by Joe Loizzo

To Heal a Wounded Heart by Pilar JenningsI am delighted to be able to share with you two excerpts from the exciting new book penned by our dear friend Dr. Pilar Jennings. Many of you know Pilar already from her incredibly clear and kind teaching as a core faculty member in our Sustainable Happiness Program and our Contemplative Psychotherapy Program, or from our last Annual Benefit.

In To Heal a Wounded Heart, Pilar has outdone herself, bringing her incomparably wise and nurturing voice ever deeper into the intimate realm where Buddhism and psychotherapy meet to turn trauma into wholeness. We know this taste of Pilar’s heartfelt reflections on her encounters with clients and with her guru will whet your appetite for the whole feast.

To Heal a Wounded Heart: The Transformative Power of Buddhism and Psychotherapy in Action is available on Amazon*.

Two excerpts from the introduction to To Heal a Wounded Heart by Pilar Jennings

Ten years ago I made a decision I could not have anticipated in my years of training to become a psychoanalyst. I brought my Buddhist teacher and best friend into treatment with my first patient. The idea was to offer Martine, a six-year-old girl I quickly fell in love with, a sense that even the worst losses can be survived. Lama Pema knew something about grizzly loss and extreme vulnerability. As a child living in Tibet, on the eve of the Chinese invasion, he lost his country, his parents, and even a sense of self still fragile and easily dismantled. Martine’s losses were more chronic—an addicted mother who flitted in and out of her life, who tantalized her with loving but unreliable attention, and an elderly grandmother who held on tight, determined to keep her from the outside world where danger lurked.

Through them both, over the course of our year together, I learned something I had only intuited before: that this common ground of vulnerability is what makes childhood both magical and vexing. It’s also what makes us able to know ourselves. Like an Alice in Wonderland portal, our ability in childhood to let life press in upon us as exquisitely and intensely as we do is why we end up caring about people, including ourselves. Through my work with Martine, my friendship with Lama Pema, and our encounters in my tiny therapeutic office, I began to appreciate anew the need to reclaim the very part of us that sets us up for the worst pain. I learned that, given the right circumstances, children are willing to and even interested in reexperiencing pain that needs to be better understood, and that such circumstances include someone with a spacious mind able to join them, someone willing to look back and reexperience their own losses and sorrows, especially those carefully sequestered long ago.

Whether you are a therapist, a Buddhist, a parent, or someone navigating the ripple effects of your own childhood suffering, I offer you this story as a way into those very moments in your own history that seem most fraught with intractable pain. I have learned through Martine and Lama Pema that no early trauma defies our capacity for healing and that if we can find our way back to the tender part of us most affected by suffering, eased in by an upwelling of curiosity and compassion, we can find our way through to a new psychological outcome. This exquisite sensitivity is our childhood gift, even as it sets us up for psychological experience we may spend the rest of our lives recovering from.

As I waded through my own childhood and its ripple effects in therapy, and especially the ways I’d learned to navigate relationship in response to the feeling and unconscious conviction that the people I love will leave, I began to sense that clinical work called for an integrity that far transcended a culturally reinforced notion of therapy as self-obsessive. That’s not what good and productive therapy was for. I began to understand that what I could not open to in myself, I would shut out in others. This is just the way it seemed to work. The open heart so prized in Buddhism, a heart that is ready to take in the suffering of others, did not seem to open wide enough if it had not first been opened to one’s own suffering.

Throughout my experience in therapy, graduate school, and analytic training (something that spanned nearly ten years), I thought a great deal about the ways in which spiritual practice was well served by this therapeutic insight. I had begun to appreciate that the ability to feel intimately connected to the suffering of others, a primary Buddhist value, required personal and psychological work. During the latter part of this time, I’d been spending countless hours with Lama Pema, trying to learn Tibetan for my exam and also driving him to his various teaching engagements. We drove to Vermont, to Ithaca, to rural Pennsylvania, occasionally lapsing into silence as we took in the bucolic landscape, but mostly we talked. Therapy and Buddhism and their contrasting approaches to the human condition were constant themes.

It was during one of these trips that I learned more about his story. He told me that a quarter of a century ago, he’d been sent from India at the age of twenty-five by his teacher to establish a Tibetan Buddhist center. He’d arrived in New York City on a warm afternoon in 1982, wearing his maroon and saffron colored robes, carrying only a backpack with a bound book of prayers, mala beads, a stale piece of half-eaten bread, an extra pair of wool socks, and forty-five American dollars, a small fortune by his standards. As I listened, I began to appreciate how much he knew about personal struggles that dovetailed with spiritual practice: being too alone, surviving trauma, yet somehow supposed to work it all out in the spiritual realm.

During one of several trips to Vermont in the dead of winter, while holding three toes peeking out from a large hole in his maroon sock, Lama Pema had said after a brief period of silence: “But don’t you really think therapy makes it impossible to let anything go?”

Editor’s note: Pilar Jennings is a core faculty member and will be teaching Course 3 in the Sustainable Happiness Program this coming fall (2018). View Pilar’s bio. Watch our calendar for details.

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