Who Let Buddha In? Infusing Therapy With the Eastern Spirit (Washington Post)

Gregory Mott, Washington Post: Tara Brach tells the story of a meditation student who came to her enraged after a class in which Brach had discussed forgiveness. “Her husband, she had found out, had been having numerous affairs. She said, ‘Tara, how can I forgive him? I want to kill him.’ The first thing I said was, ‘Don’t bother trying right now. This isn’t the time to try to forgive him.’ ”

Working with the woman over a period of months, Brach combined principles of Buddhism and psychotherapy to guide the client through a process in which she was able to “layer down” her anger to see the fear and shame underneath it. The marriage did not survive, but the woman was able to achieve a compassion for herself and for others that enabled her to end it “without bitterness and hatred and feeling like the wounded victim.”

Brach is a clinical psychologist based in the Washington area. She is also founder and senior teacher of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington (www.imcw.org) and author of “Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha” (Bantam, 2003).

Brach’s dual expertise made her an ideal choice to lead “Mindfulness in Therapy: From Psychological Healing to Spiritual Transformation,” a workshop on the psychotherapy community’s growing interest in using the Buddhist practices of mindfulness, concentration and compassion to help clients focus their attention and achieve a peaceful state of mind….

To explain the relationship between mindfulness and psychotherapy, Brach used an analogy of waves and oceans. Psychotherapists, she said, are trained to deal with the waves of emotion that clients bring to them in the form of problems. Mindfulness teachers, on the other hand, aim to get students to a profound understanding of themselves and their problems as but infinitesimal parts of the ocean of humanity.

“Both Western psychology and Buddhist psychology have a common denominator of understanding that healing and awakening come when we bring whatever is going on into the light of awareness,” Brach said. “Western psychology tends to focus on the waves of what’s going on — the stories, the individual feelings and thoughts. Whereas in mindfulness practice, the attention is really on the awareness that can hold what’s happening.”

Brach, who has been studying Buddhist meditation for more than three decades, finds herself straddling the realms of Western science and Eastern spiritualism at a particularly auspicious moment. A growing body of research in the West is finding therapeutic value in meditation and other forms of spiritual practice for illnesses ranging from psychological stress to some forms of cancer. Meanwhile, the world’s most famous Buddhist, the Dalai Lama, recently has sponsored a series of dialogues between Buddhist scholars and Western scientists, with the goal of finding common ground for common good.

Buddhism, Brach said, places great emphasis on forgiveness of self and forgiveness of others. This does not mean, she made clear, that therapists should teach patients to live like doormats. Patients instead have to be taught to “relax the clenched fist of the body” before healing can begin.

“The nature of trauma or any emotional stuck space is that we sometimes have this idea that if we really cry it out or open to our fear, we’re going to move through it,” Brach said. “Very often what happens is that we keep re-repeating the same emotions and thoughts, but it doesn’t seem like there’s real healing. What we need to do is re-experience that cluster of thoughts and feelings, but with an added resourcefulness, with an added sense of openness or tenderness” that can come from Buddhist practices.

Brach said in a telephone interview last week that she uses guided meditation and other mindfulness techniques in her psychotherapy practice because they are highly effective in helping clients focus their attention. She says clients need not be Buddhist or even have a particular interest in meditation to benefit.

“Therapists train clients to be mindful of their inner experience by guiding them to attend to emotions, feelings and physical sensations with a non-judging and clear presence,” she said. “In time, the ability to ‘stay present’ allows the client to respond, not react, to difficult experiences.”

Teaching meditation is essentially teaching the client to have the same relationship they’d have with a therapist with their own “inner life,” Brach said. “A relationship where they can see their own goodness, where they can find a sense of safety and power within themselves.”

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