“Healing Trauma with Meditation” by Dr. John Miller and Amy Schmidt [Fall 2004] offered an extremely insightful and detailed approach to the dilemma of practitioners impacted by trauma. Even though mercy and wisdom emanated from nearly every paragraph, an early statement confused the overall message of the article. The authors suggest that, when traumatic flashbacks intrude into a practitioner’s meditation, s/he “[often] needs to stop practice and address the trauma through psychotherapy; a teacher is usually the best person to make this determination.” I disagree on two points.
First, it is usually a false dichotomy to make therapy and meditation an either-or choice, even in such difficult situations. More dangerous, however, is the notion that “a teacher” is best able to make the decision to include therapy as a primary method of healing psychological trauma. Unfortunately, many teachers are not sufficiently educated about traumatic process to make an informed decision in this area. Moreover, such externalization of authority is often both a cause of trauma and an enduring component of the traumatic wound. Truly wise teachers (and therapists) seek to bring the individual back to his or her own sense of self-contact and authority. Still, this article contained truly valuable suggestions for the traumatized practitioner, and I will offer it to many of my traumatized clients.
—Bill Larsen, Nevada City, California
Miller and Schmidt Respond
We appreciate Mr. Larsen’s feedback. We agree that meditation and psychotherapy do not exist in an “either/or” dichotomy. Our intent was to explore options that a trauma survivor has to work with in a meditation practice - in the presence or absence of psychotherapy. However, when traumatic flashbacks cause significant psychological distress, which can include severe dissociation and frank psychosis, it is our experience that continued meditation is highly counterproductive. In this situation it is the compassionate responsibility of the teacher to recommend that the meditator postpone practice until an adequate evaluation can be performed by a mental health specialist who can then make informed professional recommendations. As an analogy, if a meditator on retreat presents to a teacher complaining of a high fever, shortness of breath and severe chest pain, it would be irresponsible of the teacher not to intervene and strongly recommend a visit to a local emergency room.
We do not believe, nor did we mean to imply, that “a teacher is best able to make the decision to include therapy as a primary method of healing psychological trauma.” Rather, we believe that intervention by the teacher in a setting of severe distress and a referral to an appropriate professional is an essential and compassionate action.
In Dan Zigmond’s review of Natalie Goldberg’s The Great Failure [Fall 2004], he begins by acknowledging the author’s “deep disappointment with the two most important men in her life: her father and her teacher, the Zen Buddhist master Dainin Katagiri Roshi.” He goes on to evaluate this book as a “well-intentioned [but] somewhat unfocused” investigation into these two men and their betrayals, “a necessary and healing book [for Goldberg] to write, but not, alas, to read.”
The Great Failure tells the story of the author’s 0search for the insight and a framework to sustain her sincere love for both her teacher and her father, while putting herself back in the equation.
When we begin spiritual practice under the guidance of a teacher, the “gold” we are seeking is already within us. But our self-concept is too limited to accept it for now, so we project it onto the teacher. According to Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson, this is a natural and healthy process as long as the teacher knows that the gold is the student’s and not his own, and that he is holding it only temporarily. Performed consciously, with trust and discernment, this projection serves both parties. In the Western Buddhist communities, fortunately, these dynamics are often not conscious. The Great Failure models an alternative. In Goldberg’s own words, it is her “humble effort to illuminate the path of honesty.”
And she does. As the memoir of a practitioner’s unrelenting efforts to get to the bottom of the dilemma confronting her and to reclaim her gold, her authentic self, The Great Failure sets a new standard for Western dharma literature.
—Arnie Kotler, Paia, Hawaii
The map the editors used to illustrate “Vaisali: First Stop to Enlightenment” [Practical Pilgrim, Fall 2004] is incorrect. The map depicts the Vaisali River in the state of Bhind rather than the town of Vaisali, which is in the state of Bihar.
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