Contemplative psychotherapy is a counseling discipline that integrates Buddhist psychology and philosophy, Western developmental and humanistic psychology, and the contemplative insights of the world wisdom traditions. It includes mindfulness as a practice for both clients and therapists, but goes beyond mindfulness-based appraoches to incorporate the spiritual and existential insights of Buddhism and other wisdom traditions, including secular approaches to perceiving a sacred world.
The field of contemplative psychotherapy was initiated by Tibetan meditation master Chögyam Trungpa and psychiatrist Ed Podvoll in the 1970s at what was then the Naropa Institute in Boulder, CO. Since that time, the Naropa master’s program in contemplative psychotherapy has offered a thoroughly personal educational approach to contemplation and self-examination for psychotherapy trainees. For more than 40 years, this training has pioneered clinician mindfulness, mindfulness-based group psychotherapy, and an innovative home-based recovery model for persons experiencing psychosis and other extreme states (known as the Windhorse approach).
Brilliant sanity is the slogan and root teaching of contemplative psychotherapy. Brilliant sanity is the proclamation that wisdom is more fundamental than confusion: the basis of all our experience is of the nature of openness, clarity, and warmth. Contemplative psychotherapists can help clients connect to their own brilliant sanity, because they have trained in doing so for themselves as well as for others. Mindfulness is one approach to synchronizing body and mind, and other techniques can also help clients recognize their wisdom operating in the present moment.
Contemplative psychotherapy also draws on the vast wisdom of the Buddhist teachings, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, which embraces simplicity and structure, compassion and insight, transformation of confused emotions, and nondual openness as major methods for healing and recovery. While Buddhist psychology and philosophy are a major part of the Naropa training, contemplative psychotherapists may or may not be Buddhists, and whether they share these ideas explicitly with clients depends on clients’ preferences, needs, and personal belief systems. Thus while contemplative psychotherapy is a spiritually-inspired psychotherapy, it can also be provided in a completely secular way.
While it stands on its own as a theoretical orientation and approach to therapy, contemplative psychotherapy integrates well with other therapeutic approaches, including humanistic, psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, Jungian, somatic, and arts-based approaches, as well as the host of other mindfulness-based therapies.