Buddhist Meditation and Psychotherapy: The Common Ground of Self Compassion
By David T. Andersen, Ph.D
Many of my psychoanalytic colleagues have shared with me in casual conversation their observation that the first encounter with a patient, either over the phone or in person, often contains the clinical themes that turn out to be central to the entire course of treatment, even if the therapy continues for several years. I think of this when I remember my first encounter with Ram Dass, recognizing that my lifelong interest in psychotherapy, Buddhist meditation, and the underlying quality of self-compassion that is essential to both, all began at that initial meeting.
As a 19 year old, anxious, confused, fragmented, and clinically depressed high school dropout, I went to see Ram Dass in the early weeks of 1969 on the advice of a friend who had heard him lecture at Columbia University. I knew very little about Ram Dass and even less about meditation and yoga when I arrived at his family estate in New Hampshire during the blizzard of 1969. It was not surprising (except to me) that no one else showed up that day for darshan; as I walked up the stairs to his dharma room on the second floor of the main house, Ram Dass roused himself from meditation, offered me a seat on the floor, and then made us both a hot drink (the strange concoction of Mu tea). To gain some protection from a sudden surge in anxiety, I asked a number of innocuous questions about Eastern philosophy that had no other purpose then to maintain a conversational chatter. After a few minutes, Ram Dass recognized that my questions were not related to the reason for my visit and that there was a good chance that I did not really know why I had come to see him. He then suggested that we play a game that he called “Guts ball.” The rules to this game were simple: we both would sit facing each other in a meditative posture and agree that when either of us had a thought or feeling that we felt we could not share, we would then give voice to that thought or feeling all the while maintaining direct eye contact.
Although I had grown up in a dysfunctional family during the 1950’s where talking openly and directly about feelings was definitely not encouraged, and although my parents’ own struggle with anxiety and depression made me vulnerable to those same concerns, I somehow found the courage to play this game. As soon as we started, a number of thoughts came to mind that I knew that I did not want to disclose. But looking at Ram Dass (unbeknownst to me, he was silently repeating a mantra and visualizing his Guru, manifesting to him this day as his anxious guest), I eventually said whatever it was I did not want to say, fully expecting him to be angry, disgusted, or bored. But to my astonishment, no matter what I said or what I revealed to him about my internal life, Ram Dass looked at me with empathy and compassion. Most importantly, after sitting with Ram Dass for what felt like a very long time (we probably sat for almost two hours), I began to slowly internalize some of his compassion, directing it toward myself, to my own thoughts and feelings. In a very short time, my encounter with Ram Dass generated my first experience with meditation, psychotherapy, and self-compassion: meditation in that our focus of concentration was our eye contact and from that perspective we witnessed thoughts and feelings come and go, psychotherapy in my sharing of thoughts and feelings with a more congruent other to gain insight and to promote emotional health, and self-compassion in the internalization of Ram Dass’ empathy as I put my unwanted thoughts and feelings into words. To say the least, this was an unexpected and unusual experience and one that contained the elements that have turned out to be essential to both my Buddhist practice and my professional life as a clinical psychologist.
Meditation and Self-Compassion
Although Buddhist meditation is very much a cognitive practice, with thoughts and feelings first acknowledged and sometimes even categorized and labeled, followed then by the consistent return of attention to the breath, I have found that it is also a practice that depends on affect or emotion. That is, after several years of vipassana and Zen meditation, I discovered that the key to a quiet mind and the key to developing a present centered awareness turns not as much on the effects of discipline and effort as it does on the affective capacity for self-acceptance. More specifically, after years of consistent practice I discovered that thoughts effortlessly cease when the underlying emotions that are attached to thoughts (and sometimes generate them) are acknowledged and accepted, not in the sense of resignation in the face of an unwanted but inevitable experience but rather, accepted with a sense of kindness, understanding, and compassion. Indeed, it is my ongoing experience in the Zen practice of shikantaza (just siting) that self-compassion makes possible the letting of things be, just as they are, that self-compassion immediately places one in the present moment, and self-compassion is a precursor to the experience of shunyata, or emptiness. It is interesting to note that several Buddhist teachers from both the vipassana and Zen traditions have emphasized the importance of a radical self-acceptance, including Joseph Goldstein Christopher Germer, and Tara Brach from the mindfulness approach and Suzuki Roshi and Sekkei Harada Roshi from the Soto Zen tradition.
Psychotherapy and Self-Compassion
In the relatively new field of positive psychology, and in just about every modern approach to psychotherapy, self-acceptance (also referred to as self-compassion) has become a central focus of intervention. Indeed, positive psychologists have found in their research that self-acceptance is a much better predictor of mental health than self-esteem and that self-acceptance is comprised of self-kindness, the recognition of a common humanity, and, not surprisingly, mindfulness. And unlike the inability of self-esteem to undo the deleterious effects of self-criticism and a primarily self-centered approach to relationships, people with elevated levels of self-compassion have greater resilience, lower levels of narcissism, and they are more likely to accept responsibly for mistakes.
In the world of psychotherapy, self-acceptance has become a unifying principle among the various approaches to the treatment of psychopathology. While self-acceptance has always been valued in humanistic/experiential therapies and for several decades now, psychodynamic psychologists have embraced empathy (an interpersonal expression of self-acceptance) and the relationship qualities inherent in the therapeutic alliance, cognitive/behavioral psychologists now lead the field in promoting the value of self-compassion. In Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, self-acceptance is seen to be just as important to successful outcome as developing a more flexible repertoire of behaviors or as important as replacing maladaptive thoughts and perceptions with adaptive and more accurate thoughts and perceptions. In my view, and certainly in my experience as both a clinician and a Buddhist practitioner in the Zen tradition, it is the often overlooked quality of self-acceptance that makes a dialogue between Buddhism and psychotherapy meaningful and it is the point in which both disciplines converge.