never, ever underestimate the power of the good that you can do when you come to love and care for your clients. . ."
“I went through similar doubts when I was first starting out as a therapist. . . I had a client who had been terribly abused all through her childhood, let’s call her Monica. . . I was seeing her as an adult and was amazed that she was as functional as she was, and so I asked her one day,
“’Monica, what was it that kept you sane all these years, what helped you survive all of that horrible treatment?”
“’Well, you know,’ she said, ‘my parents only let me go to a friend’s house for a sleep-over one time in my entire childhood. I don’t know why they did this time. Fate, I guess. . .
“That night, when my friend’s mother was putting us to bed, she leaned over and caressed my hair, giving me a gentle stroke on my head, and then kissed me good-night on the forehead. I guess. . . yes, I’m sure. . . I always held on to that moment, no matter how bad things got. . .’”
When Dr. Lavery said those final words I remember nearly bursting into tears, instantly flooded with an indescribable and simultaneous pain and joy. I took that story to heart, and retold it many times to clients, and recalled it in my very being in those very moments when a client saw nothing but darkness and pain.
“If we want others to be happy,
If we ourselves want to be happy,
His Holiness the Dalai Lama