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Review of "Contemplative Psychotherapy Essentials"

By Karen Kissel Wegela
W. W. Norton, 2015
Review by Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D. on Oct 13th 2015
Contemplative Psychotherapy Essentials

This week another shooter entered a public place, this time a college campus in Oregon, and once again maimed and killed another large number of young people. As the rat race competitiveness of late capitalist societies increasingly drives people toward the morally bereft twin values of productivity and consumption, skyrocketing rates of mental illness witness to the vapid meaninglessness of these goals in terms of human quality of life and well-being. In tandem with rising rates of depression, anxiety, and the self-medicating and addictive practices associated with these conditions, we have seen a concomitant rise in popularity of both psychotherapy and Buddhism, Western and Eastern approaches to restoring psychological balance and promoting well-being. Hence we have also witnessed the literary market flooded with books on both traditions, and more recently with books that span the divide between East and West and attempt to bring together the best aspects of the two traditions for a more effective treatment approach.

"Contemplative Psychotherapy" is born of this happy union of the best of both worlds. Karen Kissel Wegela is a pioneer of this melding. A therapist in private practice and a professor in the MA Contemplative Psychotherapy program at Naropa University, Wegela shows herself to be a master of both traditions. In her previous books,The Courage to Be Present and What Really Helps, she identifies and tackles the fundamental psychological problem at the root of people's unhappiness in the modern age—we fear being present with difficult circumstances so we try a lot of strategies (addictive behaviors, war, distracting ourselves with entertainments) that do not really help, and actually further aggravate the problem (of the extreme loneliness and isolation of late capitalist societies).

In her new book, Contemplative Psychotherapy Essentials, Wegela provides psychotherapists with a comprehensive guidebook to establishing their own Buddhist practice regimen to awaken their self-awareness of their own tendency to negative reactivity to the difficult stories and people who come to them for help. The message is that first we must get our own psychological house in order, before we can guide others rightly. Once we begin to notice how the clutter and chatter in our own heads causes us to pull away, turn off, or maintain a running—and often negative—commentary in our own minds, we make room for hearing more clearly what the client has to tell us so we can truly be of help to them in their suffering. 

There are many books that show how Buddhist psychology can enhance Western psychotherapy.  What is unique about Wegela's new book is that it is virtually a primer of how to meld the two traditions to your own and your clients' best advantage. First, she unpacks the Contemplative Psychotherapy tradition, showing the challenges that face the therapist in applying this method in their practice. Then she focuses in on preparing the therapist with the skills that she/he needs to be truly present in order to practice well. She counsels how to establish a firm home practice regimen that can build what she calls the "five competencies" of the Contemplative Psychotherapist": 1. being present and letting be; 2. seeing clearly and not judging; 3. recognizing and appreciating differences; 4. connecting with others and cultivating relationship; and 5. acting skillfully and letting go. At each competency, she offers simple practices to build each skill and to avoid or work with the pitfalls associated with our own core tendencies (for example, to pull away from what is difficult). First we reclaim our own "brilliant sanity", a term she gleans from the Shambala tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, and then we will be in a better position to help our clients rediscover their own "brilliant sanity", much like the airplane safety instructions tell us: put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.

This book will be found highly valuable by psychotherapists from any tradition, since it begins from the ancient wise aphorism, physician heal thyself. This may seem like a no-brainer to an outsider looking in on the Western psychotherapeutic tradition, but as Bruce Tift brilliantly exposes in his more recent book on this topic (Bruce Tift. Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2015), the Western tradition rests on an inherent dichotomous assumption between the "sane expert" and the "sick patient". Wegela sidesteps this obstacle by treating the therapist first, before moving on to show how the sane therapist can promote the sanity of her/his clients, shifting the power relationship of the therapy situation from expert/patient to twin collaborators in well-being. This shift realizes the Buddhist principle of equanimity, which dispels the triple illusions of the ego: the illusion of superiority, the illusion of inferiority, and the illusion of equality.

This is a thoroughly comprehensive and practical study that would enhance the practice of any therapist, but I also recommend it as valuable and interesting reading for any educated audience, and especially for college students in the field.


© 2015 Wendy C. Hamblet


Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D. (Philosophy), Professor, North Carolina A&T State University.