Reconsidering Psychotherapy: A Nondual Opening To Diversity
by Susan Kahn
In this article, I set out to address a nondual audience regarding psychotherapy. My specific aim is to challenge the position that the whole of therapy can be replaced by a nondual approach. While nonduality holds the key to overcoming endless cycles of emotional pain, the notion that there is only one way to address diverse emotional issues and circumstances, can create a limited, fundamentalist lens. Instead, nonduality and psychotherapy can complement each other. Why this is not contradictory is another area of this article’s focus.
People go to nondual teachers to see through the myth of a separate self and all duality, and usually with the hope of alleviating their deepest distress. Nonduality provides the insight to uncover the root of emotional affliction, the whole painful human misunderstanding, and then the opportunity to overturn it.
Comparatively, psychotherapy often misses the primary recognition of selflessness. However, therapy offers effective methods for assessing and responding to a diverse range of emotional difficulties that also need to be considered. This is especially true in early into middle stages of therapy.
To recognize only one method as useful or correct, can be a significant liability.
A nondual approach can potentially overlook important individual difficulties and practical solutions. On the other hand, psychotherapy can attend to branches of issues without end. Each needs to consider the other, even though the function, the job of each, need not be the same.
The different emphasis between nonduality and psychotherapy has its place. Nonduality tends to highlight unity and sameness, while therapy often addresses diverse individual situations. However, nonduality is not at odds with diversity, just as the trunk of a tree is not inherently separate from or at odds with its branches or blossoms.
While there are valid criticisms of therapy from a nondual standpoint, there is a lot to respect within this well investigated, practical field of study. To reduce psychotherapy to a misguidance, to a belief that it is an expendable field of practice merely catering to illusion, can do a great disservice. “Nondual diversity” recognizes any knowledge as relative and relational, not absolute, and therefore also values practically.
I have heard the nondual critique that therapists view their clients as needing therapy because they see them as “broken.” If this statement means that there is no separate self to be broken, I see the point. It is the key point, but does not cover the full range of considerations. Despite the absence of an independent self, there are experiences of distress that need to be assessed and responded to. Symptoms matter, not only for the person that they appear to, but for families as well. Would we say that medical doctors are unnecessary because there is no separate physical body?
If someone is depressed, it is not always the best initial response to emphasize that there is truly no one to be depressed. There are various effective methods, some with a greater nondual emphasis and some less, depending upon the individual situation. Addressing emotional affliction is not a “one size fits all” proposition. If a person is exhibiting self-destructive behavior, one may not want to bring up selflessness right away. If someone is experiencing obsessive thinking or compulsive behavior, there are effective therapeutic strategies to consider. In my opinion, nonduality would do well to include assessment and referrals as a part of its practice.
Regarding the alternative interpretation that therapists see their clients as “broken” in the traditional sense:
I do not see this to be true.
Overall, psychotherapy does not view emotional difficulties as reflecting something true about the client, but as the result of false views. In one of the most commonly used approaches these days, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, ongoing emotional pain is seen to be the result of distorted thinking or beliefs that stem from events and conditioning. These distortions contribute to behaviors that in turn reinforce the distorted beliefs.
One example of a cognitive distortion is called “all or nothing thinking.” This describes the false view that people and things either need to be perfect or they’re mud! This distortion is characterized by absolutism and a belief in objective rather than relative truth. It contributes to the belief that thought equals an objective reality.
“Labeling” is another cognitive distortion. In this distortion, a quality or characteristic, such as “inferior” is looked upon as an essential truth about oneself or other people. Labeling “concretizes” and creates the impression that characteristics are embedded into things, that people and other phenomena possess solid, fundamental qualities. Labeling (and many other distortions such as “personalizing”) reinforces the belief in a separate self and other phenomena on a daily basis. Exposing labeling, also uncovers the way that language constructs one’s sense of reality, and then helps to deconstruct it. Challenging distortions can lead to increased freedom in everyday life and both deepen and broaden nondual understanding.
In 1999, the 14th Dalai Lama lent his support to the practice of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and said, “If we can reorient our thoughts and emotions and reorder our behavior, not only can we learn to cope with suffering more easily, but we can prevent a great deal of it from starting in the first place.” He referred to cognitive psychotherapy as analytic meditation and stressed the importance of education about this method.
Recently, I have also heard the assumption that therapists see themselves as truly different from and better than their clients. Such a belief would be viewed by therapists as nothing short of grandiose. Compassion, empathy and non-judgment are emphasized at every turn. While nonduality goes further still, in recognizing selflessness, the focus of Humanistic Psychology on therapist-client mutuality and inclusion, has had impressive and inescapable influence throughout the field of modern psychology.
For instance, if a client is idealizing the therapist, this is identified in therapy as an unhealthy, distorted view to be explored and worked through. And if a therapist observes him or herself enjoying this kind of attention, this is seen as a significant issue to reflect upon and resolve. It is never acceptable for a therapist to see oneself as a guru. Introspection is an important practice for us all. Additionally, if a therapist engages in an inappropriate relationship with a client, not only is the license to practice revoked, but depending upon the offense, legal action can be taken.
The overall therapy process is a collaborative endeavor.
- Where is the person coming from?
- What are their expressed needs, short and long-term, generally and specifically?
- Where is there an opening and what would be an effective method to help move through the “stuckness”?
Where the client is at, guides the therapy. Methods and goals are part of the dynamic discussion between client and therapist, at the outset and throughout therapy.
Another nondual critique of therapy relates to “the story of me.” Although nondual strategies critically expose the illusion of the separate, personal story, dismissing stories may not always be the best first approach for everyone. Sometimes people’s stories first need to be aired and made sense of. This is where we can learn from Psychodynamic Therapy. Deconstructing the story directly, can feel powerful and relevant.
For some, attempting to connect-the-dots that run from childhood to current emotional difficulties, can offer a lot of insight and subsequent relief that the story is not ultimately personal. Blame can be replaced with understanding. For stories are a vast web of interrelations. Psychologically, it is helpful to see that one’s difficulties are not intrinsically “who I am,” and ironically, investigating stories can refute the belief that an independent self can even be found in the story! When such nondual realizations are specific, they can be very powerful.
The phenomenon of memory as the great illusionist, presenting the false appearance of the independent continuity of “my life,” can also be uncovered while exploring the story. People easily get stuck in the sense of a separate self unless the myth of inherently existent memory is seen through. This is another example of how deconstructing the ingredients that have constructed the belief in an essential self can be a potent nondual method.
Genuine insight can lead to a liberation from what seemed so real, so concrete and heavy. One can be the magician who sees through the trick of the false appearance of the story of self-hood. Then one can move away from the story, not as an act of blind will, but as the result of not being fooled anymore. Allowing what arises to be, without the overlay of the story of the separate me is a whole different way of living.
The point is that simply bypassing stories from the outset can for some, prolong suffering and impair the readiness to remove the false appearance of a fundamentally separate self altogether. For what one is blind to, can persist in its influence behind the scenes and in subtle ways. Emotions can be tricky and if denied, easily manifest as hidden assumptions about oneself and life. This can keep people in the dark and therefore diminish the opportunity for deep nondual understanding.
“A person seeking help (as the result of long-standing anxiety or depression), may be looking for the magic bullet of nonduality.” —Susan K.
A person seeking help as the result of long-standing anxiety or depression, may be looking for the magic bullet of nonduality. However, symptoms and strategies need to be assessed. The lack of attention to bothersome thoughts, feelings and behaviors can compound difficulties and result in a poor outcome. There are many specific and effective therapeutic interventions that can spare people a lot of pain and are worthy of consideration.
Medical considerations too, cannot be overlooked. Serious physical conditions can mimic emotional symptoms, and to neglect these possibilities can be life threatening. I once saw a client who had what she called panic attacks. She had previously been told by a nondual guide to simply observe these attacks, sit with them, and watch them come and go. There was no further assessment. Its cause turned out to be the result of a serious cardiac arrhythmia.
One last example of a questionable nondual critique of therapy, is the need for the role of the therapist to be eliminated because there is no true separation between the client and therapist. Should the role of the teacher, firefighter or parent be eliminated because everything is nondual? When nonduality excludes diversity it loses relevance and practicality. Although no fixed separation can be found between anyone or anything, does not mean that the functioning of relatively existent phenomena is strictly illusory. What needs emphasizing, is that nothing functions independently, dualistically, as its own thing. We still can and do value functioning and practicality.
It does not follow that functioning roles inevitably prop up the sense of an independent self, although we need to be careful about that. Everyone has different roles in life, relatively speaking. Actually, no one is identical to anyone else, just as no leaf is identical to any other. We are all like leaves on a tree. Although we are not identical, we are not inherently different people either. Recognizing the diverse interconnection between everyone and everything supplies the wisdom of compassion.
There is not one mountaintop view to find absolute truth, including a “view from nowhere.” To refer to a phrase from the Heart Sutra, “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form,” emptiness is not seen as a substance, substratum, essence, absolute nature, or vantage point. Form is not made of emptiness! Emptiness is the absence of inherent existence and the realization of interconnected and relative existence, so that nothing is seen to be its own entity.
Emptiness therefore, is not a place or truth to land in. In nondual interrelationship, we cannot point to one place or notion without considering its relationship to all places and notions. This is why the inclusion of diversity brings nonduality to everything and everything to nonduality.
Addressing emotional affliction is a tall order. Life’s interrelated diversity requires various approaches. Nonduality and psychotherapy can work together and learn from each other. Nonduality is not separate from the world, it is the world. To recognize that there are many considerations in addressing the diverse web of life, including the mind-body, is humility. No one stops learning. Learning only appears to stop when someone constructs the belief that there is but one fundamental truth and approach to realize.
That however, would be “playing God,” a story to be deconstructed.
Susan Kahn, nondual therapist, licensed clinical therapist.
My work as a licensed therapist, is carefully woven together with nondual emptiness teachings. The aim of emptiness teachings is to alleviate suffering and do so in a way that identifies and addresses its root cause, without finding it desirable or even possible to withdraw from relative individual or worldly considerations.
This entry was posted on October 13, 2011 by Nonduality America Blog. It was filed under Random Viewpoints, Spotlight on Teachers and was tagged with a story to be deconstructed, emptiness teachings, Heart Sutra, nondual therapist, nonduality + psychotherapy, playing God, Reconsidering Psychotherapy, Susan Kahn.