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Mindfulness and Psychotherapy: Are They Distinct?

Mindfulness is the meditative heart of Buddhism, and it seems to have found a secular home in Western psychotherapy. This makes sense because Buddhist practice, like psychotherapy, is fundamentally a method for addressing psychological pain. Westerners have been turning to mindfulness in increasing numbers as a means for coping with emotional distress; paraphrasing the titles of some best-selling books, they are seeking ways to free themselves from old habits and fears; find out what to do when things fall apart; and find clarity in the midst of emotional chaos (to mention just a few).

Certainly dharma practice has a psychotherapeutic dimension. Its very purpose is to help people get beyond suffering, and psychological pain is fundamentally what attracts people to it. An implicitly psychotherapeutic view of Buddhist practice is also invited by the work of contemporary dharma teachers who have been educated in Western psychotherapy and who have been the authors of our current

Buddhist psychological narratives. For example, when we look at inspirational stories of transformation which occur during mindfulness meditation practice (such as those recounted in Jack Kornfield’s (1993; 2008) books) we see that they can be aptly described either as dharma practice or as Buddhist psychotherapy. Both narrative frameworks feel valid.

Following this train of thought, we might say that meditation practice itself, and/or the deep intimacy and presence of being with the teacher, provides a powerful “psychological container” in the analytic sense. One can easily imagine the transferential needs and wishes the practitioner brings to the situation, including deep longing for transformative connection with other. The compassion of the teacher and the experience of being deeply seen, understood, and accepted are deeply healing in a psychotherapeutic sense.

However, there are also confusions created when psychotherapeutic and Buddhist narratives are conflated. What gets lost is that healing in the psychotherapeutic sense is not the intended goal of Buddhist practice. Buddhist practice is defined in its own terms; it aims toward a radical re-contextualization of identity in which suffering ceases to have its usual personal meaning and significance. This goal, “liberation,” is distinct from psychological healing.

Using the metaphor that was introduced above, psychotherapy is intended to relieve pain by untangling the relational knots which engender psychological suffering. In contrast, dharma practice is a method for radically transforming our relationship to the entire field of our experience—our fundamental way of perceiving and being—in a way which obviates the necessity for untangling. Liberation is not the same as psychological healing, although the two are closely intertwined. In any event, mindfulness cannot be adequately understood apart from the Buddhist philosophy from which it derives.

The “psychologizing” of mindfulness has one additional unfortunate implication, which is the notion that gets conveyed that even a brief exposure to mindfulness equips a clinician to understand what mindfulness is and teach others how to “do it.” While the rudiments of mindfulness meditation may perhaps be learned in a weekend or an afternoon, and while mindfulness can certainly be used as a psychotherapeutic intervention, tool, or technique, this misses the depth of mindful awareness that is available in sustained practice, as well as the mature wisdom and compassion which are the goal of dharma practice.

The following quote bears upon the distinction between the psychotherapeutic and the Buddhist paradigms. (In reading the quote, think of “myth” = subjective understanding of the world.)

We are all living within a myth, the myth or myths that provide us with our fundamental world view. Psychotherapists (often read) the Buddhist myth in terms of their psychotherapeutic myth. But to understand Buddhism, one must enter the Buddhist myth, and once we are within that myth, then we will naturally read psychotherapy in terms of Buddhism.

(Kearney, 1999, p. 11)

Although inquiring deeply is informed by the Buddhist “myth” or world view, through the long series of reflections that are described in this book I have concluded that the distinction between the psychotherapeutic and Buddhist narratives is neither clearly delineated nor fixed. Inquiring deeply is both Buddhist-informed psychotherapy and psychologically-minded dharma practice. On the one hand, I recognize a distinction between psychological healing and liberation, as presented above; on the other hand, I also experience the boundary between the two as complex and fluid. For this reason, I have settled on defining inquiring deeply as a blended set of reflective practices, one which includes psychodynamic exploration of experience.

Perhaps, when all is said and done, Buddhist and psychotherapeutic narratives are simply that, narratives, and whatever practice we do is only liberating to the extent that it is. This is implicit in Hokusai’s message: experience is endlessly unfolding exactly as it does, and there is no end to seeing.

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