The Courage to Be Present

Ancient wisdom from Buddhism for today's therapists and clients.

Making Friends with Ourselves as We Already Are

Buddhist Psychology shows us how to befriend ourselves.

      According to Buddhist teachings, we do not need to change who we are. Most of us enter therapy or begin a mindfulness meditation practice because we believe that we need to be different, better, more of something, or less of something else. Of course, in one sense, that's right. We do want to feel better; we want to stop making ourselves miserable. But, according to the Buddhist teachings, the way to do that is by making friends with who we are, not by rejecting who we are and trying to be something else.

      Many years ago, in 1977, before I began to practice mindfulness meditation or to study Buddhist ideas, my best friend from high school became ill and died at the age of 32 from leukemia. As soon as I heard that Paula had died, I became quite sad but also very nervous. I had never had a close friend my own age die before.

      I trembled and shook; my mind got really speedy. I felt jumpy and wanted to move and do something, but I had no idea what to do. I couldn't sit still, and I couldn't do anything else either. I churned out scary thoughts about dying and the fear that I would feel this way forever. As a therapist, I recognized that I was experiencing anxiety, and I really wanted to get away from myself and my agitated body and mind.

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      I tried a few things, but none of them helped very much. This went on for a few days.  Then, a good friend suggested that I sit down and do some mindfulness meditation. By then, I was ready to try anything, so, with her instruction, I sat down in a quiet place, and I paid attention to my breathing. When my mind wandered away, I gently brought it back to my breath. Again and again. And again and again.

      As I sat there, I still felt anxious, but I was no longer trying to get away from myself. I was surprised to see that I could be with my anxiety. So, I continued to sit and breathe and feel jumpy. Shifting my attention from trying to change my experience to being curious about it--from trying to escape from it to being present with it-- allowed me finally to relax with myself. I was still nervous, but I was no longer so scared about feeling scared. My life began to feel workable again.

      That day was the beginning of my meditation practice and of my interest in what Buddhist teachings could offer to my work as a psychotherapist.  This is my first entry in my new blog, The Courage to Be Present. In the future, I will be writing about what I have learned from Buddhist teachings and applied in my therapy practice since that day in 1977.

Karen Kissel Wegela, Ph.D., is a professor at Naropa University and the author of The Courage to Be Present.

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