What Really Helps? An Interview With Karen Kissel Wegela, Ph.D.

If you were sitting across the table from someone who was suffering right now, how would you approach them and what would you tell them?
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So many of us search all the time for what really helps when things in life get difficult. Last year I had the honor of interviewing Karen Kissel Wegela about "The Courage to Be Present." 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, Colo. and gives workshops and lectures nationally and internationally. Karen has recently released "What Really Helps: Using Mindfulness and Compassionate Presence to Help, Support and Encourage Others," and 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.

Elisha: I'm struck by the title of your book, "What Really Helps," as it is such an important basic question that we all want the answer to. So let me pose it to you: What really helps?

Karen: Elisha, that's such a good question. As I wrote in the book, what really helps most when we are aspiring to help others is our presence. We won't have any idea what will actually help until we connect with others and have a good sense of what their experiences are. In order to be fully present and connected with another person, we have to be willing to feel whatever comes up in our own experience.

For example, if we're with a friend, a man who is going through a painful divorce, we might find that as we sit with him that we begin to feel a lot of intense feelings ourselves. We might feel sadness, anger, or bewilderment. We could be "exchanging" with what he is feeling in that moment. Or, we could also have our own personal reactions to what he is telling us. Maybe we've been through a divorce ourselves, or maybe our parents divorced when we were young, and listening to our friend brings up painful feelings of our own.

Even more commonly, when we want to be helpful, we don't have a clue what will help. As I said in the book, as a psychotherapist, more often than not, I don't know what to do next. The ability to stay present with not knowing, with uncertainty or even with feeling stupid is enormously valuable. It can be hard to stay present with those experiences of pain or not knowing. Sometimes we jump in prematurely with suggestions or stories of our own, just to get away from the discomfort we're feeling ourselves. Often when we do that, the other person doesn't feel heard or feels put off. They may even shut down and stop talking to us.

This ability to be present without pulling away from discomfort is mindfulness. It's easy to say, "Stay present," but it's actually quite difficult. We can learn how to do that by engaging in a mindfulness practice like meditation, yoga, or tai chi. Or, we can practice bringing nonjudgmental awareness to other kinds of activities, like sports, playing a musical instrument or cooking. Anything that trains us to keep coming back to the present moment without judging what we find will help us become people who can be there for others, and that's what really helps.

Elisha: There has been a lot of attention recently given to the concept and practice of compassion. Can you tell us a bit about how you bring awareness to it with your clients, and how it helps?

Karen: Compassion can mean being willing to suffer with another. In my work with clients, I often bring attention to a closely related idea: gentleness. Gentleness is a way of being kind to ourselves and others. It means letting go of the self-aggression and self-judgment that we in the West are so good at. We are often quite self-critical. So, I work with myself and my clients with the question, "Is there any way to be gentler with yourself about this?"

Recently one of my clients shared that she was having a hard time with "just being with the feeling," a suggestion she'd been given by a friend. We talked about how sometimes just being with something is more than one is able to do at a particular moment. Instead, learning to be kind to oneself -- not just indulging any old whim, but being genuinely caring of one's own welfare -- is even more important than being mindful.

We can train our ability to be gentle when we do our mindfulness practice. When we realize we've been caught up in thoughts, for example, we can gently return to the present moment, or to our breath, without adding any extra self-criticism or harshness.

Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone who was suffering right now, how would you approach them and what would you tell them?

Karen: It's always tricky to say what I would do in a hypothetical situation. As I've said, the first thing is to actually connect and be present with a particular person. That said, though, I would do my best to let people know that I was willing to be with them, as they began to explore what was going on with them.

Also, I would help them to titrate the intensity of their suffering by paying attention to those places in their bodies and areas in their lives where they were not suffering. I would try to help them have a bigger perspective. As some current trauma work is showing us, and as Thich Nhat Hanh and other Buddhist teachers have taught, paying attention only to what is painful tends to plant the seeds of the recurrence of that pain. So I am always interested in helping people tune into their health and strength as well.

Mainly, though, I am offering to accompany my clients as they go wherever they need to go. It is pretty scary to go into one's suffering alone. So I offer to do my best to be good company and go along on the journey.

Thank you so much, Karen! As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.


Elisha Goldstein is co-author of "A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook." You may also find him at www.elishagoldstein.com.

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