Karuna Training Comes to North America

Article by Miriam Hall
Originally published in the Shambhala Times Community News Magazine
March 19, 2014

What is compassion? One Sanskrit word is karuna, which is used to point to any action that lessens the suffering of others. It is a fitting name for a program based in contemplative psychology teachings, where the emphasis is on active empathy, and a willingness to bear the pain of others.

Applying Buddhist teachings of karuna to psychology is an intuitive pairing. It challenges the status quo of Western psychotherapy, and even the most seasoned meditation practitioner. It also highlights some of the key areas where psychology and Buddhism overlap, in a directly applicable and approachable way.

A few weekends ago, I attended an introductory program for Karuna Training, which is a program that has run in Europe for the last twenty years, in tandem with (but in a separate structure) Naropa University’s MAs in Psychology.

Since I teach contemplative arts each summer in Europe in the Shambhala mandala, I have met many previous Karuna participants. They always speak highly of the program, and I can tell from interacting with them that the practices are powerful. However, it only existed in Europe. The Karuna program is not just for psychotherapists – that’s the job of the Naropa MAs in psychology. So it seemed like a complimentary program for my teachings.

Until now, the options in North America consisted of occasional weekend workshops (which I have tried to find and take) and an MA at Naropa (too expensive, and I don’t actually want to become a therapist or move to Boulder). So I had pretty much given up, until one of the organizing teachers posted that Karuna is coming to North America, starting in the Bay Area. I bought my ticket immediately and knew I needed to go.

In the introductory weekend, people’s professions and reasons for attending ran the gamut. There were parents wanting to be more present for their families, a few psychotherapists and social workers, a yoga teacher, a woman who works in non-profit support for occupational health. Regardless of whether they work in a traditionally categorized helper job, most folks identified as wanting to be of service in some way. This really struck me, because I have been thinking a lot about the difference between helping, fixing and serving, partially stimulated by an article from 1999 in Shambhala Sun that a friend recently brought to my attention.

The inclination towards how to better be of service is exactly what Karuna is focused on. The main practices: Body, Speech and Mind, Compassionate Exchange and meditation, parallel the psychotherapy/psychology program at Naropa, which also has a view of service. However, the Karuna program is structured to allow that service to take whatever form it takes in your life: being a cleaner vessel for the concerns of your aging parents or growing children, holding space to resolve conflict more clearly at whatever job you do, being able, in the everyday one-on-one conversations that the Sakyong says begin society, to be truly present and able to listen without aggression.

The weekend was rigorous, even for an introduction. We spent quite a bit of time in meditation and conversation, as well as a good set of definitions about what makes contemplative psychology different from Western psychology and also from traditional Buddhism. In other words, what is this hybrid? To try and explain it in a paragraph would minimize the description, but Sandra Ladley, who stepped in for Melissa Moore,  who was recovering from illness, did sum it up well in the following signposts, as she helpfully called them:

  • Mutual Healing/Recovery
  • Commitment to Living in Naked Reality
  • Strong Commitment to Meditation
  • Background Teachings of Suzuki Roshi and Chogyam Trungpa, which developed out of finding some students attracted to meditation who had psychiatric difficulties
  • Mahayana Warrior Practice with Vajrayana View
  • All Relationships with Other Begin with Self

We participated in three separate exercises, the final of which, a full Body, Speech and Mind small group exercise, was a culmination of the previous two from Saturday. Though we ended perhaps with more questions than with we arrived, the energetic curiosity exploded out the door and into the lovely Sunday afternoon at the end of the program. Everyone signed up to get more information about the curriculum and possible solid start in September of 2014. We didn’t know for sure what we had just experienced, but it was definitely a taste of what Sandra called naked reality, and we were all sure it was rare and precious.

light:shadow cushion cornerstrangely shadowed cushions

Most people entered the weekend not being sure why they had come, except for that the description called to them in some way. We all left signing up for more information, and to be kept posted on future programs/cycles.

If you want more information or may wish to take an introductory program like this one, please visit the Karuna Training website.  If you are interested please contact Sandra at sandraladley [at] yahoo [dot] com.  The event will soon be listed on the Berkeley Center web site at Berkeley.shambhala.org