I am honored to have been interviewed by Eastern Horizon, the magazine of the Young Buddhist Association of Malaysia (YBAM) (https://ybam.org.my/en/eastern-horizon/e-magazine/) about the inspiration and insights Buddhism brings to my personal life and work as a psychotherapist and grief counselor. I am grateful to YBAM for giving me permission to share this article.
Beth Patterson is a Licensed Psychotherapist and Grief Counselor in Oregon, USA. She is also a Clinical Supervisor for crisis workers at CAHOOTS – Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets — a mobile crisis intervention program that provides support for the police departments in Eugene and Springfield, Oregon, providing initial contact and crisis counseling for people who are dealing with homelessness, substance abuse or illness.
Beth’s professional practice is informed by her longtime Buddhist practice and deep belief that we all have the inherent wisdom to use our losses and other life challenges and transitions to grow and heal. As a former attorney and executive in the music industry, Beth also counsels musicians and others in the arts.
She explains to Benny Liow what brought her to Buddhism, the inspiration she had from her Tibetan Buddhist teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, and what is true happiness and well-being, especially the usual material happiness we are familiar with and the kind of happiness taught by the Buddha. She also shared suggestions from her e-book Love without Limit: Reflections of a Buddhist Psychotherapist on how to deal with depression, anxiety, grief and trauma, and in navigating life’s challenges with mindfulness, love and compassion.
Benny: You have been a successful entertainment lawyer and now a counselor and psychotherapist, as well as a Buddhist teacher. What inspired you in Buddhism initially and until now?
Beth: I grew up in the Jewish tradition, which, like Christianity, is a monotheistic religion. I remember questioning at a young age the idea that there was a being more powerful than me, to whom I needed to hand over my power to achieve happiness. From that time on, I believe that we have the inherent power in ourselves to grow and heal. I discovered Buddhism in college, and its tenets validated my beliefs.
I began studying and practicing in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition in the late 1980s, and took refuge with Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche in New York City in the early 1990s, and later became his student. I have served in Ponlop Rinpoche’s international organization, Nalandabodhi International, out of my devotion to Rinpoche and the Three Jewels – the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
I am grateful every day for the support of the Three Jewels: The Buddha as an inspiration that enlightenment is available to all of us, and a reminder of all beings’ inherent Buddha Nature; the Dharma that teaches us how to live well, navigate life’s challenges and be of benefit to all beings; and the Sangha as a supportive community of fellow travelers on the Buddhist path.
The Buddha advised us to reflect daily on birth, old age, sickness and death. How can this lead to happiness and well-being – won’t we become negative towards the beauty of life?
To me, it is just the opposite: Knowing that everything ends, moment by moment, inspires me to appreciate the beauty of life. For example, it is now Autumn where I live in the Pacific Northwest. It is such a poignant time of year. The brilliant leaves and the crisp, clear air remind me that those brilliant leaves will soon fall and the clear crisp air will turn to a season of cold and rain. Actually, change is the good news! If things didn’t change, we’d be stuck in a rut, and there would be no opportunity to transform our lives.
Reflecting on birth, old age, sickness and death connects us to The Four Noble Truths, Buddha’s first teaching after he attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in India. As a young, sheltered and wealthy young man, Prince Siddhartha had no understanding of the truth of suffering that comes with birth, old age, sickness and death, let alone their inevitability. was only when he left the palace and went on his journey to find the Truth that he was able to get in touch with the suffering of all beings, including his own. Without the knowledge and experience of suffering, enlightenment is not possible.
Each life transition, and the inevitable changes in life, is also a grief process. Even positive changes can come with a sense of grief – we are letting go of something to attain something more beneficial. For example, when I work with people with addictions, I work with it them with my lens as a grief counselor. People with addictions need to say goodbye to the habits, friends and lifestyle they have had in order to have a healthier one.
As a grief counselor, I have come to realize that allowing ourselves to deeply feel our grief opens us to its universality. Grief counselors are fond of working with grief models, like the five stages of grief espoused by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. I have come up with my own model of working through grief: We start out asking “Why me?”, then “Why not me?” and then “Yes, everyone.”
Through allowing ourselves to fully experience our grief and express our suffering regarding birth, old age, sickness and death, we can see that there is a way out of that suffering, through working with it as a fact of life, and finding a meaningful way to grow, transforming hopelessness into hope and possibility. Through experiencing our own unique grief, we can tap into its universality, lessening our hopelessness and isolation, and deepening our connection with others and the human condition.
I reflect on impermanence – birth, old age, sickness and death — daily, reminding myself that what is born will die – moment by moment. Contemplating impermanence gives me the impetus to live my life as well as possible, with kindness toward myself and all beings, so that those moments will be good ones.
In your e-book Love without Limit: Reflections of a Buddhist Psychotherapist, you mentioned that happiness is already within each of us, just waiting to be discovered. What is this happiness that the Buddha is referring to, and how is it different or similar to our usual understanding of happiness?
This questions brings to mind a classic American country song, “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.” Humans tend to look for happiness by collecting more possessions, seeking praise and love from others and attaining wealth, thinking these external things will bring us true happiness. However, the “happiness” we get from these external things is fleeting at best. True happiness comes from the only thing that lasts, that is, our heart of kindness, our Buddha Nature.
The Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has said “The present moment is full of joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.” Each moment is perfect just as it is. The problem is that we often live in the past, dwelling on regrets, or in the future, full of hope and fear. Each moment is perfect, just as it is, and the only way we can experience happiness is in the present moment.
Therapy is not just about talking about the past, as many incorrectly assume. Rather, the psychotherapist’s goal is to work with the client in the here and now, while both therapist and client observe how past experiences inform the present moment. Psychotherapy works best when the past is re-experienced in
the present, in a safe and non- judgmental space. It is not about just talking about the past, but feeling the accompanying body sensations and emotions as fully as possible, and experiencing the energy and dynamics of the relationship between the therapist and client.
As the client-therapist relationship grows, and the client is able to trust the therapist to maintain
a safe environment, the client can re-experience the past more fully, and can then learn from and heal past wounds and transform the present. Many of my clients who have experienced trauma feel so unsafe that experiencing life moment to moment seems impossible for them. They hide behind the stories they have told themselves that they are not worthy of love, or that the traumas they have endured are their fault. As we work to disarm those negative self-beliefs, the client is more able to experience each present moment more fully, heightening their ability to experience true happiness.
In your book, you also mentioned helpful suggestions for dealing with depression, anxiety, grief and trauma, and for navigating life’s challenges with mindfulness, love and compassion. If mindfulness is objective non-judgement, how does one then cultivate love and compassion which tends to be more emotional and subjective?
The love and compassion that mindfulness and Buddhism talk about is limitless and boundless. It is not limited to a choice few, but to all beings. Reciting The Four Immeasurables, the four boundless positive qualities of equanimity (upekkhā), lovingkindness (mettā), compassion (karuṇā), and sympathetic joy (muditā), helps us cultivate non-judgmental, limitless compassion. Equanimity is the foundation for seeing each moment freshly, with non-judgment. This accords with Jon Kabat- Zinn’s definition of mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non- judgmentally, in the service of self- understanding and wisdom.” With equanimity as the foundation, our emotional and subjective clinging is dissolved, and the boundless states of lovingkindness, compassion and sympathetic joy can flourish, becoming available to ourselves and all beings with exception.
Furthermore, many clients with depression have tunnel vision, just thinking about their own troubles, and that no one suffers like they do. As we begin to let go of our ego- clinging, that tunnel vision opens into a more panoramic view. We then understand that all of us suffer, and can develop lovingkindness and compassion for ourselves and all beings.
In one of your writings, you mentioned that you applied the Four Noble truths, a core Buddhist teaching, to overcome suffering when you had chronic pain. Isn’t the teachings of the Buddha meant more for overcoming mental suffering rather than physical suffering? Can you share your experience with us?
There is a well-worn adage “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” My chronic pain has offered a valuable opportunity to work to separate my mental suffering from the direct physical sensations of pain. In other words, honing in on the physical sensations, such as burning or throbbing in the location of my pain becomes the object of my meditation. Mental suffering arises when I stray from the direct experience of those feelings into my thoughts about the pain, whether self-pity, fear or myriad other negative thoughts. The Buddha calls this “shooting ourselves with the second arrow.” The first arrow is the pain, which is inevitable, and the second arrow is all the associated negative thoughts, which are optional. Being able to separate my pain from suffering has brought me great relief.
When I bemoan the perceived injustice of having a chronic pain condition, I am shooting myself with a second arrow. My mindfulness practice allows me to notice my thoughts and judgments as they arise, let them go and return to the object of my meditation. When I am experiencing pain, I allow that to be the object of my meditation. As thoughts and judgments arise, I notice them lightly and return to the direct experience of pain. When I work with my pain directly in this way, I am fully in the present moment. My thoughts, judgments and resistance are gone, and so is the suffering that I have added to the pain with those thoughts, judgments and resistance. In that present moment, I am liberated from my suffering.
Many times, our mental suffering arise because of too much self- criticism. How do we balance too much of self-criticism and self-praise so that we can adopt a more equanimous mind state?
The Buddhist path is all about the “middle way.” When Shakyamuni Buddha was asked how to meditate, he responded “not too tight, not too loose, analogizing the experience to tuning a lute – If the strings are too loose, the lute won’t play, and if they are too tight, they will break. The same can be applied to working with self-criticism and self-praise. When we find ourselves in a state of self-criticism, we can go to the opposite extreme of self-praise. The key is to find a middle way, where we are kind to ourselves without going overboard in the other direction to self-praise. That middle way opens us to a sense of spaciousness and gentleness, and as you say, a calm and equanimous state of mind.
The key to creating a more calm and equanimous state of mind is to remember that there is no “I”, and to not take things personally. We suffer when we believe in a solid sense of “I.” This is the fundamental tenet of the first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism. Developing an understanding of this First Noble Truth is the key to the experience of freedom and ease. Not taking things personally may take practice, patience and mindfulness in order to let go of our need to be right or defend our position. The result is
a more kind and compassionate relationship, both with ourselves and with others.
It is common for us to think that the “grass is always greener the other side.” How do we navigate between being contented with what we have, and a couldn’t care less attitude of not even wanting to improve or try to be better?
The most common complaint Ihear from depressed clients in my psychotherapy practice can be summed up in two words: “Not enough.” A common plight of human beings is dissatisfaction, and may be expressed as “I’m not good enough”; “My partner isn’t good enough”; “My job isn’t good enough” … and the list goes on and on.
From a Buddhist perspective, the poverty mentality of “not enough” is depicted as a hungry ghost, a being with a tiny mouth, skinny neck, arms and legs, and an enormous stomach. Because the hungry ghost’s mouth and neck are so small, not enough food ever reaches its huge stomach. The hungry ghost is always hungry. Because its arms and legs are so skinny, the hungry ghost is unable to hold on to anything. Nothing can satisfy the hungry ghost.
We are rarely satisfied with who we are and what we have accomplished. As a result, humans are in perpetual motion, seeking fulfillment and satisfaction outside of ourselves, but never finding it until we realize that we are whole and complete as we are. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to achieve goals that bring us satisfaction and, more importantly, bring benefit to others. For myself, that entailed a major shift, first leaving a high paying job as a corporate entertainment lawyer to work with musicians, often for free, and then changing careers entirely, becoming a Buddhist psychotherapist in my early 50s. I get the most satisfaction from sharing the wisdom I have gained through my life experiences – including the many mistakes I have made along the way.
As a practicing Buddhist and a psychotherapist what would you say is the most important attitude we should cultivate if we wish for well-being and happiness in life? An attitude of gratitude and appreciation for all is the most important attitude for cultivating well-being and happiness. I often suggest that clients write down every day five things they are grateful for that happened that day. Some find this difficult because
of what I call the “yeah buts” – a common refrain from depressed clients. They may say something to the effect of “yeah but, I don’t feel grateful about anything.” I counter with “What about the fact that the sun is shining? Did you hear the beautiful song of that bird outside our window?” It takes practice to observe and take time to appreciate the small joys of life. I believe this is the key to cultivating well-being and happiness in life.
Having a sense of humor also helps us cultivate well-being and happiness. A sense of humor helps us not take things – especially ourselves – so seriously. For example, competitiveness is a habitual tendency (klesha in Sanskrit) of mine. When I see it rear its head, I’m able to step back and laugh at it, saying to myself “oh, hello, klesha. Thanks for showing up, but I don’t need you to stick around.” It really helps! A sense of humor can get us out of our ego-driven tunnel vision and self- centeredness. It helps us see things from a bigger, more panoramic perspective, making problems that seem insurmountable more workable. EH