Anxious in NYC
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Anxious in NYC

Healing Through Awareness

When we think about an overgeneralized version of what going to therapy looks like, images of a chaise lounge, a notepad, and comfortably weighted pens in deft, analytical hands swim up to the surface. In the scene, we are leaning back heavily into the lounge with one arm draped over our forehead and the other following the motions of a lively hand as we explain to the professional sitting in the chair nearby our latest woes. After an hour of this, the body holding the notebook pulls a brief but concise diagnosis of the source of our pain seemingly out of thin air and without taking a single breath- schedules our next session to examine our troubles further. This goes on for years.

Or, at least it does in the minds of those who have never been to therapy, and that can conjure a multitude of reasons not to go. People in this category don’t feel like therapy can help them, and not without good causes; people don’t want to feel the helplessness that they imagine when thinking of someone else (therapist/psychologist/psychiatrist) holding the answers to their problems, and they don’t want to go forever.

Enter Buddhist psychology: the path to empowerment for those wanting to improve their mental health but are resistant to commit to therapy and those looking for deeper understanding and involvement in their current sessions.

“The goal in psychotherapy is exactly the same as in Buddhism.” (Carl G. Jung)

A prolific Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Gustav Jung, was one of the first in his field to point to connections within Western psychology and Buddhist teachings. Though Jung was not a man of religion, certainly not a Buddhist or necessarily someone who considered himself spiritual at all, his interest was inspired by the archetypal narratives he found within the philosophy of Buddhism. The methods Jung eventually developed harnessed the fundamental concepts of Buddhist practice in a powerful way that brought insight without focusing on the mysticism that may have deterred others from further examining.

Buddhism and psychology generally follow a similar goal structure; in simple words, the aim is for greater self-knowledge and perhaps discover relief from suffering. In practice, the pursuit of this objective appears as the adoption of meditation practice.

Again, hearing words like meditation can involuntarily birth images of ancient-looking Tibetan monks sitting cross-legged upon the crests of impossibly-high snowy mountain caps with serene, perfectly thoughtless expressions painted on their sun-weathered faces as the deadly cold wind blows harmlessly across them. But if we can take a moment to wave these hazy ideas of what we think meditation is out of our imaginal clouds, we can find the reality of the practice relatively quickly.

Meditation is the practice of noticing.

There is a misconception that is rampant in Western society that meditation is clearing the mind to a degree of spotlessness. The endless stream of thoughts suddenly disappears in a genuinely meditative state, and nirvana is found in that impossible bliss. This is perhaps the point of most significant resistance for most to the practice because of this expectation of maintaining a clear mind does not feel maintainable, let alone achievable.

Instead, let us consider that meditation can consist of noticing that thought stream. Instead of engaging with every thought that can gain our attention and priority, we can choose to let go. We start by maybe noticing the subjects of our studies but not going any further than that as we allow them to flow past us, like watching little paper boats in a brook float by on a warm summer day. This initial practice interrupts the identification of our existence with our thoughts. Here we find that the stream is always there, that to try to stop it would feel like an impossible task, but instead, we can disengage with it by removing our involvement and simply observing.

This is a good entry point into the practice, but if we want to go further, we find there are different ‘rooms’ in our mind we can find ourselves in. An exciting space to explore is one learned while listening to a mindfulness podcast one day (“Synchronicity with Noah Lampert”). The practice involves traveling into the observation space we described previously but then going a step further; can we observe the version of ourselves that is watching the thought stream?

Though at first this psychological vantage point may not be easy to maintain, this is the place in which the tools of mindfulness begin to be helpful to us; not just in training to focus but to work to examine our thought processes in times of distress as well as in therapy settings.

The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism

Buddhist psychology asks us to begin looking at our ‘suffering’ or the things about ourselves or our experiences that we wish we could change. To observe these issues in a way that we can see clearly, we apply our meditation practice. When we are activated in a state of distress or trigger redness, if we can take a moment to breathe and detach from a situation, we can move into a state of observation. What are the subjects of the thoughts that are bubbling to the surface? How is our body feeling? Answering these questions from a place of the word provides the ability to see the ‘truth of our suffering’ or situation without the bias of judgment. From here, we can continue to observe whether or not our feelings and thoughts are rationally connected and notice the beliefs we are holding in conjunction with those thoughts and feelings.

A result of this deep dive into observation is to begin to be more comfortable with experiencing our discomfort. And in this experience, we find the things that once used to cause intense distress to become opportunities to disengage and observe our internal workings. We learn to see where our reactions stem from through this practice, and we can begin to find compassion for ourselves. Where we once may have believed that there was something deeply wrong with us or that we are ‘bad’ for having feelings of anger or jealousy or other societally negatively viewed emotions, we can see these feelings as part of an internal emotional weather system. Storms and clouds just passing by don’t need to be interacted with- acknowledged and allowed to pass through.

These steps of entering a state of objective detachment and observation are much more easily written about than practiced when faced with natural life stress and impact. The intersection of psychotherapy and Buddhist practice becomes a point of interest. Having someone facilitate in guiding us into these states is invaluable- we are still in a state of empowerment and awareness of our internal workings. Still, there is deep support in having another unbiased party to provide a safe space to be vulnerable. It can also offer alternative outlooks on situations you may not have been able to consider on your own. If you are interested in exploring this type of therapy, a quick search on google for Jungian psychoanalysts or Buddhist psychotherapy will lead to several institutions practicing.

“None is deprived of pain here, and we have all suffered in our own ways. I think our journey is all about healing ourselves and healing each other in our special ways. Let’s help each other put all those pieces back together and make it to the end more beautifully. Let us help each other survive.” — Ram Dass

The approach of Buddhist psychology allows for a much more level and less intimidating playing field in a therapy session because there is an admittance in it that we all have and will ‘suffer.’ It is easy for us to move from a place of judgment of ourselves when we think that going to therapy means that there is something ‘wrong’ with us, something ‘other’ about us. Buddhism teaches the process of accepting our wholeness and integrating all the things we wish to change about ourselves through the practice of awareness. When we can see our suffering as the same suffering as those around us, we can move even further to a place of compassion and care. And in this loving awareness, we no longer find the need to punish ourselves, and we can begin to heal in our kindness.

Whether in a clinical setting or self-guided exploration, Buddhist psychology is inevitably one of the most useful and easily accessible tools within reach for anyone interested in self-knowledge, acceptance, and ultimately profoundly healing experiences.

“Our sorrows and wounds are healed only when we touch them with compassion.” — Gautama Buddha

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Dealing with the stresses and anxieties of living in NYC

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