In this new regular feature, a practitioner tells us why they place their spirituality, faith or belief at the core of their therapeutic work

1. Buddhism offers a very sophisticated model of  mind and reality

It is said there are 84,000 dharmas (teachings) in the Buddhist canon, and so it would be hard to pinpoint how they have all impacted me. Thankfully, the Buddha categorised them into the ‘threefold trainings’ of sila (ethics), samadhi (concentration) and prajna (wisdom). The prajna teachings offer a therapist not just a sophisticated psychology (with descriptions of the self, how that self comes to suffer etc), but an exquisite ontology, epistemology and methodology; scrutinising the nature of mind and reality. These teachings have been incredibly powerful in augmenting the existential-phenomenological view within the humanistic approach that I practise. As therapists, we know the power of facilitating client awareness and, in my experience, having deeper roots in my own awareness has been assisted by such teachings. Furthermore, I have been enjoying integrating East and West, science and philosophy, non-duality and neuroscience to explore ‘the hard problem of consciousness’ in my teaching of therapist trainees. 

2. My practice gives me a grounding in faith 

faith in, therefore? More so, since becoming a practitioner in the Vajrayana – the more esoteric teachings of the Tibetan schools – I have come deeply into a relationship with life through being with things ‘as they are’. The practices encourage that fluidity: a surrender to whatever life brings. That requires, and develops, faith. 

One of the main emphases of the Buddha was to work with the teachings as an invitation: if they don’t work, disregard. And the more the Buddha’s teachings point to my actual experience, the deeper that faith goes. In that respect, none of the teachings are doctrine, they are an experiment. This is music to my ears as a Gestalt therapist!  

3. The Buddhist path provides a ‘homebase’  

In my experience, the teachings have become something of a ‘homebase’, a place to return to. There is something very powerful in having only one, clearly defined, life purpose – to ‘wake up’ and serve others so they may do the same. No matter how challenging a client day has been, or how rewarding a teaching day, there is a place I come back to; a container to rest within, a lens to make sense through. The further one goes along the Buddhist path, the more emphasis is placed on ‘post-meditation’ and, as I write about in my book, there is less distinction between Helen as Buddhist/therapist/educator: the thread through all is simply a practice of human being.

4. It offers a contextualisation of suffering 

Many authors who write about the intersection of Buddhism and psychotherapy suggest both traditions explore suffering: one on the general level, and one on the particular. The Buddhist view examines and explicates the suffering inherent in life, yet not intrinsic to our nature. We all must go through birth, old age, sickness and death – there is no escaping those givens and the associated pain. But how we each respond determines how much we suffer: these are the stories our clients bring. Things going ‘wrong in life is not a personal failing, nor do we need to (or even could) rid ourselves of pain. The task of being human is to change our relationship to the uncertainty and pain involved in human existence. I have found this mutuality of ‘general’ and ‘particular’, incredibly enabling. It can help shift clients from a sense of personal lack to seeing the deficiency that arises from the conditions within which they have lived.

5. Through spiritual practice, I have a deepening appreciation and understanding of the humanistic tradition 

On our training courses at the University of Brighton, we take a cross-modality approach, affording our trainees the opportunity to look at their chosen modality (e.g. humanistic) through the lens of the other (e.g. psychodynamic). Honing this capacity for critical thinking is likewise something I have benefitted from by looking at my humanistic practice through the Buddhistic lens. I have been called upon to deeply examine how East meets West: the overlaps, the complementarities, and indeed the places where they are NOT consistent. And with no doubt, this has taken my practice as a humanistic/Gestalt psychotherapist deeper. I understand existentialism more thoroughly because of Buddhist philosophy; and I practise the phenomenological method with more conviction (and trust) because of my Buddhist meditation.

6. It offers a reflection upon an arc of development 

I have long considered Jung a kind of bridge between the humanistic and the psychodynamic. Yet, gaining more confidence in the ‘value added’ of Buddhism, opened the door to exploring the various branches of transpersonal working. I have come to appreciate the rich history of the transpersonal that came out of the humanistic movement. As detailed in my book, through the work of Maslow, Wilber, Washburn, Rowan et al, I see an arc of development that we can offer clients, transposing the humanistic onto the transpersonal frame: wholeness of self, to an expansion into/integration and beyond that self into Self.1 I can locate myself as a practitioner who, in the main, holds a transpersonal view, yet works on the cusp of where these two wisdom traditions meet. A foot in two worlds, which are not the same, and yet not different either. A seeming duality held in a non-dual view

I can offer clients of all faith traditions a place to bring their spirituality 

In 2016, I was fortunate to spend some time on retreat with John Welwood, originator of the phrase ‘spiritual bypassing’. I believe this to be an important phenomenon to be aware of for anyone working in the transpersonal domain. As such, it has become a personal motivator to offer practitioners – no matter their denomination – a space where they can bring their practice path and ensure a grounding of spirit. I have worked with a wide range of ‘seekers’ of truth, from Catholic, Jewish, to Advaita; atheists and agnostics. One advantage of being a practitioner of a non-theistic path is that I can provide a benign and benevolent space, in which no judgment is made, nor any need to proselytise. There are many paths to the top of the mountain, and to forming a relationship with the divine or true nature of reality (whatever our language is). Maybe the ‘mindfulness revolution’ and its conveyance of meditation as a secular practice has encouraged contemplatives of all types to see meditation as being of benefit.

8. It’s about practice, practice, practice 

Speaking of meditation, samadhi is the second of those threefold trainings mentioned earlier. On my own journey, at first, I viewed the practice of Buddhism as very much for me; residing in the background of my work and life, as something that helped to settle my very busy mind. You could say it started within a programme of self-care. It then became apparent that meditation augmented my presence and therefore being there for, and with, the client. Readers will undoubtedly be aware of the therapy research literature that outlines the importance of therapeutic presence. And now, perhaps most significantly as I have developed a Buddhism-informed practice, I see my own meditation as facilitating deeper (and more subtle) awareness of direct experiencing within bodymind. Thus, it supports a feeling-into of the relational space and the quality of contact (to use the Gestalt language). We might summarise these three stages as meditation in service of self, other and relationship. 

9. Buddhism helps me to shift from empathy to compassion 

Returning to suffering (as Buddhists often do!), many of us practising in the humanistic tradition will know the importance of empathy in our client work. Held by the Buddhist view that contextualises suffering and its causes, and places it central, I have come to place compassion (etymologically, suffering-with) more in my awareness. 

Furthermore, studying the compassion and mindfulness research (by the likes of Germer and Neff) has given me a language for the distinction and shift from empathy (the feeling of the other’s pain) to one of compassion (where we are moved to action that will help alleviate other’s pain). Understanding that suffering is universal, I have personally come into a very different relationship to my suffering – so rather than trying to ‘fix’ my human being, I have come to soften to my own sense of struggle. It is very humbling – and a great leveller – to sit in a room with an Other, knowing we are both being all it is to be a human.

10. It provides a system of ethics and values 

Sila, or ethical conduct, is the last yet by no means least of the threefold trainings mentioned earlier. This aspect is part of that ‘homebase’ or container principle for my life as practice of human being. To hold beneficence and non-malevolence at the fore of my consideration before I act is not so much an ethical (I should be kind) stance, but one that is more from within and based upon personal values and integrity. When the Buddha set out the Noble Eightfold Path and the ethics of skilful action, skilful speech and skilful livelihood, he wasn’t saying ‘you should’: it was (again) an invitation to notice what we do is linked to what happens next. To speak honestly and kindly, benefits not just the recipient of my words but also my peace of mind. With clients, when I am more present, I can trust that speaking from my direct experiencing of them, of us, is in service of the client. This has been invaluable as I hold in mind what I often describe to our therapist trainees as the difference between ‘being nice’ and ‘being kind’: avoiding collusion and trusting the empathic challenge. 


1 Carter H. Weaving the paths of Buddhism and psychotherapy: the practice of human being. New York and Abingdon: Routledge; 2024.