Seeing Through the Illusion of Thingness

Reconsidering Psychotherapy: A Nondual Opening To Diversity

Reprint from “Nonduality America,” Publisher: Matthew King

By Susan Kahn

In this article, I set out to address a nondual audience regarding psychotherapy. My specific aim is to challenge the position that the whole of therapy can be replaced by a nondual approach. While nonduality holds the key to overcoming endless cycles of emotional pain, the notion that there is only one way to address diverse emotional issues and circumstances, can create a limited, fundamentalist lens. Instead, nonduality and psychotherapy can complement each other. Why this is not contradictory is another area of this article’s focus.

People go to nondual teachers to see through the myth of a separate self and all duality, and usually with the hope of alleviating their deepest distress. Nonduality provides the insight to uncover the root of emotional affliction, the whole painful human misunderstanding, and then the opportunity to overturn it.

Comparatively, psychotherapy often misses the primary recognition of selflessness. However, therapy offers effective methods for assessing and responding to a diverse range of emotional difficulties that also need to be considered. This is especially true in early into middle stages of therapy.

To recognize only one method as useful or correct, can be a significant liability.

A nondual approach can potentially overlook important individual difficulties and practical solutions. On the other hand, psychotherapy can attend to branches of issues without end. Each needs to consider the other, even though the function, the job of each, need not be the same.

The different emphasis between nonduality and psychotherapy has its place. Nonduality tends to highlight unity and sameness, while therapy often addresses diverse individual situations. However, nonduality is not at odds with diversity, just as the trunk of a tree is not inherently separate from or at odds with its branches or blossoms.


Pic E.Ludes

While there are valid criticisms of therapy from a nondual standpoint, there is a lot to respect within this well investigated, practical field of study. To reduce psychotherapy to a misguidance, to a belief that it is an expendable field of practice merely catering to illusion, can do a great disservice.  
Nondual diversity recognizes any knowledge as relative and relational, not absolute, and therefore also values practically.

I have heard the nondual critique that therapists view their clients as needing therapy because they see them as “broken.” If this statement means that there is no separate self to be broken, I see the point. It is a key point, but does not cover the full range of considerations. Despite the absence of an independent self, there are experiences of distress that need to be assessed and responded to. Symptoms matter, not only for the person that they appear to, but for families as well. Would we say that medical doctors are unnecessary because there is no separate physical body?

If someone is depressed, it is not always the best initial response to emphasize that there is truly no one to be depressed. There are various effective methods, some with a greater nondual emphasis and some less, depending upon the individual situation. Addressing emotional affliction is not a “one size fits all” proposition. If a person is exhibiting self-destructive behavior, one may not want to bring up selflessness right away. If someone is experiencing obsessive thinking or compulsive behavior, there are effective therapeutic strategies to consider. In my opinion, nonduality would do well to include assessment and referrals as a part of its practice.

Regarding the alternative interpretation that therapists see their clients as “broken” in the traditional sense:

I do not see this to be true.

Overall, psychotherapy does not view emotional difficulties as reflecting something true about the client, but as the result of false views. In one of the most commonly used approaches these days, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, ongoing emotional pain is seen to be the result of distorted thinking or beliefs that stem from events and conditioning. These distortions contribute to behaviors that in turn reinforce the distorted beliefs.

One example of a cognitive distortion is called all or nothing thinking.  This describes the false view that people and things either need to be perfect or they’re mud!  Such a distortion is characterized by absolutism and a belief in objective rather than relative truth. It contributes to the belief that thought equals an objective reality.

Labeling is another cognitive distortion. In this distortion, a quality or characteristic, such as “inferior” is looked upon as an essential truth about oneself or other people. Labeling concretizes and creates the impression that characteristics are embedded into things, that people and other phenomena possess solid, fundamental qualities. Labeling and many other distortions such as personalizing, reinforce the belief in a separate self and other phenomena on a daily basis. Exposing labeling, also uncovers the way that language constructs one’s sense of reality, and then helps to deconstruct it. Challenging distortions can lead to increased freedom in everyday life and both deepen and broaden nondual understanding.

In 1999, the 14th Dalai Lama lent his support to the practice of
 Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and said, “If we can reorient our thoughts and emotions and reorder our behavior, not only can we learn to cope with suffering more easily, but we can prevent a great deal of it from starting in the first place.” He referred to cognitive psychotherapy as analytic meditation and stressed the importance of education about this method.

Recently, I have also heard the assumption that therapists see themselves as truly different from and better than their clients. Such a belief would be viewed by therapists as nothing short of grandiose. Compassion, empathy and non-judgment are emphasized at every turn. While nonduality goes further in recognizing selflessness, the focus of Humanistic Psychology on therapist-client mutuality and inclusion, has had major influence throughout the field of modern psychology.

For instance, if a client is idealizing the therapist, this is identified in therapy as an unhealthy, distorted view to be explored and worked through. And if a therapist observes him or herself enjoying this kind of attention, this is seen as a significant issue,  to reflect upon and resolve. It is never acceptable for a therapist to see oneself as a guru. Introspection is an important practice for us all. Additionally, if a therapist engages in an inappropriate relationship with a client, not only is the license to practice revoked, but depending upon the offense, legal action can be taken.

The overall therapy process is a collaborative endeavor.

  • Where is the person coming from?
  • What are their expressed needs, short and long-term, generally and specifically?
  • Where is there an opening and what would be an effective method to help move through the “stuckness”?

Where the client is at guides the therapy. Methods and goals are part of the dynamic discussion between client and therapist, at the outset and throughout therapy.

Another nondual critique of therapy involves the story of me. Although nondual strategies critically expose the illusion of the personal story, dismissing stories may not always be the best first approach for everyone. Sometimes people’s stories first need to be aired and made sense of. This is where we can learn from Psychodynamic Therapy. Deconstructing the story directly, can feel powerful and relevant.

For some, attempting to connect-the-dots that run from childhood to current emotional difficulties, can offer critical insight and subsequent relief that the story is not ultimately personal. Blame can be replaced with understanding. For stories are a vast web of interrelations. Psychologically, it is helpful to see that one’s difficulties are not intrinsically who I am, and ironically, investigating stories can refute the belief that an independent self can even be found in the story. For nondual realizations to be relevant, they need to be specific.

The phenomenon of memory as the great illusionist, presenting the false appearance of the independent continuity of my life, can also be uncovered while exploring the story. People easily become stuck in the sense of a separate self unless the myth of inherently existent memory and continuity are seen through. This is another example of how deconstructing the ingredients that have constructed the belief in an essential self can be a potent nondual method.

Genuine insight can lead to a liberation from what seemed so real, so concrete and heavy. One can be the magician who sees through the trick of the false appearance of the story of selfhood. Then one can move away from the story, not as an act of blind will, but as the result of not being fooled anymore. Allowing what arises to be seen without the overlay of the story of the separate me is a whole different way of living.

The point is that simply bypassing stories from the outset can for many, prolong suffering and impair the readiness to remove the false appearance of a fundamentally separate self altogether. For what one is blind to, can persist in its influence behind the scenes and in subtle ways. Emotions can be tricky and if denied, easily manifest as hidden assumptions about oneself and life. This can keep people in the dark and therefore diminish the opportunity for deep nondual understanding.

“A person seeking help (as the result of long-standing anxiety or depression), may be looking for the magic bullet of nonduality.”

—Susan K.

A person seeking help as the result of long-standing anxiety or depression, may be looking for the magic bullet of nonduality. However, symptoms and strategies need to be assessed. The lack of attention to bothersome thoughts, feelings and behaviors can compound difficulties and result in a poor outcome. There are many specific and effective therapeutic interventions that can spare people a lot of pain and are worthy of consideration.

Medical considerations too, cannot be overlooked. Serious physical conditions can mimic emotional symptoms, and to neglect these possibilities can be life threatening. I once saw a client who had what she called panic attacks. She had previously been told by a nondual guide to simply observe these attacks, sit with them, and watch them come and go. There was no further assessment. Its cause turned out to be the result of a serious cardiac arrhythmia.

One last example of a questionable nondual critique of therapy, is the need for the role of the therapist to be eliminated because there is no true separation between the client and therapist. Should the role of the teacher, firefighter or parent be eliminated because everything is nondual? When nonduality excludes diversity it loses relevance and practicality. Although no fixed separation can be found between anyone or anything, this does not mean that the functioning of relatively existent phenomena is altogether illusory. What needs emphasizing, is that nothing functions independently, dualistically, as its own thing. We still can and must value functioning and practicality.

It does not follow that functioning roles inevitably prop up the sense of an independent self, although we need to be careful about that. Everyone has different roles in life, relatively speaking. Actually, no one is identical to anyone else, just as no leaf is identical to any other. We are all like leaves on a tree. Although we are not identical, we are not inherently different people either. Recognizing the diverse interconnection between everyone and everything supplies the wisdom of compassion.

There is not one mountaintop view to find absolute truth, including a “view from nowhere.” To refer to a phrase from the
 Heart Sutra, “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form,” emptiness is not seen as a substance, substratum, essence, absolute nature, or vantage point. Form is not made of emptiness. Emptiness is the absence of inherent existence and the realization of interconnected and relative existence, so that nothing is seen to be its own entity.

Emptiness therefore, is not a place or truth to land in. In nondual interrelationship, we cannot point to one place or notion without considering its relationship to all places and notions. This is why the inclusion of diversity brings nonduality to everything and everything to nonduality.

Addressing emotional affliction is a tall order. Life’s interrelated diversity requires various approaches. Nonduality and psychotherapy can work together and learn from each other. Nonduality is not separate from the world, it is the world. To recognize that there are many considerations in addressing the diverse web of life, including the mind-body, is humility. No one stops learning. Learning only appears to stop when someone constructs the belief that there is but one fundamental truth and approach to realize.

That however, would be playing God, a story to be deconstructed.


Susan Kahn, nondual therapist, licensed clinical therapist.

My work as a licensed therapist, is carefully woven together with nondual emptiness teachings. The aim of emptiness teachings is to alleviate suffering and do so in a way that identifies and addresses its root cause, without finding it desirable or even possible to withdraw from relative individual or worldly considerations.

11 Responses

  1. Exquisite, excellent post, BRAVO! Very well rounded and gifting us with a rich bouquet of information that is little known to the layperson. Written with Susan Kahn’s usual warmth, sense of humor, fierce love for all sentient beings, expertise and sheer beauty!

  2. Many thanks for an outstanding article that clarifies common misconceptions especially in non dual circles and addresses them compassionately one by one by America’s expert in this field. Wonderful piece, I’d love to see more by this author.

  3. October 13, 2011 at 3:18 pm

  4. Thank you for a well-balanced, unbiased and informative post.

  5. Susan Kahn has brought light and clarification to an area which many nondualists either do not bother to investigate, or do not even know about. She summed up the practicality of it very simply and directly: “Should the role of the teacher, firefighter or parent be eliminated because everything is nondual?”

  6. Thanks to this kind of clear assessment of the nondual/psychotherapy scene, the seeming gap between the two can only appear to lessen.

  7. October 13, 2011 at 6:30 pm

  8. I found this to be an excellent article on nonduality and reconsidering psychotherapy for the nondual audience!

  9. Susan Kahn emphasizes that ‘nothing functions independently’ …and offers a clear and concise article explaining how the nondual and psychotherapy work in harmony, just as there is a constant interplay in all of life.

  10. Loved this very timely article that truly shares a whole approach.

  11. October 14, 2011 at 1:33 am

  12. A thoughtful article, Susan! It reminds me very much of the Lotus Sutra, where expedient means are necessary as a guide to understanding– as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach, which could actually be detrimental.

  13. I love the mythopoetic image of Kannon (Avalokitesvara) with a thousand arms holding myriad ways and means for helping– each according to one’s present condition. This article is really an outline of that same principle. In the context of nonduality, emptiness teachings and psychotherepy are BOTH aspects of nonduality. Understood in this context, both aspects are ultimately provisional.

  14. An analogy that comes to mind is a student being made to learn about quantum mechanics and bypassing Newtonian physics. The student probably would not fare too well!

  15. October 14, 2011 at 2:21 am

  16. I enjoyed the article’s overview and the message that nonduality is not at odds with diversity. I get a sense of surrender and sacrifice: surrender of all landing places and sacrifice into a display of individualities. Mystery of mysteries.

  17. October 15, 2011 at 6:56 am

  18. Roberto yudowski
  19. When the patients come with panic,fear, etc.:
    I say,don’t name it.
    Don’t try to eliminate it.
    Don’t try to change it.-
    You don’t know really what that feeling is.-
    Only pay attention.-
    And, If the patient does:eureka,wonderful:
    the panic,the fear is not.-
    I can go on.-

  20. Cordially

  21. [My native language is Spanish]

  22. October 15, 2011 at 10:41 am

  23. Well said Susan – excellent article. I completely agree that non-duality cannot replace therapy, although it can serve as a form of therapy in itself. But emotional pain and trauma can become trapped in the psyche from childhood onward and cause a residual psychological pain, or actual structural damage to the psyche. For someone with real psychological damage due to trauma, I think a purely non-dual approach can cause further problems, unless they have had some form of psychotherapy first.

  24. all best, Steve

  25. October 16, 2011 at 6:41 am

  26. Thanks, Susan, for a thoughtful and well written post. The question about whether a purely nondual approach to treating mood disorders, anxiety disorders, psychoses, characterological conditions and behavioral problems works better than humanistic, cognitive behavioral, or even pharmacological approaches is, of course, an empirical question. As of yet, no one has, to my knowledge, investigated it, so assuming it to be true is purely an article of faith, not knowledge. I once heard a well-known Zen master discuss how twenty plus years of meditation had done nothing to help his depression, but Prozac had done wonders. We can also discuss how very famous teachers of nondual approaches (Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Maezumi Roshi) were plagued by very serious behavioral problems (e.g., alcoholism) that all their nondual wisdom did nothing to correct.

  27. I appreciate your thoughts that being a psychotherapist does not require one to believe one’s patient is “broken” or that the therapist is “superior” to the patient.

  28. Belief in one’s separateness from the universe is one form of delusion, belief in perfectionism or one’s dire need for approval are others. A Bodhisattva might proclaim “delusions are endless, I vow to conquer them all.” Dissolving the delusion of separateness does not, in and of itself, dissolve the others. They all need work. And the delusion of dualism may not be the particular delusion that brought the patient to the therapist’s door.

  29. Thanks also for reminding us that form is emptiness. I always think that this statement does not privilege emptiness. Emptiness is not somehow “more real” than or “deeper than” form. “Form” and “Emptiness” are two ways of looking at the same world. When we look at an object our eyes see something solid, the electron microscope sees mostly empty space. One view is not more “real” than the other, they are equally “real” views, useful for different purposes. To carry forward your own metaphor, if your house is on fire, you call the fireman — there is no requirement that he be a Bodhisattva.

  30. October 16, 2011 at 8:41 am

  31. I found this article most refreshing! For sure, one can be attached both to a miry practice of endless psychological analysis, as well as to the various dogmatic “nondual” conceptualizations. Susan seems to be acutely aware of this, and as a consequence manages to write from a respectful, mature and insightful perspective.

  32. From my point of view, context-sensitive and intelligently inclusive articles like this are most welcome in the nondual/spiritual discussion. Full support!

  33. October 23, 2011 at 7:08 am

  34. Pingback: Emptiness Cafe
  35. i enjoyed your article, as a therapist. I hold a space for both the Divinity and Beauty of my clients and we work on the places that we trip over; the shadow. I don’t see any division between the two and in fact we need to realize and grow into both to be fully free. If not it just becomes words…..

  36. January 31, 2012 at 8:08 pm

3 Responses to “Reconsidering Psychotherapy: A Nondual Opening To Diversity”

  1. ramesh, ramakrishnan iyer

    really good stuff in here – and yes from its OWN side – ha ha – you have integrated many aspects of the thoughts and the practice and have taken time to share and teach – big time seeds for many of your learning and teachings to come true – all the very best – BTW – I liked the poems

  2. Jacob L Didas

    It appears I’m quite late to this party, just wanted to say I really enjoy reading your (our?) material. Depression/anxiety led to me to mindfulness/acceptance-based approaches and, ultimately, to a realization of non-dualism. Just graduated as a psych NP, and it’s helpful to learn your thought process as you apply this critical understanding to psychotherapy, and helping others through the experience of suffering. I agree that we can be of help to “others”, or rather, it is our very own essence that is sitting across from us. As you explained, there’s nothing “nondual” about assuming change cannot be assisted by another person, especially in a psychotherapeutic setting. If everything is unified ultimately, then the therapist-patient relationship is simply another opportunity by which change and growth can emerge.


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