The Courage to Feel: Buddhist Practices for Opening to Others
As someone who recently developed an interest in Buddhism, I feel like a walking cliché. It seems almost inevitable that one will explore an alternative religion at some point in their life. We have become a society of seekers. Maybe it started when the Beatles visited an Indian ashram back in the early '70s and returned to record a number of psychedelic tracks featuring sitar music in the background, thus introducing Eastern religion and music to a whole new generation, or maybe it’s just part of our collective psyche to be explorers of both the material world and unseen spiritual realms.
As part of my process of discovery, I found myself intrigued by the title of Rob Preece’s book The Courage to Feel. Preece is a psychotherapist and longtime practitioner of Buddhism who looks at Tibetan Buddhist meditation and practice through a Western psychoanalytic lens. He begins his introduction by asking readers to think about their approach to suffering—both their own, and suffering on a global scale. He suggests that our natural human tendency is to contract into a fearful and self-preoccupied place when we are going through challenging circumstances, but there is an alternative: to open up your heart and identify with the suffering of others.
In Tibetan Buddhism there is a term called the Bodhisattva, or “the awakening warrior.” The Boddhisattva “cultivates the capacity to live within the raw reality of suffering on the ground and transform life’s adverse circumstances into a path of awakening.” Preece draws a parallel between the Tibetan word for awakened mind, “Bodhichitta,” and Carl Jung’s theory of individuation. Jung believed that individuation takes us beyond the ego to a more profound awakened state of wholeness, which ultimately leads us to finding a sense of purpose in our lives to serve the greater good.
Included in this book are a number of meditations, some that Preece has modified slightly for the Western practitioner. What I found especially helpful was his acknowledgment that certain Buddhist meditations and practices can be problematic for Westerners. For example, the meditation “recognizing that all beings have been our mother” requires that one believe in multiple reincarnations with various beings and species having been our mother. As Preece explains, “the process of reincarnation means that we have had a continuous stream of lives and that the beings we see around us have also had a continuous stream of incarnations. Those we have been related to in these lives are all around us, even though we do not easily recognize the connection…potentially our mother has been closer to us emotionally and physically than most other connections. She is important to us in all the different states of incarnation, whether human, animal, bird, fish or insect.”
Preece points out that meditation is not a “cure all” for everyone and that there are times when therapy or counseling is needed to work through emotional wounds from childhood or adulthood. He also stresses that Buddhist teachings on the cultivation of Boddhichitta are sometimes misinterpreted to mean self-effacement, or not setting appropriate boundaries in order to give up “self-cherishing” tendencies. Depending on one’s individual spiritual evolution, a healthier and more assertive self-orientation may actually be in order.
This is one of those books that I find myself returning to over and over again for spiritual encouragement and inspiration. If you’re looking to learn more about the theory and practice of Buddhism, this is a great book to read to start the new year.