The influence of Buddhism seems to be growing in America, to judge from the stadium-sized crowds who come to hear the Dalai Lama, and the well-attended meditation classes being held in community centers across the country. Buddhist principles are even turning up in new, hybrid forms of psychotherapy.
Mainstream psychological theories put conflict and struggle at the root of human personality. By contrast, Buddhist psychology asserts a core of wisdom, compassion and happiness at the root of the self.
Tara Brach is a clinical psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher. In her new book Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of A Buddha, she outlines her own hybrid perspective on psychotherapy and human happiness. The key, she says, is an awareness of the sense of personal shame and inadequacy many people in American culture are burdened by.
"I notice, with myself, how many moments in the day I'm monitoring [myself], and in some part of my brain I am thinking 'well, how am I doing right now?' And I have some standards I am comparing against and in some way I'm falling short," she explains. "I'm not being intelligent enough, or loving enough, or present enough for another person. And sometimes I am aware of all that process and other times it's just an unconscious souring towards myself. But if I am really in a bad mood and if I stop and pay attention, I'll see that in some way I've turned on myself. I think I'm failing in some way."
Ms. Brach believes that this habit of self-doubt is partly due to the high value American culture places on individual achievement, where we must accomplish in order to belong. Also, she says, Western industrial economies encourage us to produce and consume in ever-greater quantities, and to use material success as a key indicator of happiness. Ms. Brach adds that these cultural pressures are usually exerted by one's parents during childhood.
"So we grow up with this sense that our natural self is not acceptable," she says.
This is where therapy can come into the picture. Traditional Western "talking therapies" usually seek to uncover the personal stories in a client's past that give rise to being dissatisfied or unhappy in the present.
In contrast, says Ms. Brach, Buddhist psychology teaches that that our deepest suffering arises from a mistaken understanding of who we are. Where personal stories reinforce a sense of being a separate deficient self, our true nature is awareness - open, wakeful, tender.
What this means is that genuine healing is not coming up with a better story of who we are, or might be. Ms. Brach likens our true being to an endless ocean. Just as waves arise on the ocean's surface without altering its basic nature, so our endless being gives rise to personalities and all their dramas, without touching the all-pervading awareness underneath.
"In other words, our inherent nature is to be wakeful and to be compassionate. And so really rather than making an effort to be free, if we can simply relax and pay attention, we naturally will re-inhabit that wakefulness and that kindness," she explains. "It's who we already are, and all we are doing is releasing the obscurations. We're releasing the old habits that stopped us from living in that inner freedom."
The Buddhist method, which Ms. Brach has integrated into her own practice, is first, to recognize that our fear-based grasping and aversions are at the root of our suffering. This is what keeps us identified with the waves of our personality and forgetful of the ocean of our true being. To rid ourselves of this suffering, we must learn to pay attention to the truth of our experience in the moment, and to meet that experience with kindness. For Ms. Brach, the strongest messages come from one's own body, not one's history.
"And so most of the work I do with people therapeutically is to use the background story to help them connect with where that emotion lives in their body, but then to let go of the story and to bring a full compassionate attention to the grip of fear, to the ache of loss right as it is, right in this moment, in the body," she says.
She cites the recent example of a client who came to her after learning that her husband had been having an extramarital love affair.
"And what we did in our therapy was to help her get into her body and feel the depth of the loss and the grief and, most deeply, the shame that she felt at 'something must be horrifically wrong with me for him to have left.' And for many months, between me giving a kind of a supportive presence and her learning to be where that shame and fear was in her body, she began to hold that suffering with kindness," she says.
Ms. Brach says it was her client's courageous opening to her own pain that helped set her free.
"When … there was a genuine kind of compassion towards her own woundedness, then she could look at him with open eyes and see how his vulnerability might have led him to act in the way he did and to be able to hold him with some kindness," she explains. " It didn't mean that she didn't need to draw boundaries and insist on therapy and really require that there be a change before she was willing to move forward in their relationship."
But Ms. Brach points out that one needn't be in therapy to benefit from what she calls "radical acceptance." These insights and experiences are available to everyone, all the time.
"The Buddha said basically 'take this world of ideas in two hands, and drop it.' And that's a wonderful teaching. But it is also a life's training [to step out of our stories and directly experience the wakeful tender presence]," she notes. " And I like to remind people to just be patient and gentle. Because we have such a habit of forgetting, of going to sleep, of judging ourselves, of living in a trance. We actually need some practice that helps to us pay attention and wake up out of that trance, and to take that on out of humor and a love for life. Because we want live these moments fully. Because we want to love fully without holding back."