Buddhist Psychology, Climate Change and Spiritual Encounters
I’m talking to my Buddhist teacher Dharmavidya David Brazier. We talk about Buddhist Psychology: what does it mean, and how does Buddhist therapy work? We talk about how encountering ‘awakened’ people can be transformative, and about enduring great suffering. We talk about what supports grounding yourself in the big picture, and how faith helps us respond to climate change.
Dharmavidya’s book on Dogen is released in March by Windhorse and is called The Dark Side of the Mirror. Remember he writes under his given name of David Brazier, so search for that if you are looking for his other books, including Zen Therapy, which he mentions in the podcast.
How can we support healing in people, and in the planet?
To help answer that question I’m talking about the importance of going outside, and what different kind of outside spaces can teach us.
I talk about what wildness means and I talk about the practice of finding a spot to sit in, and sitting there regularly. I talk about two different experiences of outside spaces, and what I learnt from each.
Change for the better rarely comes from within. Left to our
own devices we tend to go around in circles, thinking the same old thoughts,
repeating the same old actions. We may be so stuck in these loops that we just
think, “This is who I am.”
Thankfully we don’t exist in isolation, otherwise we’d be
When I think of the times when I have changed for the better in my own life, there has always been something from the outside that has made the difference.
Sometimes it was that I was deeply listened to and felt
understood, and in that understanding I was able to put down a burden.
Sometimes it was that the consequences of my own foolish
actions shouted so loudly I was jolted out of my usual habit patterns and into
something different – into asking myself what have I done, and what could I
have done differently.
When I look back across my life it is often the most
difficult times that have been the greatest teachers.
Sometimes change came from taking myself to another place.
When we are surrounded by the same people, the same things, and the same views,
it is harder to get out of our stuck patterns.
Once I was struggling with something a friend had done and I
couldn’t shake my frustration. I took this frustration walking in the hills. It
was the beginning of summer and a butterfly landed on the path in front of me.
At first I didn’t notice it. As my loud footsteps got nearer it flew away, just
for a moment, before coming to land on the path again. This time I noticed. My
friend was as fragile as this butterfly I realised, and my heart softened.
Sometimes changing our community can support healthy growth.
My friends in recovery usually have to keep their distance from friends still
in active addiction, for example. This kind of move on its own is not always enough
and usually has to be alongside some personal reflection if it has any chance
Asking for help from another person is one of the most
powerful conditions for change, particularly if you can find someone who is not
invested in any particular outcome for you, and can listen, understand and be a
mirror for you.
What stops us from asking for help?
The first step is admitting that there is something we need
help with. Perhaps we get a clue from how we, or from seeing the consequences
of our actions but not knowing how to change them, or perhaps from other people
letting us know.
We usually get stuck in the same old patterns because there
is some underlying fear about what might happen if we were to do something
differently. Finding someone you trust can support you to change even though
change can be scary.
We may believe that it’s weak to ask for help. If we notice
ourselves thinking this, or something like this, we can ask if it’s really
true, or remind ourselves of where not asking for help has got us.
In preparation for the Wild Therapy training I am taking
this year, we have been invited to find an outside place, and to sit in it for
ten to fifteen minutes every day.
Our temple – my home – sits halfway up the Malvern Hills. Our garden is tiered. On the top tier is our veg patch. The next tier is down a sloping grass path, alongside the high stone wall that holds the first one in place.
In this stone wall is an archway. Some kind of old storage
place, perhaps? It goes a few feet back into the earth, a man-made cave. This
is my sitting place.
This morning I noticed the cold edge of the cast iron chair
against my leg. I spied a hazel catkin shaking in the wind. I noticed how
quickly the clouds above me were moving, and how still the grey sky above the
A pair of bullfinches was singing high up in the bare
branches of a tree that I don’t know the name of. Every now and again I would
see the bright flash of the males red chest.
Three dark crows joined them in the same tree. Off to one
side, hidden in the holly, a blackbird was singing.
In the distance, two small birds danced in flight, shadows
against the sky. Swifts, I thought at first and then later I saw two long tailed
tits and wondered if that’s who I’d seeing diving and leaping earlier.
I could see our three stands of bamboo, gold, black and
something else, waving without pattern in the growing wind.
Sitting like this is not a new practice for me, although
going to the same place every day is. A week or so in to the practice and each
day has been different. A few days ago it was snowing. Yesterday morning the
pond was frozen. This morning the pond had thawed and I could see into its depths.
In the past I might have taken a notebook with me, to record
what I was seeing, either in the world or in my inner processes. It has been
nice to leave the book behind and just sit.
The world goes on under its power each day. All of that life
goes on doing its thing whether I am sitting in the cold chair watching it or
not. And my own life goes on as well of course, whether the birds are noticing
me or busy with their own lives.
There are patterns, and nothing is predictable. The seasons
come and go and each day’s weather is unique.
I find a great solace in watching it all unfold. For me, there is a great healing in connecting with the natural world. We are animals, of course, and creatures of the wild, even though we have created a world of order around us. I have a great trust in the power of returning to our place as one small voice in the always playing, never repeating, song of life.
We all have different parts. There’s a part that wants to go
to work, and a part that wants to stay in bed. There’s a part that wants that
extra donut, and a part that doesn’t, and maybe a part that is already
regretting having the first one.
We have conversations with ourselves just like the ones in this trailer for Pixar’s Inside Out:
The movie’s a pretty good place to start imagining how it is to be human. In the heads’ of the characters in Inside Out there are different emotional parts: sadness, anger, joy etc. Does anyone else remember The Numbskulls? It was a comic strip here in the UK with a similar idea, but with a different spin. In The Numbskulls there was a brain part, and ear part, an eye part and so on.
Some scientists recognise the modularity of the brain and
traditional cultures speak of different parts, whether it’s having several
souls, or the shamanistic work of retrieving cut off parts of a person. In
their e-book Many Minds, One Self Richard
C. Schwartz and Robert R. Falconer explore how different cultures and scientific
models make sense of this idea that we are all made of parts.
Richard Schwartz is the creator of Internal Family Systems, or IFS, a therapeutic model based on working with parts. I’m studying his work at the moment, through his books and through some online seminars I’ve signed up to.
I’ve always worked with different parts of people in my therapy practice. For example, having different parts in conflict with each other is a common reason people come to counselling. I’m used to getting to know the different parts of a person, without judgement. Listening to what the voices have to say and learning from them can offer a way forward.
Learning about IFS has refined my ‘parts work’.
In the IFS model there can be many different parts, and some of those parts might feel the same emotion, but be triggered or active at different times. So it’s a little more complex than Inside Out suggests. The part that’s frustrated when I can’t complete a work assignment is different to the part that’s frustrated when I overeat, for example; both frustration, but both with different stories to tell.
Schwartz suggests that as well as different parts within each of us there is a place that is curious, calm and compassionate. If you have practised mindfulness meditation you might have found this place within yourself – the place from where you can see yourself and others without judgement. This ‘parts free zone’ is called the ‘self’ in IFS terminology. IFS therapy invites each of us towards this place, so that we can learn from our own parts and allow any wounded parts to heal.
It’s a powerful model, and as someone who has spent a decent
amount of time watching my own processes, it makes intuitive sense to me.
If you want to learn more I’d suggest starting with Tom
Holmes book Parts Work. Or come along
to a therapy session with me and begin the process of getting to know your
different parts, and healing the parts that need healing.
Over the last few weeks, until just recently, I’ve been experiencing
some nervousness. Towards the end of last year I started getting ready to advertise
as a body psychotherapist.
Why the nerves? There aren’t so many body psychotherapists
around. Is it a strange thing to do, I wondered? Will people still want to come
and see me or not?
A couple of days ago I added the words body psychotherapist
to my advert that goes out in a local magazine and I felt better immediately.
The nervousness disappeared and I began to look forward to welcoming clients
who are interested in including the body in psychotherapy.
Why do I love including the body in psychotherapy? Our
bodies have their own languages of feeling and processing emotion and experience.
In fact – despite only just beginning to advertise — I’ve been
working in this way for a while. What does this kind of work look like?
It might be that we spend just a few moments with body experience
before returning to speaking and listening. For example a client notices that
they are clenching their fists, I invite them to do that more strongly and then
a memory appears, or a worry, or something that needs letting go, and we talk
It might be that we spend a little longer with body experience.
A client and I notice they always hunch over when talking about their boss, for
example. What does it feel like to hunch over like that? I wonder? How is it to
hunch over more, or less?
It might be that we don’t mention the body or physical
sensation at all, but that my being tuned into my own body and having some awareness
of how a client is sitting or moving allows me to have more empathy for them.
This work fits so well with my mindfulness practice. Mindfulness allows us to meet ourselves from a place of curiosity and without judgement – noticing thoughts, feelings and sensation in the body. Body psychotherapy is the same, but with someone alongside you, creating the conditions the enable this kind of exploration.
Tuning into the body is like changing the channel, it can
show us things we might not otherwise see, and as a channel that is often under
used it’s one that I’m interested in. Of course I still use all of the other
channels with my clients: words, feelings, dreams and images and so on.
The actual qualification I am about to get is in Embodied Relational Therapy. I could
have put this on the print advertisement but I wasn’t sure anyone would know
what it meant. I might write about what
ERT means in more detail another time, but what I’ve said above gives a pretty
I have spaces available now for new clients. Get in touch to book an initial session.
We are moving through the longest nights. What happens at this time of year? In the run up to the longest night we put up our decorations and lights, go to parties and come together as happy families at Christmas time. Or we see others doing that and our own attempt to hold off the dark fails — the winter can be a difficult time of year. More likely we are somewhere in between, with good days and bad days: Holding off the dark with celebrations and light on some days, and other days our mood slipping into something gloomier.
It helps to know that feelings come and go. The more deeply we examine our feelings the more obvious it becomes that they are always shifting and changing, even in small ways. When I used to fall into an awful mood one of the worst things was imagining that it would last forever – but when I really examined the evidence? What a revelation. Trusting that things will shift and change has been a comfort for me, personally, in darker times.
It helps to trust that it’s good to do good things, even if they don’t bring results straight away. Your good things will be different to my good things, but for me good things are getting outside, getting up and moving my body somehow, and making wise choices about what I eat, I read and watch. These may not lift you from the worst of moods straight away, but taking care of yourself and others is good to do regardless, and I trust that it helps lay down the conditions for better moods in the future.
As the nights become shorter, and the days become longer and we move past Christmas and into the New Year we move away from parties and to new projects and new resolutions, and the adverts on our TVs and in our magazines change from selling rich sugary foods to selling diets.
Sometimes we get a rush of new energy and plough that into the New Year, lifting ourselves up from where we were before. Sometimes we see all of those advertisements and articles about New Year’s resolutions and become disheartened as we quickly fall into old habits or discover that we don’t have any energy even to start to change.
The same kind of things: knowing that feelings come and go, trusting that it’s good to do good things and — importantly — being realistic. There’s no point setting yourself a list of ten great things to do if you only manage a few and then become so disappointed it triggers apathy and feeling terrible. It’s much better to set a few goals that you can meet, and celebrate meeting them.
Sometimes it feels like change isn’t coming, or that the roots of disappointment run deeply. I encourage you to reach out get support. We can feel ashamed of asking for help — but the truth is no one does it on their own, and we all need to lean on other people, sometimes. Call a friend, book an appointment with a therapistor talk to a family member.
The winter can be a wonderful time of year. I’m writing this at the tail end of autumn, there are a few golden leaves left on the trees and the sun is shining brightly. Later on I’ll make a pot of soup, and I’m looking forward to seeing friends later in the week.
I trust that there will be good days, and less good days,and that it’s possible to move gracefully through them all.