Bruce Tift: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy

Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Bruce Tift. Bruce has been in private practice as a psychotherapist since 1979, and has been a practitioner of Vajrayana Buddhism for more than three decades, as well as teaching at Naropa University for 25 years. His new release at Sounds True is called Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation.

In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Bruce and I spoke about “embodied immediacy,” and how disembodiment is a requirement of neurosis. We also talked about “neurotic organization,” and how neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering. Bruce also shared with us his view that much of our growth comes from acting in ways that are actually counter-instinctual, and what it might mean to practice psychotherapy with the view that we are already free—that there’s actually no problem that we need to solve. Here’s my very intriguing and rich conversation with Bruce Tift.

In your work, Bruce, you talk about a dialogue between what you call the “developmental approach” (the approach of Western psychotherapy) and what you term the “fruitional approach” (the approach of Buddhism, that already, right now, there’s nothing that needs to be done or accomplished. There’s a kind of inherent perfection in the moment). Now you say something very interesting about this dialogue between the developmental and fruitional approach: that there’s no resolution between these two different approaches. I have to say I wasn’t very satisfied by that! What do you mean, there’s no resolution? There are plenty of theorists and other lecturers who are talking about all kinds of ways that we can take what psychotherapy offers and what the spiritual path is ultimately all about—freedom right now, in the moment), and bring them together into some kind of coherent picture. But you don’t really offer a coherent picture, exactly.

Bruce Tift: No. I think I take my guidance from Buddhism, basically. My understanding of Buddhism is that it’s actually a pragmatic approach to the question of how to relieve unnecessary suffering—or, in different language, how to experience freedom. I don’t see my approach or anybody else’s as actually describing reality. I see any approach as skillful means, and so the skillful means that most interest me is how to invite the most immediate experience of open mind. As soon as we have an idea—a very sophisticated, interesting idea, especially—I think it’s very easy to somewhat unconsciously assume that that is actually a representation of reality, it’s actually capturing things.

My preference is to always be presenting my work, when I’m working with clients, and actually just in my life—to always return to the immediate experience of not knowing, of open mind, of mystery, of creativity. I find that, for myself, that’s supported most strongly by working in a way that is difficult for anyone to actually feel resolved about, [to] feel like, “Oh, that’s it! Got it! Got the idea. That’s a good idea.” Instead, I would prefer to leave people with a type of question that actually doesn’t have an answer. I think Rilke, in one of his poems, said, “Be the question, not the answer.” I think that’s a good guideline in psychotherapy and a lot of other things: to find a variety of skillful means with which we can invite the experience of being the question, because I think that’s a closer approximation to our fundamental nature of open awareness. I don’t think an answer is a good approximation. Although it’s an expression of our basic nature, I don’t think it’s helpful in inviting that experience directly.

TS: You mentioned that your interest is in alleviating unnecessary suffering. So in saying that, you’re implying that there is necessary suffering and unnecessary suffering. How do you make that distinction?

BT: It seems to me that, being sensitive humans, we all are going to have pain in our lives, and there’s no way around that. Our bodies are going to hurt, our emotions will get hurt, society’s pretty crazy, and horrible things happen in the world all the time. But unnecessary suffering arises when we try to not have a direct experience of actual, legitimate pain. Carl Jung has a quote which I like, which is, “All neurosis is a substitute for legitimate suffering.” I would say, actually, “a substitute for spiritual intensity,” because I think we also tend to unconsciously dissociate [or] try to get out of intense joy, creativity, sexual energy, esthetic appreciation. I think that most of us are trying unconsciously to stay out of various intense experiential states, but most of us, initially, are working on our relationship to pain.

I forget who says it on the New Age circuit, but somebody says, “Pain is part of life. Suffering is optional.” I think a lot of people are considering this idea, that it is our attempt to not participate consciously in an immediate, embodied way with the reality that human life is really very disturbing, it’s very intense, and that the result of our avoidance strategies is neurotic or unnecessary suffering.

TS: Let’s unpack this a little bit, this quote from Carl Jung, because this is very powerful. “Neurosis is a substitute for legitimate suffering.” OK, so when you’re referring to “neurosis” here, what do you mean by that?

BT: Well, to me, it is the activity of intelligence, first of all. I don’t see neurosis as blind conflict. It’s maybe more of a Freudian view, but to me, neurosis is the very intelligent effort to not have to feel pain, not to have to feel that our survival is at risk, not to feel intense grief or panic or fear. When we try to go around the truth of our experience, we get some immediate relief. It’s like, if an alcoholic takes a drink to get out of disturbing feelings, they’re actually going to get some immediate relief. If we distract ourselves with TV, we don’t have to think about our difficult life for the moment. Neurosis works, in the short run, by providing distraction, a type of anesthesia, an ability to not be aware of our actual experience.

The problem, of course, is that, because it works, we continue to do it. Usually what happens, in my clinical experience, is that, by the time somebody is maybe in their 30s or 40s especially, decades of trying to go around the difficult reality of one’s life lead to an endless elaboration of avoidance strategies. Often, by that time in one’s life, somebody finds that they have this very thick, dissatisfying, complicated state of mind, and they can’t understand why, because it’s not obviously being caused by any current circumstances. I see that as the cumulative effect of a lifetime of trying to dissociate, to get away from the truth of our human condition, which is joyful and also very disturbing. From that point of view, neurosis is the activity of intelligence, but in service of a claim that’s not really accurate, which is that our difficult feelings are somehow not bearable or not workable.

TS: Yes. Well, it does seem like it’s natural that somebody would want to avoid pain. That seems pretty natural.

BT: I would agree. It’s very natural. I think it’s hardwired, actually, into our biology, from millions of years of evolution. The only question, I think, is, “Do we only want to live a biological life?” If my partner says something that hurts my feelings, and if that triggers an historically core vulnerability with, let’s say, Jung survival-level associations, it’s likely that I will go into a very primitive fight-or-flight response, and my response then will be basically to get out of that sense of danger. It’s unlikely that I will be able to consider what’s a skillful response to the immediate situation because I’ll be in survival mode. A lot of my work, actually, involves inviting people to stay embodied with this very legitimate, real panic that goes into our survival-level response, and see for ourselves: Does feeling like I’m going to be annihilated mean that I’m actually being harmed?

This is very difficult work for all of us. It’s not easy, and it’s counter-instinctual. Nobody wants to stay in their body as they’re feeling that their survival is at risk.

TS: And the value of staying in my body while I’m feeling terrible is…?

BT: The potential value is that I may find that my somewhat automatic, biological effort to dissociate, escape, get out of my disturbance, first of all is not necessary, and if it’s not something that I continue to do automatically, then I have choice. On a very relative level, choice is an approximation of freedom. It’s not a very deep experience, but a relative experience of freedom is to have choice. If I would like to, as the 12-step people say, “move from reaction to response,” to have a considered choice about how to engage with my life, it may be necessary for me to train myself to not automatically act unconsciously to get out of my pain and my fear.

TS: So now let’s see if we can ground this in a real-life example of somebody who comes to you professionally, as you’re a therapist, and they’re coming with some kind of presenting neurosis. You’re able, somehow, to help them see that this is an avoidance strategy of some kind, that they’re pulling away from some feeling of pain or suffering that they don’t want to touch. How would you use both a psychotherapeutic approach and a Buddhist approach in helping this person?

BT: Well, I always try to do my best to respond and speak to somebody in ways that make sense to them. Some people I actually talk to almost solely in a therapeutic type of language. Other people are much more interested in or familiar with a Buddhist type of view. However I’m talking with the client, I’m always holding in my experience the confidence that this person, in fact, could tolerate and handle really intense disturbing feelings. This is relevant, again, to people we would call “neurotically organized,” at least. I wouldn’t work with this approach with somebody who we might call “psychotically organized,” or [has] a very fragile ego structure. It wouldn’t be a kindness to invite more disturbance for that person, but for somebody who is adequately defended, has adequate awareness, I feel very confident, through a lot of years of doing this, that almost all of us can, in fact, stay with exactly the feelings that we’ve been spending most of our lives trying to not feel.

Let’s say, for example—a very common presenting problem might be: “I’m in a relationship. My partner’s behavior just makes me crazy!”

TS: That sounds pretty common!

BT: [Laughs] “They’re attacking me, they’re critical, I feel shamed, or they don’t show up, they always have a foot out the door, I can’t count on them,” things like that. Usually my first question is, “Are you actually disturbed by your partner, or are you disturbed by the feelings that your partner’s behavior is triggering in you?” I have the idea that a more precise understanding of that person’s disturbance is that they are being forced to feel some feelings that are very difficult, and usually turn out to have historically familiar associations for them. It’s usually an issue that they’ve had all of their life.

As soon as somebody can consider that [their] actual complaint, [their] disturbance, is about having to feel feelings, then they’ve already started to not blame their partner—which, paradoxically, is a very empowering position, because as soon as I say, “My partner is the cause of my difficult feelings,” I’m actually taking a powerless, usually resentful, victim position. I’m saying, “You’re the cause of my difficult feelings,” and now I have to try to change my partner, which I can’t do. Then we get into a lot of codependent, sticky, gluey stuff. As soon as a person is willing to consider, “Actually, the issue is my relationship with my difficult feelings,” then I can start to explore with that person what it feels like to be aggressive to their own vulnerability by refusing to feel those feelings, as opposed to being kind to their own vulnerability, which means to feel those feelings. I usually present that in a variety of reframes, like: When somebody jumps out of their immediate, embodied vulnerability into a story, I present that as actually a type of self-abandonment. This difficult feeling is not something that’s being done to them. It’s something that’s been part of their life, will probably be part of their life until they die, but every time they refuse to stay embodied with that vulnerability, they’re actually abandoning themself. Do they really want to do that?

Or, to use a more Buddhist jargon, for some people, I might present that as a type of self-aggression. Does it make sense that you are actually being aggressive to your own vulnerability, perhaps in ways that you experienced growing up? You’re perhaps doing to yourself what was done to you. Do you actually want to perpetuate your childhood issues? Was it that great of a childhood?

TS: I could see that somebody might say, on the surface, “I feel like I’m being more kind to myself when I distract myself from things that are painful, and take myself out to the movies, and take myself out for my favorite non-gluten pizza,” or whatever it might be, and that actually sticking with the terrible feelings of how they feel, that actually doesn’t feel very kind! It feels terrible!

BT: Yes. Well, one of the ways that I work that arises from a Buddhist view is the idea that there’s an organizing principle called “view, practice, action.” The idea [is] that practice is one of the most reliable vehicles of change, but most of the practices that have the potential for transformative change, unfortunately or not, tend to be counter-instinctual—meaning that we don’t want to do them.

TS: That sounds about right!

BT: [Laughs] So, unlike some therapists, I talk with people a lot, especially initially, about the view, about why it might be to your benefit to do something so stupid as to invite exactly the feelings you’ve spent most of your life trying not to feel. If somebody doesn’t understand why it might be to their personal, selfish benefit to do that, then I don’t think they’re going to actually want to do this type of work. It’s not going to be sustainable.

I talk with people a fair amount about the difference between behavior and feelings, and feelings and thoughts, so that we can understand that just because we feel a certain way, it may not be the best guideline for our health, our growth, being skillful, being kind to ourselves and others. Often, I’ll suggest that people examine their lives and consider that any arena in which they actually are competent and successful, they have probably already disciplined themselves to not let their feelings run their behavior in certain, very important ways. If you have a job, and you get up in the morning and you don’t want to get out of bed, you discipline yourself to go to work anyway, if you want to keep your job. If you’re a parent, you don’t whack your kids just because you feel so frustrated.

In a similar way, if we want to actually challenge habitual patterns in a very fast, powerful way—a very difficult but fast path—in my experience, [we must] discipline ourselves to come back into our disturbance over and over and over again, knowing that we’re never going to want to do that, but to discriminate between that fact that it feels bad and the possibility that that may not be synonymous with not being healthy. Obviously “healthy” is not synonymous with positive feelings. If I get a flu shot, I’m not going to like getting a flu shot.

TS: Right. I think that, maybe, is a misconception that a lot of people have. They think that being healthy is synonymous with only feeling good all the time.

BT: Right. I think that happens both in our popular culture—where we’re basically always encouraged to be happy and feel good and avoid things that don’t feel good—and even (in my experience) in most people’s spiritual path work, where people seem to have this unexamined idea that waking up is supposed to feel good.

TS: It’s not?

BT: [Laughs] Well, if waking up actually involves a radical disidentification with this endless display of thoughts, feeling, and sensations, and actually [having] a capacity for one’s psychic center of gravity to rest in open awareness, then the assertion, which I think is accurate, is that the nature of open awareness is without bias. Awareness does not have a preference for positive feelings or negative feelings, and so, as long as we are equating waking up with feeling good—whether it’s bliss or confidence or anything—we’re actually missing the point, in my opinion.

TS: OK, so a client comes to you, and you educate them about this idea that it’s counter-instinctual to stay with our difficult feelings, but there’s a lot of value in it. They say, “OK! I’m ready for the discipline. I buy into this.” Now they are with their difficult feelings. How do you help them in that process? What are they actually doing? They sit with their feelings, they feel nauseated, and they sit, feeling nauseated, for a couple of hours? How does it go?

BT: Good question. My view is that touching in on difficult feelings frequently for short periods of time is usually a lot more useful than trying to hang in there and resolve something. So my encouragement, usually, is to invite somebody to stay at the sensation level of their experience. I have found, for myself and I think others, that it’s very hard to find a problem at the sensation level of one’s experience. It’s very easy to find a problem at the interpretive level, and our emotions are still strongly interpretive, so my bias is to encourage somebody to experiment with staying at the level of “My stomach is tight, my throat’s constricted, I feel like some tears are there, my heart is heavy, I feel numb…”

Then I almost always will ask them to check it out for themselves: “Is it harming you? Stay embodied with this intensity in your body just at the sensation level. Is it killing you? Are you becoming dysfunctional? Do you think it’s giving you cancer?” It’s an actual inquiry. I’m not trying to feed them the right answer, because if that person actually investigates and finds that their very worst fear, let’s say abandonment, when they stay at the sensation level, they’re not going to find a sensation of abandonment, first of all. There is no such sensation. They might find a clenched sort of nauseous feeling in their gut, but if they find out, “Well, so what? I hate it, it’s disturbing, but if I really pay attention, I actually can’t find any harm!” Then, incrementally, they might actually start to develop the confidence that they can actually welcome the feeling of abandonment into their life without it causing any harm.

TS: What if somebody stays with a physical sensation that they find quite difficult, and they’re with it, and they’re like, “This actually, well, it’s not killing me, but it’s very yucky! It’s very, very yucky: yucky breathing in, yucky breathing out, yucky, yucky, yucky”?

BT: I’d probably say, “Great! You’re on the track, probably. That’s probably accurate!” Then the question is, first of all, “Is there any harm in that yucky?” If not, then the next question is, “Do you think that this feeling that feels so difficult has been with you all your life? Do you think it’s likely it will be with you for the foreseeable future?” That’s where a Western-style therapeutic investigation is actually very helpful—with its focus on family of origin experience and developmental views—because almost always, in my experience, when somebody starts to get in touch with their core vulnerabilities, they’re going to find a type of familiar recognition. [They say,] “Yes! Gosh, I’ve really felt this way all of my life! I’ve felt unacknowledged, I’ve felt shamed, I’ve felt controlled. Yes, I really, really hate this feeling, and yes, it’s familiar.”

Then the question is, if you’re stuck with this feeling, maybe the only choice you have is not whether you have it in your life or not, but how you relate to it. From a Buddhist point of view, you can relate to your experience with fundamental aggression, meaning, “Uh-uh! Don’t want to feel it!” [You] try to get rid of it, try not to feel it. Or, with fundamental kindness, [you can say,] “Yes, I don’t like it, but what can I say? I’ve investigated this feeling, and I’m pretty convinced that it’s part of my life.” At that point, the question of whether it’s yucky or not becomes secondary, and the real question is, “How do I relate to the truth of who I find myself to be?” Which, unfortunately, usually includes a lot of very painful, anxiety-producing experiences.

TS: Yes. Now, it’s interesting that you’re bringing up this term, “anxiety-producing experiences,” because, in the program, Already Free, you say many challenging—and I would say disturbing—things, and one of them is that you’ve found that it’s actually important, in this process of working with our unnecessary suffering, to “commit ourselves to the experience of anxiety.” I thought this was very interesting. What do you mean by that? What do you mean by “commit ourselves to the experience of anxiety”?

BT: In my life, and in my work with clients, I don’t think I have yet found anybody who has a life free of anxiety. Anxiety comes and goes, but pretty much everybody I have talked with has found that it’s hard to recall even a day in which they haven’t felt some experience of anxiety. It might be very small, about our health, our kids, money, whatever. From a Western therapy point of view, anxiety is usually understood as an indication that deeper levels of vulnerability are being forced into our awareness. As long as we are perpetuating our young developmental organization of stabilized repression, of being divided against aspects of ourselves that were very difficult growing up—the basic Western view—there is going to be a type of chronic anxiety, because there’s a part of us that we’re claiming as unworkable, unbearable, dangerous, shameful, something. If that anxiety is going to be there, again, we really only have a choice: “Do I commit to the truth of my experience, or do I have that same experience and invest a lot of energy in denial and avoidance?”—which has the consequences we were talking about before, with the neurosis of generating unnecessary suffering and confusion, because it’s not dealing with the truth.

From a Buddhist point of view, I see anxiety as an accurate perception of the fundamentally open nature of our own minds and of our lives, but from the reference point of what we call “egoic process,” that part of us that wants control, safety, happiness, comfort, all of those things. When that aspect of who we are is forced into the recognition that there is absolutely no basis for that fantasy in our life (of some permanent state of happiness, and so forth), that we basically freak out. That aspect of ourself freaks out, and that is experienced as anxiety. From that point of view, we could look at any of our life circumstances that we feel anxious about: “I’m going to the doctor,” “Can I pay my bill?” “My partner hasn’t called and they’re late coming home!” In each of those situations, we’re actually forced into a recognition that we don’t know. Anything could actually be happening! I could have undiagnosed cancer, my partner could be harmed. Most of us spend an incredible amount of energy trying to stay out of the direct recognition of openness. When we are forced into a recognition of openness, as long as we have egoic process that we’re identified with, we will experience that as anxiety. From that point of view, we can actually understand anxiety as an approximation of an open state of mind.

TS: All right, so this is very interesting to me, very, very interesting. I think that I’ve seen anxiety get a bad rap from a couple of different directions. One direction is just that, if you’re feeling anxious, you should take a pill, or say a mantra, or do your affirmations, or something, that it’s not very “spiritual” to be feeling anxious. The other approach would be from people who I’ve heard have some sense that they’ve “arrived” to some state of big, open being, and they never feel anxious anymore. I’m often suspicious of that. I’m like, “You never feel anxious about anything?” That seems a little fishy to me. Now, here you’re talking about anxiety as potentially a harbinger of an open way of being that’s trying to break through.

BT: Yes, and I obviously couldn’t say that it’s not valid if somebody reports that they’re living without anxiety, but my opinion is that as long as we are maintaining some type of egoic process, we are going to experience anxiety, because our basic nature is open, life is open. An egoic response to open mind is anxiety, as I see it. If somebody actually dissolves egoic process, or let’s say at least their identification with that, I think they in fact dissolve unnecessary or chronic anxiety, and then they might feel the more just biological type of anxiety: They’re walking in the woods, and they hear a noise in the bushes, and they feel anxious, but that’s not what’s addressed in therapy. That’s just normal, appropriate anxiety. It’s a type of getting alert.

I think I would agree with you that most of us dedicate a lot of our energy to trying to not feel anxious, and if we feel anxious, we think it’s evidence of a problem that we try to solve. Then, when we don’t feel anxious, we think the problem is maybe solved. That’s maybe not the greatest indication of wakefulness, so I think, again, in a way that’s very difficult and counter-instinctual, that we might commit to cultivating a tolerance of anxiety. We’re never going to like it, but tolerating anxiety is understanding it as an approximation of open mind, and if we want to actually invite more identification with our fundamental nature of open mind, I don’t think it’s possible to go around anxiety.

TS: You’re saying that anxiety could be considered an approximation of open mind, because when I’m feeling anxious, I don’t know how things are going to go, so in that sense, there’s a sort of lack of certitude on my part. Is that why it’s an approximation of open mind?

BT: Well, it’s a little difficult to be really precise with, but it’s actually something that’s happening in the present moment. It’s not really about a lack of certitude, I think, as much as the response of a part of who we are as humans—that part that wants security and certainty and to have things resolved—faced with the undeniable, immediate experience of vast open mind. It’s an approximation of open mind because it’s a direct perception of open mind, but through the filter of egoic process, as I see it.

TS: You make another very interesting comment. Some of these comments have really stayed with me after listening to the program, Bruce. “Disembodiment is a requirement of neurosis.” I wonder if you can explain that? In light of the conversation we’re already having, I think it fits in.

BT: Well, to return to the idea of neurosis as the intelligent, but let’s say inaccurate, effort to have a life without vulnerability, the fundamental mechanism of neurosis, in my experience, is dissociation. Meaning that we are actually experiencing something, but we, in a fraction of a second, leave our embodied experience and go into our thoughts, a distraction, some type of unconsciousness, whatever. There are a lot of styles of dissociation. It seems to me pretty straightforward that, if I stay embodied, I have to experience my experience. If I’m feeling this sort of nauseous panic in my gut, and am consciously participative in my embodied experience, it’s sort of hard to pretend that I’m not experiencing it. To me, the fundamental requirement of neurosis is actually dissociation. It is disembodiment. As soon as we bring our attention out of our embodied vulnerability, out of our immediate experience, then we’re able to start creating a state of mind that serves a basically distractive, avoidant function.

I think it’s very interesting to consider that if this is accurate at all, a very generic way to solve this distractive process is the process of re-embodiment. It’s possible that we don’t actually have to go back and go through all of the variety of neurosis. Maybe we don’t have to rework all of our abandonment issues or our control issues from childhood. Perhaps the more powerful, direct path could be that we return into immediate, embodied, open-hearted commitment to whatever the truth of our experience is. If staying embodied makes it very difficult to pretend that we’re not feeling what we are, then neurosis actually starts to get dissolved or dismantled in a very generic way. I happen to have the idea that it’s a very good practice for all of us (if it makes sense) to return to immediate, embodied experience, especially sensation-level experience, any time it occurs to us, not even in response to a problem, not even to try to work something through.

TS: Now, in the program, you say something pretty radical, which is, “What if there actually wasn’t a problem? What would it mean to live our lives moment to moment, as if our lives were unproblematic?” Can you explain that, and how you work with that? Obviously people are coming to you as a therapist because they believe they have problems! That’s why you go to a therapist. Then your therapist says to you, “What if you didn’t have a problem?” I think I might shoot the person at that point!

BT: Right. Yes, well, some people don’t come back a second time! [Laughs]

I try to be very clear that not having a problem does not mean not being disturbed, not having pain. Obviously to me, as sensitive humans, we’re all going to feel a very rich, unending display of experience. Some of it’s beautiful, some of it’s horrible, some of it is pleasurable, and some of it is boring. The sense of [a] problem, I think, arises when we refuse to experience something fully. If I, let’s say, have a feeling—to use that abandonment feeling again—if my partner has walked out of the room when I’m talking, and I have this feeling triggered, if I refuse to just feel how deeply hurt and vulnerable and powerless and angry I feel, then I’m basically claiming that those feelings are a problem. If I let myself go deeply into that vulnerable experience, even though I don’t want to, it’s counter-instinctual, then I find out for myself: Is it workable to have this experience? I don’t like it, but is it workable? If I go into the experience, I can go through the experience. If I try to go around the experience, paradoxically, I generate a sense of solid problem.

One thing I sometimes say to clients, as an example, is about the kid with the monster in the closet: The child believes that he or she is avoiding the closet because the monster is there. It doesn’t occur to them that the monster is there because they’re avoiding the closet. If the child wants to free themself of this basically phobic organization in their life, unfortunately, they have to find a way to go and open the door, and take the risk that they’re going to be torn to shreds. It’s not a fun thing to do, but once they open the door (and hopefully find that there’s no monster there), then there’s no problem there. The experience of problem actually comes from a refusal to stay embodied with—committed to, open-hearted to—the truth of our human experience.

TS: Right. You know, listening to you in this conversation, we keep coming back to this same antidote, if you will, or to this same direction that you’re pointing people to, which is to come into their embodied experience, no matter how difficult or disturbing it may be, and be willing to be with it. In and of itself, that doesn’t sound (the words don’t sound) that hard or that impossible to follow, and yet what we see in ourselves and around us is a world filled with people who are avoiding their embodied, immediate experience, myself included. I speak for myself.

What is so terribly hard about this? It doesn’t sound that hard, as you’re describing it.

BT: Well, obviously, “simple” is not synonymous with “easy.” It’s not complicated, but it’s not easy. It’s very difficult, actually. I think it’s a complex question. Obviously, as we’ve talked about before, we have millions of years of biology that program us to do anything to get out of what feels like a threat to our survival. We wouldn’t be here if our ancestors weren’t more paranoid than optimistic, probably!

Just working at the biological level, it’s very difficult, but on top of that, most of us have very complicated emotional histories, where feeling certain feelings is very powerfully associated with horrible experiences growing up. There’s the immediate experience—let’s say of abandonment—but that’s a core vulnerability for me, because maybe when I was a child, my parents were so self-absorbed or busy or something that I’d be left at home for hours at a time when I was four or seven, and was in a state of just panic all the time.

Another difficulty, of course, is that we’re not going to get much support for this. Almost anybody, when we talk to them and we’re disturbed, is almost always going to try to help us feel less disturbed. They’re going to try to reassure us or tell us that we’re a great person. Or say the other person [has] the problem and we’re fine, [and we say,] “Let’s solve the problem.” There’s actually a lot of very unconscious shame and isolation involved with an acknowledgement of how vulnerable and difficult our emotional lives are. It’s very difficult, actually.

TS: Yes, so what you’re saying is that there’s not a lot of support. When somebody says, “How are you doing?” and you say, “I’m dealing with this nausea that keeps getting triggered, blah, blah, blah,” they’ll want to give you a pill or talk you out of it or something.

BT: Of course, if what we’re talking about is not about some individual who’s all dysfunctional. But actually we’re talking about the basic human condition for all of us, then when you say, “Gosh, I have this horrible feeling! I feel my heart’s just broken,” then, through a process of resonance, I am immediately going to feel those same feelings. If I’m not committed to having a kind relationship with my pain, I definitely don’t want to hear about your pain. If I’m trying to get rid of my pain, I’ll try to get rid of your pain. A lot of my work, especially work with couples, turns out to be pretty straightforward in that—if we can be kind to the pain that our partners are guaranteed to provoke in us, then eventually we can be kind to that person who is triggering those feelings. If we are aggressive to our vulnerability, we will be aggressive to the person who is triggering that vulnerability.

TS: In the beginning of our conversation, we talked about how there’s this view of Western psychotherapy that you call the “developmental view,” and then the view of Buddhism and spiritual work, the “fruitional view.” I’m curious, if you were to reflect on the conversation we’ve been having, how you would put the various techniques and ways that you work in each category. I know that your approach is to alternate between a developmental perspective and a fruitional perspective. How is that going on, even in just what we’ve been talking about here?

BT: Well, when I’m talking with somebody (although, again, I try to tailor it to that person’s language and so forth), I’ll often say, “Well, from a Western point of view, your efforts to not feel that particular feeling are basically understood to be serving a protective function, which is very valid. From a Buddhist point of view, we could actually understand it as entertainment, that your fantasy that you’re a divided person basically continues your state of self-absorption and supports your identity drama.” I just leave it at that. I don’t suggest that one is the correct way of doing it, because again, my hope is to invite a type of unresolvable dialogue within that person, so that a type of question can be invited, rather than an answer.

In a more general way, I would say that Western therapy basically is about improving the quality of one’s experience and our sense of self—which I think is very intelligent. It’s better to tell ourselves a good story about who we are and about life than a bad story. But my personal intention that I bring to all of my work is to continually find a way to invite that person to gradually relax their self-aggression, relax their fantasy that they are a problematic person, relax the effortful maintenance of feeling divided against themselves.

From a Buddhist point of view, the deeper we go into immediate experience, the less evidence of problem we find. That’s one of the reasons why I focus on sensation: At the thought level, it’s very easy to come up with a lot of ideas about why I’m a problem, my relationship is a problem. At the sensation level, it’s very hard to find problems. We can find intensity, but not a problem. As we keep going down even deeper into its aliveness or energy, at some point, we start to get the intuition that there’s no essential nature here. There’s no sense of conflict, and solidity is basically perpetuated by a sense of conflict. The larger intention I have is to try my best to invite a relaxation of the self-absorption that comes from pretending that we are a problem, so that we might (though it’s not a guarantee) be more likely to actually start asking the more interesting question: “What is aware of all of this? What’s the nature of awareness?” That’s when the potential for actual liberation or freedom arises.

Freedom, in my opinion, is never going to arise from self-improvement. Improved quality of life will arise, but not freedom. Freedom comes from a shift in one’s experiencing, where it’s not completely accurate, but we experience being our nature of open awareness. It’s difficult, though not impossible, to relax our attention enough to risk being open awareness as long as we’re claiming that we are a problematic person, and that we have all of these cosmically significant issues at risk and at stake all the time. It guarantees self-absorption, actually. My larger intention is to invite a relaxation into immediacy, a relaxation of the claim that there is a problem, so that somebody might be curious about, “What is aware?” Not who, but what is aware?

TS: How does the person who’s working with their sensations, and from this level of being with sensations, they can start to feel this energy or aliveness underneath, how do they get to this question of who is aware?

BT: Or what is aware?

TS: Or what is aware?

BT: I think it’s sort of a mystery. I haven’t found any way to engineer that. The best that I can offer, usually, is to introduce that idea—because it’s an idea for most us, first of all—that there’s already our fundamental nature of open awareness. It’s not something to be created. It’s not something that’s going to happen in the future. It’s already present. Then I’ll suggest that intention is very central to that investigation. Intention is a very powerful organizing principle, I think, so if somebody starts to actually feel an intuitive draw toward that question about “What is my fundamental nature? What is so basic that I’m never going to find anything more basic than that? What is always present? I mean, Bruce is saying this, [or] I read it in a book or something, but what is that, actually?” If we can start to align our behavior, our thinking, our emotional processing, with that intention, I think that’s about the most effective thing most of us can do.

We just keep it simple, you know? I think a lot of spiritual practices are helpful, but I think most of them are actually postponing the direct realization of our basic nature. I did prostrations as a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner and everything. That’s fine, but why not just investigate my basic nature right at this moment if it’s true that it’s present? Why go through all of these other things?

Well the reason, of course, is that when we make the effort to rest in our basic nature of open awareness, it’s not something that we know how to make happen, so then there’s a lot of path practices that are very helpful. Buddhist tradition has many practices, but psychotherapy also has very powerful practices (if used in that way) to again dissolve the fantasy of being a problem. The more we can dissolve our self-absorption, the more organically, spontaneously we might start having more and more moments of recognizing what’s already present. However, as is said, that nature of open awareness has no qualities. It can’t be gotten a hold of with senses or emotions or thoughts. It’s very frustrating from our usual approach of trying to understand and get a hold of things.

TS: The title of the program with Sounds True that you’ve published, Already Free: A Meeting Between Buddhism and Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation, it seems that, in that title, you’re positing the perspective of Buddhism, that we’re already free, versus the perspective of psychotherapy, which is saying we have all of this work to do to dissolve these obstacles. Is there a bias in the titling of the program?

BT: Definitely. [Laughs] Yes, my work as a therapist is definitely coming from my Buddhist training and practice and understanding. So I’m hoping, in this program, to introduce the practices of psychotherapy from a fruitional point of view, so that we can consider that maybe these two approaches are not inherently incompatible, which some people feel. I don’t share that idea. I think that psychotherapy is actually much more powerful when practiced from the attitude that these are illusory problems that we are trying to untangle, that they have no essential nature. With that comes a very deep confidence, and maybe a sense of humor, and I think definitely a type of compassion, when we recognize that most of us really are suffering unnecessarily.

TS: I can imagine a therapist listening who says, “So you’re saying that the person who comes to me who was sexually abused as a child or whatever, and is presenting these issues, that I’m going to hold a perspective that these are illusory problems?”

BT: We have to be kind to how we talk with people, and if somebody is identified with being a sexual abuse survivor, I have to judge how invested they are in that identity. It would be very unkind to say, “Oh, that was an illusion that you were sexually abused.” That happened! That was horrible! But what many of us do, of course, is unconsciously identifying ourselves, in this case, as a sexual abuse victim or survivor, and that’s actually not to that person’s benefit, perhaps, because they’re identifying themselves, in this very horrible way, [with] something that happened 20 or 30 years ago. Some people, as a path issue, really do need to go through those stages. They need to go from feeling like a victim to feeling like a survivor (to use that language), and it would be unkind to say, “Oh, that’s an unnecessary problem you’re creating.”

We have to approach these things developmentally, in stages, but at a certain point in some people’s lives—not everyone’s, but in some people’s lives—they might be willing to investigate, for example, “If I stay in my immediate experience, where is the identity of being a sexual abuse survivor, and is it serving me to perpetuate that claim, as far as that’s who I am, that’s my essential nature? Isn’t that a really horrible identity to have?” But to give up the identity, that person has to then take complete responsibility for their immediate feelings, which often are very difficult, of course, especially as will be provoked in an intimate relationship.

TS: I’m with you.

BT: [Laughs] OK.

TS: Now, Bruce, I just want to ask a final question here: This way that you’re presenting psychotherapy and the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism that you’ve studied and practiced is, I think, very groundbreaking, and has a lot of unique language in it, and you’re drawing from your clinical experience, which I really appreciate. What do you wish, for people who might listen to this series, that they’ll gain from the approach that you’re laying out?

BT: Well, if I had to be really basic, I guess I would hope that people would consider the view that there are some very real, practical reasons why it makes sense to be so kind to ourselves that we’re willing to stay embodied in our very difficult vulnerable experience, rather than somewhat unconsciously abandon ourselves in the name of immediate relief. My hope, I think, would be to just introduce the idea that paradoxically, it may be an act of kindness—first of all for ourselves, and then, of course, by extension, to others—to not take in an unexamined way our very pervasive cultural idea that a good life is one without pain, without anxiety, without disturbance. In fact, the basis of compassion with ourselves and others is to stay embodied and present with the difficulty of being human. That’s how we actually keep our hearts open, not by trying to transcend our difficult feelings.

I guess my hope would just be, in a variety of ways, to encourage all of us to be as kind as possible to the truth of our human experience.

TS: I’ve been speaking with Bruce Tift. He has created a new, seven-part learning series with Sounds True, called Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation, a program that goes into quite a bit of detail on the developmental approach, the fruitional approach, how we work with anxiety, the challenge of embodiment, and then a whole section on working with relationships. A very interesting series, and one that I derived quite a bit of benefit from producing and working on with Bruce.

SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.