Sitting with What Is
Sitting in meditation means sitting with what is. The challenge, of course, is that a lot of what is doesn’t feel very good: we experience fear, restlessness, grief, anxiety, shame. For many of us, these experiences are enough to send us fleeing from the cushion, convinced that meditation isn’t for us or that we’re doing it wrong. Others convince themselves they’re meditating when they’re actually engaging in spiritual bypassing, a term coined by John Welwood¹ that refers to the use of spiritual practices to avoid facing pain. When these things happen, a therapist can help us return to the present moment and stay present with what we find there.
When I sit with a client, I pay attention as closely as I can to what I receive through the six sense doors. I consider all of this material relevant, even my own thoughts and emotions. Therapists in my orientation talk about “the field”, which is the space between two people, the place where we throw our unwanted, unacknowledged feelings and experiences. My job is to notice these things, setting aside material that’s clearly about my own personal life, and paying attention to all that remains. In this way, I am focusing on the present moment and trying to stand in the midst of it all, even if it’s painful, frightening, or confusing.
When it seems helpful or relevant, or when what I’m noticing is persistent and strong, I reflect the experience back to the client. This is done as an offering, a pointing to what’s happening now; it’s an invitation to the client to check his/her own experience to see if it matches what I’m noticing. In this way, I invite the client into the present moment. This doesn’t mean that events outside the therapy room or experiences from the past are never discussed. On the contrary—these topics are the heart of therapy. But as they’re explored, the invitation is offered to step back into the present to see how it feels to be talking about these things now. And as we do this, we face the pain that’s there in the present moment together, seeing that it is possible to stand in the middle of it all, even if it’s just for a moment or two.
As we engage in this work of coming back to what is, the client begins to recognize the pain as his/her own cast-off experience. And with this recognition, compassion arises and healing begins. In this way, the relationship between a therapist and client mirrors the relationship we have with ourselves when we meditate. For those of us who struggle to face what is, working with a therapist can help us find our way back.
¹Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation, by John Welwood (2000)