In Buddhism we take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
This is ritualised in a gesture of surrender that with joined hands we touch our head for Buddha (empty radiant consciousness) our throat (truth perceived in emptiness) and our heart (compassion that comes out of the recognition of our oneness with the sangha of all beings) and then prostrating to the ground (symbolic of giving up our ego’s prideful self-centred agenda).
On the relative level Buddha is the historic figure who through his example shows us what is possible, Dharma is the teachings he gave on what is possible for us to realise and Sangha is the community of practitioners dedicated to practicing his teachings.
There are three traditions or vehicles Buddhists can use to free themselves from suffering. Hinayana emphasizes the realisation of the inherent emptiness of all things, especially our sense of self. This realisation leads to the renunciation of seeking happiness in attachment to pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The core practice is vipassana, which could be described as resting as the eternal silent aware radiant emptiness that allows all impermanent sensory phenomena, whether pleasant or unpleasant, to come and go.
Clinging to a solid separate sense of self and trying to find lasting happiness in things that are passing leads to suffering and is what brings people to therapy. Therefore therapy needs to help people experience the silent still emptiness of their unconditioned nature. In addition to practicing mindfulness this can be facilitated by guiding people through the conditioned layers of experience until they come to the unconditioned ground of being.
At the heart of Mahayana practice is the Bodhisattva vow, which is the promise to work for the enlightenment of all beings. The vow arises out of the recognition that there is only one ocean of consciousness, even though at the gross level of awareness it seems like we are separate individual waves.
Having compassion and working for the enlightenment of all beings arises out of the awareness that there is no separation. Taking refuge is really just surrendering to the truth of oneness. To perceive and act in any other way creates suffering and is what brings people to psychotherapy. Therapy needs to help people experience their interconnectness with all beings and by helping them release the obstacles to having loving and harmonious relationships.
The essence of Vajrayana practice is the commitment to fully awaken in this lifetime and embody Buddha nature. At the core of these teachings is the recognition that we are all Buddhas whether we know it or not. Vajrayana expands taking refuge in the Sangha to include taking refuge in the Lama, Yidams and Wisdom Protectors.
To take refuge in the Lama is to be inspired by their enlightened qualities. They help us realise our Buddha-nature in the present with their spacious loving presence and precise descriptions of the enlightened view. Lamas are like tuning forks of truth, and when that embodiment of truth rings true it resonates with the Buddha-nature within us. The more we as therapists can embody these timeless qualities, the more we can help our clients discover these qualities within themselves.
A young first-time mother came to see me because she was feeling very anxious and was having difficulty bonding with her newborn baby, who was refusing her breast. I asked how she felt about this? She said guilty because she was afraid that it meant she didn’t love her baby. That must be a horrible feeling I replied in empathy and she nodded yes.
I asked her to really feel the guilt and then find out what the feeling beneath the guilt was. She welled up with tears and told me she was sad.
“You are genuinely sad aren’t you? And the only reason you feel sad about not being able to love her, is because in your heart of hearts you want what? for your darling baby?”
“I want her to feel loved and cared for.” she replied, as her tears began to flow.
“And as you let yourself feel even deeper inside that heartfelt desire for her to feel loved and cared for, what feeling is there that drives that desire?”
She went silent and still with a slight look of confusion on her face. Seeing the opening, I made the suggestion, That’s right; just relax and let yourself connect with that feeling deep in the core of your being.
In a soft tender voice she responded with, “Love.”
“So deep down inside you feel love. And that love you are feeling makes you really want your baby to feel loved and cared for. Is that right?”
Yes. And right now, where in your body do you feel that ember or flame of love? She pointed to her heart and replied. “Here”
“You are feeling love right there in your heart. Beautiful. Is it against your religion to feel love?” I said with a mischievous smile. She smiled back and said no.
Therefore you can give yourself permission to relax into that feeling of love can you not? She nodded. And if it feels helpful for you to enjoy that feeling of love even more deeply, will your eyes close?
Her husband had been holding their baby while I was working with her. The baby who had been a bit grizzly throughout the session gradually settled and fell asleep about the same time mum became calm and tuned into her inner loving Buddha nature.
“As you enjoy that loving feeling more and more fully for your baby, how does that effect the way you imagine cuddling her, stroking her soft skin or merely enjoy being a mum? “It just feels natural and more enjoyable.”
Her GP let me know that the baby had begun breastfeeding later that afternoon.
Yidams are Buddha-like deities that serve as connections to different aspects of our Buddha-nature. Taking refuge in Yidams is practiced by imagining ourselves in relationship with an enlightened deity from which we receive blessings of their enlightened qualities. We imagine their light of compassion, kindness or clarity shining into and filling us with everything we think we are lacking.
People come to therapy, because they tend to curse and shame themselves, as they have been cursed and shamed by others. Good therapy helps people learn to bless themselves. It is easy to ask clients what they feel they are lacking and if that quality had a colour, what colour would it be? And then to explore how it feels to be filled with that quality associated with that colour. Like feeling filled with the blue light of peace and then how looking with peaceful eyes effects the way they perceive the issue they are dealing with.
Wisdom protectors are those wrathful looking deities you see in Tibetan tankas. Protectors are often described as demons that became enlightened and now serve to protect the truth. The protectors are usually depicted in an aura of flames. The most basic of our emotional demons are fear and anger. With Vajrayana practice rather than trying to avoid, manipulate, repress or express anger or fear in anyway, we surrender fully to their energetic qualities. When we don’t buy into the concepts habitually attached to these 3 emotions or act them out in any way, but merely sit with them there is a sense of sitting in the fire of fear or the fire of anger. When we surrender to this experience all our attachments and aversions that cause us to suffer are burned away. People come to therapy because the ways they have tried manage their fear and anger have failed them. They need our help in giving up resistance to these powerful allies so they can burn way the illusions that obscure inner peace and joy.
Wisdom protectors show up in people’s lives in many ways to promote healing and learning. Milton Erickson who became a prolific writer and master psychiatrist was so dyslexic that he didn’t realize the dictionary was alphabeticalized until he was fifteen. As a consequence whenever he looked up a word, he kept searching from either the beginning or end of the dictionary until he found his word. When his folly finally dawned on him, he thanked his subconscious mind for tricking him into improving his vocabulary.
An important purpose of psychotherapy is to bring conscious acceptance to those experiences that seem demonic and discover the protector wisdom that is trying to find its place in the world. Symptoms occur when people aren’t able to trust in the aspects of their Buddha nature that life is calling forth.
A client who had worked his way out of a severe sexual addiction was concerned by what he called pornographic images that were invading his consciousness whenever he was beginning to make love with his wife. He was practicing mindfulness of his present sensory experience to try to keep himself from thinking about the images, but they persisted.
Assuming that everyone and everything including symptomatic parts of people have Buddha-nature, I asked if he had asked that part of him that kept putting those images in his mind, what its purpose was. He looked a little bewildered by my question and replied, “No”.
I suggested he go inside and ask that part what it was hoping he would experience through bringing those images to mind, he responded with, “sexual arousal”. And ask that part what it is hoping you’ll experience through that? “Pleasure and enjoyment.” And once you feel pleasure and enjoyment then what does he want you to experience? “Satisfaction and contentment?”.
And once you’re feeling satisfied and content how is he hoping you will relate with your wife? “To share the pleasure and enjoyment.”
And once the two of you are sharing the pleasure and enjoyment, what is that part of you hoping you will do with those images? “Include those sexual acts into the love making.”
And what is this part hoping you and your wife will experience through doing that? “Share more pleasure and affection and feel more in love.”
Isn’t that great. You have your own inner Kama Sutra expert coaching you on how to have better lovemaking and feel more in love, do you not? His head nodded in agreement.
As therapists it is important to remember the old Zen adage that the moon is not the finger pointing at the moon. Teachings of the dharma (the way things are) are not the way things are. As therapists we must be like Buddha and not ask our clients to believe anything we say, rather we must help our clients open to the experiences that dispel illusions and reveal the truth that liberates. To be effective therapy must move from conceptual to experiential; and help clients find freedom from limiting concepts through coming to their senses and take refuge in the way things are.
How reality reveals itself is a mystery. Out of touch with our Buddha-nature we try to take refuge in attempting to predict and control the way things will go. However the very ways we try to control things, are the ways we keep recreating the same patterns of suffering in our lives.
This tendency is very important for us as therapists to recognise in ourselves. If therapy is not progressing and our clients are not gaining more freedom from their suffering, then we can be sure that we are bound by some concepts that complement the limiting concepts our clients hold. Therapy gets stuck in counter-transference when the therapist’s unenlightened mind is entranced into collusion with the client’s unenlightened mind.
The Buddha taught that we can find freedom from suffering by following the Eightfold Path. At the top of the list is Right View. From having the right view comes the right intention and from that come right speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. Right view is seen when we take refuge in our Buddha-nature, which is joyful, peaceful, loving and free. People come to therapy because they are concentrating their minds and efforts on trying to find joy, peace, love and freedom through trying to control their thoughts, words, actions and livelihoods, but they are driven from the view of feeling inadequate, internally divided, unlovable and trapped. Which leads them into making the unconscious choices that confirm these misconceptions. Therapy needs to help clients to find refuge in their Buddha- nature so like the anxious new mother they can make choices out of wisdom, love and wholeness.
When we use taking refuge as a model for psychotherapy, then therapy becomes a path to enlightenment. And our role as therapists is to help our clients awaken to their Buddha-like potential. It is important to remember that 5 this does not mean we try to turn them into Buddhists. Remember Buddha was not a Buddhist; and like Buddha, everyone must follow their own path. But at the same time, remember their path has led them to you.