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If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him: The Pilgrimage Of Psychotherapy Patients Mass Market Paperback – 1 May 1982
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About the Author
Dr. Sheldon B. Kopp (1929–1999) was a psychotherapist and teacher of psychotherapy in Washington, D.C. He published in such publications as Psychology Today, American Journal of Psychotherapy, and Psychiatric Quarterly, and was the author of Guru, The Hanged Man, and If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
1. Pilgrims and Disciples
DIFFICULTY AT THE BEGINNING works supreme success.
Furthering through perseverance.
Nothing should be undertaken
It furthers one to appoint helpers.
In every age, men have set out on pilgrimages, on spiritual journeys, on personal quests. Driven by pain, drawn by longing, lifted by hope, singly and in groups they come in search of relief, enlightenment, peace, power, joy or they know not what. Wishing to learn, and confusing being taught with learning, they often seek out helpers, healers, and guides, spiritual teachers whose disciples they would become.
The emotionally troubled man of today, the contemporary pilgrim, wants to be the disciple of the psychotherapist If he does seek the guidance of such a contemporary guru, he will find himself beginning on a latter-day spiritual pilgrimage of his own.
This should not surprise us. Crises marked by anxiety, doubt, and despair have always been those periods of personal unrest that occur at the times when a man is sufficiently unsettled to have an opportunity for personal growth. We must always see our own feelings of uneasiness as being our chance for “making the growth choice rather than the fear choice.”
So, too, the patient’s longing for growth is the central force of his pilgrimage.
The psychotherapist needs only to be aware of this force, in his patient, and to keep it within his vision. Then he may enjoy his work, and need never bog down in boredom. His task is simply to watch, as the person in front of him wrestles with well-nigh paralyzing conflict, for the emergence of what he knows is there: man’s inherent longing for relatedness and for meaning. The therapist is an observer and a catalyst He has no power to “cure” the patient, for cure is entirely out of his hands. He can add nothing to the patient’s inherent capacity to get well, and whenever he tries to do so he meets stubborn resistance which slows up the progress of treatment The patient is already fully equipped for getting well.… Since he [the therapist] is not “responsible” for the cure, he is free to enjoy the spectacle of it taking place.
Of course, like everyone else (including the therapist), the patient is too often inclined to act out of fear, rather than out of his longing for growth. If not, pilgrimages would always begin out of an overflow of joy, rather than (as is more often the case) being conceived in pain and turmoil. People seek the guidance of a psychotherapist when their usual, self-limited, risk-avoiding ways of operating are not paying off, when there is distress and disruption in their lives. Otherwise, we are all too ready to live with the familiar, so long as it seems to work, no matter how colorless the rewards.
And so, it is not astonishing that, though the patient enters therapy insisting that he wants to change, more often than not, what he really wants is to remain the same and to get the therapist to make him feel better. His goal is to become a more effective neurotic, so that he may have what he wants without risking getting into anything new. He prefers the security of known misery to the misery of unfamiliar insecurity.
Given this all too human failing, the beginning pilgrim-patient may approach the therapist like a small child going to a good parent whom he insists must take care of him. It is as if he comes to the office saying, “My world is broken, and you have to fix it.”
Because of this, my only goals as I begin the work are to take care of myself and to have fun. The patient must provide the motive power of our interaction. It is as if I stand in the doorway of my office, waiting. The patient enters and makes a lunge at me, a desperate attempt to pull me into the fantasy of taking care of him. I step aside. The patient falls to the floor, disappointed and bewildered. Now he has a chance to get up and to try something new. If I am sufficiently skillful at this psychotherapeutic judo, and if he is sufficiently courageous and persistent, he may learn to become curious about himself, to come to know me as I am, and to begin to work out his own problems. He may transform his stubbornness into purposeful determination, his bid for safety into a reaching out for adventure.
You may then ask, “Of what sustained value is the presence of the therapist to such a seeker?” He can be useful in many ways. The therapist, first of all, provides another struggling human being to be encountered by the then self-centered patient, who can see no other problems than his own. The therapist can interpret, advise, provide the emotional acceptance and support that nurtures personal growth, and above all, he can listen. I do not mean that he can simply hear the other, but that he will listen actively and purposefully, responding with the instrument of his trade, that is, with the personal vulnerability of his own trembling self. This listening is that which will facilitate the patient’s telling of his tale, the telling that can set him free.
The therapist provides a “dreamlike atmosphere …, and in it … [the patient] has nothing to rely upon except … [his] own so fallible subjective judgment”4 I have pirated this description. It was written by Carl Jung to describe the usefulness of the I Ching, the three-thousand-year-old Chinese Book of Changes, some lines from which I have used to begin this chapter.
At first, the patient tries to use the therapist, as many over the centuries have tried to use the I Ching, the oldest book of divination. The Book of Changes is made up of images from the mythology and social and religious institutions of the time of its origin. Orientals have too often searched these images for oracular guidance, just as some Christians have opened the Bible to verses picked at random in hope of getting specific advice about how to solve problems. So, too, the psychotherapy patient may begin by trying to get the therapist to tell him what he is to do to be happy and how he is to live without being fully responsible for his own life.
However, the I Ching, the Holy Bible, the contemporary psychotherapist and other gurus, all are poor oracles. They are instead far more significant as well-springs of wisdom about the ambiguity, the insolubility, and the inevitability of the human situation. Their value lies just in their offering imagery that is fixed without being stereotyped, images “to meditate upon, and to discover one’s identity in.”5 To these well-springs, the seeker must bring himself, and then listen for the echo returned by the books of wisdom or by his guru. Coming to knowledge of the self is insisted upon throughout the pilgrimage. The helper provides “one long admonition to careful scrutiny of one’s own character, attitude, and motives.”
The seeker comes in hope of finding something definite, something permanent, something unchanging upon which to depend. He is offered instead the reflection that life is just what it seems to be, a changing, ambiguous, ephemeral mixed bag. It may often be discouraging, but it is ultimately worth it, because that’s all there is. The pilgrim-patient wants a definite way of living, and is shown that:
The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.
He may only get to keep that which he is willing to let go of. The cool water of the running stream may be scooped up with open, overflowing palms. It cannot be grasped up to the mouth with clenching fists, no matter what thirst motivates our desperate grab.
Starting out as he does in the urgency of his mission, it is difficult for the pilgrim to learn this patient yielding. This is to be seen in the old Zen story of the three young pupils whose Master instructs them that they must spend a time in complete silence if they are to be enlightened. “Remember, not a word from any of you,” he admonishes. Immediately, the first pupil says, “I shall not speak at all.” “How stupid you are,” says the second. “Why did you talk?” “I am the only one who has not spoken,” concludes the third pupil.
The pilgrim, whether psychotherapy patient or earlier wayfarer, is at war with himself, in a struggle with his own nature. All of the truly important battles are waged within the self. It is as if we are all tempted to view ourselves as men on horseback.9 The horse represents a lusty animal-way of living, untrammeled by reason, unguided by purpose. The rider represents independent, impartial thought, a sort of pure cold intelligence. Too often the pilgrim lives as though his goal is to become the horseman who would break the horse’s spirit so that he can control him, so that he may ride safely and comfortably wherever he wishes to go. If he does not wish to struggle for discipline, it is because he believes that his only options will be either to live the lusty, undirected life of the riderless horse, or to tread the detached, unadventuresome way of the horseless rider. If neither of these, then he must be the rider struggling to gain control of his rebellious mount He does not see that there will be no struggle, once he recognizes himself as a centaur.
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A thought provoking book. A slow read. Worth your time.
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