By Ryan Howes, PhD, ABPP on November 23, 2011 - 7:12am
The Varieties of Religious Therapy (VRT) is a blog series featuring representatives from twelve belief systems discussing how they integrate faith with their approach to psychotherapy. This installment, the twelfth of twelve, is an interview with a Buddhist psychologist and author. See the Introduction for a full description of VRT and the table of contents.
Twenty-five hundred years ago, an Indian prince named Siddharta Guatama sat beneath a tree waiting for enlightenment. He arose as the Budda - the "enlightened one" - and spent his 45 remaining years teaching the path to liberation from suffering; the dharma. Today there are over 360 million followers of Buddhism worldwide.
Lorne Ladner (Ph.D., Pacifica Graduate Institute) is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Centreville, Virginia. He teaches meditation and Buddhist practice and directs the Guhyasamaja Buddhist Center in Northern Virginia. Dr. Ladner has written or co-authored a number of books including The Lost Art of Compassion: Discovering the Practice of Happiness in the Meeting of Buddhism & Psychology, and a chapter on mindfulness for the APA's recently released Spiritually Oriented Interventions for Counseling and Psychotherapy. Dr. Ladner was formerly an adjunct faculty member Argosy University, and he currently gives lectures and workshops in the areas of the psychology of compassion and other positive emotions, mindfulness, and meditation.
Please take a deep, cleansing breath and enjoy these responses from a wise practitioner.
What is the role of religion or spirituality in your clinical practice?
I would say that my spiritual practice plays a role in my clinical practice in two different ways. The first is unspoken and relates to my own internal practice. I practice in the tradition of the H. H. Dalai Lama which puts great emphasis on a spirituality grounded in empathy, loving-kindness, compassion, and altruism. So, as part of my own practice, both when I'm by myself and when I'm with others, I actively engage in psychological methods for increasing those qualities. So, that would include actively cultivating empathy and compassion for patients I'm working with. Though I don't talk about that with patients, it appears that some people with whom I work over an extended period of time sense some of that. Also, interpersonally or intersubjectively, those emotions and perspectives are there in the room affecting the interaction. According to the psychotherapy research, so much of what is helpful or healing for patients happens on a non-verbal level in their having a different kind of intersubjective experience than they had in the past related to issues they may be facing. So, whenever a therapist can bring some degree of compassion into the relationship, that would have an impact on both people involved.
Then, another way that those things affect my clinical practice is more explicit. I keep up pretty well on the clinical research related to applying meditation techniques in the context of psychotherapy and I've also written articles and books on that subject. So, I often teach people mindfulness or other meditation techniques in the context of therapy. If there is clear, clinical, scientific research indicating that mindfulness or compassion meditation or a visualization technique can help a patient with the specific problems they are bringing to therapy, then I bring that up, briefly explain the research, and offer to teach them that technique. In general, I'll only bring up such methods when there is clear, clinical research indicating that they are effective in relation to the client's presenting problems.
Since I have written about meditation and therapy, I also sometimes have people come in who are specifically interested in Buddhist practices from their own side. In those cases, if someone asks me about a particular Buddhist practice as it relates to coping with their presenting problems then we may discuss it some as well.
How does your technique or theory differ from mainstream psychotherapy?
This question is a bit difficult to answer because over the past ten years or so integrating techniques derived from the Buddhist meditative tradition into psychotherapy really have become pretty mainstream. That wasn't true when I started out as a therapist. But, now there are well over a thousand journal articles just related to applying mindfulness in the contexts of stress reduction and psychotherapy. And, then coming largely out of the Mind & Life meetings between leading scientific researchers and H. H. the Dalai Lama (along with other Buddhist teachers), there's also a fast-growing body of research on applying other Buddhist techniques as well such as compassion meditation, meditative concentration techniques, and so forth. Books, trainings and workshops on all these topics appear more and more. So, in some sense all of this is becoming fairly mainstream. But, compared with most of my colleagues, I probably do actually engage with clients in more guided practice of mindfulness or other sorts of meditation during sessions. I suspect that I also place more emphasis than average on issues such as looking a strengths (a focus of positive psychology) and enhancing positive emotions such love, compassion for self, compassion for others, gratitude, and forgiveness. There is clinical research on the benefits of such positive emotions, but I suspect that my own interest in their role in mental health is also influenced by the Buddhist psychological tradition's view that such positive emotions are totally essential to human happiness and mental health.
A new client comes to therapy reporting his main problem is feeling detached from God. How would you proceed?
I would ordinarily begin by exploring what their experience of feeling detached from God was actually like, how and when it had developed, and what their relationship with God had been like before. Sometimes such experiences arise due to grief reactions and then it's important to explore the client's grieving process. At other times such experiences arise due to depression and an overall sense of disconnection; in such cases I believe that the initial focus should be less on religion or spirituality and more on treating the depression and overall sense of disconnection. And, then with some other people the issue is more specifically a religious or spiritual issue. (Of course this can also be true in the other examples I just shared, so perhaps the distinction is more a matter of timing and emphasis.) When someone is feeling detached from God and from their own spirituality, it can be quite helpful to have someone to talk with who is open to helping them explore their own beliefs. I majored in college in Religious Studies, and then in graduate school also studied the role of spirituality and religion in psychology from a Jungian perspective. So, I generally believe that if someone is troubled by a sense of distance from God, then exploring that together in a way that's grounded in that person's own direct experience, personal history, and beliefs can be very helpful, and I've often felt quite honored to get to work together with another person as they explore those kinds of issues.