When I first began to practice Buddhist mindfulness/awareness meditation, I was just beginning my work as a therapist. It seemed to me that there must be some way to combine what I was learning from my meditation practice with my work as a therapist, yet I didn't really see how to go about it. Should I have my clients meditate instead of going to therapy? Should I teach my clients to meditate? What if they weren't interested in meditation? Wouldn't that be pretty aggressive of me to require it?
As a new meditator, I had joined a local Buddhist meditation group. At the time I was living in upstate Connecticut, and our group was small and didn't have any other therapists in it. I was stuck. I could talk to the people in my group about meditation, and I could talk to my therapist friends about therapy, but I had no one to talk to about how the two things might go together. Then, I heard about Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. I heard that they that had a program that taught the integration of Buddhism and psychotherapy, so I signed up for a summer program, and headed for Boulder. It was so exciting for me to get to talk about both of my passions at once that I ended up moving the following year to Boulder and began teaching at Naropa (now Naropa University). That was in l980, and I have been here ever since.
At Naropa, the integration of Buddhist psychological principles with the practice of psychotherapy is called "Contemplative Psychotherapy." It's a bit of a misnomer since to "contemplate" means to "think about." Like meditation itself, Contemplative Psychotherapy is about experience: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, and recognizing thoughts as thoughts without getting caught up in them. Still, that's our name for what we do.
I found out that the "root teaching" of the program is "Brilliant Sanity." I was intrigued by this term. It means that who we most fundamentally are IS brilliant sanity. It is our nature; it is what we are no matter what we might be feeling in any particular moment. We are brilliantly sane if we feel happy; we are brilliantly sane if we feel depressed. We are even brilliantly sane if we feel crazy and totally out of touch with reality.
Not only that, everyone is or has brilliant sanity: our children, our parents, our clients and therapists, our friends, our in-laws, people we admire, and people we fear. Yes, even terrorists have brilliant sanity. How can this be? What does brilliant sanity mean?
Brilliant sanity describes our nature, who we most basically are. We are not always in touch with our brilliant sanity, but it is always there and available for us to tap into. Usually, we experience glimpses of brilliant sanity and don't even recognize it. It is never easy to describe brilliant sanity because while it is something we can experience, it is not something we can capture in words. Brilliant sanity is sometimes described by its three main qualities: openness, clarity, and compassion.
Openness means that we can experience whatever comes to us through our sense perceptions, our emotions, or our thoughts. "Well, of course we can," you might say. The idea here, though, is that often we turn away from our experience. We often pull away from intense feelings or awkwardness or discomfort of all kinds. We try to distract ourselves because we simply don't want to include some things in our experience. For example, we might drive by the scene of a car accident and avert our gaze. We don't want to feel the feelings that might come up. It's almost as though we think we could hurt our very beings by feeling anything negative. Openness, in the brilliant sanity sense, means that we CAN feel all of our experiences: pleasant ones, painful ones, and neutral ones. It doesn't mean that they will all become pleasant or even neutral. They will still be just what they are. Openness means that we don't have to shy away.
Clarity means that we can bring mindful awareness to all of our experiences. Not only are we able to be open to them, we can receive them with a sense of accuracy and precision. To return to the car accident example, clarity means that we might notice glass on the road, a policewoman directing traffic, and other details at the scene. We could also notice the fear that arises in the body, the catch in the throat, the tightening in the chest. Also, we could notice the thoughts that are running through our minds: imagining someone who might be hurt or killed, the thoughts of our children whom we want to always protect. All kinds of experiences might arise, and we could recognize them without distortion.
Compassion is the desire to alleviate suffering and also the ability to recognize our connection with others. When we are truly present with others, we might even feel their pain. Compassion is the willingness to do so. I have always found this the most intriguing quality of brilliant sanity. It suggests that we don't have to learn compassion; we are compassion. We need only learn how to stop avoiding our compassionate, tender hearts.
Returning once more to the car accident, our compassion might manifest as stopping and offering help if there's no one already taking care of people who might be hurt. Paradoxically, it might also show up as our turning away. We turn away because we do feel connected; we do feel pain when we see others in pain. That, too, is evidence of our tender hearts.
In Contemplative Psychotherapy, our goal is to help our clients connect with, or re-connect with, their brilliant sanity. Our job is to recognize the brilliant sanity that our clients are already showing us and also to help them to recognize it, too. Beyond that, we work to identify and remove the obstacles to experiencing brilliant sanity: our own and our clients'. Next time, we will look at some of the obstacles that cover up our brilliant sanity.