Heartwork vs. Psychotherapy

People sometimes ask me, “Is Heartwork a type of psychotherapy?”   No, I tell them, it really isn’t, even though the general purpose of both Heartwork and psychotherapy is to help people lead a happier, healthier life.   But their specific goals and the routes to attaining them are completely different.

The goal of traditional psychotherapy is adjustment—adapting to the circumstances of our lives, past and present, learning to live within those conditions, and making changes whenever that is the wisest course of action.   Psychotherapy seeks to expand our view of reality—to open it to new perspectives and possibilities.

The goal of Heartwork, on the other hand, is resolution uprooting our issues at their core so that they can become non-issues.   This requires concurring with what actually is, seeing into the limitations of the self each of us has created (thanks to society’s conditioning), and identifying the beliefs we hold as a result of this conditioning.   One of my favorite quotes is: “What is is.   It’s your resistance to what is that causes your suffering.   There are no exceptions.   It is that simple.

Simple, yes; but easy, no.   Doing Heartwork requires the courage to confront the pain in your life, perseverance in the face of discomfort, compassion for yourself, openness, vulnerability, curiosity, and a commitment to the Truth that is stronger than the natural reflex to protect your self-image (those ideas about who you assume you are, based on many years of being told from the outside who you are rather than being encouraged to discover who you really are and have always been).   Doing the work develops all of these qualities! The primary tools Heartwork teaches to access your True Nature are meditation and a specific form of self-inquiry pursued with no expectation.*   Heartwork students are encouraged to practice the meditations daily and to do inquiry trades with fellow students on a weekly basis.

Psychotherapy treats specific mental disorders, as categorized in the International Classification of Diseases—the standard reference of all recognized mental diagnoses and symptoms.   It’s therefore designed to address the medical diagnosis and treatment of mental disease.   Heartwork, on the other hand, understands that we are all fundamentally whole and complete, just as we are.   In Heartwork, we can then view “mental disorders” not as defects but as portals to deeper states of awareness.   The goal is not to fix anything, but to allow what is coming up for us to unfold in a safe way so we can use whatever pain we are currently experiencing as a vehicle for accessing our True Self.

So the work of Heartwork, as an “inner work” or spiritual path, is to inquire deeply into our experience-in-the-moment to come to know our True Nature.   Psychotherapy’s focus is, appropriately, on a particular kind of understanding that’s not as connected to direct experience in-the-moment.   Heartwork will draw from the past to alchemically liberate the energy driving what appears to be the underlying problem.   Again, it’s not about fixing anything, although the result is often healing.   Heartwork focuses its attention on the spiritual yearnings of the soul to Know Itself.   Think of this yearning as the “yellow brick road” leading us home to our True Self.

In the Heartwork process, if we encounter a psychological block, we explore it and ultimately resolve the block at its source—the heart of the matter. We are then able to live our lives in joy and harmony with others and with the Universe. To paraphrase Hameed Ali, the primary teacher of the Diamond Approach, psychotherapy is like moving the furniture around in your jail cell, while inner work (Heartwork) is about getting out of jail!

In my book, Heartwork: How to Get What You Really, REALLY Want, I describe what I call “the funnel analogy”:

Here’s how it works.  Picture a funnel.  Our True Nature is a single point at the bottom of the funnel, whole and undivided.  We first split from this wholeness when we get the idea that we are a self that is separate from others and from the universe.  We call this split the formation of the ego….  With the formation of the ego, we have moved one layer up the funnel away from our True Nature.  [Further splits occur as we avoid dealing with painful and/or frightening experiences, culturally unacceptable aspects of our self, and existential issues, all of which causes us to move further and further up the funnel, away from our True Nature] to the point where we are living our lives on the upper rim.

So that’s the bad news.  Here’s the good news.  For some of us, it becomes apparent at some point that we are suffering and cannot find a way out of it—not through drugs and alcohol, sex, money, power, success…or any of the other addictions or distractions with which we try to fill this nagging emptiness inside ourselves.  The reason we get to this
point is that our deepest yearning is to regain our lost wholeness and connectedness, and in its great wisdom, our unconscious mind repeatedly creates situations that remind us of the places where we originally split from ourselves.  It does this not to punish us but to get our attention, so that we can stop running away from those parts of ourselves that we have split off from.  If we are willing to face ourselves, we can [heal into the wholeness that was always there for us from the beginning: re-member Who we really are.]

Another difference between Heartwork and psychotherapy involves the relationship between content and context.  In traditional psychotherapy, the therapist helps you relate the content of your issues to their historical context.  In Heartwork, however, the context is much broader.  When you practice Heartwork, you gain a sense of Who you really are within the spaciousness of Presence/True Nature.  This context allows you to work through your issues much more easily because you no longer identify with their content.

Until you begin to make this shift in identity, your fallback identity (the ego) sees your issues as actually being part of your identity.  To the ego, letting go of those issues is akin to cutting off a vital part of who you are.  But that’s merely illusion.  Who we are, our True Nature, is so much more expansive than what the ego would lead us to believe.  And once we can experience that Truth, we feel safe dropping many of our issues because we no longer see a need to identify with them.

While most traditional psychotherapies focus primarily on the mental aspect of our being, Heartwork—being an embodied spiritual path—in addition to focusing on the mental, also equally addresses the emotional, spiritual, and physical aspects in realizing the Truth of our Being.  As the Buddha said, “Within this fathom-long body is found all the teachings, is found suffering, the cause of suffering, and the end of suffering.

The relationship between a psychotherapist and client is very different than that of a Heartwork teacher and student.  Psychotherapists help clients navigate emotional difficulties.  The contract is very specific and goal-oriented: Therapists diagnose and develop a specific course of treatment for the patient;s disease.  This is required by insurance companies for reimbursement.

The role of a Heartwork teacher, in contrast, is to help the student learn how to use the Heartwork tools to explore Who and What the student truly is.  The teacher serves as a guide and support for the student until the student is able to do the work more independently.  When people ask me how I work with students, I often say that I am like a rudder on their ship.  They are the ship, the engine, and the captain.  When I sit down with the student, I get a sense of where they are.  Because I know where we’re going (Presence/True Nature), my job is to keep their ship as much on course as possible.  I do that by asking questions and inviting them to inquire into certain things that arise, teaching them how to follow their thread and allowing them to be drawn into the unknown, the mystery of their Being, in the pursuit of Truth.

Heartwork does not follow the medical model, and so is not reimbursable by insurance.  However, you may be able to use your Health Savings Account to pay for sessions, depending on what services your HSA covers.

Of course, Heartwork is not a substitute for psychotherapy.  If, in the course of a client’s Heartwork experience, it becomes clear to me or to the client that issues are arising that require the attention of a skilled psychotherapist, appropriate referrals will be made.

Heartwork is taught in classes, workshops and retreats, and individual sessions.  Scholarships and work-study opportunities are available for those who cannot afford the full fees.  For further information about current programs, please visit my website at https://heartworkinstitute.files.wordpress.com/2017/11/2018-winter-summer-heartwork-events.pdf.

I hope this has been helpful to you in understanding what Heartwork is and whether or not you wish to engage in this dynamic path.

Blessings on your journey,

* Hameed Ali’s description of open-ended inquiry, which has greatly influenced Heartwork (thanks to my spending 17 years working with Ali’s Diamond Approach, including seven years in teacher’s training):

First, inquiry in our work has to be open and open-ended; it cannot
have a goal, or a motive oriented by a goal.  It cannot be motivated by
the goal of treating mental difficulties, or resolving issues, or even
experiencing spiritual realities.  Inquiry in psychotherapy is definitely
motivated and oriented toward a specific psychological end result…in
our work this open-ended characteristic is fundamental and central,
and has to be present all the time….  Our concept of truth is much
wider than the one used by psychotherapy, and reaches depths generally
not relevant for the treatment of mental disorders or the alleviation of
life stresses….  The attitude of adventure and discovery, the love of
truth and joy in the exploration, are things that occur in psychotherapy,
but they are fundamental in our work, and express qualities of essence
that at some point arise palpably in experience.  Furthermore, the
arising of these qualities is the central discoveries and learning
in the Diamond Approach, and not the insights into and resolution of
emotional difficulties, even though these are important and useful,
while the reverse is the case in psychotherapy.

The orientation of the Diamond Approach is not toward the treatment
and curing of mental or emotional difficulties and disorders, but
towards understanding experience in general, by seeing its truth
intimately.  The work, including the inquiry, is not only of emotional
difficulties, but in all aspects of experience not fully understood by
the student.  Inquiry is frequently into positive and blissful states,
sometimes into fundamental philosophical questions and issues, but it
is important that there is no prejudice about what kind of experience
to focus on.  The point is to see the truth for its own sake, and this
is not just a convenient attitude that one needs to take in order to
solve one’s emotional problems….  It is true that most students end
up focusing on emotional issues for the first few years of our work,
but this is not the prejudice of the approach, rather it is because
the beginning experience of most students is of painful and conflictual
emotional states until they reach a greater degree of spiritual openness.