Psychotherapy and Nonduality
It seems that more people are beginning to have intuitions of the insubstantiality of their conditioned self and of an underlying unity with the whole of life. Some of these people happen to be psychotherapists and clients. So the discussion and direct experience of what we are calling nondual awareness, once largely confined to a small group of academics and renunciates, is finding its way into the life of ordinary people living ordinary, worldly lives. The implications for the field of psychology are important.
Most psychotherapy aims at helping people have a better story and image of themselves and to be more in touch with their emotions and bodies. There is real value in becoming a better, more integrated, authentic person. It enhances our relative happiness and makes the world an easier place to live for everyone.
Yet what if our deepest happiness comes through the disillusionment of the separate sense of self? What if the nagging sense of lack, emptiness, and disconnection that so many of us experience, albeit subtly, is an inevitable existential consequence of misidentifying as a discrete somebody? What if a causeless joy and profound inner freedom are our natural birthright, available to anyone willing and able to undergo the pangs of a “second birth?”
There is an emerging possibility in the dialogue we call psychotherapy to take a step beyond the repair and improvement of the self, as important as this is. Instead of being a step forward, however, it is a step back, a deepening and settling in and down. This movement of attention back to its source in and as unconditioned awareness is accompanied by a flowering of presence, quiet joy, profound peace and deep connection.
While in principle there are no preconditions for the recognition of our deepest nature and it is not uncommon to have a brief glimpse of it, in practice it is very difficult to sustain this awareness when one’s inner sense of self lacks some degree of stability and coherence. Letting go into the “groundless ground” of Being or no-self can be profoundly destabilizing and terrifying, somewhat like being in a major earthquake. People who have experienced early trauma and/or absent and disorganized emotional attachments (bonds) will often need to do careful reparative work to establish a functional resilience before their system can tolerate such a major letting go.
Good psychotherapy and disciplines of attention training can play a vital role in supporting the experience of inner calm and resilience. The potential pitfall of trying to fix or improve the self, however, is that it becomes an endless project in itself. After all, what is there that couldn’t use some improvement within each of us? This could keep us occupied for quite some time. As my teacher Jean Klein would sometimes say, “The car is still stuck in the garage.” It is very easy for attention to be seduced and distracted from facing the underlying falseness of the constructed self, even a relatively authentic and well-adjusted one!
Of course, many people are not ready or even interested in exploring beyond the apparently safe, though sometimes rather miserable, confines of their familiar (and familial) self. This is not a problem. Yet it is important that someone who wants to look really deeply into who they are beyond all stories and images be able to work with a therapist or teacher who knows the territory well enough first-hand. A psychotherapist who is oriented in this way brings the additional capacity to work skillfully with difficult emotional and somatic states.