The Courage to Be Present: An Interview with Karen Kissel Wegela, PhD

The first time I came across the title of Karen Kissel Wegela’s book, “The Courage to Be Present,” I said to myself, “how true.” In an age where distraction is encouraged, it actually takes courage to intentionally be present to our lives.

Karen has been a core faculty member at Naropa University for more than 29 years focusing on “Contemplative Psychotherapy” – bringing together Buddhism and traditional psychotherapy. She has a private practice in Boulder, Colorado and gives workshops and lectures nationally and internationally. I think the message she conveys can be extraordinarily helpful to so many of us.

It is my honor to interview her here so we can all glean some of her wisdom.

Question: Karen, what are the differences between traditional psychotherapy and Contemplative Psychotherapy?

Contemplative Psychotherapy differs from other kinds of psychotherapy in being especially interested in what we call “brilliant sanity,” our inherent wisdom and compassion.  Although we are not always in touch with that basic nature of who we most deeply are, nonetheless, Contemplative Psychotherapists always assume its presence in ourselves and in our clients and are trained to recognize it even when it is covered or disguised by confusion and habitual patterns.

We work with our clients–and with ourselves–to uncover that sanity within all confused or painful states of mind.

A basic tenet of Contemplative Psychotherapy is the need for therapists to have an ongoing mindfulness/awareness meditation practice.  This commitment to working with our own minds every day keeps us “honest.”  We are far less likely to be distracted by our own concerns and our own preferences about what a client might do or not do. It frees us to assist our clients in actualizing their own brilliant sanity, not our ideas about what that might look like.

We take our inspiration from the Buddhist ideal of the “bodhisattva,” one who dedicates his or her life to benefiting others.  Not all contemplative psychotherapists are Buddhists, but they are all committed to nurturing mindfulness and awareness in themselves and in their clients.

Question: In your book you talk a bit about cultivating joy in therapy. How do you do that and what tips can you give readers on how to cultivate joy in their own lives?

These days, many therapists and clients are aware of the power of mindfulness practice.  In addition to the strong foundation mindfulness provides, Buddhist psychology offers other teachings that are also valuable in psychotherapy such as the teachings on the “four immeasurables,” and the “six awakened actions.” These are practices that are directed specifically toward how we relate with others.

The four immeasurables are loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Sympathetic joy is the great delight we feel when those we love are happy.  There are a number of practices, some of which are described in my book, that help us cultivate this quality in ourselves and to help us recognize and support it in our clients.

We begin by rejoicing in the happiness of those it is easy for us to feel joy about.  Then we practice extending it to people we feel neutral toward, like our mailman or the checker at the market.  Then, we practice expanding it out to people we have a hard time with.  As we develop this quality, it includes more and more beings whose happiness we can delight in.  It is an antidote to the painful feelings of jealousy and resentment.

Question: In your book you talk about 6 awakened actions. What are awakened actions? And how can we begin to engage with them?

The six awakened actions, or paramitas, are the Buddhist description of how a fully awakened being, like a bodhisattva, would naturally act.  For us less than fully awakened people, there are various practices and contemplations we can do to help us strengthen our inherent compassionate and wakeful natures. For example, we can practice the first awakened action, generosity, by beginning with ourselves.  One common problem that clients bring to therapy is their self-doubt and even self-aggression.  Learning how to appreciate oneself can lead to our appreciating others more as well.  When we do that, we naturally become more giving toward them. 

Question: What are some core truths that you live your life by that you can share with our readers that can help alleviate suffering from stress, pain, and illness? How can they put it into action?

There are several core truths I live my life by–or aspire to live my life by.  The first is trying to recognize brilliant sanity in everyone, even the people I strongly disagree with.  This can be quite challenging.  One way I work with this is to “exchange self for other,” by imagining what it would be like to be the other person.  I ask myself how I would feel and see things as this other person.   Often this lets my heart soften.  Sometimes I ask clients to imagine what it might be like to be someone in their life with whom they are having a difficult time.

Another core truth comes from Buddhist teachings: we cause ourselves enormous suffering by trying to hang on tightly to wanting things to be different from how they actually are. Things are what they are.  We can’t change anything until we’re willing to see what’s true right now.

Something I often ask myself when I am having a hard time is, “What am I hanging on to here?”  And “Could I let go into what is really happening now?”  I often find that if I can let go, my view of what is possible becomes much larger.  Meditation practice is enormously helpful in teaching me how to let go.

A final core truth has to do with being present.  I believe that being present takes a lot of courage.  It’s not easy to be truly present.  And beyond that, being present for others also means showing up with the qualities of compassion, open-mindedness and clarity.  All of those qualities are both natural to us and also things we can nurture further through meditation,  contemplation, psychotherapy and mindful living.

Reposted from Elisha Goldstein’s Mindfulness Blog on

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