Psychotherapy and the Middle Way

When I hear the clients in my psychotherapy and grief counseling practice talk in black and white terms, or view their options in terms of extremes, I am reminded of the Buddhist concept of the Middle Way. When the Buddha was asked how one should meditate, he responded “not too tight, not too loose.” He analogized this to a string instrument, like a lute: If the strings of the lute are too tight, they will break, and if the strings of the lute are too loose, they won’t play.

So it is as we live our lives and navigate its changes. Ideally, we strive to find a middle way where the “strings” of our life can resonate. However, due to anxiety, we may get wound up to the breaking point, where there is no give and take, no spaciousness to allow things to be. On the other hand, we may be so downtrodden with depression that our “strings” are too loose — we just don’t have the emotional energy to tighten them enough to play.

The Middle Way can be likened to living in the space of ambiguity — which is truly the condition of life. Because of our emotional histories, living in ambiguity can be fraught with difficulties. In our anxiety, we frantically fill the spaces in our lives with doing, rather than being. Yet, possibilities for growth and renewal can only arise if we are able to rest in that unknown space. If we can take a breath and rest in that space, called “the gap” in Buddhism, we see that it truly is spacious, vibrant, alive and full of possibility.

Similarly, our emotional wounds sometimes prevent us from seeing the complex nature of the people in our lives, including ourselves. At its extreme, we see them as all good or all bad, known as “splitting.” In fact, sometimes the same person is seen as all good one minute, all bad the next. A goal for people in therapy with this type of issue is to be able to see the shades of gray — people, including the client, are neither all good nor all bad. Many people with this tendency are perfectionists, with resultant depression, eating disorders, self-injury and other issues. For these clients, having a safe experience that it is OK not to be perfect (and that perfection is in fact impossible for human beings) leads to self-compassion, and compassion for others. Their emotional “strings” can then be loosened enough to let themselves — and others — be, allowing for the possibility of joy, satisfaction and intimacy in their lives.

The Middle Way approach is also helpful in my work as a grief counselor. People who are struggling with their grief sometimes ask me “when will I feel better, and when will I ‘get over it’”? Some go the “too loose” extreme, numbing the pain of grief with drugs or alcohol, or jumping into a new relationship. Others go to the “too tight” extreme, idealizing and idolizing their deceased loved ones, or holding on tightly to their pain for fear that letting go will mean forgetting their loved ones. Finding that Middle Way, where the bereaved can safely feel and express their pain and go through their own personal journey of grief, without having a map, but the compass of the grief counselor, is a key component to growing and healing in grief.

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