Where Rivers Meet: Awareness Practice in Relationship

by Judy Lown

Two traditions……….

An image that often comes up for me in thinking about Core Process Psychotherapy is of two rivers converging and combining to become one big river. One of these rivers is the longstanding Buddhist tradition, stretching back over 2500 years, of individual meditation or mindfulness practice. The other is the much more recent development of Western psychotherapy, first appearing towards the end of the nineteenth century. Both Buddhism and Western psychotherapy focus on the nature of the human condition, especially suffering and how to end it, so it’s not surprising that since the mid 20th century there has been a lot of interest in how these two approaches might be intertwined.

This was the project that caught the imagination of the founders of CPP, Maura and Franklyn Sills. In the 1970s both were involved in meditation practice and in various types of Western psychotherapeutic work. Maura, for example, studied humanistic and neo-Reichian psychotherapy and was also engaged in the psychiatric world through her job as an occupational therapist. A central perspective of the founders – and one that continues in CPP today – is that life is essentially a spiritual journey. Buddhism, or any contemplative tradition, teaches us that there is spiritual meaning to life and that we can explore and engage more fully in that realm of meaning. For us in the West, however, there are particular obstacles on the spiritual path presented by the nature of the modern Western psyche.

For contemporaries of the Buddha, there was no sense of the psyche being separate from the body and there was no sense of the individual being separate from the families and communities to which they belonged. The Pali word ‘namarupa’ describes the oneness of the body/heart/mind. Even today, in Buddhist countries, you can ask someone where their mind is and they will point to their heart. When the Buddha was first teaching, people knew they were interconnected. Communal existence and heart-based interaction characterised much of life. What was good for one person was good for everyone. If one member of the family was in trouble the whole family was in trouble. Well-being for the community meant well-being for all. One mind, many beings. In a lot of ways, that aspect of the Buddha’s teachings on awakening which has to do with taking responsibility for being “a light unto yourself” and undertaking solitary meditation practice has to be seen in the context of a culture based on communality and interconnectedness. For people in that environment the obstacles lay not in realising non-separateness but in recognising that no-one else could do the work of awakening for you.

For us in the modern Western world it’s different. Our obstacles lie at the other end of the spectrum. What has atrophied for us is knowing we are non-separate. We have distanced ourselves from unified consciousness through the elevation of individualism and its multiplicity of consequences. Not only do we live lives that are more and more fragmented from one another but we have also inherited the cloak of Cartesian dualism which splits us internally. Mind is separated from body and given superiority. We point to our heads, not our hearts, when we are asked where our minds are. We dwell in only one small part of our whole potential. As a character in the Iris Murdoch novel, Messageto the Planet, puts it, our psyches are as vast as the universe but we cower like beetles in one tiny corner of them. We are not just cognitive states and we are not just our psychohistories. We have bodies and we are emotional and energetic beings. There is spiritual meaning to our lives. We need a means of enquiry which incorporates all of who we are.

Western psychotherapy on its own does not always recognise that there is more to us than our personalities and our cognitive processes. This might partly be because psychotherapy itself emerged in the wake of individualism and the mind/body division. A psychotherapy that only looks in one place will only find what lies in that place. There’s a Sufi story about Nasrudin who is searching under a streetlight for his key which he has lost. A friend approaches him and asks what he is doing. Nasrudin tells him and the friend asks where he lost the key. “Over there down the street”, says Nasrudin, pointing into the darkness.  “Then why are you looking here?” asks his friend. “Because I can see here”, Nasrudin replies.

On the other hand, Westerners who meditate are discovering that solitary practice is not necessarily enough. Not only is it not cultivating freedom and happiness but in many cases it can encourage dependency on teachers and reinforce patterns of withdrawal and separation. Some experiences in meditation, particularly those arising from psychohistorical wounding, can become overwhelming and we cannot be with them on our own. Most of our wounding comes about through relationship and it is through relationship that healing lies. I don’t know about you, but when I’m sitting in solitary meditation, most of that moment-to-moment stream of experience that passes through the body/heart/mind is relationally based. That tightness at the bottom of my back and round my shoulders speaks of tensing and contracting with fear when I’m in situations or with people I find challenging or difficult. That pain in my heart, which brings tears welling up in my eyes, opens into grief and loss or a sense of shame and guilt connected to loved ones in my life. Those thoughts of all the things I have to do that insist on returning again and again remind me of how driven I can feel to do what I think others expect of me.

However, let’s for a moment consider what benefits can derive from psychotherapy and solitary meditation practice. Many aspects of Western psychotherapy are excellent at addressing the variety of forms of dis-ease and anguish that beset us in the West. A lot of these are directly or indirectly related to the splits in the individual and collective psyche associated with the rise of individualism and the fragmented nature of our lives. I am enormously grateful for the healing that has been available through the different types of psychotherapy in which I have been involved. Longstanding patient and loving attendance to the hurts arising from my own personal history has enabled lifelong debilitating patterns and beliefs to soften and loosen. Strengthening a sense of self in a world that can easily erode and even demolish it has been a very necessary process at the same time as embarking on an enquiry into letting go of the self. What I have learned, though, is that we need something to let go into. We can just change the furniture around and that’s fine. But if we’re really wanting to look further than under the nearest streetlamp we need to open to a much vaster field of interconnection and allow ourselves to be held by that in us which is not separate from the non-separateness in others.

Similarly, I can’t imagine life without a solitary meditation practice – and when I say ‘solitary’ I’m including sitting with one or two others or in a group. I mean what is often referred to as ‘vertical’ silent practice where gestures are adopted to help the attention to draw inwards, where usually an object like the breath aids a process of internal settling around our midline and provides a container for noticing the arising and passing of an ever changing stream of experiences. Apart from being a practice for daily life, I find that meditation is a central resource in the work of psychotherapy. Along with Kum Nye, a Tibetan form of movement practice, sitting meditation nurtures the spiritual confidence and stamina to meet all the conditions which arise in the relational field with another. Walking meditation and bringing mindfulness into all our daily activities likewise support the work. We need to come into the horizontal from the vertical – to notice what it’s like inside us before we attempt to come into relationship. If I don’t do this, I risk coming from the reactiveness of my past conditioning, I risk remaining at the level of my personality and limiting the potential of the therapeutic relationship to that level.

….. become one

So how can psychotherapy and meditation be brought together? How do they meet and what does that meeting offer? The challenge faced in Core Process work is that of bringing awareness practice off of one cushion and putting it onto two (or more). The invitation is to explore what happens when we make ourselves available to our deepest natures in the presence and company of another. Although we call this work psychotherapy it could just as easily be described as joint meditation practice but where the context is one person (the ‘therapist’) offering to be present and available to the experience of the other (the ‘client’). This is an encounter which can bring as much movement and transformation for the ‘therapist’ as it does for the ‘client’. Just as in individual practice, the ‘client’ is asked to bring their present moment-to-moment arising experience into the space. The ‘therapist’s’ job is to bring her awareness to what is happening. What is created is a relational field in which both ‘client’ and ‘therapist’ are affected by whatever arises through this portal of relationship, whether this is personal, interpersonal, archetypal, collective or ancestral. The ongoing enquiry is whether awareness in and of itself can be transformative. The therapist is not an expert but a spiritual companion in this enquiry. She has no agenda but to cultivate awareness. She is not trying to ‘do’ anything – to interpret, to rescue, to fix, to lead, to come up with solutions. All she has to do is to rest in awareness.

This is both simple and hugely challenging. We know how hard it can be sitting on our own seeing if we can just notice what’s happening and be with it rather than getting caught up in it or trying to push it away. Most of us when presented with another’s experience want to do something about it. We either find ourselves reacting in some way based on our own past experience or we struggle to make the other person feel better. Although theory plays a part in this work, by far the biggest emphasis is on cultivating the inner skills and practices of the ‘therapist’ to be able to ‘be with’ the client. The work starts and ends with our own embodied practice – an embodiment of mind/heart/body. Everything that there is to know is available through embodied presence. The Buddha said, “In this body, a fathom long, I declare are the world, the arising of the world, the ceasing of the world and the path that leads to the ceasing of the world.” Through deep investigation of all that the body experiences we can discover the Four Noble Truths. The knowing is not a cognitive knowing but a direct experiential knowing which comes from bringing awareness to our arising experience.  A lot of what we think we know is actually constructed through the activity of the cognitive mind. I might think I’ve failed at something yet again and start telling myself I’m no good and never will be. If I bring awareness to this eruption of thoughts and feelings there can be a sense of space and a direct ‘knowing’ that this is not true, that it is a surge of reactions rather than the truth of the matter. I can discover how I cause myself suffering through either wanting to indulge or repress various experiences and I can discover how, if I let them, all experiences naturally exhaust themselves. This is what the Buddha called ‘nirodha’ – cessation. It’s not about getting rid of anything but being able to be with things as they take their natural course.

In a spiritual context, then, the therapeutic encounter is one involving all of who we are and where we open to all of what arises – or to as much of it as we can. Some of this might be experienced as that ‘direct knowing’ (or in Buddhist terms, ‘clear comprehension’) level – that sense of knowing something, almost ‘in the body’, without thinking. It usually manifests as something that has meaning but no agenda or goal. It is often very fleeting and non-verbal and when we try to find words to describe it, it’s gone, yet we know we have been changed by the experience. This is very similar to what William James described as “the Vague” and later Eugene Gendlin calls “the felt sense”. This is a subtle embodied layer of experience which holds a lot of tranformative potential.

Equally important is an intention to stay open to “not knowing”. The Western elevation of cognitive thinking tends to promote the view that we can know and understand – and usually control – everything. It’s interesting how control is also a way of separating – if I’m trying to control something or someone (and this comes up a lot in therapy) then I am separating myself off from that object or person. I’m making it ‘me’ and ‘other’ and I’m attempting to make something happen according to ‘my’ wishes or views. There is far more that we don’t know than we do and this is just as true in the therapeutic relationship as in every other aspect of life. If we can remain receptive and non-judgmental, without agenda or goal, then again both client and therapist stay present to what is arising moment-to-moment and to what can co-emerge through the portal of relationship. The therapist is attuning with her whole body to a very wide field of possibilities. She directs her attention as much inwards to what is happening in her feelings, thoughts, emotions and sensations as to what is happening for the client. The therapist attends to each moment through the experience of its effect and with no purpose other than to help bring awareness to that experience.

So the spiritual practice and intentionality of the therapist stand at the centre of Core Process Psychotherapy. Witness consciousness is the touchstone of the work. Neither therapist nor client need to be Buddhists but there does need to be an ongoing contemplative practice on the part of the therapist to enable them to sustain this place of witness consciousness. Often, they are holding this intention for the client when the client is unable to hold it for themselves, but what usually happens if one person is holding such awareness for another is that the other begins to develop more of this awareness for themselves. They begin to make a relationship with their own process rather than being totally identified with it.

This is a brief view of some of the history and underlying ideas to Core Process Psychotherapy where the two traditions of Buddhism and Western Psychotherapy come together to offer a possibility of working with human suffering. Although the Karuna institute is based in Dartmoor, England, we have run two successful foundation courses already here in Ireland and hope to run another next March.

Judy Lown 2005 and edited by Deirdre Walsh 2006

Judy Lown lives in Brighton and is an accredited Core Process Psychotherapist, Supervisor and senior tutor at the Karuna institute, Devon, England.

Deirdre Walsh lives in Cork and is also an accredited Core Process Psychotherapist and supervisor. She has been on the Karuna staff team for a number of years with a particular interest in bringing CPP to Ireland.

For more information contact: Deirdre Walsh 087-7931715 or email walshdn@eircom.net


Murdoch, I. (1991, reprint) Message to the Planet. England: Penguin