Bohemian Buddhist Review

The Courage to Feel by Rob Preece

Can we face our own dark shadows and become bodhisattvas?

Rob Preece's new book, "The Courage to Feel," bridges the two worlds of Western depth psychology and Tibetan Buddhist meditation.  In the realm of Buddhist books, this is a relatively recent, and welcome, development.  Most of us are aware of the benefits of psychotherapy -- in theory at least -- as well as the benefits of calming the mind, with practices such as lojong, tonglen, etc.  But blending the two together is a rarity.

Subtitled "Buddhist Practices for Opening to Others," Preece sets the book's tone early on.  "I am aware, in common with the views of writers such as Ken Wilber, that meditation is not the solution to all of our emotional problems." 

Amen.  A clear differentiation between our emotional and spiritual selves.  (And bringing in Wilber reminds us of this philosopher-writer's work in pointing out that we can be highly developed in one area and woefully under-developed in others.) 

The two main themes of Preece's book are what encompasses the work of a bodhisattva, or "awakening warrior," as Preece defines it, and how we can arouse our bodhchitta, or awakened mind.  What "The Courage to Feel" does well is draw comparisons between Western psychotherapeutic wisdom - Carl Jung's insights in particular - and beneficent Buddhist thought.  Not surprisingly, they enrich other.  The mix can only help Buddhism's continuing entry into the cultures of the West, egoically so different from that of Tibet.  

"While we are still bound by a deeply wounded sense of self that feels unloved, not good enough and unacceptable, the teachings on bodhichitta are likely to fall on barren ground."  Here Preece is directly addressing the narcissistic wound that is so prevalent among Westerners, (including, alas, many of those who become Buddhists).  We ignore or deny our psychological problems at our own peril, because they directly impact our spiritual practice.  

"Acceptance of ourselves as we are is more important than super-imposing positive . . . thoughts, which can be just another kind of illusion."  

Next Preece tackles lojong, Tibetan thought training, psychologically parsing its well-meant advice, in terms of Buddhist meditation, that "our enemies are our best friends."  

Warning flags usually go up for me around some of these encomiums, achingly aware of the vast cultural divide between East and West.  Some of the best teachings can even be dangerous territory for masochists or those who are drawn to abuse by self or other.  

Preece points out that "the enemy gives us the opportunity to see the emptiness of self as it arises, as a vivid feeling of 'me.'"  Yes, true, but - seeing the enemy also gives us the opportunity to get out of harm's way if need be.  This is where a strong sense of discriminating awareness is essential. 

In a much-needed discussion of the differences between love, co- dependency, and projections of our shadow, Preece writes that "A bond of genuine love, care, and affection may hold friendships together, but what can be less obvious are the unhealthy under-currents of projected needs and expectations."  

Anyone with family will surely understand that "while we are still struggling with shadowy reactions and projections, [compassion] is hard to cultivate."  In other words, we can't make ourselves feel what isn't there, until we heal some of the underlying wounds.  

"The Courage to Feel" then takes on one of the stickiest wickets for many Buddhist meditators, i.e., the practice of "recognizing all beings as having been our mother."  This phrase alone seems to bring up deep issues for Westerners and Preece makes the salient point that rather than change or ignore this particular meditation, we "need to resolve the potential wounding in our relation to the mother."  

Those of us with "mother wounds" (no gender discrimination here, there are certainly such things as father wounds as well) need to heal ourselves - with psychotherapy and/or meditation practices such as Green Tara - so that we can experience "a greater capacity to care for ourselves, those around us, and the planet . . . "  

Our environment is a teacher.  As Preece asks rhetorically, "Can we serve others and yet continue to overlook the presence of the planet that supports our life?" Without facing and healing our individual relationships to the "dark mother," we risk furthering our detachment from the Great Mother, i.e., our biosphere.  Preece advises a mature middle way on the mother meditation, wisely acknowledging that most mothers are a combination of both good and bad, as are we all.  

"The Courage to Feel" is refreshing in its frankness about the need to face our foibles.  "We need to have a relatively healthy, stable sense of identity that has dealt with some of its emotional wounding and has uncovered aspects of the shadow," in order to find the capacity to be compassionate towards others.  

This may be controversial in some circles, but I think there's a growing awareness among Western Buddhists that meditation on a shaky psychological foundation produces a shaky - and spiritually unproductive -- meditation practice.  

In discussing the Tibetan Buddhist practice of tonglen, or "taking and giving," Preece suggests that we should first become familiar with taking on and accepting our own suffering.  "An example would be to use tonglen to heal childhood wounds, by visualizing an image of our younger selves in front of us as we take in and give out with our breathing."  

This can be painful, as Preece admits, but has helped both his clients and his meditation students who can then "begin to love themselves . . . rather than reject the child within because it is unacceptable.  We can open to others more fully when we change our inner relationship to ourselves if these tend to be particularly negative or self-destructive feelings."  

In the chapter on The Paradox of Awakening, Preece continues to underscore his thesis that the real bodhisattva starts by "gaining a deeper relationship to [his/her] own psychological pathology" and that this is "essential."  

The bodhisattva must live between the worlds, between "the rawness of our human fallibilities and the peace of our innate clear light nature."  And as Preece says, "Bringing these two dimensions of reality together does not bring comfort and ease," though it does lend a heightened sense of creativity and aliveness to our lives.  Onward, ever onward, remembering the prize of bodhichitta that beckons.