Buddhist Psychotherapy : Therapeutic Movement and “The Four Ranges” from Buddhist Philosophy

The Union of Buddhist Psychotherapy and Non-Dual Wisdom Practice

As a licensed psychologist and meditation teacher in Seattle, deeply engaged in Buddhist Psychotherapy and non-dual wisdom practice, I have been working lately with The Four Ranges. My teacher, Peter Fenner (2009) discusses the Four Ranges in terms of a graduated way of accessing non-dual awareness and beginning to differentiate, by experience rather than intellectual activity, between pure, contentless awareness and conditioned states of consciousness.

I am finding that this structured way of inquiring into experience  has direct application to Buddhist Psychotherapy as well as spiritual development, and I use it to inform myself as to the phenomenal nature of my client’s lifeworld in any given moment by paying attention to the linguistic constructions with which we are engaged in our conversations.

Buddhist Psychotherapy: Seeing Movement Through the Buddha’s Eyes

The first two ranges are where my clients typically find themselves—often in a sort of whipsaw, back-and-forth, black vs. white pattern of affirming and negating.

In the language of the first range—that of affirmation—the client is engaged in conversations or stories about “Who I am.” They may also be invested in the nature of the “Disorder” they “have” and the symptoms that are present for them. For example, my client will talk about “having depression” or they will speak about their suffering in terms of “me” or “mine” or “part of their genetic make-up.” This is the discourse of reification, or defining what is happening in terms of the presence of something the mind takes to be “real.”

In the language of the second range—that of negation—the client is engaged in denial. This is “not me.” I’m not feeling “like myself.” I don’t want this feeling. I’ll know I’m better when “this depression” disappears. Or even, “I need you to stop doing something in order for me to fell better.” In short, this is the discourse of defining something in terms of the absence of something else.

Often, therapeutic breakthroughs occur for me when my clients begin to move into the third range—that of the “both-and.” This mental movement is immensely powerful, because it enables the client to step away from the whipsaw between black and white, good and bad, or having and not having. In so doing, they begin to develop a number of important insights or qualities of being:

Increasing Flexibility:

This mental move enables the client who is engaged in rigid thought processes to become more flexible. Things are rarely as simple as “all good” or “all bad.” People are rarely “always this way” or “always that way.” The world is complex, and so are human beings. While an initial realization of this complexity can be uncomfortable, clients who embrace this complexity and find more flexibility in their thinking find tremendous relief from the depression and anxiety that often arise out of their formerly rigid ideas about themselves, other people, and the way things “should be.”

Walt Whitman captures the essence of this realization in Song of Myself:

“If I contradict myself, very well then, I contradict myself.

I am large. I contain multitudes.”

 

The Ability to Apprehend Projections:

When a client can see beyond the first two ranges, something almost magical begins to occur with regard to their relationship to the world. The client begins to see how mental projections shape experience, particularly when they are most in pain, and most reactive. For example, they may begin to see that what they thought was as simple as pointing a finger at the other and getting “them” to change, often involves seeing how the change they seek in the other is also about something they find intolerable in themselves. Similarly, when engaged in idealization, they begin to note that what they recognize in the other is also present and awaiting ownership within them. This is what Carl Jung meant when he famously noted “The Shadow is 98% gold.”

The Ability to Find the Gift of Suffering:

This too is a huge relief to my clients. Imagine the power in moving from the rigidity of thinking about “their depression” in terms of “a neurochemical imbalance in my brain,” to “this feeling of sadness is both unpleasant and undesirable, and it is trying to tell me something important about my life.” The extension of this realization is potentially even more transformative, as one finds he has company in suffering—that the suffering he or she experiences is both “theirs” and “universal,” thus enabling a shift toward compassion for self and other.

Realizing Impermanence:

When an anxious person is able to begin to see that all things change, and that what appears to be solid is both “here” and “not here” at the same time, the relief is almost always instantaneous, and often complete. Why? One common source of anxiety lies in fearing that something undesirable will last forever, or, conversely, that one will lose something desirable in the future. Alternatively, one might fear that something terrible is going to happen in the future—either based on past experience, or pure fantasy. When a person begins to see that both pleasure and suffering are temporary experiences, they begin to stop trying to behave as if it were otherwise. There is such relief in seeing clearly that as soon as experience arises in the present, it is already spontaneously dissolving into the next moment, and changing continuously all along the way. There is no need to manage this process at all, as it happens naturally. Thus, neither clinging or attachment nor rejection or resistance are required. Everything changes naturally.

Realizing Interdependence:

When one embraces the complexity of the both/and, one begins to see the truth of interdependence. A client who once felt isolated, the victim of circumstance or of a hostile and arbitrary Universe may begin to see how everything and everyone exists in a system of infinitely complex relationships, and that nothing exists in isolation. In terms of events or phenomena, this means that everything arises as the result of some action that has come before and created the conditions for what is happening to happen. To behave as if it could be otherwise—to say things “should” be different—is to quarrel with reality.

At another level, this realization takes us to the truth of the interdependence of living creatures. In Buddhism, the Bodhisattva is the embodiment of this principle. He or She is an enlightened Being who takes human rebirth over and over again in order to liberate others. This selfless act arises out of a deep and abiding compassion, for the Bodhisattva knows the truth: Until all are free, without exception, none can be.

Buddhist Psychotherapy: The Ultimate Medicine

The ultimate medicine, as Peter Fenner is fond of saying, comes when the client begins to see through the construction of the self and suffering in the Fourth Range—which might best be called the “neither-nor” mode of exclusion. In the Buddhist lexicon, Nirvana is often described in these terms. Suffering neither exists, nor does it not exist. The self neither exists, nor does it not exist. Reality is neither what it appears to be, nor is it otherwise. We are neither trapped, nor are we free.

The client begins to see that resting “here” is effortless, experience-less, and contentless. “Here,” no-thing is required to complete the moment. No-thing is left out.

To bring the conversation back around to psychotherapy, the client who is able to begin to have brief moments of “this,” directly experiences transcendence of the suffering self rather than temporary pleasure or relief of symptoms. While these or other experiences may certainly accompany such a direct experience of “this,” there is no-one “here” to organize or become attached to them. Thus, the cycle of suffering is interrupted in a profound and abiding way, leaving no aspect of conditioned life untouched, benefiting one and all.

Reference

Fenner, P. (2009).  Nondual Teacher and Therapist Training Manual. Timeless Wisdom Editions.


1 Comment

  1. Myra Pieters-Engelkes

    Hi Sean,
    Thank you very much for sharing this with the group – I enjoyed reading this blog!
    Could you say some more about the way you work with these four ranges?
    As I was reading about the ultimate medicine I was thinking that indeed this work is healing because No-thing is left out and the separation between “I” and “this thing that makes me suffer” is being dissolved.
    Would love to read some more about using the four ranges.
    Best wishes,
    Myra

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