Posted at 2:42 pm in Individual Therapy by jlbworks

My awareness of a spiritual dimension to life is probably rooted in my childhood and adolescent experience as a Southern Baptist—Wednesday night church suppers and prayer meetings, singing in youth choirs, emotional revival meetings, and the abiding belief that there was a God who answered prayers, and also an eternal Hereafter.  I was a true believer, and never allowed a curse word to pass my lips until after I had gone to college.  In fact, I sold Bibles door-to-door for the Southwestern Company during the summer after high school, to earn the tuition for my first semester of college.

During my first three months at college, in the small New England town of Amherst, Massachusetts, I would walk to the Baptist Church on Sunday mornings.  Certainly I know no other Amherst College freshmen who rolled out of bed on Sunday mornings to do this, and by December I had also decided to sleep in.  My beliefs had not changed, but going to church had become less important.

The summer after my sophomore year of college, I flew to Hawaii, and spent my mornings and early afternoons on Waikiki Beach, and my late afternoons and evenings working as a hotel parking lot attendant, which gave me lots of time for reading.  I read Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving and The Dogma of Christ, which altered forever the Christian belief system of my first twenty years.  I realized that I could no longer believe that there was a God who intervened in the actions of the world.

I flew home to Nashville, TN at the end of the summer, and experienced a depression which lasted for maybe three weeks.  I was experiencing the loss of a certainty about life and the loss of a belief system to which I could no longer subscribe.

From then on, I continued to attend my mother’s church (Immanuel Baptist on Belle Meade Blvd in Nashville, TN) when I was home on vacations from college and graduate school, but I no longer believed most of what was said and sung.  It was clear to me that the tragedies and pain of the world were far too great to believe that there was a God who was actually listening to people’s prayers and taking any actions as a result.

During graduate school, in 1974, I helped start a Men’s Group, which included several men who were attenders at the Town of Amherst’s Quaker Meeting.  I began to also attend, and became close friends with Frank Culley, whom I first met in the Men’s Group.  Frank is 14 years older than I am, and he had previously been a Trappist monk, living in silence, from the ages of 21 to 36, at Berryville Monastery, in rural Virginia.

I spent many hours with Frank, often on long walks in the woods around his cabin outside Amherst, talking about many things, including life and love and spiritual paths.  Another man in the Men’s Group, Kent Poey, who was also a psychologist, had spent the summer of 1974 at Naropa, a Buddhist Studies Center, in Boulder, Colorado.  When I talked in the group about my unsatisfying experiences with Transcendental Meditation, Kent encouraged me to attend Naropa in order to learn a more authentic Buddhist meditation.

The following summer, in June, 1975, I finished my doctoral program and then camped out cross-country with my good friend, Allen Davis.  I enrolled at Naropa, in an intensive five week course in Vipassana meditation, taught by Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzberg. We meditated three to four hours-a-day, and all day on Sundays, when we had an audience with Naropa’s founder, Trungpa Rimpoche.  We listened to many compelling “dharma talks” by Jack, Joseph, and Sharon.

These teachers brought a wonderfully eclectic approach to spiritual practice, and read to us from the mystical practitioners of many faiths—from Thomas Merton, the Sufis, the Hasidic masters, the desert monks of Palestine, and of course from Buddhist texts such as the Dhammapada.  It became clear to me that these mystical practitioners, speaking from such diverse perspectives, across continents and over two thousand years, had all said very similar things about the nature of God and spiritual practice.

That summer’s experience at Naropa did give me a perspective which has strongly shaped my path, has stayed with me, and has led me to continue to read, to meditate, and to look for the intersections of spiritual and psychotherapy practice.  I’ve often thought about how spiritual and psychological work have led me in very similar directions.

I moved back to Nashville, TN in 1991, having not been a church member for 25 years.  A psychologist colleague introduced me to the Unitarian Church, which I found, unexpectedly, to be a haven for other seekers such as myself, who were looking for a spiritual community which draws upon many sources of religious inspiration, and which believes deeply that there is no single route to follow in trying to lead a spiritually informed life.

As Jack Kornfield writes in A Path With Heart, “Spiritually mature persons…understand that here is not just one way of practice or one fine spiritual tradition, but there are many ways.  Their flexibility understands that spiritual life is not about adopting any one particular philosophy or set of beliefs or teachings, that it is not a cause for taking a stand in opposition to someone else or something else…In place of arrogance, the Buddha recommends freedom, and reminds his followers that those who grasp at philosophies and views simply wander around the world annoying people.  The flexibility of heart brings a humor to spiritual practice.  It allows us to see that there are a hundred thousand skillful means of awakening.” (p. 36)

I view myself as a Buddhist psychologist, finding great value in the Buddhist understanding of the nature of Mind, in how Buddhism sees Attachment and Aversion as the primary sources of human suffering, and in its focus on meditation practice as the basic path to freedom of suffering.  As Sylvia Boorstein so wonderfully puts it, “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”

I enjoy bringing meditation and Buddhist psychology into my professional life.  At the American Academy of Psychotherapists meeting in Park City, Utah, I led a workshop on “Meditation and Psychotherapy,” in which we did both sitting and walking meditation.  At an Academy meeting in West Virginia, I co-led a workshop entitled “Yoga, Meditation, and Inner Process,” in which we utilized yoga and meditation as vehicles to enhance psychological growth.

I continue to look for those ways that psychological growth and spiritual practice intersect, and to understand how traditional religions ideas can be reframed into more wholistic and helpful concepts.  When they asked him how to pray, Thomas Merton said:  “Pray?  What’s that?  Pray is how I breathe.”  I remember Jack Kornfield telling us, paradoxically, at Naropa, “The psychological task of life is to build a self.  The spiritual task of life is to let go of self.  And these two tasks continue throughout our lives.”