How can Therapy and Dhamma Best Complement Each Other?

I’ve worked on myself in so many different ways; through art, dream work, various kinds of yoga, meditation; presently, vipassana meditation, but never have I gone to therapy. I’m now seriously considering therapy as a future line of work, and I want to be sure I understand the value of the service, and how it can really help others.

Recently, I decided to use my school benefit plan to see a psychologist (for a consultation). I found one who seemed a good fit for me; a female elder, previously a professor, and also a meditator; however, just picking up phone was a hard choice to make because part of me was saying no. In the past 18 months I’d become very accustom to receiving perceptual changes through the safety of dhamma. Letting someone else in to help would mean running the risk of suggestibility. Not that a therapist would intentionally lead me astray but I am not immune to influence, it could happen.

The consultation certainly made my head spin. She probed me with just the right medley of questions to extract my life story in a single hour, and for the next few days I found my mind was filled with more chatter than it had been after my first year of academic studies. Such an experience indicates that meditation time would be optimal right after therapy sessions or the end of a therapist’s workday.

The Psychologist I saw advised me:

“To work with people, you do your own work, and everyone has blind spots, even meditators.”  

Buddhist teacher and Psychologist Jack Kornfield holds a similar point of view:

“For most people meditation practice doesn’t do it all. At best, it’s one important piece of a complex path of opening and awakening.”

He explains that blind spots could be due to…

“A lack of parental role modeling, communication practice and maturing of relationships, sexuality and intimacy, career and work issues..ect. Meditation can help in these areas, but if, after sitting for a while, you discover that you still have work to do, find a good therapist or some other way to effectively address these issues.”

…and also states:

“…the best therapy, like the best meditation practice, uses awareness to heal the heart and is concerned not so much with our stories, as with fear and attachment and their release, and with bringing mindfulness to areas of delusion, grasping and unnecessary suffering. One can, at times, find the deepest realizations of selflessness and non-attachment through some of the methods of transpersonal psychology.”

I agree with Kornfield, as does this excerpt from my first impression of vipassana:

“There’s a big difference between intellectually knowing all suffering starts internally, and actually feeling it. Being more based in the heart, I really value authenticity. So feeling different, then analyzing why, is a welcome change. I have always found it hard to conjure up the feelings to match a new mentality. Of course often, a new philosophy will cause me to resonate, but if not, I feel absolutely creepy and dishonest about trying to fake the body language, or vocal tone.”

I won’t be in one location long enough to start therapy sessions immediately, but when I am I plan to seek therapy that includes the feeling/sensation component as described above. I still have a long time to refine on my career direction so I may try more than one kind, as I’m also drawn to expressive, as well as group therapy. If anyone reading has done self-work through both Vipassana and therapy, would like to share about the type of therapy, the areas it helped you in, or how it compliments your practice. Your opinions and experiences would be much appreciated!

9 thoughts on “How can Therapy and Dhamma Best Complement Each Other?

  1. Lisa this is a wonderful post, and so insightful. I am soon starting my Master’s in Counselling and a few months ago have decided it was about time to start some therapy session – the best thing a future therapist can do for themselves!

    So far with only 8 sessions with a skilled therapist and long time meditator, I have to say the ride has been wild and exciting, painful and very rewarding. I’m finding with my experience that both meditation and therapy are great tools in their own unique domains and they complement each other beautifully when used at the same time (a daily Vipassana practise along with weekly therapy sessions).

    My sessions are very deep, lots come up to the surface and with equanimity they are looked at, learned from, fully felt, and having done their job.. they simply pass away. I believe very strongly that had I not been a meditator, my therapy sessions wouldn’t be this fluid, quick, illuminating, and deep. Equanimity helps tremendously!

    I feel as if a few years of mindfulness practise were simply sitting right above my head somewhere. Then in therapy I allowed that awareness penetrate my past and the deep core issues of my life.. and as if that opened so much space and what was then simply hovering above my head started occupying my entire body! I feel a lot more grounded, embodies, a lot more fully human after only 8 sessions.

    Thank you Vipassana, thank you psychotherapy!

  2. Lisa Griffiths

    Awesome response! Thx for sharing. Since you explain that much of the benefit is coming the way you (as a meditator) process, how much does it matter that the therapist themselves is also a meditator?

    I’m asking incase I’m unable to find a meditator-therapist that I can afford, the lady I saw for the consultation was very skilled but unfortunately out of my financial range.

  3. There are certain experiences that a non meditator may not be able to relate to. For everything else, I’m sure any skilled therapist can do a good job.

    It is, however, great to be understood in so many levels by the person I’m working with. If the therapist honours emotions, can hold an open space without shame/ blame for anything that might come up, if they are working with the body in anyway, and are teaching emotional literacy, saying no, healthy use of anger, boundaries, etc.. then that is already something very similar to what I’ve been experiencing in my sessions. For all these, the therapist doesn’t need to be a meditator.. although those who can do these deeply often are whether or not they would advertise themselves as such.

  4. Anonymous

    I’ve never considered becoming a therapist myself, but I did go through therapy both before and after I started Vipassana. For a year or two, I thought Vipassana was replacing therapy for me, but after about a year I went back to doing both. Actually, I realized after a particularly eye-opening 10-day course that I still had some serious problems with relationships and sexuality, and that even though meditation was easing some of the generalized anxiety about these things, Vipassana isn’t really focused on learning to conduct healthy romantic relationships. As a matter of fact, when I first got into meditation, for a while I thought my issues with such things didn’t matter any more, since according to Vipassana (to my understanding, at least) the most direct path to happiness doesn’t necessarily include exclusive relationships or the mainstream vision of romantic love.
    I guess I realized after this course, though, that if those kinds of relationships were something I felt like I wanted in my life, then I should put forth the effort needed to make that happen. For me, that meant going back to therapy, even though I was a bit worried about what a therapist might think of my meditation practice. As it turned out, she had a lot of respect for meditation, and understood what I was looking for in therapy as well. My jury’s still out with regard to talk therapy’s usefulness, though. Sometimes it has seemed like talking about problems and feelings enshrines them in my mind as “things,” and “issues,” whereas they might have passed away had I remained equanimous towards whatever thought or experience, rather than expressing it. Probably what I found most useful in therapy while meditating was the advice I received from the therapist as a trusted elder.

  5. Kristen

    Hi meditators,

    I too have been searching for a psychologist who is a meditator of Goenka’s tradition, but have not been able to find one. I do feel that I should see one…do you know of anyone?

    I have felt gladdened recently to attend group sits nearby home, a reminder of those following dhamma and am also gladdened to know this website exists.

  6. Kristen

    Hi Cenk,

    I am looking for a therapist who is also a Vipassana meditator. Could I contact the therapist you worked with? If so, I could share my email if need be, in order to not post his or her name here for confidentiality.

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