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Embodied Mindfulness

You Do Not Have To Be Good: Psychotherapy and Spiritual Practice

1 Jul 2021 11:59 AM | Jalen Séguin (Administrator)

An integrated approach to healing the spirit

Donna Martin

“Wild Geese”, by Mary Oliver

(from her book, “Dream Work”, 1986.)

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

As people in our western society rely less and less on religion to “care for the soul” or heal their spirit, it seems that we are more and more in need of psychotherapy to attend to the emotional pain and distress that cause most of our suffering. We may use a psychotherapist or counsellor the way someone in India, for example, might use a spiritual teacher or guru. We use support groups to provide the community and the sangha that would otherwise be missing from our western lives. We want help to be free of the stress and chaos of our lives, mostly when we experience transition and loss — the loss of a loved one, of our health, of a job, of a relationship, of our identity and our security as we have imagined it.

After three decades as a yoga teacher I realized that what yoga seemed to offer most of my students, far beyond learning ways to release the tension in the body that causes unnecessary discomfort, was better ways to handle stress generally. I became a counsellor, and then a psychotherapist, and discovered that most of my clients were suffering from the kind of isolation which our culture produces in its focus on individuality. Many of the people who came to see me were ashamed of feeling like they couldn’t handle their stress. This sense of shame makes people embarrassed to talk to their friends about the emotional suffering they are feeling. It makes them avoid asking for help until things are really falling apart in their lives.

I discovered, as a psychotherapist and as a teacher, that the bottom line for most, if not all of my clients and students was this shame and a sense of fear about not being good enough, smart enough, or strong enough, to handle the difficulties in their lives. After years of psychotherapy practice, I came to the conclusion that the only thing wrong with most people, is the idea that something is intrinsically wrong with them.

This is an idea that is not found in all cultures. It may be that this is the real dis-ease, at least emotionally, that psychotherapy in our culture must address. Unfortunately, many psychotherapy methods collude with this delusion (of something wrong) and attempt (in a well-meaning but spiritually impoverished way) to help people find out what’s wrong with them and how to fix it. Unfortunately, if this is the basis of psychotherapy, it can go on and on for years. If the whole process is based on a faulty idea to begin with, how can a right solution ever be found? Even Jung is supposed to have said that patients don’t get better, they just move on!

What psychotherapy needs to do for the average person — who is emotionally distressed and needs support to successfully move through life’s most difficult situations — is a combination of these two things:

First and foremost is the realization that there is nothing inherently wrong with them. They are fine. The story line that holds them in the grip of the question, the fear, the shame of “what’s wrong with me?” is just that – a story. A myth. A construct. A wrong idea. And secondly, they need some tools, a new model, and especially some new experiences for healthier ways to meet the challenges of life… ways to be with the most emotionally distressing situations and not fall apart or lose themselves.

Daniel Goleman’s book, “Destructive Emotions”, quotes the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist teachers who explain that Buddhism sees emotions as destructive when they disturb a person’s equilibrium. Destructive emotions disrupt equanimity and therefore create delusions. They interfere with our ability to see the true nature of reality … “Fundamentally, a destructive emotion – which is also referred to as an ‘obscuring’ or ‘afflictive’ mental factor – is something that prevents the mind from ascertaining reality as it is. With a destructive emotion, there will always be a gap between the way things appear and the way things are.” (Matthieu Ricard)

So the goal of Buddhist psychology and practice, like western psychology, is to cultivate the possibility of emotional balance, mental clarity, and well-being. In fact, Buddhism goes beyond western psychology up till now in aspiring to something more than the absence of mental afflictions… in actually believing in the possibility of cultivating several wholesome states that lead to happiness. In Destructive Emotions, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard again is quoted:

“We speak of four things to cultivate: love,
equanimity, compassion, and rejoicing.”

Now the latest research in neuroscience is exploring a somewhat new understanding (for western psychology) of what is being called “neuroplasticity”… which is the possibility of the brain to change throughout our adult lives.

Research conducted by Dr. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin is demonstrating that repeated experience modifies the brain. It confirms something written by the Dalai Lama in his book, the “Art of Happiness”:

“The systematic training of the mind, the cultivation of happiness, the genuine inner transformation by deliberately selecting and focusing on positive mental states and challenging negative mental states, is possible because of the very structure and function of the brain. But the wiring of our brain is not static, not irrevocably fixed. Our brains are also adaptable.” What Buddhism has understood for a long time, Western science and psychology is now discovering to be true.”

Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D. and Sharon Begley, in their book, “The Mind and the Brain: neuroplasticity and the power of mental force”, (ReganBooks, New York, 2002) describe how neuroscience now shows that the human mind is an independent entity that can shape and control the functioning of the physical brain.

“The adult brain can change. It can grow new cells. It can change the function of old ones. It can rezone an area that originally executed one function and assign it another. It can, in short, change the circuitry that weaves neurons into the networks that allow us to see and hear, into the networks that remember, feel, suffer, think, imagine, and dream… Through the mental act of focusing attention, mental effort becomes directed mental force. … it is now clear that the attentional state of the brain produces physical change in its structure and future functioning. The seemingly simple act of ‘paying attention’ produces real and powerful physical changes in the brain.”

This is exciting news for all of us. It is moving western psychology closer and closer to a more spiritual appreciation of the person as a whole being, and moves psychotherapy in the direction of a more experiential and relational approach to supporting change in how we, as human beings, live our lives. This new approach to how psychotherapy can address modern problems is explored in the book, “A General Theory of Love”, by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon (Vintage Books, New York, 2001):

“As individuals and as a culture, our chance for happiness depends on our ability to decipher a hidden world that revolves — invisible, improbably, inexorably — around love. … Psychotherapy changes people because one mammal can restructure the limbic brain of another… When a limbic connection has established a neural pattern, it takes a limbic connection to revise it.” …


“Because our minds seek one another through limbic resonance, because our physiologic rhythms answer to the call of limbic regulation, because we change one another’s brains through limbic revision -- what we do inside relationships matters more than any other aspect of human life.”

And here’s the key:

“Therapeutic techniques per se have nothing to do with results. The person of the therapist is the converting catalyst… the agent of change is who he is… if therapy works, it transforms a patient’s limbic brain and his emotional landscape forever… what we do inside relationships matters more than any other aspect of human life.”

In a recent publication by the APA (American Psychological Association), called the ” Heart and Soul of Change (what works in therapy)”, this idea that the personal qualities of the therapist is supported, and the conclusion is that training needs to focus on therapists being people “who prize others”. When someone feels prized, the healing (of the whole idea of something wrong) can begin.

Ron Kurtz, who created and continues to develop the Hakomi Experiential Method of mindfulness-based psychotherapy, says to therapists:

“When we step aside from some of the habitual preoccupations and chattering of the mind—such as the tendency to analyze, or to criticize, or the idea that we are required to do something—we discover that we can find inspiration in almost every person we meet. It takes a concentrated intention to do it, if we haven’t already developed the habit.

“It should be obvious that some people have a kind of talent for putting others at ease and giving them a sense that they are being heard and cared for. That kind of talent involves (1) specific skills that are learnable and (2) an awareness and control of ones mental states. Once learned, one’s interactions with others can become more natural, enjoyable and, clinically… much more effective.

“Research on the effectiveness of psychotherapy, both recent and as early as 1990, has found that the personality of the therapist is significantly more important than any method or technique.

“Research on the neurological basis of human, emotional communication has found strong emotional effects based on such things as eye contact, personal warmth, sensitivity, availability, awareness, all of which are components of the strong influence of personality on the effectiveness of psychotherapy. Neurologically, this kind of communication is mediated by the limbic systems and the Social Engagement Systems of the individuals communicating.

“From these findings, it is easy to see that the training of “health professionals in general and psychotherapists in particular” must involve the development of exactly those kinds of personality traits. As part of that training, knowledge of and experience with the use of limbic resonance and social engagement are important factors. This workshop offers theoretical background, experience and practice with health care relationships based as much on social skills and “human beingness” as on technical proficiencies.

“Limbic resonance is an essential component in any general approach to therapy that emphasizes the personality of the therapist and the positive emotional setting that the therapist creates through his or her personality.

“My approach to therapy is called the Hakomi Method of Mindfulness Based Psychotherapy. The process involves self-discovery through short, precise experiments done with the client in mindful state. These are designed with reference to hypotheses which the therapist develops concerning the unconscious structures shaping the client’s attitudes, emotions and behavior. When the hypothesis is correct and the experiments are done properly, they can often evoke meaningful emotional reactions in the client. These reactions become the basis of self-discovery for the client. To provide a safe, positive atmosphere, in which such experiments become possible and fruitful, the warmth, flexibility and intelligence of the therapist, along with his or her ability to create limbic resonance, are paramount.” (Ron Kurtz)

So psychotherapy, personhood, relationship, spirituality, neuroscience, compassion, and emotional well-being come together in the new millennium. Let’s hope the result will be more peace, love, and happiness throughout the world. May your inner goodness radiate through the way you live your life.

The basic work of health professionals in general, and of psycho-therapists in particular, is to become full human beings and to inspire full human-beingness in other people who feel starved about their lives. (Chogyam Trungpa)

© 2004 Donna Martin, M.A. (Certified Hakomi therapist and trainer)