Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Karen Kissel Wegela (pictured opposite), the celebrated author of The Courage to Be Present: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Awakening of Natural Wisdom, has been a core faculty member at the Buddhist-inspired Naropa University for more than 29 years, focusing on contemplative psychotherapy, and bringing together Buddhism and traditional psychotherapy. She has a private practice in Boulder, Colorado, and gives workshops and lectures nationally and internationally.

The author’s thesis is that what really helps most when we are aspiring to help others is our presence. We won't have any idea what will actually help until we connect with others and have a good sense of what their experiences are. In order to be fully present and connected with another person, we have to be willing to feel whatever comes up in our own experience.

For example, we may be with a friend who is going through a painful divorce. We might find that as we sit with the friend we begin to feel a lot of intense feelings ourselves. We might feel sadness, anger, or bewilderment. We could be "exchanging" with what the person is feeling in that moment. Alternatively, we could also have our own personal reactions to what the person is telling us. Maybe we've been through a divorce ourselves, or maybe our parents divorced when we were young, and listening to our friend brings up painful feelings of our own.

Even more commonly, when we want to be helpful, we don't have a clue what will help. Wegela says that the ability to stay present with not knowing, with uncertainty or even with feeling stupid is enormously valuable. It can be hard to stay present with those experiences of pain or not knowing. Sometimes we jump in prematurely with suggestions or stories of our own, just to get away from the discomfort we're feeling ourselves. Often when we do that, the other person doesn't feel heard or feels put off. They may even shut down and stop talking to us.

This ability to be present without pulling away from discomfort is mindfulness. It's easy to say, "Stay present," but it's actually quite difficult.

Wegela notes that we can practice bringing non-judgmental awareness to other kinds of activities, like sports, playing a musical instrument or cooking. In fact, anything that trains us to keep coming back to the present moment without judging what we find will help us become people who can be there for others.

Much has been written about the concept and practice of compassion.

Compassion can mean being willing to suffer with another. There is a closely related idea ... gentleness. Gentleness is a way of being kind to ourselves and others. It means letting go of the self-aggression and self-judgment that we in the West are so good at. We are often quite self-critical. It helps if we work with ourselves with the question, "Is there any way to be gentler with myself [or the other person] about this?"

We can train our ability to be gentle when we do our mindfulness practice. When we realize we've been caught up in thoughts, for example, we can gently return to the present moment, or to our breath, without adding any extra self-criticism or harshness.

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