Integrating Buddhist Thought and Mindfulness into Psychotherapy – Bruce Tift – HPP 84

Bruce Tift, MA, LMFT

The integration of mindfulness with psychotherapy is an important aspect of supporting people to achieve wellbeing. How we relate to the disturbances we frequently feel throughout our lives can be a significant determinant of our quality of life, and of the possibilities we perceive.

As we work toward a Buddhist psychotherapy modality, we will look at the practical application of bringing together the capacity to bear witness to our moment by moment experience along with a modern understanding of the psychological patterning we carry from childhood experiences.

In today’s episode, we are honored to have the opportunity to explore the blending of Buddhist theory with psychotherapeutic approaches with Bruce Tift, author of the wonderful 2011 book “Already Free.” Bruce has been blending these two traditions and teaching at Naropa University for 4 decades. Join us as we delve deep into ways to face the vulnerability of everyday emotional disturbances, and hear how to use Buddhist practices in therapy.

Show Notes:

Awareness as a Psychotherapeutic Tool – 02:03
“And I am always working from a ground of powerlessness, not just my work, that’s my life in general, meaning that I don’t have any sort of idea that I have the power to change anybody. I can influence people, of course, I’m influenced. But basically, I work with people as if they’re adults”

Deconstructing Narratives – 08:56
“First of all, examine and clarify what are these feelings that I’m organizing my life around avoiding? Because that ends up sort of perpetuating an out of date history, still trying to take care of ourselves. It’s not pathological. It’s just out of date”

A Buddhist Point Of View – 14:03
“The intention is not just to increase our tolerance of disturbance and find out it’s not going to harm us. Whereas when we were a little kid, probably, those emotions actually might have been associated with emotional harm”

Working With Couples – 17:31
“It actually becomes safer to be close to somebody, show our vulnerability, extend in a kind way, as we are taking better and better care of ourselves. So my particular approach is that any complaint, any disturbance I find with my partner, to use not as a signal that they’re doing something wrong, but as a signal that oh, probably somehow I am not taking adequate care of myself right now”

Separateness and Connection – 25:12
“It seems to me that on a relative level, half the story just to say it that way, is that we’re all existentially alone. Nobody’s ever going to get what it’s like to be us, we’re going to die, and probably the world will keep going. And simultaneously, we’re all completely interconnected”

Responsible Interconnectedness – 29:51
“And so from a differentiation point of view, the fundamental benefit we can be to our partner or to other people is to engage with them from that sort of complex capacity of feeling very connected, participative, considerate, kind, compassionate, empathic, and simultaneously, not joining that person in their experience, just because that’s not accurate”

Behavior change: If you change the narrative will it follow? – 38:44
“By doing that, I’m taking a position that I’m not going to be induced to play the change agent for them. Because when people have very contradictory feelings about changing patterns of self destructive, self care let’s say, a lot of times, they will try to induce others to be the voice of discipline or change. And then they’ll resist that because they have contradictory feelings”

Full Episode Transcript


Keith Kurlander, Dr. Will Van Derveer, Bruce Tift


Bruce Tift  00:01

So that’s about Buddhist point of view is more like shifting our experience center of gravity from all of our drama and identification with form level experience shifting that toward conscious participation in openness.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  00:20

Thank you for joining us for The Higher Practice Podcast. I’m Dr. Will Van Derveer with Keith Kurlander. And this is the podcast where we explore what it takes to achieve optimal mental health. And speaking of optimal mental health, one of the deep explorations that I’ve made in my lifetime has been meditation and the tradition of Buddhism as an element of optimizing wellbeing. And one of the important people in my life in delving into meditation has been our guest today, Bruce Tift. Bruce is a psychotherapist in Boulder, Colorado, where I live. And he’s a fixture in our community here and a deep thinker. And a very clear writer on this topic is integration of Buddhist thought and psychotherapy practice came together in the publication of a book in 2011 called Already Free. This is a fabulous book for anybody who wants to go deep into the world of integrating Buddhist philosophy and psychotherapy practice, highly recommended something I go back to frequently. So without further ado, Bruce Tift. Welcome, Bruce Tift, to our podcast. We’re so delighted to have you.


Bruce Tift  01:42

Thank you, I am pleased for inviting me.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  01:45

It’s wonderful. We’ve known each other for 20 years, I guess, off and on, and your work has been incredibly meaningful and valuable in my journey. And it’s a real honor and pleasure to get to explore these things with you on the episode.


Bruce Tift  01:59

Oh, thank you. I’m glad our work has been helpful. That’s great.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  02:03

So for folks who maybe haven’t read Already Free, or who are unfamiliar with your work, could you give us a little bit of an introduction for the audience, as far as what your career has been about, what you’re up to? How do you look at the experience of psychotherapy, the Buddhist lens?


Bruce Tift  02:20

Sure, that’s a big topic, we could go hours on that, but let’s see, well, short version is that I started a doctoral program in the late 60s at CU and after one year just couldn’t take the mindset that I found, which is that sort of an assumption that if you are the psychologist, you are saying, and if you’re the client, you’re neurotic, and we were also approaching a scientist model, so it wasn’t a good fit anyway. So I left the country and travelled around for a couple years and had experienced, especially the Tibetan community and then Indian Naipaul, and that was very impactful for me. So when I got back to the States, at a certain point, I reengaged, with my interest in psychotherapy from a Buddhist point of view, and went through the Naropa program. And so I’ve been working in agency and private practice since 79. So it’s 47 years now. And my work, of course, has evolved over time. But I’d say currently, first of all, I don’t see my role as being like a change agent, or somebody who’s helping somebody improve themselves. But I see my role as much as I’m able to be sort of a location of awareness, and allow whatever that person I’m working, how they manifest what they believe, how they talk to themselves, all of those things, sort of engage with an attitude of openness. And so it’s okay with me if somebody changes or not, I hope it’s, the work is valuable, and they find useful change. But that’s not my intention, because I have an idea that the more we are aware more and more and more frequently, probably we will engage with our life more skillfully. And I am always working from a ground of powerlessness, not just my work, that’s my life in general, meaning that I don’t have any sort of idea that I have the power to change anybody. I can influence people, of course, I’m influenced. But basically, I work with people as if they’re adults, I don’t work in a transferential model that’s familiar to people listening. So a lot of my work is sort of very in alignment with my voice training. So I start with what might be familiar as Indian approach, of focusing on personal responsibility, taking better care of oneself, basic kindness to whatever arises, things like that. In Western language, I work more from a masculine energy separatist point of view, many therapists work from more connecting feminine energy point of view, use that jargon, we don’t have to say masculine feminine, but a lot of cultures call it that. And I think both are valid. But my particular sort of style comes from more of a beginning of owning one’s fundamental aloneness, personal responsibility, things like that. And less obvious way, a lot of what I actually do is invite in a variety of ways that type of deconstruction of somebody’s familiar identity drama, and familiar formulas about engaging with their life. And I assume that people will have contradictory feelings about that work. So I tend to sort of go in and out of a type of more disturbing interaction to step back and then go into more disturbance. So I sort of go back and forth in that way. But my overall intention is to bring sort of openness into engagement with form or in meditation terms, like, bring formlessness into engagement with form or absolute into engagement with relatives. And that’s what I have found to be most helpful for me. And so I offer to others that it’s helpful, and has been helpful for me, but I don’t assume that I or any therapist am going to be the best fit for everyone. So different, profoundly limited. And so different people can benefit from different approaches, of course.


Keith Kurlander  06:35

Let’s say, with the concept of deconstruction for a moment. So deconstructing this internal narrative drama, are you talking ego? And so I’m curious, from your perspective, is the whole process about deconstruction, are you ever reconstructing anything or is it basically your work about deconstructing narratives and ideas about oneself that aren’t true, and that’s all your work is about?


Bruce Tift  07:03

No, I think for almost all of us, it would be impossible to just deconstruct what’s familiar, and just rest and open awareness. So we are in fact, going to spontaneously come up with new constructions. But even from a Western point of view, most of the ways in which we are trying our best to take the best care of ourselves possible, especially around core vulnerabilities turned out to be ways in which we learned to do so as very young, powerless, immature, dependent children. So most people are still trying to take care of themselves, which is healthy, but in ways that are at least several decades. So when we deconstruct these dramas, which have to be maintained, actually, they don’t have objective essence, that’s just there, they have to be usually unconsciously perpetually maintained. When we interrupt that maintenance process, then we are in fact going to come up with different versions, but hopefully, at least at a very relative level, those versions of self and reality will be more in alignment with current adult capacities and current adult realities.


Keith Kurlander  08:19

Maybe you could give an example of a best-case scenario, not a long story. But just the best-case scenario, you got this big deconstruction process happening of an old story from childhood that it’s reconstructing into something that’s much more useful. Like, let’s put this a little practical for people what that looks like.


Bruce Tift  08:36

Sure, do you have any favorite identity drama of your own that you’re aware of?


Keith Kurlander  08:41

Probably, I would say the biggest process in my life that kind of nags at me on and off is around food. Let’s talk about that.


Bruce Tift  08:48

Having a compulsive or addictive relationship with it, or just being very sensitive to it or what?


Keith Kurlander  08:56

I would say that it’s just about how I operate best with food, what I eat when I’m operating best. And I’m often being a little more compulsive. I mean, relatively speaking, we’re not talking about the eating process like fast food every day. This is fine tuning stuff. But yeah, so I would say that I know how my body operates best, and I don’t always do it.


Bruce Tift  09:19

Okay, well, there’s no reason why you’re supposed to always do it. So from a therapy point of view, it sounds like it’s a complex issue. And probably a large component is actually in alignment with current adult perception and assessment and so forth. But to the extent that there’s a compulsive element, usually that suggests that there’s something at work that is not about the issue like food, but usually compulsivity, I find usually unconscious to get out of deeper emotional vulnerabilities that are getting triggered. And so, if you and I were to be working on this issue, I would want to Obviously pathologize the issue or ignore the fact that a lot of what you’re relating to around food is very appropriate and healthy. But if you wanted to work on the compulsive aspect, then we look at what sort of core feelings usually have you probably been organizing parts of your life around avoiding. And that usually turns out to be a lifelong issue. And the current issue might be around food. But five years ago, 10 years ago, it might have been bad something else. So part of the deconstructive process would be to start to, first of all, examine and clarify what are these feelings that I’m organizing my life around avoiding? Because that ends up sort of perpetuating and out of the history, still trying to take care of ourselves. It’s not pathological. It’s just out of date. And then a very direct way to deconstruct those avoidance strategies, which are just another name for neurotic organization, is to voluntarily take ourselves into exactly those feelings, as we become aware of them, that I really, really don’t want to feel and find out for oneself. Well, where is the evidence that it’s going to kill me to feel these feelings? Because I’ve been organizing my life for decades, as if feeling them is somehow an unconscious way, a threat to my survival?


Keith Kurlander  11:30

Did you feel like, Bruce, in this case, like, I’ve done a lot of work, my feelings seem to be fairly, feelings, emotions, like at this point, fairly stable, highly inspired most of the time, would you say that even in a case like that, there’s still some kind of underlying emotional ground that is there that I’m either not aware of, or basically, even like kind of relatively minor compulsive behaviors are probably linked to some kind of emotional grounds. Is that what you’re saying?


Bruce Tift  12:03

Yeah, I’d say we could count on it. Or at least, I can, I would insist that you do. But I assume so. And I assume that’s true for pretty much all of us. And so I, personally, don’t have an agenda for myself of cleaning up all my neuroses, because I don’t really mind if they’re there. To me, the work is not to gradually reduce our identification with those patterns, not thinking we’re supposed to get rid of them. But there’s always nobody gets to be a human without avoidance strategies that are out of date. And if they’re creating a problem for somebody, they might be motivated to go deeper and do some difficult work. If they’re minor and not creating a problem. Most people have a lot on their plate, and why should they sort of invite more disturbance, just to have some moderate improvement about something. Somebody would have to have an idea that deconstructing or dissolving, sort of apparently solid patterns of experiencing, might be supportive of a larger intention of freedom, or awareness, they have to see that context rather than because it’s creating big problems in their life, right.


Keith Kurlander  13:19

So in my case, with food, what you’re saying is, if I perceive it as relatively minor in terms of the impact, that neurotic pattern in terms of the impact on what I’m really wanting to accomplish in my life, then I probably won’t do anything about it?


Bruce Tift  13:33

Yeah, you probably wouldn’t be coming to therapy to work on your food issues.


Keith Kurlander  13:37

Which is why I’m not in therapy from my food issues. But I do like to separate out the distinction that I’m hearing for you, is that your work it sounds like it’s about really helping people enter the spaces of disturbance in themselves that they’re avoiding, in some way through patterns, and helping them do what with those spaces of disturbance, build a tolerance, become unattached to them, like what are you helping people do with those spaces?


Bruce Tift  14:03

Well, the invitation is probably similar. In the West, traditionally, it might be like desensitization work, or there’s other life exposure therapies. So it’s not unique in that way. But from a Buddhist point of view, the intention is not just to increase our tolerance of disturbance and find out it’s not going to harm us. Whereas when we were a little kid, probably, those emotions actually might have been associated with emotional harm. Find out Oh, it’s different now. Not a little kid. I can tolerate those but from a Buddhist point of view, my intention I don’t expect everybody to go there is that the more deeply we go into our immediate and body vulnerabilities, especially, the less and less evidence we find, first of all, that there’s a problem and then beneath that, potentially we even discover no essential nature, can you have this experience. And so at some point, we start considering that we think we’re avoiding certain difficult experiences, because it’s a problem. And we might find that it appears to be a problem, because we’re avoiding it. If we started understanding that it’s possible and then we might actually start having an interest in looking in our daily life. Or Oh, what am I organizing my life around avoiding. It’s not all that we’re doing. Of course, we’re doing a lot of healthy things, too. But that’s not why people come to therapy, we actually start looking for things that we claim our problem, and intentionally going into them. And maybe over and over and over finding no evidence. First of all, that is killing us and harming us. That’s damaging on a deeper level, no evidence of problem. And the implication, there’s, at a certain point, we start considering maybe I’m not a problematic person, I’m going to be a disturbed person, I’m going to have pain, I’m a bit confused, but maybe it’s not a problem to be who I am. And that can lead to potentially a very deep sense of relaxation. And then as we dissolve this fantasy of being divided against ourselves, it’s not like it creates open awareness, but it generates an environment where it sort of becomes safer, to have a more relaxed, expansive awareness more and more and more frequently, which if somebody is interested, that more expansive awareness can invite more frequent moments of conscious participation in open awareness. So that’s the Buddhist point of view is more like shifting our experiential center of gravity from all of our drama and identification, reform level experience, which is pretty much everything, shifting that toward conscious participation in openness or open awareness, which of course, provides no support for personal identity.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  17:02

Right. The one of the sayings that stuck with me over the years of meeting you about 20 years ago has been commit to the disturbance. Right, and another thing that you’re well known for is that being in a relationship, or being in a partnership is an inherently disturbing experience.


Bruce Tift  17:26

It is for me, so why shouldn’t everybody else?


Dr. Will Van Derveer  17:31

I can attest to that. And speaking of relationships, I mean, when you talk about committing to the disturbance and being in a relationship, so let’s talk a little bit about your work with couples and your perspective, I think you have a really interesting and unique perspective on attachment. And what happens between adults who love each other want to live together, and inevitably disturbances arise all day, every day. And I guess my question is, what level of responsibility? What is your perspective on, my understanding is that within Buddhism, we’re personally responsible for our own disturbance, right? Where there’s something happening inside of me, it’s disturbing, I’m responsible. And I’m curious what your point of view is about how a couple holds the disturbance that’s occurring inside of one of the individuals in the couple.


Bruce Tift  18:28

That’s a good issue. And I’d say, I don’t know, because I don’t know. But I know a lot of therapists recently have been focusing more on approaching that issue, which I don’t think has a resolution. It’s just something to work with, approaching that from more of a connecting or maybe feminine energy point of view, where I take the position that I’m going to assume responsibility for being as kind as possible to my partner, knowing what their issues are, and actually acting maybe I don’t know how they think of it, but acting as if I were a good parent, so that they actually this other person can feel more safety, they can move onward and things like that. I think that’s a valid approach. It’s not mine. I approach it from more of a ground of personal responsibility, separateness, masculine energy, whatever. I think that both are necessary halves to say that of intimacy, I’d see intimacy as you mentioned, sort of unresolvable, disturbing, provocative, difficult. I don’t see intimacy as synonymous with closeness and connection, which I think unfortunately, our culture sort of tells us. To me, the unresolvable quality is that we’re all fundamentally existentially alone, and we’re always trying our best to be kind with somebody we care about who cares for us. I happen to start more from a separateness point of view, but then lean more toward connection. Other people start from a connecting point of view. Personally, I haven’t heard many of those people then lead toward personal responsibility, but maybe I’m just not aware of that. So my approach, which is just as much about my character logical issues myself is about my Buddhist training, because that’s why I’m drawn to it, is to start with what actually I have control over somewhat, which is working with my experience. And I find that from that point of view, it actually becomes safer to be close to somebody, show our vulnerability, extend in a kind way, as we are taking better and better care of ourselves. So my particular approach is that any complaint of any disturbance, I find, with my partner, to use not as a signal that they’re doing something wrong, but as a signal that Oh, probably somehow I am not taking adequate care of myself right now. So the point of self-care, the point of boundaries, asserting needs constructive conflict, actually, maybe not. So obviously, the point of that work is to help me to keep my heart open to my partner. But if I’m not taking adequate care of myself, I will have boundaries that then probably operate unconsciously, like shutting down sexually or closing my heart, or ritualized in relationship with a variety of problems, that mysteries, they don’t get solved in a way that’s in alignment with, let’s say, at least Vajrayana Buddhism, it seems to make sense to me to work on being present, with unconditional kindness or whatever rises, in my experience in practice personal responsibility, as the ground from which then genuine compassion, care and so forth, can arise. But that’s automatically effortful. And I think some people I’ve worked with have worked with therapists who focus more on the connecting side. And some, of course, have found that very valuable, and some have found, it just doesn’t work for them. But I’m sure my style does work for a lot of people as well. So I tried to be as vivid as possible in my style, so that people know very quickly whether it might be a good fit for them or not. So is that in the ballpark of what you’re asking about it?


Dr. Will Van Derveer  22:32

Yeah, I think it is. And as I listen, I see the value of both approaches. And I agree with you that there’s a vulnerability if we start with the connecting side to leave behind the internal individual personal responsibility aspect of it. I’ve also experienced, go ahead.


Bruce Tift  22:52

A good therapist with that style would leave it behind. It would just sort of be more in the background probably.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  23:00

Right, I think I would say probably most therapists have more of a character structure that’s more aligned with the connecting side I guess. But on the other hand, I think being deep in Buddhism myself for 10 years, I think my maybe misunderstanding of the teachings ran in the direction of, if I have a disturbance, I am completely and utterly alone in my disturbance. And it’s up to me to relate to that disturbance, almost from the point of view that I’m ineligible for compassion, and kindness from others until the time that I’ve actually made full contact with my own disturbance.


Bruce Tift  23:40

That’s probably more about your historic conditioning.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  23:45

That’s what I’m saying there’s a filter.


Bruce Tift  23:47

Yes, all of us are going to come out of childhood with some degree of black and white all or nothing organization, because our primitive identity dramas, self care strategies are put into place from a Western point of view, especially when we’re very, very young and very primitive little beings. And then they get carried into adulthood. And that’s our challenge. So often, we come into adulthood, addressing things as if it’s all one way or all the other way. So of course, a lot of our work is to keep bringing ourselves into some more complex middle ground, where it turns out, there’s no ground to stand on. So from Buddhist point of view, we want to keep challenging any tendency toward this or that right or wrong, and instead, start to cultivate more of a sense of figure ground. Like they’re both always there. And I’m going to lead, let’s say with connection, when that’s appropriate, but I’m not losing track of personal responsibility, boundaries, integrity, and other times other moments, I’ll lead with separateness like in conflict, but I’m not losing touch with the fact I’m having conflict with this person because I care about them. And I’m having conflict to help me keep my heart eventually. But that’s not what I’m leading with. So, to me, it’s a practical issue.


Keith Kurlander  25:12

Let’s tease out a little bit of the philosophical principles here. I haven’t teased out something that you’re speaking to around relationships, whether it’s your partner or anyone. Relationship. You mentioned the word a lot “separateness” in terms of being separate and having to face that. And I guess I want to just tease out your philosophical principle of like, are you saying that ultimately, the only experience we could truly have is separateness? Or that there’s also an experience of connectedness and union? Lets tease out a little what’s happening here?


Bruce Tift  25:48

Yeah, again, no objective answer that anybody can prove. But my bias is that it seems to me that on a relative level, half the story just to say that way, is that we’re all existentially alone. Nobody’s ever going to get what it’s like to be us, we’re going to die, and probably the world will keep going. And simultaneously, we’re all completely interconnected, I want to give and receive love, what you do affects me and so forth. So from a Western point of view, culturally, like I was just saying with Will, we have an unexamined tendency in our culture to relate to concepts, as if they have their own inherent nature, that probably goes back to Plato, you know, 2500 years ago, and that sort of tradition, that everything has its own inherent nature. So that’s where we’re steeped in that view. But another more Buddhist view is that all of our experience is constructed on a relative level and co-dependently originating, meaning that you don’t get white without black and you don’t get separateness without connection. So just to be sort of concrete, you can’t be separate from something unless you’re connected with it. Separateness means that you’re separating from connection. It implies connection. You can’t be connected with something unless you’re separate to start with. You’re two separate people connected. So separateness and connection actually are sort of co-define each other, rather than either, or. And so it’s not optional. It’s not negotiable. There’s always separateness, the appearance of separateness, there’s always the appearance of connection. But in the background, you have the other energy defining what’s in the foreground, you can’t pull them apart. So, to me, it’s a pragmatic issue, not an objective reality issue, which of those two appearances would be helpful to focus on. And for different intentions, we focus on different energies, different experiences. For me, focusing on relationships, I think, inevitably, all of us are going to come out of childhood, having only been trained into an experience of intimacy, where we are cueing off of the other parent, as if we have to try to be who they want us to be. We don’t get the experience of healthy adult intimacy as a child, we can’t, it’s impossible, even if we have good parents. So to me, the first work coming into adulthood is to explore and recover the capacity for integrity for personal responsibility as sort of a basic antidote to our young, historic conditioning. And when people want to jump over that, and go right to connection, because it’s more positive, it feels better, that’s valid and actually, will be best for some people. But I’ve just worked with too many people that I think are doing sort of a therapy version of spiritual bypassing, meaning I want to get out of the more difficult sort of cold, negative feeling of separateness and go to the juicy energy of connection. But I find a lot of people with that intention sort of plateau at a certain level of connection, whether it’s in relationship or Buddhist practice, or they don’t keep progressing because they haven’t done the foundational work.


Keith Kurlander  29:31

Right, yeah. And it sounds like you seem to get some quicker results by focusing on relationship to Self versus relationship to others.


Bruce Tift  29:39

I might get quicker results from people who resonate with my view, but I probably won’t with people who don’t.


Keith Kurlander  29:45

They slammed the door on you.


Bruce Tift  29:47

That’s right. It could be a good choice.


Keith Kurlander  29:51

Could be a good choice for someone. How do you integrate, talking about the interplay of when we talked about connection to others, how are you integrating just more in the last 10 to 15 years more of the science around co regulation on the nervous system level, in your own mind of just how nervous systems actually can relax together when there’s a more mature nervous system in that moment? Yeah, how are you integrating that in your view these days?


Bruce Tift  30:22

So I had to guess I would probably speculate, that sort of coming from the western view of differentiation, the more that an individual can cultivate a capacity to hold the parent contradictory energies of connection and separateness simultaneously, without pretending to be in a state of struggle or needing resolution, probably, their nervous system is in fact, more relaxed themselves. And so from a differentiation point of view, the fundamental benefit we can be to our partner or to other people is to engage with them from that sort of complex capacity of feeling very connected, participative, considerate, kind, compassionate, empathic, and simultaneously, not joining that person in their experience, just because that’s not accurate. So we maintain responsibility, where the location of our threat and simultaneously we stay connected we don’t abandon or attack the other person. And from that point of view, I would speculate that’s actually most reassuring to the other person in the long run. Maybe in the short run, it might feel symptomatically relieving to have somebody just join us in our version of things. But I don’t think that’s very sustainable in a relationship. Right?


Dr. Will Van Derveer  31:51

How long have you been married, Bruce?


Bruce Tift  31:53

41 years now.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  31:55

I’m wondering if you can give us a little wisdom from the perspective of four decades together with Riva and what’s different now versus the first 10 years of your relationship?


Bruce Tift  32:07

Oh, gee, you know, the first 10 years, we met, actually in the Naropa program. So we met going to group therapy three times a week. That’s how we met. We didn’t have service nice and slow beginning that way. But I’d say the first 10 years were fairly chaotic. I don’t know about Riva, but she plays the more connecting role, I played more separatists around like that. So we had our conflicts about that from my side, because I had that separateness, both in neurotic as well as the same aspect of it. Anytime i’d feel hurt or whatever, I’d have fantasies, oh, maybe I should get a divorce. What’s the point of this like that? I think underneath that, with my own panic, that I could be abandoned at any moment. And so I’d better be prepared for it like that. I think conflict in those first, let’s say just to say 10 years, was much more sort of anxiety provoking, because I think it carried for probably for both of us, but certainly for me, this sort of anxiety that, gee, maybe this is the end of the relationship. I think, given time, we found that, in fact, we were still choosing to be together. And gradually, I think we were able to tolerate our differences more overtly without having to sort of try to disguise them in order to avoid the anxiety about loss of relationship. And we have twin girls who are 26 right now. So that was a lot of what was going on for a while.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  33:43

Would you say that process? I mean, when I hear you talk about more insecurity and going into more security, I think about secure functioning and more adult functioning. Does that resonate? Is that a frame that is useful to you in terms of when you talk about well, I was afraid that maybe I need to get a divorce, or maybe the relationships over, I’m going to be abandoned, and in the moment moving into more overt and more conscious tolerance for each other’s quirks is that, would you say that your relationship develops into more and more secure functioning when things go well?


Bruce Tift  34:19

I don’t know. Because I don’t use that language. So I’m not sure exactly what you mean by it. But I would say that, for me, as we’ve been talking about the most practical location of secure functioning, is an increased confidence in my willingness and ability to be aware of, stay embodied with, be kind to anything and everything that arises in the stream of my experience. And so to me, if I can be kind to my pain and fear and so forth, then I can be kind to my partner who’s guaranteed to trigger that. If I’m aggressive to my vulnerability, then I will be aggressive to the partners who’re triggering that. And so I think both of us have different ways. But for quite a while, I haven’t felt, sometimes I do, but I don’t usually feel very captured by my experience. So I haven’t found a lot of intense drama happening in our relationship in the last number of years.


Keith Kurlander  35:26

And another way of kind of speaking to this is like for you, is relationship just a process and there’s no way to define any spectrum of health or on health and relationship? Or is there an aim for you around a version of what health or secure functioning or what that would be in a relationship? Or is it just for your process, and it’s just everybody’s in it wherever they are?


Bruce Tift  35:48

Well, maybe some combination of those do not either, or, yet, but more of the first and less of the second, I don’t do my work. In reference to a theory, I’ve made up my theories coming out of my work, as I’ve been curious about it, wrote the book and stuff like that. So I do see what I think is the potential of a progression. Like in the book, I just sort of elaborated what other people like Ken Wilber, onward have been talking about as far as stages like pre personal, personal, interpersonal and non personal, I think that has some relevance, but I don’t work based on trying to move somebody along a certain stage. I try to work in terms of immediate experience, because my opinion is we’re only living in the present moment, ever. So our present experience is all that we can really be aware of, and the only moment of intervention we can ever make. And then we do our best and see how things unfold that they’re always unfolding in the present moment. So we’re always working in the present moment, regardless of whether we think we’re talking about the past or planning for the future along with some stage work or something. So my interest is really in immediacy, especially embodied immediacy, and bringing more awareness to the inherently fresh, disturbing, unknowable, new moment that we’re always stepping into at all times.


Keith Kurlander  37:23

So it sounds like what you’re saying is basically, immediacy is the aim is just to help people enter immediacy of the moment. And it’s not about categorizing at all, past and future moments of health or unhealthy, or it’s just about helping people arrive into the moment.


Bruce Tift  37:42

Well, they’re already in the moment, but most of us are pretending not to be like we have to get into the moment. It’s more about relaxing, our fundamental sort of panic, to the point where we can, more and more frequently take the risk of just being present without knowing who we are, not knowing what we’re doing. But as far as skillful means, as a therapist, I find it often very helpful to talk about progression of stages about young developmental issues, about directions and intentions that somebody might want to move in. And people I work with, probably are often taking that seriously. But from my point of view, all of that is in service, of a variety of views and reframes and experiences that might invite somebody to actually bring their attention into their immediate experience and see for themselves. So it’s not some ideology, where’s any evidence of a problem?


Keith Kurlander  38:44

And then for you in terms of, if we take this into more of behavior, and when we look at, if somebody comes to you and like, I’m addicted to crack, how do I change that behavior? If your opinion is like, we never need to talk about change of behavior, let’s just talk about getting your attention into the immediacy of the moment and behavior will follow. How does that work with behavior?


Bruce Tift  39:09

Well, I have an idea that there’s always different levels of experiencing happening simultaneously. A lot of people talk about that in different ways. I sometimes just say there’s behavior, there’s thinking and communicating, self talk. There’s emotional experience. And then if you’re into it, there’s awareness experience. And I find behavior as sort of the level of experience where we can intervene most quickly. And so a lot of times, I’ll start with the behavioral level, with the idea, we’re all whole, whatever that means, people. And so, changing our behavior does resonate down through how we think and how we feel. But it’s the fastest level of intervention usually. So if somebody comes in and they want to work with addiction, depending on their level of display about being sort of ambivalent or resistance or something, I might start by just saying, well, what’s wrong with just being a coke addict for the rest of your life, I mean, that’s what you’re choosing to do, why not just give yourself permission to do that, if that’s what you choose to do. By doing that, I’m taking a position that I’m not going to be induced to play the change agent for them. Because when people have very contradictory feelings about changing patterns of self destructive, self care let’s say, a lot of times, they will try to induce others to be the voice of discipline or change. And then they’ll resist that because they have contradictory feelings. And then the therapist ends up feeling empathy and frustrated, and stuff like that. So whenever somebody presents strong ambivalence, or so forth, I almost always step out of any invitation to make therapy about changing them, which is, again, inviting them to take personal responsibility for the fact they have contradictory feelings. But then if we proceed, I might just say, Well, look, is almost certain that in addition to any physiological addiction, which is real, this is probably serving an emotional function, the way you’re describing it, if you want to find out what that emotional function is. I don’t usually claim they do. And so I’ll say, Well, if you really want to, how about just not using it for a month or six months. Don’t drink for six months. Don’t use coke or something, whatever, don’t eat compulsively. And the point isn’t that it’s the coke or the eating that’s the issue. It’s the underlying vulnerability that you’re trying to escape from with compulsive behavior. So if you want, don’t do the behavior, and probably what you’re trying not to feel will start to arise into your awareness, then you can decide if you want to work with it or not.


Keith Kurlander  41:53

Thanks for that answer. So let’s wrap up, Bruce. We ask this question to every single guest, which is if you had a billboard that every human being on the planet would see once in their life that has a paragraph on it, what would you want them to know?


Bruce Tift  42:07

Well, that’s not a real issue for me. So in the spirit of your question, I don’t know that thing that pops into my mind would be not that they know something. It would be like, maybe to put a big mirror on the Billboard and underneath it, say, you know, be kind to this person.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  42:25

Bruce, we’re really grateful. Thank you for your time.


Bruce Tift  42:29

Oh, sure. I enjoyed talking about these things. Thank you for inviting me.


Dr. Will Van Derveer  42:36

Well, I hope that all of you enjoyed this conversation as much as Keith and I did. I really enjoy hearing the way Bruce’s mind works. And it’s so interesting, endlessly interesting to me the collision of Buddhist theory and psychotherapy theory and how to put that in practice with patients. We look forward to connecting with you again on the next episode of The Higher Practice Podcast where we explore what it takes to achieve optimal mental health.

Bruce Tift, MA, LMFT

Bruce Tift, MA, LMFT, has been in private practice since 1979, taught at Naropa University for twenty-five years, worked in a psychiatric ward and as a family therapist with social services, and has given presentations in the United States, Mexico, and Japan.

In his twenties he traveled for two years by motor- cycle in Europe, North Africa, and overland to India and Nepal. He has worked as a laborer, clerk, postal worker, longshoreman, painter, school bus driver, paper mill worker, miner, and truck driver.

A practitioner of Vajrayana Buddhism for more than forty years, he had the good fortune to be a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and to meet a number of realized teachers. He and his wife, Reva, are now empty-nesters living in Boulder, Colorado.

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