A psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher recently wrote me the following email: “I do have a question as my ‘mind’ struggles, and wants clarity about so many things! Maybe all things cannot be explained! As a therapist (teacher) and student of life, fear arises in me as I read the article on ‘Zen Lost in Translation‘. A fundamental aspiration, of ‘no harm’ or non-violence, for me only opens the experience of doubt, as I ‘do the best I can’; yet is this good enough, and when or how do we know if we are doing harm?”

This is a very important question for any teacher or psychotherapist. In my mind and experience, the answer is multilayered.

Since the human capacity for self-deception is limitless, we never know for sure how we are doing. This is the great doubt that is existentially unavoidable and very healthy to cultivate. It leaves us with the first task of not doing major harm for sure, and the second task of knowing that most of the time we are fostering healing. The two words ‘major’ and ‘most’ are important here, as there is no perfection. What follows should automatically prevent us from doing major harm, assuming an at least average intelligence and integrity. Now how about ‘tolerable harm’?

The fact that some time we make tolerable mistakes is unavoidable. This leads us to the next step, which is to make sure we recognize mistakes and when we have done harm as soon as possible. Given there is no perfection, making a mistake is in itself not a problem, as long as we know how to handle it. Part of competence is the ability to recognize mistakes fast and repair them. For repair it is very important to engage our clients, patients and students, because the capacity to repair is an integral part of healthy intimacy and health in general. This helps us recognize the psychological principle that perfection is a toxic ideal to be replaced by the search for what is optimal, because it is the optimal that has the greatest healing potential through the notion of being ‘good enough’. The best parent for example, is not the perfect one (God forbid we were raised by perfect parents – they keep generations of therapists in business!), but the ‘good enough’ one who has personal insight, is aware of his or her limitations, is capable of attunement, and is able to engage the child in repair.

Then, the idea of doing ‘the best you can’ is a tricky one. It is only valid if you have high standards and constantly hold your nose to the grindstone by having checks and balances in place. ‘Doing your best’ without checks and balances is not good enough. Guide posts in the work with clients are like the Scylla and Charybdis Odysseus sailed through: When our clients thrive we know we do good; when they don’t, they feel stuck, we feel stuck or we feel uncomfortable, then it’s time to question and dig deeper into what we are doing, reaching out to a teacher if necessary.

Next, learning and growing is a life sentence, which means that we never cease to expose ourselves to new learning, no matter how well things are going or how successful we feel. We do that by reading, taking courses, working with teachers, and take in new ideas and the most recent discoveries of our time.

Last but not least, when things are going brilliantly and the wind of success soothingly caresses the ravenous fibres of our ego, that’s when the alarm should sound: What am I overlooking? Where do I go from here? What’s next after this pleasant phase that will inevitably pass like everything else? Where is the next challenge lurking? How can I move beyond where I am?

Never smell the roses on the side of the path for too long – only long enough to revitalize and realize they all fade away. Then move on, move on, move on ……

Copyright © 2015 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.