Q&A with Ira Rechtshaffer, author of What was in Buddha’s Left Hand:Tantric Teachings to Transform Neurosis into Sanity

1. What is your book “What was in Buddha’s Left Hand:Tantric Teachings to Transform Neurosis into Sanity” about and why did you write it?

The answer to the first part of your question, what is this book about, is in the subtitle. Tantra is about working creatively with negative emotions and neurotic states of mind in order to transform them into their essential state. A concrete example of this is how a grain of sand that gets lodged in an oyster, causing considerable irritation, produces a pearl. When we work skillfully with our problematic states of mind (and these methods are described and explained in the book), we are able to use their energy to highlight their positive aspects.

I wrote the book because the teachings of the five wisdom energies, modeled after the five elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and space, which is what my book is about, is a cycle of tantric teachings that my Buddhist teacher taught beginning in the 70s. These teachings are extremely powerful, and remarkably, they are under represented in the modern Buddhist world.

2.  How can we transform our neurosis into sanity if it has been ingrained in our psyches for many many years

    Neurotic patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior are primarily reinforced by our ceaseless inner dialogue. Learning how to bypass our “story” and communicate with the energetic aspect of our problematic patterns, we decrease their electrical charge. In other words, by not feeding our patterns with a repetitive problem-saturated story, we starve of them, liberating ourselves from their power to shape our thoughts and feelings, and habitual behaviors.

3.  What do you mean by tantric teachings and how can the average person use them to help their life?

Tantra teachings and their methods distinguish themselves by their direct approach to working with the stuff with everyday life—money, food or substance, sexuality and power, as well as our negative emotions and behaviors. Tantra holds the view that neurosis and sanity, samsara and nirvana are inseparable. If we know how to work creatively with our unruly thoughts, conflicting emotions, and dysfunctional behaviors, we can elicit their positive aspects. Each of the five wisdom energies, represented by earth, water, fire, winter, and space are five different aspects of how we experience life. Each of the elements is associated with specific techniques for how to work with our unique personality. 

4.  You’ve been a psychotherapist for the past 25 years, integrating spiritual vision with psychological process in an effort to return ‘soul’ to the helping relationship. How do you that? Can you provide any specific techniques or interventions?

This is a big question and not easily answered in written form. To put it simply, the fruition of working with the Tantric teachings is to discover beauty in the places we’d least expect to find it—-in our everyday bread and butter world. The perception of beauty opens our mind and body, heart and soul, and disposes us to love the world. It should be understood that this beauty is not the saccharine version of beauty of a Hallmark card. It includes the raw and rugged aspects of life that may be painful. With the meditative state of mind we’re able to perceive the isness or beingness of ordinary things, and this gives us confidence and inspiration to explore the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful of ourselves and of life.

 Specific techniques or interventions make sense when they appear in the context of particular situations, which my book provides examples of.

5. In general, how do you integrate spirituality into your psychotherapy practice?

  The world has become disenchanted and most of us have lost the sense of life’s miraculousness that we felt as children.  In essence, the spiritual path is a growing awareness that we are in dialogue with an intelligent, living cosmos, of which we are an intrinsic part. We are both embedded in nature, and life force animates every cell, every molecule and atom of our mind and body. Spirituality is the process of deepening this understanding and dissolving the false sense of separation from nature and the world.

5a. And, Is this ever difficult for people who do not have any spirituality, religion or spiritual beliefs? Does that change the way you work with them?

It’s crucial that we meet our clients where they are. Having religion or spiritual beliefs can sometimes be a huge obstacle to having direct and immediate experience of oneself and one’s life. My emphasis with my clients is on developing an embodied presence—being in the body, here and now, with a growing courage to experience whatever is going on. We don’t have to call this spiritual. Even the most gnarly emotional states have a pearl of great price embedded in them.

6.  A lot of people have difficulty with meditation because their mind is so active. What advice would you give those people to help improve their meditation practice?

Well, this is the perennial question that’s been asked for thousands of years. There’s no quick fix, but it does help to get a good instruction (which my book includes) that cuts through the comic book version that many Westerners have about meditation, ie. We’re not supposed to have thoughts when we meditate; alternatively we’re only supposed to have spiritual, philosophical, or good thoughts. Of course this is nonsense, and it causes many people to stop meditating. The five wisdom energies, which is the theme of my book, suggest a number of different methods for how to bring the meditative state of mind into one’s ordinary life.

 It’s also very helpful to have regular communication with a seasoned meditation teacher who can correct your approach and make suggestions.

7. Have you experienced any serendipity or synchronicity in your life journey or the creation of your book? If so, what?

It’s been my experience that whenever my attention focuses intently on a particular theme, that theme will begin to echo throughout my life. There will be seemingly random events that crystallize the theme of the very chapter that I’m currently writing.

More generally speaking, the more that we evolve as conscious beings, there will be a higher degree of meaningful coincidence or synchronicity. When I began meditating four decades ago I couldn’t help but notice such auspicious coincidences occurring with greater frequency.