From time to time, I take myself off to a Buddhist retreat when my life needs slowing down. ‘Retreat’ literally means to withdraw from one’s ordinary day-to-day concerns – away from the many distractions. ‘Retreating’ for me is a journey of stepping in and stepping out of a moment in time. It is a time for in-the-moment awareness and attentiveness to those multiplicities of levels. My intention is to pull away for a while from personal and professional dilemmas. However, I have learned from attending previous retreats that everything comes with you. Daily meditative practice requires paying attention to what is present. However the dilemmas, the tetchiness of uncertainty, do not suddenly disappear. All I can do is ‘be with’ and allow the struggle unfold without the expectation of a ‘eureka’ moment. Jon Kabat Zinn describes meditation as “watching thoughts itself”.
A lot of my work with clients is trauma related. Mindfulness/meditation is a way of maintaining self-care and well being to offset vicarious traumatisation and secondary trauma.
Certain Buddhist practices have a direct bearing on how I approach my work as a counsellor, and influenced by writers such as Jon Kabat Zinn, Jack Kornfield, Stephen Batchelor, Tich Nhat Hanh and Mark Epstein, who bring Buddhist thinking into the therapeutic arena. I strive to pay attention to letting go, enquiry, curiosity, uncertainty, and presence.
Letting go and acceptance – in Buddhist practice, the process of ‘letting go’ is best described by Stephen Batchelor as “a calm, clear acceptance of what is happening… a contingent state of mind”. Sometimes the most difficult challenge is to let go of one’s old narratives and learn to shape new ones.
Enquiry – as a therapist, I am curious to listen to the other’s story – to enquire, ponder, wonder, feel and share my curiosity. Enquiry comes from different directions, and is informed by the curiosity of not knowing.
The inside looking out – as I meditate, my dilemmas surface in many different ways. I still search to find a solution that ultimately comes from projecting my struggles onto the outside world. Meditation practice is difficult, it requires my staying in the here and now and bear witness to whatever arises. Sometimes I experience a deeper unmediated knowing, an intuitive truth that presents itself in the moment. The process of meditative enquiry is what we as therapists do all the time – be curious, and to attentively deepen our capacity to listen.
Not knowing/uncertainty – therapy as a practice responds to the client’s problem of not knowing. From a Buddhist perspective life is about uncertainty/impermanence. The only certainty we live with is death. Frequently I question to myself, “how do I create a space for uncertainty as a therapist, and how do I meet the client’s uncertainty?”. Perls described it as the “creative void”, Roger’s as “presence”, Spinelli as “unknowing”, Bion as “without memory or desire”, and Keats as “negative capability”.
Presence – meditation practice helps me to cultivate what Geller calls “therapeutic presence”, the state of one’s whole self in the encounter with the client, by being completely in the moment on a multiplicity of levels – physically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually.