Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships

Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships

John Amodeo
Wheaton: Quest, 2013. 290 + xix pages, paper, $16.95.

John Amodeo's book is a life-affirming work that expands traditional Buddhist practice to the social dimension. Filled with dozens of examples, personal anecdotes, and pithy quotes, Dancing with Fire is dedicated to expanding conscious awareness and mindfulness to increase personal, interpersonal, and cultural intimacy. This well-seasoned therapist draws from Buddha's Eight Noble Truths to show how psychology can help those on the spiritual path.

Much of the book's theme could be captured in a quote from Rumi: "Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it. Amodeo suggests using meditation and mindfulness as tools to remove these blocks to intimacy. In meditation retreats, he observed practitioners confusing the Buddhist notion of nonattachment (vairagya) with emotional detachment. Instead of forming more intimate relations, they tended to isolate themselves and withdraw from people while thinking this was the way to liberation. He believes that desire shouldn't be denied or avoided, but rather fully experienced with joy and equanimity. It isn't enough, he suggests, to simply "note feelings and sensations and release them. Rather he advises people to "let in emotions and allow "our inner processes to arise, incubate, unfold, and shift [so that] a new understanding or forward movement may emerge.

Amodeo turns to John Bowlby's attachment theory, Emotionally Focused Therapy, and Eugene Gendlin's technique of Focusing to help avoid these pitfalls and expand the feeling dimension of meditative practice. He believes that greater intimacy occurs when we bring emotions to the surface of awareness, thus checking the mistaken idea that meditation should lead us out of this world into some kind of detached state of nirvana. He repeatedly stresses that meditative practice should improve the intimate quality of loving relations rather than isolating us from one another. Psychological methods can augment meditation by helping transform social relationship into sacred experience.

Becoming more aware of feelings and sensations, says Amodeo, makes for a "juicy life. The clarity and solid sense of ego helped by meditation enables us to keep a firm grip on ourselves and interact with people while maintaining a healthy degree of equanimity. As an experienced therapist, he points out the many ways people undermine intimacy and often get tangled  up in self-defeating, dysfunctional relationships. The only problem in this argument is that Buddhists are more interested in dissolving or altogether eliminating ego than making it more functional!

While Amodeo's sentiment is appealing, he doesn't sufficiently take into account the differences between Eastern meditation and Western psychology. The latter aims to heal or at least improve relations (attachments) between people, while the former seeks to transcend desire through nonattachment. Psychological intimacy brings us closer to satisfying our ego desires—a better marriage, security, forgiveness. Buddhists, on the other hand, have their sights set on transcending life. I agree that meditators should not alienate themselves or avoid others using meditation, but augmenting a Buddhist practice with psychological techniques that emphasize somatic and emotional experience confuses spiritual and psychological paradigms by putting at odds their respective goals.

Buddhists use meditation as a means of dissolving the subject-object relationship to experience samadhi, a state of pure awareness. Using this spiritual method, they seek to be liberated from this world of suffering. By contrast, psychology teaches ways of dealing with suffering in this life by engaging the object. Without addressing these differences, it is difficult to reconcile the desire for intimacy with the nonattachment of Buddhist philosophy.

With chapters composed of many subheadings no longer than a few paragraphs, the book makes for an interesting, fast-paced read. But this format doesn't leave room for deeper exploration; a number of critical subjects, like the one above, could have used more elaboration. Ironically, the reader isn't able to delve deeper and become more intimate with the subject.

Nevertheless, in the West, where intimacy is often perverted into clinging and craving behaviors, a practical combination of spirituality and psychology is sorely needed. To this end, Dancing with Fire is more than a self help book. It seeks to adapt contemplative practice to the proclivities of the Western mind by teaching us how to "be in this world, but not of it.

Thom F. Cavalli

Thom F. Cavalli, Ph.D., is a practicing psychologist and author of Embodying Osiris: The Secrets of Alchemical Transformation (Quest) and Alchemical Psychology: Old Recipes for Living in a New World (Putnam).