Yoga, Meditation, and Psychotherapy: Concepts & Misconceptions

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On the occasion of World Mental Health Day (October 10 every year), Prof. Ashoka tells us how he has been guiding psychotherapists. He draws an interesting parallel between Yoga, meditation, and psychotherapy, dispelling the Western misconceptions about it, in the first part of the two-part erudite research on the subject, in his weekly column. A Different Truths Exclusive.

Over the years, again and again, young therapists have come to me for guidance, complaining: I’m stuck. For a while, the work was going well, but now we’re at an impasse. My patient has reached a plateau. He (or she) is blocking and I can’t seem to get him over his resistance. I’ve tried and tried to figure out why he’s doing that but he’s me all the way. At times like these, it’s difficult for the therapist to understand that “a impasse” is simply a time when the therapist is trying to make a patient do something that the patient is not ready to do. By focusing on the patient’s “progress,” the therapist engages in a needless power struggle. Getting hung up on how well or poorly the therapist is doing also distractedly drains his or her own creative energy from the Work. The readiest resolution for these deadly problems is the therapist’s shifting focus onto the techniques. Getting out of that awful stuck place requires that the therapist turn attention away from the patient’s behaviour, away from concern with self-image, and toward concentration on simply doing impeccable work. 

The best model I know for getting unstuck is the release from bondage provided by the discipline of Yoga, “the yoke that frees.” Though I no longer meditate regularly, the freeing discipline of Yoga serves me well as a metaphor for getting beyond being stuck in trying to get my own way in working as a psychotherapist (as well as in the rest of life).

I remember my own early instruction in the Yoga of breath-counting. To prepare myself, each day I was to sit comfortably for short periods regularly.  My mind would be cleared by focusing all of my attention on the edges of my nostrils; at that place where the breath is exhaled. My guide told me: “You need only breathe in and out quietly and regularly, concentrating on that point. Each time you exhale, you count to yourself, ‘one…, two…, three…,’ and so on. When you get to ten, begin again.” That certainly sounded easy enough. But my guide went on to warn me of the demons with which I would struggle: “You’ll find that you begin ‘one…, two…,’ and then the thoughts will come. And so it will be ‘one…, two…,’ and suddenly you’ll think ‘This isn’t working!’ At that point, you must go back to one. You try it again: ‘one…, two…,’ and all at once ‘Now I’m getting it.’ Back to one. Still, other thoughts will arise to distract you. Discomforts and temptations will emerge as distractions. (‘My legs are getting stiff’ etc.’) and temptations (‘I wonder what it would be like to go on a date with that woman I met yesterday,’ or ‘Someday I’ll be truly enlightened.’). Each time you need only go back to one.” At first, I did not see why I would have to go back to one. All I would have to do would be to overcome those thoughts.

As if reading my mind, my guide went on: “You’ll be tempted to try to dismiss the thoughts, to simply get rid of them. That won’t work. It’s just another trap. All that will happen is that you’ll get deeper and deeper into your insistence that you can overcome the struggles. The only solution each time is to go back to one.” It began to sound not so easy. I started out with the notion that I was certain to go through the series up to ten and begin again. I could do series after series. Should I count them? “Not to worry,” said my guide. “During the first year of breathing meditation, most people do not get beyond four or five. And then come the thoughts, and again it’s always back to one.” So it is in the practice of psychotherapy.

Again and again the therapist’s willful attachment to how he or she is doing, to how the patient is progressing, to the results, to getting his or her own way. All arise as distractions from the work.  In each case, the solution is to go back to one. But first, the therapist must have prepared a setting in which the basic work can be done. What’s more, he or she must have a clear idea of what is to be done and how to do it, or else there is no “one” to which to go back. 

These are not the ways to work. They are simply my ways of working. They need not be yours, though some may suit your own path. I offer it to encourage you to become ever clearer about the fundamentals of your own style of work. To free oneself from the bondage of attachment to its results, it is necessary to be clear about the Work. When we do not concentrate one-pointedly on the basic work, we pay attention instead to the patient’s “progress,” or to our own ego-bound “Look how well (or badly) I’m doing” trip. Neither path benefits the patient or the therapist. At the point of impasse, the only thing that helps is to go back to one. But to find your way back, you first must know what “one” is for you. Clarity about what you do, about how you run the therapy is absolutely necessary. It is sometimes useful, creative, and fun to vary from the basic parameters of your work. But first, you must know the personal baseline from which you are varying. Otherwise, how can you know when to return , and how to find your way back? Learning to go back to one by returning to fundamentals of the Work, the therapist is helped to feel comfortable simply being in charge of the therapy, leaving the patient to be in charge of his or her own life.

Out of this comes the best work; that alliance in the absence of blame in which healing can occur. It is only then that the therapist can offer the expert services of a professional guide, and so avoid the impasse born of the presumption of thinking that the therapist knows what is best for the patient. By concentrating on the therapeutic work the therapist gets unstuck, leaving the patient free to discover what he or she wants out of life, how to go about getting it, and at what cost. It is the patient who must choose just how he or she is to live. When the therapist helps the patient to be happier without needing the patient to change, the therapist’s own impeccable work will be reward enough. So it is with the practice of Yoga as well.

Each seeker at first practices Yoga as a path toward the goal of spiritual liberation. Initially taken on as a means to an end by the beginner, the burdensome efforts of self-discipline are later pursued their own intrinsic rewards by the more advanced Yogi. Certain aspects of the practice of Yoga can serve as effective metaphors for the work of psychotherapy. Many Westerners think of Yoga as nothing more than a peculiar system of breathing exercises accompanied by grotesque postures.

Classical Yoga practices are something more than holding your breath and standing on your head. They have little to do with the Westernised popularisation of Yoga as a gymnastic cult of physical beauty and prolonged youth. Some Westerners imagine that the practice of Yoga is an Oriental form of magic, a vehicle for the attaining of occult powers. Not that special powers do not accrue for the Yogi. Rather it is simply that these Siddhi are not what they appear to be.

The notorious Indian rope trick is a good example of the cheap magic practiced by fakirs who use Yoga powers for exploitive purposes. Nearly fifty years ago, an account appeared in the Chicago Tribune telling of two Americans who witnessed such a performance while travelling together in Northern India. They both watched as the rope appeared to unwind itself vertically toward the sky. Just as the conjurer’s assistant began to climb the rope, one of the Americans who was an artist made a rapid sketch of the scene. His companion, who was carrying a camera, photographed what he saw. Later the photographs showed only a crowd gathered around the fakir, with the boy beside him, and the rope at their feet. Nothing had been suspended but the judgment of the audience.

Suggestion or induced hallucination? Perhaps. Levitation? Not according to the photographic evidence! Among the other Siddhis or “marvellous powers”, which develop in the practice of Yoga are those phenomena which we in the West categorise as parapsychological: extra-sensory perception, telepathy, psychokinesis, and perhaps even outside-the-body trips. They parallel the altered states of consciousness and dramatic instant catharses induced in patients by some Western psychotherapists.

The Indian writers who believe that Siddhis exist, view them as distractions from the right practice of concentration and meditation. Sri Ramakrishna calls these by-products mere “heaps of rubbish” the only importance of which are as obstacles to enlightenment and stumbling blocks in the path to liberation. Before the publication of Tales of Power, an anecdote began circulating in Berkeley, California, about Carlos Castaneda’s visit to Yogi Chen, an elderly Chinese practitioner of esoteric Buddhism who is something of a local saint. Castaneda, it seems, told Yogi Chen that he was now being taught how to produce a “double” of himself. Was there anything similar in Chen’s traditions? Of course, said Yogi Chen, there were methods for producing up to six emanations of oneself, “But why bother? Then you only have six times as much trouble.”

Equivalent psychotherapeutic “magic” creates similar distractions in the treatment process. How are we to understand a path of self-development that considers the acquisition of the power to perform miracles as no more than a trivial distraction from spiritual discipline? This is not true of Yoga alone. None of the Indian philosophies and mystic techniques have either Power or “Truth” as its goal. The West may pursue Progress through Knowledge and Power. The East seeks only deliverance from the struggle. Yoga of one sort or another may be found in all Eastern spiritual paths. In each case, the goals are the same: the raising of consciousness beyond the distinction between the watcher and the watched; awareness free from desire. 

(To be continued)

Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Photos from the Internet 

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Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the 'most educationally qualified in the world'.
Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
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