Elizabeth Lesser's Broken Open Toolbox
I first learned to meditate when I was nineteen years old. I was terribly restless. The practice did not come naturally to me. At times I hated it. But I kept at it anyway. I did this for a variety of good and bad reasons. A good reason was that I sensed great power in the practice. I was aware that you can't get something for nothing, and I wanted the something that meditation promised: I wanted inner peace and a vaster perspective on life and death. A bad reason I continued with my meditation practice was that I felt duty-bound to please my meditation teachers—even to please God. I thought that if I meditated every day, I would be acceptable in God's eyes; if I didn't, I would be courting exile. I think many people adhere to all sorts of religious practices for the same reason and, in doing so, never really mine the deep treasures locked in the mystical heart of the great traditions.
It wasn't until I was in my thirties and had been in psychotherapy for a few years that my meditation practice became more natural and flowing. Oddly enough, therapy cleared the way for a strong and genuine meditation practice. I went into therapy because my marriage was in trouble. I discovered in therapy that the compulsion to please my meditation teachers was also at work in my marriage. Apparently, I was doing a lot of things just to please other people, and had been ever since childhood with my parents. The revelation that psychotherapy afforded me—that a life lived in order to please others ends up pleasing no one at all—changed my life dramatically. It began the process of what Norman O. Brown—one of the fathers of modern psychology—said therapy aims to do: "to return our souls to our bodies, to return ourselves to ourselves, and thus to overcome the human state of self-alienation."
Before diving into the world of therapy, I want to make a distinction between pleasing others and loving others. Pleasing another person is not always the same as loving another person, and vice versa. Pleasing another person is often about avoiding the conflict that might ensue if we tell the truth about our feelings, needs, fears, and dreams. Loving other people might involve pleasing them, but it also involves being honest with them about who we are and what we want. It does not mean getting what we want all of the time; it does mean having the self-respect to express our thoughts and feelings, and the nobility and compassion to afford that right to others.
Therapy has been faulted for its excessive focus on the needs of the self, and for putting forth an ethos by which an individual has more responsibility to himself than to his family and community. This has not been my experience. My years of therapy have helped me become a more loving mother and mate, and a more engaged member of society. Yes, the initial work I did in therapy was self-reflective, and it did push me into periods of "selfish" behavior. But in the end, self-reflection helped me become a more generous person; it led me back out into the world, and into more mature and giving relationships.
People like to make fun of psychotherapy. Cartoonists and comedians and pundits of all sorts take shots at it every day. The jokes can be funny and understandable, but because my own experiences in therapy have been close to lifesaving, I wonder why therapy, of all things, takes so many hits. People brag about going to the gym to stay healthy, eating well, and losing weight on this or that diet. They boast of their college degrees and show off their advanced thinking by talking about books they are reading and lectures they have attended. People are proud to admit they belong to a church or temple or mosque or meditation group. They readily give credit to their reliance on a trusted pastor or rabbi.