Psychotherapy, embodiment and the Dharma

Psychotherapy, embodiment and the Dharma

By Bryant Welch, Ph.D., JD
January 5, 2021


“I don’t have any experience in applying Western psychotherapy to the Buddhist path.”
— H. H. Dalai Lama.

These are dark days. And more than anything else it is the stability of the human mind that will determine our outcome.

Trying to understand the mind as we psychologists do is a humbling task. And trying to find ways to have a salutary effect on human suffering and irrational behavior based on that understanding is even more daunting. To me, this endeavor is the noblest enterprise imaginable and it is why I am so grateful for our profession.

I have been practicing now for 50 years. Serendipitously, along the way I have been fortunate enough to have had some unique perspectives on this struggle to confront the complexities of the mind, the vicissitudes that have facilitated it and those that have maddeningly hindered it.

As difficult as these times are, especially in America, I have never been more excited or hopeful about the opportunities and horizons that I see emerging all around me to help alleviate the human suffering we treat in psychotherapy.

In part, this optimism may be due to the fact I practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, but the germs that are sprouting here are visible in other psychology communities around the country. It is essentially a story of diversity and what the illumination of different mindsets can reveal about the otherwise elusive nature of our subject and what we need to do to enhance our ability to alleviate our suffering and the terrible things it causes us to do.

Creativity and progress are based on cross-fertilization, either within the individual mind or the community at large. If it takes a village to raise a single child, to harness the human mind for a happier existence will surely require an entire planet. Most profoundly, it has been our success, partial though it is, in removing fear-based systems of thought that serve as yokes on the freedom and the diversity of many of the very different mindsets that we need to maximize the fruits of our inquiry into the nature of the mind in all its complexity.

In the 1980s, psychological inquiry and the diversity it requires were suppressed by the medical monopolists of that era who had for decades kept psychologists and others from participating fully in the exploration and treatment of the mind. Psychology successfully overturned significant aspects of that problem and our inquiry has been improved with those developments.

But a far greater hindrance to our tapping into the mysteries of the human mind has been our systematic exclusion of huge classes of human minds based merely on the fact they are different from the ruling regime and its orthodoxy, be it by gender, sexual orientation, race or cultural origin. But the lesson for which I am most grateful to psychology is that if I can persevere through my initial fear of something new or “different,” regardless of its nature, I am enriched in the deepest parts of my being. My understanding and perspective on the mind are expanded and my connectedness to my world, strengthened and more secure. Most selfishly, my work is better, and I enjoy it more.

What has been most frustrating about the progress we have made to date has been the extent to which the victims of the most intense human suffering themselves have had to shape the progress we have made. When I went to graduate school in the early 1970s, it was almost as if human trauma did not exist. With Vietnam and the women’s movement, for the first time, voices of severe trauma refused to be silenced in their insistence on the reality of their suffering. Human trauma, long strikingly overlooked by the mental health establishment, could no longer be dismissed.

With the increased recognition of human trauma, still very partial though it is, it has become very difficult to deny the significance of the human body itself in the work we do. “Embodiment” techniques that become fully integrated into traditional psychotherapy, as many other psychologists are learning, provide the single most helpful breakthrough in the opportunity to increase the therapeutic agency of what we do in psychotherapy that has occurred in my lifetime.

Bodily awareness of the most personal and visceral nature of human experience is the most direct and powerful tool I have experienced in facilitating greater psychological awareness and psychological change in therapy. Neither the insight of the psychodynamic therapist nor the cognitive restructuring of the CBT therapist can be very effective if it does not take place in an embodied awareness.

But there is another fold in this therapeutic progression of which I am speaking that is crucial to understanding my renewed enthusiasm for this therapeutic enterprise.

International and cultural barriers have also been challenged during my lifetime. I had been a dilettante in Eastern contemplative practices for almost 40 years. But with the recent Tibetan diaspora caused by the Chinese attempt to obliterate the Tibetan culture and the psychological insights it had developed over millennia, hundreds if not thousands of Eastern scholars have come to our country, many settling in the Bay Area.

What they have brought to us is truly stunning. They not only provide understanding of different dimensions and perspectives on the mind, they bring with them ways of accessing and experiencing those dimensions. Long inaccurately portrayed in Western culture, with more direct contact with these scholars themselves, these misunderstandings are breaking down and the extraordinary insights, often counterintuitive, are empirically observable and often confirmed by Western science.

The contemplative practices these teachings bring do not preach about a reality as with religion. Instead, they help one’s mind hold steady so the microscope that is our mind can stop shaking when it looks at both the world and at the mind itself. In this condition, things look very different. It provides an invaluable tool for psychotherapy.

When we integrate these tools of traditional Western psychotherapy, increased awareness of the importance of embodiment, and the contemplative tradition, we have a much more therapeutically powerful and effective tool than any of these modalities alone.

And that I find exciting.

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Bryant Welch, Ph.D., JD, is a clinical psychologist practicing in Sausalito, CA. His email address is welchfirm@aol.com.

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