The Courage to Be Present

According to Buddhist psychology, on which Contemplative Psychotherapy is based, we do not need to change who we are. Most of us enter therapy or begin a mindfulness meditation practice because we believe that we need to be different, better, more of something, or less of something else. Of course, in one sense, that’s right. We do want to feel better; we want to stop making ourselves suffer.But, according to the Buddhist psychology, the way to do that is by making friends with who we are, not by rejecting who we are and trying to be something else.

My own meditation practice began when my best friend from high school died without warning when we were 32. I was surprised to find how frightened I became. I had never lost a contemporary before.

I trembled and shook; my mind got really speedy. I felt jumpy and wanted to move and do something, but I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t sit still, and I couldn’t do anything else either. I churned out scary thoughts about dying and the fear that I would feel this way forever. As a therapist, I recognized that I was experiencing anxiety, and I really wanted to get away from myself and my agitated body and mind.

I tried a few things, but none of them helped very much. Then, a good friend suggested that I sit down and do some mindfulness meditation. I was ready to try anything. So, with her instruction, I sat down in a quiet place, and I paid attention to my breathing. When my mind wandered away, I gently brought it back to my breath. Again and again. And again
and again.

As I sat there, I still felt anxious, but I was no longer trying to get away from myself. I was surprised to see that I
could be with my anxiety. Shifting my attention from trying to change my experience to being curious about it–from trying
to escape from it to being present with it– allowed me finally to relax with myself. I was still nervous, but I was no longer so scared about feeling scared.

That day was the beginning of my meditation practice and of my interest in what Buddhist teachings could offer to my work as a psychotherapist. While I don’t usually teach my clients to meditate, the idea of making friends with ourselves still pervades my work with myself and with my clients.

By Karen Kissel Wegela Ph.D

Based on a entry in my Psychology Today blog: “The Courage to Be Present.” That is also the title of my most recent book (2010). My earlier book has been re-issued as: “What Really Helps” (1996/2011).

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