Contemplative Psychotherapy, Buddhism, Meditation, Mindfulness and the Paramitas
Defining contemplative psychotherapy in three sentences is not easy, but if I were to explain it in a brief way I would describe it as a holistic approach to therapy that is grounded in Buddhist psychology and humanistic psychology. It honors the client as a unique, diverse person that is full of potential. The therapist helps clients identify the underlying emotions and issues in a supportive, compassionate, mindful, and non-judgemental environment.
Expanding on this definition, the therapist honors the basic goodness in each client, and through this lens helps their clients explore difficulties and successes. This often includes examining the world through the immediate therapeutic relationship as emotions and feelings come up in sessions. Through compassion and mindfulness the therapist helps clients to rediscover their basic goodness and inherent wisdom. The Buddhist ideas at their core are providing the values and the means to the release from suffering that is central in the therapist work.
The Buddhist teachings about the causes of suffering are emphasizing the attachment to a fixed view of reality and ourselves as the main reasons for our suffering. Everything is forever changing, so suffering arises whenever we feel aversion to the way we see ourselves or the world. Pema Chodron (2007) says, “Because we long for certainty and something to hold onto, it’s very reassuring to believe in some permanent, external essence that underlies everything.”
The contemplative therapy sees great value in exploring everything that arises in an atmosphere of real curiosity and non-agenda. Since everything is forever changing, the therapist is careful not to try to impose fixed views on the client. The interest is on seeing the basic goodness and wisdom in each client that is underneath the ever changing nature of an illusionary identity. The Buddhist trainings of meditation such as shamatha-vipashyana, tonglen, maitri space awareness, and shempa, are all practices that prepare the contemplative therapist to be fully present with the client, to be able to be compassionate and to hold their seat.
The six paramitas are essential in the work of the contemplative therapist since they provide the values and the tools for liberation from suffering in the work of the bodhisattva. Wegela (2010) explains their importance:
“The “awakened actions” (also called “transcended actions”) of a bodhisattva are actions that transcend ego and its confusion. The more we are able to let go of our mistaken notions about ego, and thus uncover our inherent bodhichitta, the more our actions spontaneously manifest as the six awakened actions: generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation, and wisdom. For bodhisattvas who fully manifest bodhichitta, these actions are simply their natural behavior and activity in the world.”
The contemplative therapist is in a way a modern bodhisattva with a salary (usually). Skillful contemplative clinicians integrate the six paramitas into their work with clients. Dana, or generosity in a contemplative therapeutic context, is service to the client. It means giving without attachment to any outcome and letting go of any agenda of changing the client.
Shila, or discipline is the ethical ground for psychotherapists. True service must include proper conduct. This means behaving in a skillful way and being present with the client in each moment without escaping into one’s own world. Cultivation of this paramita is also about the therapist trusting their own internal experience and their experience of the relationship with the client.
Kshanti, or patience, is acting from a place of therapeutic kindness rather than therapeutic aggression. It is allowing the client to bring their experience into the room without trying to change it. It also means being humble and understanding that the client is the expert on themselves. Additionally, it includes the therapist’s ability to hold the space for difficult emotions to arise, within themselves and their client, while accepting whatever is happening in the moment. This paramita also sheds a light on aggression that may show up in the client due to their own suffering.
Virya, or exertion, is the effort that is needed in order to live a life of service. Being a psychotherapist is not an easy path. It takes effort to pursue the path with education and training. It also requires a continued effort to stay committed to being present with clients everyday. This paramita is about realizing the suffering in the world and one’s urgency to be a part of the healing. It includes overcoming laziness and taking action.
Dhyana paramita is meditation. Dhyana cultivates the tools a therapist needs for the stability of mind. It builds the skill set to witness what arises within oneself including thoughts, feelings, and judgements, and to not get lost in it. Learning to be present with oneself is the first step in being able to be present with another in order to make a connection.
Prajna is wisdom. It inhibits the desire for a therapist to be driven by idiot compassion. It is understanding what is truly needed in each moment without giving into pity or poor boundaries. It is a discriminating awareness into what is really happening.
The paramitas that are most challenging for me are meditation and exertion. I feel sad that it is difficult for me to cultivate the effort to keep a consistent meditation practice. There were times in my life previously when I was able to stay consistent for a long period. There are periods in my life when I do not meditate as much as I would like to and it is no longer the nourishing routine that it was. I see its importance in how it contributes to my wellbeing and the cultivation of all of the other paramitas.
The meditation paramita serves me as a therapist because it helps me to ground myself while experiencing heavy emotions and to keep my mind focused on the session rather than my own story during sessions. Gyatso (1994) said, “The mind follows any thoughts that arise, and it is then all too easy for negative emotions to grow. Any positive actions we do will not realize their full effect. Distraction is therefore a major defect, and it is very important to counteract it by developing mental calm (shamatha).”
During one of my first therapy sessions something my client said reminded me of a conflict with my partner. I noticed I started to drift into my own story and needed to come back. Although I was not in formal meditation, I became aware of my own breath in order to bring myself back to the present. I was then able to focus my awareness on the client. Since then, I can really see the powerful way in which mindfulness helps me be truly present with my clients. Simply taking a few moments of meditation in between sessions help me center and transition. The cultivation of the six paramitas constantly help me become a better therapist and truly serve my clients.
Sasha Raskin, a therapist in Boulder, provides individual ,family, and couples therapy / counseling in Boulder, Colorado, and worldwide via video and phone calls, drawing from over ten years of clinical experience. Schedule your free 20-minute phone consultation with Sasha Raskin
Chodron, P. (2005). No time to lose: A timely guide to the way of the bodhisattva. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
Gyatso, T. (1994). A flash of lightning in the dark of night: A guide to the bodhisattva’s way of life. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
Wegela, K. K. (2009). The courage to be present: Buddhism, psychotherapy, and the awakening of natural wisdom. Boston & London: Shambhala.