The question of whether therapists should teach their clients how to meditate is not as simple as it might seem. On the one hand, of course we'd like to share this powerful and practical technique with others who are suffering, but on the other hand lies the question of the appropriateness of therapists serving as meditation instructors to their clients.
For many years I have wrestled with this question. I am, myself, a trained meditation instructor in the tradition of my own teacher, the Tibetan Buddhist Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I am also a licensed psychologist who works with therapy clients. How do these roles go together? Or not?
I had made peace with my choice not to teach my clients how to meditate, but something came up this week that has opened up the question yet again. What came up was a question from one of my clients who had read my last blog posting on this site!
She was very interested in what she had read and wanted some clarification from me about a question she had. How often should she use the labeling technique of silently saying "thinking"? For every thought or just when she got lost in thought? Should she always say "thinking" or should she be more precise and say "worrying," or "planning," for example?
Her question put me on the spot. As I have written about in my recent book and elsewhere, I had already decided not to be both therapist and meditation instructor at the same time. Why not? There are a number of reasons, but let's look first at why I would want to teach my clients how to practice mindfulness-awareness meditation.
To begin with, let me say that I would love it if my therapy clients did practice mindfulness-awareness meditation. I don't think there's anything better for becoming familiar with one's own mind and for making friends with what one finds. It is an excellent way to rediscover brilliant sanity. I would like this so much that I wouldn't want to prevent anyone from beginning and continuing such a practice.
In addition, it could give clients a way to continue working with their own minds long after the conclusion of psychotherapy. I expect to continue practicing meditation myself for the rest of my life. I am grateful to have found such a profound and simple way to return again and again to the richness and wisdom of present moment.
Why then, would I even hesitate to teach my clients this valuable method?
First, as a therapist, it is important for my clients to be able to explore all the feelings that come up when we work together. That includes their negative feelings toward me. A client who is touching into anger may direct it toward me as a safe way to explore it. If I am also that person's meditation instructor, meditation might get mixed up together with his or her feelings and thoughts about me. Meditation might get rejected as something associated with me. I wouldn't want clients' meditation practice to become contingent on how they were feeling toward me.
It is important to me that clients feel free not to meditate, too. Meditation is not for everyone. Some clients are simply not interested. It could derail some clients' possible future practices to encourage them to meditate before they felt ready to do it based on their own inspiration. I certainly don't want someone to meditate just to please me!
Some clients' minds are just too wild to be able to hold still and practice meditation. I wouldn't want to discourage someone by urging them to take on a practice that they couldn't actually do.
For example, I did an initial consultation with a man a few years ago who had been practicing meditation for twenty years in the hope that it would stop the intrusive obsessive thoughts he suffered with. Meditation couldn't stop those thoughts. It did, I think, help him see that they were merely thoughts, but they were still extremely disturbing to him. His unrealistic expectations of meditation had actually prevented him from seeking out much needed therapy. As a therapist, I referred him to a psychiatrist whose prescription for medicine brought this man, finally, some relief.
In addition, meditation is a discipline that one might take on for one's whole life; it is much more than simply a psychological technique. It is part of many spiritual traditions and is even a method used for attaining realization, "enlightenment." I am concerned that it not be misunderstood as some kind of quick fix or psychological fad.
Also, when I became trained to become a meditation instructor it was part of my own path of serving others. I expect to receive either a token amount or nothing for providing meditation instruction. I get paid a good deal more as a therapist. It feels wrong to be paid well for providing meditation instruction. I work on an on-going basis with a number of meditation students, and we address issues related to their unfolding meditation practice. It is, like therapy, a working relationship, but not one for which I collect a fee.
Finally, most therapists have not been trained to be meditation instructors. Serving as meditation instructors would be unethical if they are not trained in working with the variety of issues that can arise in someone's practice. A well-trained meditation instructor would, for example, have been able to better advise the man who mistakenly thought that meditation would cure his obsessive thinking. Moreover, in my mind, to serve as both a psychotherapist and a meditation instructor is a dual relationship, and that is also an unethical situation.
Having said all of that, last week I still had my client asking me about the labeling technique. It seemed ungenerous, at least, to say that I couldn't answer her question. But, was I now stepping into the very role I had decided to avoid? I chose to answer her questions and then to explain why I thought it would be better, if she wanted to continue with her practice, that she connect with a meditation class or an individual meditation instructor.
That brings up another piece of the puzzle. I live in a town that is blessed with a great many meditation teachers from a variety of spiritual and secular traditions. It is quite easy for my clients to work with an instructor other than me. That is not the case in many places. What about those clients? Should they be denied an in-person relationship with a instructor just because that person is their therapist (who is, after all, trying to help them become more at home with themselves and with their brilliant sanity)? In general, it is recommended that one's meditation instructor be a real person as opposed to a book or blog entry. What if their therapists are the only ones around who know about, and can introduce them to, meditation?
Personally, I remain conflicted about the question of whether therapists should teach their clients to meditate. As I will address in the next blog entry, I have generally chosen to help clients develop mindfulness in other ways and to encourage those who are interested in meditation to find alternative means of receiving meditation instruction. I imagine that I will continue to decide on a case by case basis-depending on the actual situation in the present moment-whether to offer some simple introductory instructions for those who are interested in starting a meditation practice or to refrain from becoming a meditation instructor for my clients.
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