i am not your therapist

December 29th, 2010

I nearly stopped myself from posting this for fear that it would offend some readers who are therapists or who have therapists, but as those individuals already know without a doubt that I am not their therapist, I concluded it would cause no confusion.

There is a therapist somewhere in the Midwest who has a name and an email address similar to my own. I know this because of the volume of emails I receive which are intended to be seen only by this same therapist. The messages usually arrive early in the morning or late at night, long and anxious missives about upsets, ultimatums, and breaking points between parents and their children, or couples on the verge. Often they say, “I know we have a session later today but I wanted to tell you this in advance,” or “I wanted to get this off my chest,” or “I’ll call you later and see if you have any advice for me” or “I am worried about what will happen before our next appointment.” Sometimes they are simply business or professional messages, notices of meetings and deadlines, for instance. Some are invitations to parties, and others are haughty reminders to respond to previously misaddressed messages.

Emails from therapeutic clients are intensely personal, and I am reluctant to even open them. But as they arise from a psychological crisis, I think the most compassionate response for me is to reply with this instruction:

“Please correct the address on this email as it has not reached your intended recipient.”

I have sent that message dozens of times over many years. Never once has anyone responded to me, not even the therapist who must now realize from patients and colleagues that private emails are frequently misdirected.

I’ll leave aside the question of how email has corroded our interpersonal communication skills. I’ll leave aside the question of whether email advances the therapeutic model.  I’ve seen enough messages to appreciate the position of the therapist, however. Perhaps the messages don’t really matter that much – crises pass, marriages mend or end, children and parents reconcile or not. Feelings change, emergencies blow over, and time will tell. The protagonist in a psychological saga is, above all, a storyteller, and the emails are simply one more page in the story someone is telling himself.

Seen in a jaded way, there is nothing new in them, nothing urgent or revealing. They are a story – the same story – being repeated over and over. What bothers me is the fear and panic they uniformly convey. The confusion, the despair, the helplessness. I would hope that the clients would do something more than send a late-night email, something more than pound out their heart’s desperate wail and send it to the wrong address.

I am not your therapist.

What brings this to mind is something that I’ve seen proliferate and take root in Western Buddhist dialogue – the notion that Buddhism is akin to psychology, or even that Buddha was the first psychologist. Positioning Buddhism in that way certainly makes it seem more approachable, doesn’t it? More palatable, more relevant, more modern? More familiar and accessible?  Less esoteric and religious?  I can see why people think that way, particularly those with a comfortable grounding in psychology.

Some might see a parallel between Buddhism’s silent introspection and psychological reflection. Between Buddhism’s meditative observation of ephemeral thoughts and sensations and the psychotherapeutic instruction to own and express your feelings. Between Buddhism’s radical redefinition of Mind and psychology’s delineation of projection, or externalization of anxiety. I can see the parallels at the onset, but they end rather quickly. As a practice, Buddhism aims to end those parallels, as it aims to pierce the illusions produced by our conditioned, delusive thinking about ourselves and the world we embody. Buddhism isn’t a way to change the stories we tell about ourselves, but to end them altogether.

Buddha was not the first psychologist. He was the last psychologist. And if you have a pinprick of anxiety about who you would be without your story, then that is something you should most definitely explore for yourself, through Buddhist practice.

Buddha has also been called the first scientist, the first doctor, and the first ethicist. All these things are true, up to a point, because all things are true, in a relative sense, up to a point. But I want you to see beyond that point. I want you to see the absolute truth of what you are: a buddha, living in an enlightened world. You will only see that when you practice Buddhism as nothing less than the practice of enlightenment.

And by all means, there is nothing wrong with therapy or therapists. Let’s keep them in their place. If you need one, get a good one. If you are one, be the best one. Practice Buddhism, and you’ll know the difference, as many honest, ethical and compassionate therapists do.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rich Lafferty and Jack Daw, Paul Shingleton. Paul Shingleton said: i am not your therapist | Karen Maezen Miller's Cheerio Road http://t.co/6PeZ8Br via @kmaezenmiller […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention i am not your therapist | Karen Maezen Miller's Cheerio Road -- Topsy.com — December 29, 2010 @ 9:03 pm

  2. oh mama, this is my theme song. love you for it. i constantly ask myself what’s my story this week.

    for a long time, i thought i just needed to change my story. i could be someone better. so i did. nothing changed. so i work everyday to let my story go. im a bit attached, but im practicing. my favorite bits are below. but i loved it all.

    “aims to pierce the illusions produced by our conditioned, delusive thinking about ourselves and the world we embody. Buddhism isn’t a way to change the stories we tell about ourselves, but to end them altogether.

    you are: a buddha living in an enlightened world. You will only see that when you practice Buddhism as nothing less than the practice of enlightenment.”

    thank you.

    Comment by latisha — December 29, 2010 @ 9:55 pm

  3. I agree with your points about email and the corrosive effect it has had on communication and relationships in so many situations. I agree with you, yet have still used it in the most inappropriate and cowardly of ways (each time well aware of how poor of a decision this was.) It is so easy to hide behind and under, and, as you say, so easy to use it as a means to simply reinforce whatever story I happen to be attached to in that moment.

    Comment by Swirly — December 29, 2010 @ 10:33 pm

  4. woah. give up our stories? shoot. SHOOOOOT.

    Comment by Kate — December 29, 2010 @ 11:44 pm

  5. I really enjoyed this post, Maezen.

    I do spiritual companioning and refer people to therapists, doctors and Buddhist teachers. It’s a wonderful place to ‘sit’…this place of knowing that we are each buddhas, living in an enlightened world, waiting for the moment when we know it. In the moments in between we may need or feel we need all manner of help. Aware healers of all types know that our work is nothing more than carefully (that’s where our particular skills come to play)pointing the seeker to experience their true nature.

    Thanks again!

    Comment by Beth Patterson — December 30, 2010 @ 2:34 am

  6. Dearest Karen, I’m in the middle of reading, no, drinking in the words of your book “Hand Wash Cold”, as it came recommended by Denise Andrade, Boho Girl. It’s just what I needed in my life right now. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for opening your heart and sharing your stories. If you are so inclined, you can read my latest blog post about how your words of wisdom have helped a much needed shift in my soul after dealing with infertility and hardship in my life:

    Comment by Angela DiGiovanni | life * poetry * art — December 30, 2010 @ 5:46 am

  7. “Buddhism isn’t a way to change the stories we tell about ourselves, but to end them altogether.”

    Would love for you to say some more about this…there’s a book in this, I believe…but in the meantime, say some more, please.


    Comment by Alan Faulkner — December 30, 2010 @ 11:06 am

  8. Alan, the story we construct about ourselves in our heads: “I am, I want, I need, I can’t, I would, I never, I feel, I know . . . my way, my time, my style, my problem . . . you always, you don’t, you can’t, you said, you are.” The set of concepts, the narrative we construct about who and where we are. This story is a kind of surrogate life we lead, but it is false, because it is only a story. And we believe it. The easiest way to identify it is: it’s the narrator in our heads. It is not life, it is the judgment we make of life, that separates us from life. To drop the story, or at least drop our belief in the story, is to engage in life completely as it is and as we are. We lose nothing, and gain the world at hand.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — December 30, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

  9. I ended the story altogether–and there I was, right where I left off when it began in the first place.

    Was it the therapy or the Buddhism that led to that moment?


    Comment by Jena — December 30, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

  10. I would never send an email to a therapist like that, since it is not office hours, which says a lot about me.

    I love this post. Not that I truly understand Buddhism, but the fact that you make a stand against reinterpreting it to something it isn’t just to make it “more modern” to our sensibilities.

    – Neil: “not that I truly understand Buddhism” – now there’s the sound of unlimited potential! – Maezen

    Comment by Neil — December 30, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

  11. Amen!

    Thank you, Maezen.

    Comment by Maia — December 30, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

  12. Interesting post Karen. You teach through story, via two books, so you must find some value in story, as do your readers. Narrative is unavoidable but is our story problem saturated or something else? All concepts I know, but unavoidable again. As is your structural concept of therapy/psychology. There are other therapies available that also cut through dominant discourses, or narratives, that you might find more helpful. Lots to consider here. Thanks.
    Maybe Buddha was also the last storyteller.

    Comment by Chris — December 30, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

  13. Ah thank you for such clarity, Manjushri’s sword in action once more! 🙂

    Comment by puerhan — December 30, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

  14. We all use words, Chris, because a buddha knows how to speak. When the story instructs to see beyond story, it is medicine. All koans, for instance, are stories that teach the student to see beyond the story. When the story is blinded by story, as many of our self-narratives are, it is sickness. We practice to see the difference, and then we can really do good for others, as I know you do.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — December 30, 2010 @ 10:53 pm

  15. From Eat, Pray, Love chapter 50:
    And then I remember a story my friend Deborah the psychologist told me once. Back in the 1980s, she was asked by the city of Philadelphia if she could volunteer to offer psychological counseling to a group of Cambodian refugees—boat people—who had recently arrived in the city. Deborah is an exceptional psychologist, but she was terribly daunted by this task. These Cambodians had suffered the worst of what humans can inflict on each other—genocide, rape, torture, starvation, the murder of their relatives before their eyes, then long years in refugee camps and dangerous boat trips to the West where people died and corpses were fed to sharks—what could Deborah offer these people in terms of help? How could she possibly relate to their suffering? “But don’t you know,” Deborah reported to me, “what all these people wanted to talk about, once they could see a counselor?” It was all: I met this guy when I was living in the refugee camp, and we fell in love. I thought he really loved me, but then we were separated on different boats, and he took up with my cousin. Now he’s married to her, but he says he really loves me, and he keeps calling me, and I know I should tell him to go away, but I still love him and I can’t stop thinking about him. And I don’t know what to do… This is what we are like. Collectively, as a species, this is our emotional landscape. I met an old lady once, almost one hundred years old, and she told me, “There are only two questions that human beings have ever fought over, all through history. How much do you love me? And Who’s in charge?” Everything else is somehow manageable. But these two questions of love and control undo us all, trip us up and cause war, grief and suffering. And both of them, unfortunately (or maybe obviously), are what I’m dealing with at this Ashram. When I sit in my silence and look at my mind, it is only questions of longing and control that emerge to agitate me, and this agitation is what keeps me from evolving forward.

    Comment by Bill — December 31, 2010 @ 2:52 am

  16. This is a fascinating discussion, Karen, and I think that you’re right. For example, acknowledging thoughts and letting them go is a coping skill taught
    to people with certain types of anxiety disorders. But, the goal is a better functioning self, not the elimination of self. That’s a huge difference.

    Comment by Mama Zen — December 31, 2010 @ 3:48 am

  17. Mama Zen,
    We do not eliminate our existence, but we can cease identifying our existence solely with our self-obsession. That is the difference.

    Love and control are the same question. All of these questions are the same, and they all begin with the thought, “I . . . ” In meditation, as Gilbert writes in EPL, we see how obsessed we are with the thought, “I . . . ” and then possibly, if your eyes are open, you look up and see the vast unemotional landscape of true reality which is right in front of us, free from any agitation. The world we inhabit is never apart from us, but it blessedly has no self. Only in the agitated mind does the concept of “self” exist. Only the agitated mind causes suffering.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — December 31, 2010 @ 4:10 am

  18. In order to loss the ego, one must develop a good healthy ego Therapy, good therapy enables us to work on the self as meditation and spiritual practice helps us work on the Self. Warmly, Karen

    Comment by Karen Wallace — January 1, 2011 @ 5:59 pm

  19. Oh my goodness Karen, speaking of the crazy world of internet and emails and chaotic communication, imagine my surprise when I saw your name in my inbox saying you stopped by my blog. I feel I owe you an apology for the somewhat flip description I had used to describe your role as a priest. While our spiritual paths are likely quite different I should be a more responsible writer, particularly when I’m posting things in cyberspace! I truly have enjoyed your book Momma Zen immensely! I have actually edited that portion of my blogpost. I feel it is more accurate now! Glad to have found your website and blog as well. Best Wishes.

    Comment by Lisa — January 2, 2011 @ 11:06 pm

  20. “When the story is blinded by the story … it is sickness” – a beautiful way to explain the difference… And yes, I practice to be able to discern the difference.

    Comment by Marianne — January 4, 2011 @ 6:41 am

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