Compassion, Integration, and Healing:
The Psychological and Spiritual Work
of The Whole Health Center
In our desire to appreciate and promote the full scope and nature of human health and maturity, our therapeutic and teaching work at The Whole Health Center has come to entail an increasing integration of the psychological and the spiritual – backed by the latest findings of neuroscience.
Modern psychology is being enriched by the insight of many spiritual and contemplative traditions, and draws increasingly on Buddhism because of its extensive literature and practical psychological approach. Our work at the Center has been similarly enriched by its grounding in a Buddhist understanding of mindfulness, compassion, and insight. Our program of “Compassion, Integration, and Healing” is a model for much of our individual therapeutic work, as well as for our expanding workshops and classes. It teaches us to recognize and develop our ability for conscious and compassionate growth; and it draws, for example, on the practice of tonglen, a Buddhist meditation that strengthens our capacity for compassion and reciprocity in our experience with life and with others.
From the outset, the vulnerable human organism and psyche must confront a dualistic world. Wanting love, comfort, and nurturance, we discover a world that can be pleasurable or painful, loving or unloving, nurturing or abandoning, and we must learn to adapt and survive under these dualistic conditions. With limited developmental and cognitive capacities we may learn to survive by adopting patterns of thought and behavior that either maximize our sensation of security or compensate for the security that we don’t feel. We learn to separate from feelings or experiences that are too overwhelming, and in the process we also limit our capacity for relating to parts of ourselves and our capacity for relating to others. Our desire for love – and our innate capacity for love – will easily exceed the amount of love we are actually able to allow or to experience in our lives.
The capacity for love, compassion, and empathic attunement to self and others is a structural and functional capacity of our most evolved brain centers, and reflects the deepest potential of our human experience. Secure and loving attachments in childhood will lay the first foundation for the exercise of these capacities. In fact, the first conscious and loving gaze between mother and child helps to initiate the neural growth that enables these capacities, and that also lays the foundation, or template, for interpersonally supported growth, healing, and authentic communication. However, for all human beings the full exercise of these capacities involves a process of conscious choice, as we learn to integrate and transcend our limiting patterns of cognitive-emotional reactivity and our narcissistic patterns of greed, antipathy, or avoidance. This is obviously both a cognitive and a behavioral process on the way to our full human and spiritual maturity.
Much of Buddhist practice, tonglen included, involves a cognitive-behavioral restructuring that helps us to exercise our capacity for love, compassion, and empathic attunement, and to see through the insubstantiality and relativity of our thought forms, especially those that carry our negative imagery. It is not only a re-evaluation of our
thinking. It is a re-evaluation of how we use cognition itself. These practices help us to understand, first intellectually (in thought) and then experientially (in practice), that the realm of thought is not the realm in which reality lies; nor is it the realm in which we can ultimately integrate and harmonize our experience. The nature of thought itself is partial, conditional, relativistic, and dualistic – so that one part of our thinking is likely to be in reaction or reactivity to another part of our thinking, to our emotional sensations, and to life in general. Whereas there is another dimension of cognition that can bring non-reactive awareness to our life experience. This is not a bypassing of our emotions or of our personal issues, but rather an expanded capacity to be truly and creatively present for them.
The entire realm of cognitive-emotional relativity and reactivity proceeds from the collective activity of the instinctive, limbic, and neocortical regions of the brain that captures our free attention and circumscribes it. Whereas the capacity for free attention itself, or non-reactive awareness, comes from a yet higher and more integrative region of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex also mediates our capacity for empathic attunement. It is the shift to being able to consciously relate from the higher cognitive centers that lifts our functioning to a greater level of integration and resolution of conflict. This shift is a learned and practiced choice that strengthens related neural pathways. Hence it is a change in cognition that results from, as well as encourages, substantial behavioral change.
Tonglen means receiving and giving. Traditionally, tonglen is taught primarily as a practice for increasing our capacity for selfless compassion – which is, of course, the highest ideal of Buddhist spirituality. That compassion also represents a genuine reciprocity, as we learn to outgrow our acquired separateness and limitation that keeps us shut down or less available to others or to ourselves. Thus in tonglen practice as we teach it, we learn to bring attention to those experiences – of life, of others, or of those parts of ourselves – that our instinctive, emotional, and rational centers might regard as uncomfortable, alien, conflicting, threatening, or overwhelming – and might therefore not allow us to embrace with compassion or intimacy. Compassion and embrace of self becomes the natural foundation for our compassion and embrace of others. We proceed in safe steps that systematically empower us to welcome our experience with a more all-embracing awareness, replacing judgment, separation, and conflict with compassionate intent. This growing capacity to consciously practice awareness and compassion reflects a higher level of brain functioning in support of integration and healing, both within ourselves and between people.
As we have said, the capacity for pure awareness, or free attention, as well as the capacity to integrate our physical, mental, and emotional activity, is correlated with activity in the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) of the brain. Hence the cognitive restructuring is an activity that reflects, and actually strengthens, the neural structures of the PFC. The PFC also accesses what we now know to be neuronal centers – or intelligence centers – around the heart; and it is also able to consciously work with the harmonization of the breath as an integrating activity. The pre-frontal cortex, as our most recently evolved and integrative brain center, is at the forefront of our evolving humanness, which includes our capacity for free attention, non-reactive or moral choice, and conscious compassionate presence working as a harmonious whole. Tonglen strengthens the circuit capacities of the PFC as it utilizes free attention and moral choice, accesses the heart, and works with the breath to facilitate a higher level of harmonious functioning.
In our expanded model of therapeutic tonglen, we work with several realms of integration which are mediated by the pre-frontal cortex. They include the integration of mental/emotional states and of life situations; the integration of both our primal innocence and our primal woundedness (the inner child); the integration of past relational conflict and guilt; and the integration of the suffering of others and of the world at large.
Tonglen uses the breath to anchor positive imagery, and uses the imagery to support the brain’s pre-frontal capacity to welcome and embrace all experience. This capacity is imaged as resting in the heart, which is seen as the seat of our actual spiritual capacity to receive dualistic or conflictive imagery and process it in the light of a higher contextual wholeness, integration, and love. In tonglen, we proceed counter-intuitively to breathe in that which we would normally push away – breathing it not into our bodies as such, but into a realm of vastness and healing within and beyond the heart – and then breathing out the healed image and positive emotion back from the heart into the world as an act of love, healing, or blessing. This doesn’t exist in a realm of fantasy, but actually represents a new behavioral choice, as well as a new level of cognition, correlating with neural growth activity in the pre-frontal cortex. It moves us developmentally beyond the merely reactive programming of the earlier brain centers.
Tonglen encapsulates this essential therapeutic journey as a simple, direct, user-friendly and, as we teach it, progressively self-integrating practice. That is, whatever obstacles arise in our practice are integrated into the practice itself. Thus it gently leads, unfolds, and supports us along the edge of our healing process; and, in that way, epitomizes much of our therapeutic work at the Center.
“Healing” comes from the same root as “becoming whole.” We experience this wholeness as our human capacity for conscious loving presence in our interactions with life and with others – and in our communion with the deepest mysteries of spirit. This is the heart of our counseling and teaching work at The Whole Health Center – whether we are working with emotional integration, communication skills in relationship, or even with the gentle and harmonious mind/body exercises of qi gong. And we hope that our programs may have something to offer you on your marvelous journey.