“No early trauma defies our capacity for healing and…if we can find our way back to the tender part of us most affected by suffering, eased in an upwelling of curiosity and compassion, we can find our way to a new psychological outcome,” writes Pilar Jennings.
In her new book, To Heal a Wounded Heart: The Transformative Power of Buddhism and Psychotherapy in Action, Jennings weaves together the transformative processes of psychotherapy with the expansive practice of Buddhism to tell the tale of one child’s return from a silent, hidden, and wounded world to healing, compassion, and love.
Jennings begins by exploring her own contrasting views of psychotherapy and Buddhism.
“I began to feel that certain people never shake the experience of chronic vulnerability many of us know from childhood. I was one of them, a person of insufficient armor, no hard shell that life could bounce off of, thin-skinned,” writes Jennings.
Yet Buddhist teachings told Jennings a different tale:
“In the Buddhist meditation classes I took with my mother as a child, our kindly teacher spoke of our pervasive connection to one another, how any notion of isolation was illusory: when we let our heart open, we’d recognize this most basic truth of interbeing,” writes Jennings.
Through the process of readying herself to see patients and to pass a Tibetan language exam, Jennings spends time with Lama Pema, a Tibetan Buddhist, and becomes aware of psychotherapy’s limitations. She had to admit that for her, there was something missing in the psychotherapeutic process.
Before meeting her first client Martine, a six year old child whose mother had recently been incarcerated on a drug offense, Jennings turns to a Buddhist teaching: “Joyful if you do, joyful if you don’t.”
When Jennings first meets with Martine’s grandmother, Carol, a seventy-two year old woman who relates, “I have been a mother for a very long time,” she encounters her own vulnerability.
“I wondered what it was like for her to sit with a pale-skinned, blond therapist half her age purporting to know about pain and suffering. I couldn’t help but imagine that I caused her some offense, though she showed no sign of this,” writes Jennings.
Yet there is also a familiarity in human suffering. Jennings finds that through her own experiences of pain and loss, people going away, and gone while still living, she can connect with Carol.
“The endless theories and clinical methods I’d learned seemed to dissolve into the experience of being with and opening to Carol and what she had entrusted me with,” writes Jennings.
Unlike Carol, however, Martine has learned to hold the world at bay.
“And this was what Carol was saying now too: that Martine was ‘locked in’ to a quiet place inside her that made the outside world nearly impossible to manage. The simplest requests, even to use the bathroom, were too much for her,” writes Jennings.
When Jennings relates her experiences with Martine – including her first sentence, “You can’t get me” – to Lama Pema, he replies, “Smart Buddha girl! She’s right: you can’t get her, meaning you can’t find her, be with her – until she wants you to! And you can’t get her, meaning you can’t understand her yet. Smart Buddha girl!”
Meeting Martine, Lama Pema doesn’t ask her to talk, and instead suggests that “we all sit on the floor together and listen to the quiet sounds of the room.” Lama goes on to explain that when sitting in silence we can think of someone we love, and that the idea is to remember the feeling of being happy and delighted.
And for the first time that day, Martine waves goodbye at the end of the session.
When Martine finally does talk, it is about peanut butter. In an impromptu tea party with Lama Pema, filled with laughter about muffin crumbs trying to escape from her mouth, and the half-chewed piece of pear flying out of Lama Pema’s mouth into her teacup, Martine begins speaking in full sentences.
“There was no hint of craving, no unsatisfactoriness or gnawing anxiety, only a warm room, a kind adult who showed some small sense of delight at a girl’s presence, a wheat-free muffin. In that moment, it didn’t seem to take much to alleviate the craving, just feeling recognized, seen, respected, and cared for with affection. It didn’t take much, just that lovely ‘gleam in the mother’s eye,’ or the lama’s, that helped Martine know she was adored,” writes Jennings.
What unfolds is a profoundly moving and heartwarming journey of a young girl, an intuitive therapist, and a wise Buddhist teacher. Through the painful losses and the imprints they leave, to the childlike joy that connects us all together and ultimately helps us find our way back to healing. A masterful book with far-reaching implications, To Heal a Wounded Heart should be required reading for anyone entering the therapeutic professions.
To Heal a Wounded Heart: The Transformative Power of Buddhism and Psychotherapy in Action
Pilar Jennings PhD
Softcover, 191 Pages