Introduction - Starting Out

“This moment is different, unlike any other moment, This moment is perfect, its now”
The Incredible String Band

There is a universal image of a person waiting outside the gate of a monastery, the mouth of a cave, the door of a hut, until they are admitted by the wise person within. This person who waits at the threshold waits for admittance to the contemplative life that they deeply yearn for and are willing to give everything to achieve. Often they must wait a number of days or weeks or longer, often they must prove their commitment and determination.

Some of the stories about gaining admittance are extremely odd and funny. Two pilgrims heard of a holy man who was reported to live at the top of a mountain and so they decided to pay him a visit which required a journey of fifteen days travel by horse and finally a long trek up to the hermitage. Locally the man was known to be very strange and apparently able to live at the very peak of the mountain with no food and little cover, however such was the faith of the people that instead of calling him a lunatic they considered him a great saint. When the two supplicants reached the Hermits retreat they found an unintelligible mad eyed man with stiff sticking up hair who lived in a kennel like lean too. When they each approached him with gifts he placed the gifts in an old pot full of rubbish and water and returned the compliment by bestowing upon them his dirty handkerchief and a broken teapot that obviously doubled as a potty. At this point their desire for spiritual direction faltered and they were compelled to retire in some confusion. More seriously the Rule of St. Benedict requires that would be Christian brethren be held at the gate of the monastery for five days while they are insulted and pelted with muck to “test the spirit to see whether they come from God”. Others stories demonstrate the depth of spiritual hunger and the lengths some are compelled to go to satisfy it. Hui-K’o, a disciple and master to be, is depicted standing before the fierce Indian Buddhist sage Bodhidharma, proffering his own severed arm as an offering of absolute sincerity and utter seriousness. Bodhidharma himself is no less extreme, he is said to have sat for nine years facing a wall, during which time his legs rotted off, until he gained access to his own spiritual awakening.

Previously admittance to the contemplative life was only granted to the few who could detach themselves from everyday living. However today we are, at least in some ways, more fortunate in that we neither have to scale mountains, nor be insulted and pelted, nor mutilate ourselves, to live a life that gives us access to something beyond ourselves. Whether we call this “something other” Yahweh, God, Allah, Brahman, Buddha nature, Tao or the Great Spirit, finding a way to make this more than an idea or an article of faith has become a reality within our world of greatly eased access. Now, as never before, spiritual teachings are available in books, lecture halls and retreat centres, requiring from us only (!) the discipline and passion to practice them until they become experiential realities. Now the monastery gate, the hermits cave or the forest sages hut reveal their true location. The door that we wait to enter is really the door to our own enlightenment or, more enigmatically, we wait at the “gateless gate” that once passed through is found never to have existed.

This book is an expression of our own waiting at that gateless gate. It has grown directly from our experience of practising and teaching psychotherapy, our interest and involvement, as students, with Buddhism and our struggle to find legitimate ways to marry the two. One of the ways this struggle has been explored is with the many people who have joined with us to participate in two workshops that we have lead together, Initiations along the Way and No One Going No Where. The first reflecting the importance of our self expression and the second the value of “dropping the self”.

These two workshops were concieved at Christmas some years back as we, with my wife Philippa Vick, talked about what most excited us in our work and how to convey it. At that time Elizabeth and I were Directors of Training at the Centre for Transpersonal Psychology in London. Here we grappled with the task of expanding its curriculum which included how best to represent the two biggest influences on Transpersonal Psychology at the Centre. The Analytical Psychology of C.G. Jung and the contemplative traditions, represented principally by John Welwood and Ken Wilber. As this book will demonstrate, these two world views do not easily sit together and within the world of transpersonal psychology have frequently been in conflict through their representatives in both camps. Our intention and hope was to find a third position in which both could co-exist with out diminishing the individual qualities of either. A tall order.

To this end, the first workshop, Initiations Along The Way picked up ideas that fitted in with the notion of our life as a unfolding journey of learning which proceeded by repeatedly moving through experiences that changed us. Behind this way of seeing things was Joseph Campbell’s gathering of hero stories, Jung's psychology of meaning, Malidoma Somé’s work on ritual and the favourite story of all the groups, The Descent of Inanna. Further more Liz added an adaption of an idea from the movie How to make an American Quilt, in which a group of mature women talk as they stitch a bridal quilt for the young women who sits in their midst. We too, like the wise women of the movie, made our own collective quilt of initiatory experiences, expressing them in a mixed media of art materials, our own words and the ritual space that our collective attention and kindness created. In this way the workshop gave an opportunity for all those who attended to have acknowledged their life’s initiations that needed to be recognised. These initiations turned out to be both as different as those who attended and also remarkably similar in that the same basic needs were revealed in all. Some were extraordinarily funny, others very full of love and some almost unbearably painful and tragic.

The second workshop No One Going No where was in comparison very simple, being a weekend of breathing, walking, eating and occasionally talking mindfully. Or at least trying to. The source for this was the practice of mindfulness meditation found in Buddhism and we saw our place in it, not as teachers, but rather as beginners sitting with other beginners. Spending only a few days of doing this with a group has a clear effect. We begin to slow down and notice things more deeply, more intensely. Our breath, usually entirely unconscious becomes conscious, we are aware we are breathing while we are listening, moving, feeling. We also become aware of how often we hold our breath and cut off. Traditionally mindfulness meditation retreats are done in complete silence and use a taxing routine of interspersed sessions of sitting and walking meditations that continue relentlessly through out very long days and are only broken by periods of teaching, silent meals and sleep. These can be daunting, though invaluable, introductions. We, in comparison, provided something much less difficult that particularly differed in that after each session of sitting and walking meditation we would break our silence and compare notes on our experience. Not going into what the experience had meant for us and connecting it into the rest of our life but rather just staying with the bare facts. Can I actually sit still? How many breaths could I stay present with before being distracted? One, two? Did I beat myself up when I mentally wandered off? In this way we all realised that we shared many problems with our practice and so were able to simultaneously feel less isolated and also work on the places where it could improve. Further more I believe this gave a very “user friendly” introduction to mindfulness meditation that made it accessible to everyone by neither presenting it as a path too steep to tread nor as a path that had to be exclusively identified with one religion at the cost of all others. All in all, each and every workshop was a lovely and valuable experience and, for a few, acted as an introduction that they then followed up by joining groups learning and practicing mindfulness together.

To what extent we managed to find a way for both sets of ideas to happily co-exist remains a work in process. However in a very simple way it was perfectly clear that the participants on both workshops, usually taking part in both, found no undue conflict. Rather they experienced a value in the self expression found in one and an equally valuable intimation of briefly putting to one side the centrality of the personal self in the other. While it could be argued that we as a group did not have a sufficiently deep grasp of our subject, particularly the mindfulness meditation, to make an informed judgment, it could also be argued that all new understandings start from small misunderstandings. In this light we can say that experientially these two different world views can sit along side each other happily while theoretically the jury is tantalisingly still out.

For my part the beginning of this synthesis goes further back still. In 1976 I went to live at Tashi Jong Tibetan Handicrafts Community in Northern India. Tashi Jong rests in the foothills of the Himalayas about thirty kilometres east from Dharamsala, the seat of the Dalai Lama. It is a beautiful place. Perched against a back drop of high mountains, it tumbles down a protruding hill that faces across the fertile Kangra Valley. Arriving by bus you immediately see a vividly coloured temple building, red, white and yellow and decorated with gold, shining like a jewel, a kilometre or so up a dusty track. Walking this track you pass through fields dotted with the Indian farmers small mud brick houses, plastered with cow dung and painted with earth colours. From these small children curiously peer out and the occasional adult shyly returns the Hindu greeting “Namaste”.

Tashi Jong is a mixed community. It consists of lay people who earn their living primarily from making carpets, painting icons, Thangkas, and book printing. Monks, many very young and Togdens, hermits, whose whole life is given over to meditation. And finally three Lamas who provide both spiritual and practical guidance. Arriving at Tashi Jong always seems sudden. Crossing over a small stream the dust road swings to the left and up and then one is amongst the houses of the Tibetan community. The Tibetans arrived here as exiles shortly after 1959, under the leadership of the then Khamtrul Rinpoche, following the invasion, destruction and colonisation of their homeland by the Chinese. When I first came here these houses had a very homely feel, stacks of firewood lining the walls and hundreds of small domestic details that spoke of neighbours living closely together and of the poverty that many had to endure. Passing on and climbing you come to the temple, the Gompa, seen from the road. Unlike the rather smoke blackened houses this is glorious and rises up in tiers that resemble a particularly ornate Chinese lantern. In 1976 this building was barely complete but today it is now flanked by equally beautiful buildings which speak of the communities growing prosperity.

Arriving here was for me the realisation of a dream and I was prepared for a long stay of some years while I studied Buddhism and Buddhist iconography. However the best laid plans have a way of going wrong in the most unexpected manner and I found a combination of personal and very painful experiences created a reality that was different from my initial fantasy. The first of these was an unexpected problem with the Buddhism I encountered here. Back in England attending lectures by visiting Tibetan teachers was very exciting and exotic. The maroon and yellow robes, the trumpets and bitter incense, the deep throaty chanting in an unintelligible language, all united to make an enormously romantic experience very far away from almost anything I had previously known. I became enchanted with it and all I read about it and the strange complicated Tantric meditations that were generously given to us. However once in India, unremitting exposure to this heady mix made it overwhelmingly alien and alienating and I found myself feeling that I needed something that I could actually relate to, that spoke to and from my own cultural background.

This was then compounded by the second confusing experience. A Tibetan Lama resident in Italy, Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, arrived at Tashi Jong with a large group of his effusive and voluble students. Norbu Rinpoche, as I was about to learn, had a very keen nose for self delusion and on meeting him I was subjected to mocking attacks upon the motivation of my meditation practice. A meditation practice that I secretly doubted and which I was performing in a superficial and perfunctory manner. As it turned out Norbu Rinpoche was a master within a Tibetan tradition called Dzogchen, “The Great Perfection”, that was quite different from the preliminary Tantric teachings I had been exposed to and was trying to practice. Unlike these teachings, which I had managed to use to take me further away from myself, Norbu Rinpoche’s teaching required that I stay with myself exactly as I found myself. Not running off into some Tibetan fantasy but much more demandingly, being present with my direct experience just as it was.

Unfortunately the perfect common sense of this was lost on me and as events unfolded I found myself equally divided from the kindness of my first teachers at Tashi Jong and also the seemingly anarchic and terrifying teaching offered by Norbu Rinpoche. It was at this point of confusion and drawing back that I met with an American student who happened to be carrying with him several books of the psychologist C.G. Jung, his autobiography Memories, Dreams and Reflections and the rather dense and esoteric Alchemical Studies.

By now the temperate winter months had passed and the ferocious heat of summer had us retreating further up into the mountains to an Alpine like haven in the Kulu valley. Here I discovered what seemed like a whole new me that existed during the hours of sleep. Having struggled through Alchemical Studies I more profitably read Memories, Dreams and Reflections and began to intentionally remember my dreams. Particularly vivid with the emotional conflict I was contending with. Further more and most fortunately, I also found a friend who had received some Jungian therapy. Each day I would walk across the mountain to her retreat hut and over tea tell her my dreams, which we together would then talk about and reflect upon. This unorthodox introduction to Jungian dream work perfectly answered my need for something from my own culture and though I continued to plod on with my Buddhist practice it was this that really held my attention and fired my enthusiasm.

And so the story went on. My dual attraction to Buddhism and Jungian psychology, and the conflicts between them, continued. In a memory I find myself with the legendary yogi Kalu Rinpoche, during a particularly painful period of inner conflict whilst at his monastery outside of Darjeeling. What is going round my mind is William James’ classic text The Varieties of Religious Experience and a need to find my own way. He, mean while, is holding my head, giving a powerful and loving blessing, and is suggesting I take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. I am wondering what he means, thinking I had, when I plainly had not and he certainly knows it.

Eventually I returned from India and after some months joined Norbu Rinpoche in London at his first retreat in 1979. I think of this as a watershed because during that ten day retreat Norbu Rinpoche gave us Dzogchen teachings that I have valued through thick and thin ever since, though not always practised, and I realised that I had found the teacher I was looking for. Subsequently he invited me to stay with him at his home in Italy and to teach his students at the Naples Institute of Oriental Studies the iconographic drawing I had myself so recently been learning in India. Writing this now I wonder why he did this. It certainly was not because he wanted my painterly skills, these and far better could have been easily got from elsewhere. However staying with him, amongst the community of his students, brought me up against myself in a very clear way, showing me how emotionally driven and unstable I was. Again looking back I realise that my time in Italy was what I really had been looking for in India. A period of intense interaction with a Buddhist teacher whose sole aim was to show me the nature of my mind and wake me up.

However, despite all this, there continued within me a self absorption that simply refused or was unable to hear what was being said to me. This part over the next several years gradually worked itself out, searching for a stable and real identity that superficially appeared wilful and wayward and which finally rebelled against the generosity, but also patriarchal authority, of my teacher and mentor. Now I see that what was happening was that I had come to experience Norbu Rinpoche like a father, and like with a father, I came to a point that I wanted my own authority and felt I must wrest it from him. This experience I believe is common. Many of us, particularly when young, have unresolved conflicts with our parents and these are transferred onto our relationships with those that teach us. When this happens the poor teacher, who is there as one adult to teach another adult, who is there under their own free will, suddenly finds them self confronted by a needy child or a stroppy adolescent who unfairly blames them for events that are none of their doing. Jack Engler, an American psychotherapist and meditation teacher, describes receiving this sort of attack from the teachers side. One moment someone is suspiciously hanging on your every word and then you say some small, insignificant thing that they do not like and suddenly you are spurned and reviled and they are off.

My “leaving home” lead me finally back to England and a rather grandiose desire to give something back to the community at large that I had so far spent most of my time outside of. Shortly after arriving I had a dream simply telling me to train in psychotherapy which I took at face value and began looking for a suitable training. To achieve this it was necessary to first have ones own experience of psychotherapy and so I started working with a Jungian analyst who lived locally. Unlike the amateur and kindly conversations I had known in the Kulu valley this professionally managed experience, though initially exciting, turned out to be deeply troubling and unintentionally repeated the traumatic experiences that had brought me there to start with. My analyst, standing upon the misunderstandings and prejudices of Jung himself, was incapable of seeing anything of worth in my Buddhist life and while pathologising it, making it no more that a symptom of my neurosis, tried his best to bully me into his own world view. For my part, pathetically eager to please, I allowed this to happen and, despite finally escaping this therapeutic abuse, it begun a pendulum swing that was to eclipsed and obscured much of my Buddhist connection for the next fourteen years. Ironically, Jungian psychotherapy which is believed to be sympathetic to spirituality, in my case, under this analysts tutelage, became the gateway to a spiritual wasteland.

However, while it may have been spiritually barren, it did none the less help me to stop being frightened of the world and gain the confidence to engage in the broader experience of living. Actually I think I was hungry for this and ambitious to get on and my therapy with the first and subsequent therapy with other analysts provided the initiation that had always been missing. Today, despite, or perhaps because of, my bad start, I remain completely convinced of the value of psychotherapy. I know from my own experience that without the foundation of a stable personality it is very difficult to be in the world. Further more, this stability is also necessary to be able to relate with a spiritual teacher, without entirely cloaking he or she in unresolved infantile emotions. It is also necessary for the practice of meditation, which requires the ability to let go of the fascination with ones own thoughts and emotions. Finally, the unintelligent and rather cruel therapy I had initially received turned out to be a boon because it taught me first hand what it feels like to have a therapist who misuses their power and tries unconsciously to use their patient as a mirror. This bad experience I have subsequently tried to use well, firstly by recognising my own inclinations to do the same and, perhaps as a counter, valuing a psychotherapy that reflects the Buddhist values of unconditional friendliness and simply being conscious and attentive to what ever we find.

After many years of training, even more years of therapy and the establishing of my own psychotherapy practice, the pendulum began to swing back. At one extreme I had felt that I had wasted the opportunities that India and Italy had offered and bitterly regretted my egocentric distortion of Buddhism because it felt, irrationally, that I had spoilt it and could not return. However this thankfully also began to change, principally through many dreams returning me to Norbu Rinpoche’s community of students and the help of a remarkable Austrian therapist and teacher, Hilmar Shonauer. Going to Hilmar I lamented my estrangement from meditation and Buddhism in general. Hilmar’s response was to ask me to notice and stay with this emotion of sadness and loss. Could I just allow myself to have the experience and be present with it? This I could and in one simple move Hilmar had me practicing mindfulness of my emotions, side stepping all the obstructing and complicated issues I had created. Such a revelation and a relief.

What has followed is a renaissance of interest in my first two loves, psychology and Buddhism, and their uneasy marriage bed. In recent years this has been clarified by a wealth of writers who apparently have been in the same struggle but rather more successfully. I count amongst these the psychotherapist and writer John Welwood to whom I am enormously indebted for his recognition of how reflective psychotherapy may move towards mindfulness meditation. An idea that is gratefully taken up in this book and which we have used extensively in training psychotherapy students. I am also very grateful to Mark Epstein who has shown me, along with others, how Freudian psychoanalytic psychotherapy unexpectedly sits more easily with Buddhism than Jungian psychology. The Freudian view being atheistic and therefore not competing with Buddhism for the definitive spiritual perspective. On the Buddhist side I owe debts of gratitude to the American Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, who has made an alien religion almost “home spun” familiar by her psychological insight, personal vulnerability and infectious humour. Also to the written work of the insight meditation teachers, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzburg. They have profoundly influenced many psychotherapists who see in their mindfulness teachings something, which while being analogous, also deepens their psychological work. It is Jack Kornfield’s published instructions on the practice of mindfulness that we have passed on to others in groups. And finally my own reconnection with Norbu Rinpoche.

After years of estrangement I found my way back to a retreat lead by a now much older and greyer Norbu Rinpoche. I tucked myself away at the back out of shame and shyness but never the less felt very happy to be there. When the retreat came to an end I sought out a meeting with Norbu Rinpoche and went to his room. Entering he immediately jumped up and warmly greeted me. However I first needed to get the stuff about my long absence off my chest. I said I was very sorry to have taken his teachings about dissolving the self and instead of practicing them, distorting them into a means to create more self. He just laughed and said “That’s what everyone does”.