PACT Level 3
Vipassana meditation is an ancient mindfulness tradition, which focuses on insight into the causes of suffering and the path to freedom. The Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy® (PACT) is a multifaceted therapeutic methodology for working with couples, which integrates mindfulness as an essential skill. As a Vipassana meditation practitioner and a PACT therapist, I have grown to appreciate a natural resonance between these two disciplines that goes beyond mindfulness. They both point to similar ways of being in relationship that promote health and well-being and decrease suffering.
I’d like to share some of the natural alignments that the Vipassana tradition has with PACT and my explorations of using some of the time-tested teachings and practices of Vipassana to support myself as a PACT couple’s therapist.
Distinct Relationships with What Is
Simply stated, Vipassana meditation is a practice for being with the nature of how things are in the present moment — for being with what is. Through moment-to-moment friendly attention on our breath, sensory input, and our minds, Vipassana meditation is a training ground for a clear, open, kind way to be with ourselves and others. Importance is placed on how things are or what is and, more importantly, on how we are relating to what is. Vipassana meditation is about relationship. It cultivates kindness, compassion, and equanimity with what is.
Similarly, as PACT therapists, we are investigators of what is. We use our observations in the present moment to tell us what is going on with the couple in front of us. We rely on moment-to-moment awareness of the couple’s narrative through our senses and through experiments in the session. We relate to what is with curiosity and compassion, while always pointing the couple toward secure functioning based on sensitivity, mutuality, and equality.
Safety and Mutual Care
Vipassana is a path for becoming a refuge, a safe haven to ourselves and others. We become safe by aligning our life to wholesome actions, doing that which is beneficial for ourselves and others. Wholesome actions have the qualities that secure functioning is based on: kindness, sensitivity, mutual care, generosity, equality, compassion. Safety begins when we stop being in conflict with what is and learn how to be present and open to ourselves and others, warts and all.
Safety is also fundamental to PACT and secure functioning. As a PACT therapist, my work is to help couples become curious about their partner and their assumptions and responses to their partner. PACT therapists encourage partners to develop an owner’s manual on each other, based on who their partner is — again, warts and all — rather than on who they want them to be. This allows partners to learn effective ways to provide mutual care. When couples stop being in conflict with what is, the doors to safety, increased connection, wellbeing, enjoyment, and growth open.
Equanimity, the Master Regulator
Equanimity is a quality of being neither for nor against something, of not getting caught in reactivity. It is a state of standing in the middle of it all with a balanced mind. Equanimity means having a sense of equality and justice and is rooted in deep care and compassion, which makes us safe to others. From this place, we can truly be of help.
Vipassana teaches that equanimity can be cultivated through actively remembering:
When working with a couple, the PACT therapist is seen as the master regulator. The couple is in each other’s care, and the therapist’s job is to stay regulated and help the couple regulate when needed. I have been drawing on Vipassana teachings about equanimity to enhance my capacity to be the stable non-reactive master regulator for myself and the couple, even in the midst of their stormy behavior.
Non-Reactivity in Practice
Balanced is not the state of my mind as I face Eric and Charla, who are slinging barbs and accusations at one another. They are mired in a deep trench of blaming and explaining, working on each other rather than on the relationship. I feel frustration and a sense of incompetence. I sit back and observe them and myself, noticing the tension rising in my body and my shallow breathing.
I begin to remember. Their behavior is not unique. What they are doing is just the truth of the human urge to protect oneself. My response to this couple is not unique; most therapists would feel overwhelmed in the face of this kind of intensity. I feel myself breathe more deeply. I remember. I can see the big picture. I know this couple’s attachment history through our first sessions. This bird’s-eye view helps me to cultivate equanimity. I remember. I know through experience that I have interventions that can help this couple in due time. This is not a permanent state. This increases my non-reactivity. I feel tension release from my body.
Now I’m ready. Slowly, down-the-middle, I begin, “Stop, both of you. Notice your breath…where is it? Notice your body…how is it?”
They look a bit stunned as my questions bring them out of their alternate universe. Eventually, Eric reports, “My body’s all tense, and I’m not really breathing.” Charla nods in agreement. They are suddenly quiet.
I wait…wait…wait some more. “You’re both focused on being right rather than offering relief to each other.” Wait. “Notice what this is like.”
They both look sheepish and then with care at each other. Now we can move forward. They’re ready to learn how to provide relief for each other.
Launchings and Landings
Beginning and ending rituals are used in the Vipassana tradition. Rituals do several things. They help us land in the present by settling the body and focusing the attention at the beginning of meditation, and they tether the greater purpose of meditation to us as we launch into day-to-day life.
PACT also encourages couples to use mini rituals to reconnect after they have been apart and to create a tether to each other when they are separating. Landing and launching rituals for hellos and goodbyes as well as for bedtime and awakening are ways to co-regulate and to strengthen a secure connection.
The therapy session can be seen as a practice similar to meditation. During meditation, when we find we’ve wandered from present moment awareness, we simply return to our anchor over and over. With PACT, we return again and again to the principles of secure functioning, our anchor. The Vipassana rituals of settling in the body, setting intention, and dedicating the merit of efforts can be naturally incorporated at the start and end of a session as a support for myself as PACT therapist and for my clients as partners.
The dedication of merit at the end of a meditation is one of my favorite Vipassana rituals. Simply described, it is acknowledging the goodness of one’s efforts in meditation and dedicating it to the benefit of others. I will often offer this ritual after a session or at the end of a long day of seeing couples. “May the goodness of my efforts today ripple out and be of benefit to these couples and their families, friends, and communities.” It’s powerful to imagine how we can affect the world positively, one couple at a time.
It’s the last 10 minutes of a challenging session with Charla and Eric. We are reviewing what they are working on and what we need to focus on in the future. They seem discouraged. In the last few minutes, I direct them, “Turn and face each other one last time today.”
I let them settle into each other’s gaze for a moment. Both seem exhausted.
“You worked really hard today,” I say.
“What you are doing here is so important.”
Their faces soften and brighten.
Quietly, but with great care, I say, “Really allow yourself to feel the goodness of what you are doing together. Imagine this goodness rippling out to benefit your relationship and those around you in the next week.”
They take this in. Still in each other’s eyes, they smile and exhale. Their state has changed. They are tethered to each other and to the therapy, ready to launch into their life until we meet again.
Practice, Not Perfect
“Meditation is a practice, not a perfect.” This is a common saying among meditators used to create a sense of kindness and appreciation for one’s efforts and to encourage regular practice. Continuing to practice is the path to freedom, the means and the end. Secure functioning, too, is a practice, not a perfect. If partners keep practicing, returning to the principles of secure functioning again and again, their relationship gets stronger. They can celebrate these moments of returning.
Learning and living secure-functioning principles is a lifelong practice for the couples we see and for us as couple therapists. We always have more to learn. We never arrive. We are always on the path. So take a moment. Let yourself feel the goodness of this path. Imagine that the benefits of your good intentions and efforts to point couples toward secure-functioning are rippling out in wider and wider circles, creating a kinder, more just and loving world, one couple at a time. Allow yourself to really feel the goodness of this. It is a beautiful path. Keep practicing.