Pilar Jennings is a quiet iconoclast who brings an unusual degree of vulnerability and truthfulness to her work as New York-based psychotherapist. These qualities are beautifully illustrated in her second book, To Heal a Wounded Heart: The Transformative Power of Buddhism and Psychotherapy in Action, recently released by Shambhala Publications
Early on in her clinical practice, Jennings was presented with a particularly difficult case: a six-year-old girl who, traumatized by loss, had stopped speaking. Challenged by the limitations of her training to respond effectively to the isolating effect of childhood trauma, she took the unconventional path of inviting her friend Lama Pema—a kindly Tibetan Buddhist monk who experienced his own life-shaping trauma at a very young age—into their sessions. In the warm therapeutic space they create, the young girl slowly begins to heal. The result is a fascinating case study of the intersection of psychology and Buddhism, a story for therapists, parents, Buddhists, or any of us who hold out the hope that even the deepest childhood wounds can be the portal to our capacity to love and be loved.
Jennings is not only a professor of psychiatry and religion at the Union Theological Seminary, but also a lecturer at Columbia University and visiting lecturer at Weill Cornell University School of Medicine in their newly implemented Integrative Health concentration where she teaches medical students about mindfulness for their own stress reduction and for their patients’ increased well-being.
Mark Matousek: Early in your new book, you write about the human need “to reclaim the very part of us that sets us up for the worst pain.” What do you mean?
Pilar Jennings: My original idea was to write about vulnerability as the foundation of our human condition. We are set up to survive infancy by cultivating profound attachments to somebody, regardless of whether or not they can care for us skillfully. That person has to adequately feed us and keep us in a safe, climate-controlled environment, and they have to do that for years. We form those attachments because we are born with an openness of heart but also because we have to trust our wellbeing with somebody. Investing in that trust and that bond, however, is only cultivated through that openness.
The problem is that many of us suffer losses—often shocking losses—and we all invariably lose the people we are most attached to. When that happens, we often learn to scaffold over that openness, that vulnerability. Unfortunately, it’s those attributes—those parts of our being—that are needed to cultivate new attachment bonds. That protective defense against devastating pain keeps us from forming new attachments and that original openness and trust is what we need to reclaim.
MM: One of the more unusual aspects you bring to your work is your association with your Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Lama Pema. (aka Khenpo Pema Wangdak).
PJ: Yes, our association has certainly influenced my life both personally and professionally.
MM: I was especially struck by this passage: “He didn’t know that he’d lived through something that someday might need to be grieved.” Can you say more?
PJ: I thought quite a bit about whether or not to include that reference. I did so intentionally, in part just to point out that in the Buddha dharma and Buddha teaching there is not very much emphasis on highly personal experience. Buddhism tends towards a very broad lens as it concerns our shared nature of mind. For people who grow up in Buddhist cultures—Lama Pema was sent to a monastic institute when he was seven—there isn’t necessarily the conscious awareness of having had personal experiences that are traumatizing or that might require some support down the road of a clinical nature. You might try to work it through spiritually but wouldn’t typically tackle an issue like grief through a psychological or clinical process.
MM: Do you consider that to be a limitation in Buddha dharma or culture?
PJ: To be direct, yes. But I want to reframe it by saying that I am highly respectful of our collective cultures and of the spiritually-oriented cultures. One of the gifts that psychologically-oriented cultures or traditions can offer to people who are raised in Buddhist cultures or countries is more appreciation for our subjectivity, more appreciation for what we go through as individual people with very unique ways of experiencing suffering. We all have categories of suffering that we share: parental loss being a big one. The specificity of how that loss is experienced is quite divergent from person to person and more appreciated in more individualistic Western cultures, specifically in psychotherapeutic and psychoanalytic traditions.
MM: You brought Lama Pema in to work with your young client Martine. You write about how in bringing all three of your experiences together, you realized that loss and love had been confounded for all of you. That was something you all profoundly shared. How did that affect the process of Martine’s healing and what exactly happened during this therapy?
PJ: In our own way, we helped each other out, but Lama Pema has a remarkable ability to never withdraw affection and that was very contagious. Regardless of how he feels deep down about people, even people he may be pissed off at, he remains steadfast. One of his gifts is keeping love alive even in the midst of or after loss. I attribute that to his temperament honed by the depth of his spirituality. Martine shared something similar to Lama Pema. She’d also gone through absolutely the worst stuff and could be in an endless depth of loss and yet, even in revealing her pain, she didn’t seem to lose touch with her capacity to connect and to relate in a warm and caring way.
MM: So Lama Pema was able to mirror that quality for Martine?
PJ: Exactly. And it became clear that all three of us had struggled with being more vulnerable, with risking both loving more fully and being loved more fully because of our various, but very different losses.
MM: When you first began to practice, you had a fear that you might disappear in the depths of sorrow from the people you worked with, as you write in the book. Many therapists fear this, and many of us in ‘civilian’ life fear this. How has that evolved over the years, this fear of disappearing in people’s sorrow?
PJ: The first thing that comes to mind is something I learned from one of my primary mentors, Ann Ulanov. She is an extraordinary Jungian scholar and analyst, and she was my doctoral advisor at Union Theological Seminary. She used to say, “Your greatest gift is your greatest liability.”
This is true for me clinically because I very easily experience and pass into strong feelings of empathy and identification. Sometimes—as I wrote in the book—I’m overly identified. And I think that at times that’s healing for the people that I work with because they really feel that I’m with them. With them, while maintaining professional boundaries, that is.
Part of the problem of being open and empathic is that I sometimes feel myself caring on a very deep level another person’s suffering. But I have learned over time—and with the support of great mentors—to be curious why I’m “carrying” a certain person’s suffering and not somebody else’s. I have real appreciation for the analytic method when it comes to wondering about why a particular form of suffering is touching me deeply. So instead of the feeling of getting devoured by another person’s sadness or pain, I use curiosity as a form of refuge. This allows me to learn from their pain and find an appropriate way to work with it.
MM: There’s a wonderful moment in the book when you destroy the dollhouse with Martine. Why was sitting in the middle of the mess with her so important?
PJ: The mess was important for Martine because, symbolically, she was constantly living through very messy situations and nobody was understanding, recognizing or responding to her. No adult was saying to her, “Honey, what you’re going through is so very challenging. Many kids are in a situation where they’re dealing with chaos. And often what makes the difference for such a child is whether or not there is an adult—any adult—who sees what’s going on and names it.
In the absence of that happening, the child is just caught up in the chaos, the ‘mess’ if you will. Before the dollhouse event, Martine and I had sessions that got physically messy because we would just play with absolutely everything in the room that was fun. We were both into it, but then I’d have five minutes before my next patient was walking in and there were hundreds of toys on the floor. I would get anxious and want things straightened up.
One day I was upset about Martine breaking a pencil and my supervisor at the time said very wisely, “Thank her for it. She is letting you know she is tired of messes, but she’s also tired of having to be the one who feels like she has to clean them up.” And again, that analytic curiosity helped me get out of my own experience and recognize this had meaning for her. And that maybe together we could play it out: her frustration with messes that she had no control over. So we had this little self-contained dollhouse that we just wrecked.
MM: So, for a traumatized child to learn that mess doesn’t necessarily mean trauma?
PJ: Exactly. Mess doesn’t necessarily mean catastrophe.
MM: That’s powerful statement.
PJ: It is. And some messes can be catastrophic, especially if you’re a kid and there is insufficient support. But part of delinking that kind of mess from the mess of an insurance claim not going through, or the pipes bursting, or even an old relationship ending, is really important to disentangle.
MM: In another favorite passage, you write, “There is nobility in forming and suffering attachment. We risk feeling love when we get attached and more to the point we risk loving another whom we will eventually lose. This is not the same as grasping as it’s meant in Buddhism, the ultimately deluded notion that we should be able to hold onto others forever. It’s about aliveness and emotional aliveness that is only possible through loving a specific other. As the psychologist Anthony Storr once said, “’Loving everyone is not the same as loving someone in particular.’”
How do you, as a Buddhist, square the transcendent acceptance of impermanence with the acceptance of the inevitable pain of attachment that’s part of being a human?
PJ: For many Western Buddhists, this issue feels like a bit of a conundrum. And often students of the Buddha dharma want to figure out how to navigate this Buddhist approach to attachment with a Western psychological one. Based on my sociocultural background, I think this is an issue where the traditions really need each other because there can be a way in which attachment gets problematized in the dharma. And I think there is a protective element to that.
We all have to have a look at how we get attached and what the quality of that attachment is, because sometimes there is a denial of reality in our attachments. There might be beliefs that form that we won’t be a viable person without a particular relationship. That’s not a reality-based belief, so it’s important to look at. Buddhist practice and teaching helps people look closely at what’s in our attachment. Are we denying the truth of impermanence when we get attached? Are we making up narratives that can never jive with reality? Or are we overly attached to a certain part of our identity or a certain circumstance that we don’t imagine we would survive without? All great stuff.
However, as I was saying earlier, we’re not viable as infants without our attachments. Unless there’s someone we’re really loving a whole lot—and love and attachment are quite mixed—then we’re not going to survive. I think Buddhist teaching could make a little more room for the psychic and biological aliveness that comes through our attachments. And of course, there are well-known theories that when children are securely attached they more easily cultivate feelings of trust in themselves and others. They anticipate being comforted, warmly received, respected, and all those good things. When children are insecurely attached, they’re often anticipating rejection, isolation or catastrophe. So secure, solid attachment is needed for our psychological wellbeing. We need to both appreciate the importance of our attachments and how they keep the psyche and the body alive and well, and then as we develop, challenge any fantasies that come with those attachments.
MM: Last question. As a clinician, survivor, and spiritual practitioner, what do you say to people who have been silenced by grief? How do they find the courage or the will to finally speak and give voice to what’s going on for them?
PJ: It’s such an important question. There are so many facets to that experience of hiddenness. For some, they come from countries whose problems are hidden globally, for others those feelings could be multi-generational. In all cases, I would genuinely encourage people to do whatever it takes to find one person who has the openness of spirit, the openness of mind and heart, to listen and truly get to know who they are. Even if there is some trial and error to the process, they should keep trying. Whether that’s a spiritual mentor, or a clinician, or a friend, that person should be somebody who expresses genuine care and helps them feel more seen, more recognized. Feeling found by another is a basic fundamental human need. One that we all share.