So many of us search all the time for what really helps when things in life get difficult. Last year I had the honor of interviewing Karen Kissel Wegela about “The Courage to Be Present.” Karen has been a core faculty member at Naropa University for more than 29 years, focusing on contemplative psychotherapy — bringing together Buddhism and traditional psychotherapy. She has a private practice in Boulder, Colo. and gives workshops and lectures nationally and internationally. Karen has recently released “What Really Helps: Using Mindfulness and Compassionate Presence to Help, Support and Encourage Others,” and I think the message she conveys can be extraordinarily helpful to so many of us.
It is my honor to interview her here, so we can all glean some of her wisdom.
Elisha: I’m struck by the title of your book, “What Really Helps,” as it is such an important basic question that we all want the answer to. So let me pose it to you: What really helps?
Karen: Elisha, that’s such a good question. As I wrote in the book, what really helps most when we are aspiring to help others is our presence. We won’t have any idea what will actually help until we connect with others and have a good sense of what their experiences are. In order to be fully present and connected with another person, we have to be willing to feel whatever comes up in our own experience.
For example, if we’re with a friend, a man who is going through a painful divorce, we might find that as we sit with him that we begin to feel a lot of intense feelings ourselves. We might feel sadness, anger, or bewilderment. We could be “exchanging” with what he is feeling in that moment. Or, we could also have our own personal reactions to what he is telling us. Maybe we’ve been through a divorce ourselves, or maybe our parents divorced when we were young, and listening to our friend brings up painful feelings of our own.
Even more commonly, when we want to be helpful, we don’t have a clue what will help. As I said in the book, as a psychotherapist, more often than not, I don’t know what to do next. The ability to stay present with not knowing, with uncertainty or even with feeling stupid is enormously valuable. It can be hard to stay present with those experiences of pain or not knowing. Sometimes we jump in prematurely with suggestions or stories of our own, just to get away from the discomfort we’re feeling ourselves. Often when we do that, the other person doesn’t feel heard or feels put off. They may even shut down and stop talking to us.
This ability to be present without pulling away from discomfort is mindfulness.
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