In Praise of Tough-Love: A Therapist’s Take on Westernized Buddhism


One of the hardest lessons that I have learned in life is how not to be nice. Not that I’m a jerk or anything. After all, I’m a therapist and I put a high premium on the healing power of basic kindness. But when I started out in my therapy training, I was under the illusion that all I had to do was sprinkle the magic ingredients of “warmth” and “caring” and presto! People would see the way forward and get better. It took a little while, but I did find out that I was being more than a little naive.

A lot of my training in therapy has been one hard lesson after another that being “nice” to people is often code for avoiding the things that make them uncomfortable. Avoiding the uncomfortable often makes people’s psychological health no better, and in some serious cases can actually make it worse. Not that anyone should be downright mean, but there needs to be a brave moment where the “stuff” gets put out front. It’s vulnerable. It’s painful. I still hate doing it. But it is how healing happens. I’m a chronic “nice guy” who had to learn to get comfortable with making others uncomfortable. If I didn’t, therapy would become an empty self-serving exercise rather than a real opportunity for change. Time and again when I ask patients what helped them most in therapy they say something along the lines of “you were real with me” or “you really called us on our BS.”

In my life as a meditator, I’ve run into a parallel phenomenon: a whole army of “nice guys” and “nice gals” in the spiritual scene. Like me, they have an almost instinctive reaction to be warm and caring (a whole bunch of them are therapists too). We are big on things like “compassion” “right action” and “right speech”, which for many means speaking, acting and refraining from action all in a spirit of kindness. For the most part, I love this. I could do a lot worse than to be a part of a community that wants everyone to become happy and stay that way. But I’m beginning to suspect that there is a serious shadow side to all this niceness, and that we might be taking it way too far. Our obsession with compassion and right speech may have become our way of avoiding painful truths about ourselves.

Take a look at any best selling book on meditation and you’ll see what I mean. The language that is used is, well, “cheezy ” (right now I’m cringing a little at how mean that sounds, and that only goes to show how deep this problem can be with me). Hallmark has nothing on these books, in which the most common metaphors for meditation and awakening are  hearts, flowers, and rainbows (I’m not kidding – these are the most common metaphors used). My instinct as a therapist is to detect BS quickly, and my alarms go off in a big way to most teachers and dharma books. It makes me (and probably a lot of other folks) very mistrustful of a lot of the dharma as it is presented in the west. After all, this “hearts and flowers” approach is a historically new thing and runs counter to how the dharma was first taught. The Buddha’s first teaching after his enlightenment was: “Life is suffering.” Yikes! In other words, if he were on the teaching circuit today he would open with: “stop pretending that everything is hearts, flowers and rainbows, because it just isn’t.” He chose to make that the very first thing he taught. If that isn’t meant to make us uncomfortable then what is?

Buddhism started out with such a harsh and direct truth and got even harsher and more direct from there. The second teaching of the Buddha was that the cause of suffering is none other than ourselves. Life may be suffering but don’t blame life. The “self” that we all work so hard to improve and maintain (by being compassionate and nice) is where all of the problems of life really come from. It doesn’t get any more harsh and personal than that. If the Buddha were to try and publish this in the modern dharma scene he would be laughed right out of Borders and told to learn some compassion.

So if this is how the dharma started, how did the tough-love approach used by the Buddha get lost in a blur of hearts and flowers? My best guess is that we are doing to the dharma what so many people do in therapy: try to turn it around to serve the problem rather than call ourselves on our BS.

Tough-Love for the Self

Suffering happens because we believe that the self is real. The object of meditation is to wake up out of that. The focus on kindness and compassion to the exclusion of the harder truths of Buddhism can act like a lullaby that keeps us asleep, and we remain stuck in the dream of the self. We have only made the dream a nicer, gentler one. What is needed is an alarm to go off, a bit of a shock to our system that disrupts our dream and wakes us up. That is partly what Buddhism is intended to be, but instead of waking from the dream, we are often picking and choosing parts of the Dharma for self-soothing.

For enlightened teachers, this situation is increasingly awkward. One teacher (who will go unnamed) has a wonderful analogy about the pervasive weirdness in the western dharma scene: imagine that enlightenment is a full stomach and everyone is hungry. Now imagine that the people who are full aren’t allowed to tell anybody because people might get upset, so everyone has to guess who they are by how they act. People can kind of tell who they are because they act contented, rub their stomachs and burp. Now imagine that everyone who is still hungry goes around rubbing their stomachs, pretending to be content and burping in the whole-hearted belief that this will lead to a full stomach.

The situation with enlightenment is identical. Many people are trying to get rid of the suffering caused by a belief in the self by getting the self to act enlightened, or at least what they think is enlightened, which is, well, “nice.” Our obsession with niceness fools us into believing we are getting enlightened when we are not, and helps us to avoid confronting our own suffering. The roots of the self just grow deeper the more we try to act like a compassionate enlightened being.

Embrace the Grouch

What can be done? A good place to start would be to go back to basics and start with the first noble truth – that life is suffering. You’re human, you get angry, you get cranky, and you have a right to that. Don’t deny it, accept it as your life and really own it. Confronting this harsh truth about life is the bravest thing you can do and is your birthright as a human being.

Once you get comfortable with being grouchy (and it could take some time to de-socialize from niceness), ask yourself just what it is making you so unhappy in the first place. Investigate it, rather than try to deny or repress it.  Really dig into the truth of your dissatisfaction. You will see that the common denominator of all suffering is none other than your “self” or to be more precise, the concept of “me.” It is the self, the myriad identities and stories that make up “me”, that constitute the framework into which sensations and thoughts are sorted out as “good” or “bad” which leads to craving and suffering.

This truth can be seen just from a shallow intellectual perspective. Knowing it just won’t make a difference. Instead you have to do something about it, and that is where a practice like meditation comes in. If you do meditation right you will gradually pry your awareness loose from the “self.” Do it long enough and with a strong enough effort and you will pry it free completely, and that is what enlightenment is.

I speak from personal experience when I tell you that the freedom of getting even a little loose from the self is a far greater happiness than any that comes from being a “nice” or “compassionate” self. So don’t avoid it any longer. Embrace your inner grouch and then you can do the work of letting go completely.


About Ron

To learn meditation, no matter where you are in the world, just send an email to: alohadharma@gmail.com

Posted on March 27, 2011, in buddhism, Compassion, Dharma, Meditation, no-self and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. The problem with the tough-love paradigm is that it even further weighs therapy’s power imbalance. Here the client plays the mesmerized subordinate who must account for her life to the stern, disapproving taskmaster. The client goes to therapy to deal with problems, and then she’s rebuked.

    Many clients go to therapy because they’re coping with already-low social subordination. The “tough love” client, perpetually the submissive, hands her power to a judging therapist.

    My blog and this one are exploring consumer responses to long-held assumptions in therapy. http://trytherapyfree.wordpress.com/.

  2. The Buddha didn’t say “Life is suffering” he simply pointed out that there *is* suffering. That our means we will experience unhappiness, stress, dissatisfactoriness, displeasure, etc. And that raises the point that the word dukkha requires a long list of words to approximate its meaning, as there isn’t a neat, clean, accurate single word translated equivalent for it.

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