Practical Spirituality

The final but unpublished chapter from my book, Feeling Good Together

Copyright © 2008, by David D. Burns, MD, revised 2014


There are two ways you can understand this chapter. If you have read my book, Feeling Good Together, done the written exercises, and used the Relationship Journal successfully with a troubled relationship, you know what a mind-blowing experience the “death of the ego” can be. This is truly a form of enlightenment, and you will be able to understand this chapter at a profound and experiential level. You will “get” what I am talking about in a deep way.

In contrast, if you have not read the book and you have not had this personal and transforming experience with someone you were at odds with, or someone who was critical of you, you probably won’t really comprehend this material at a deep level; you will only have partial intellectual understanding.  And you may even object to some of what you read, thinking it means something quite different from what I have in mind.

Nevertheless, intellectual understanding can often be a good first step, especially if you know this is only the first step in the journey, and you know that you may not really see certain amazing truths until you’ve “been there,” so to speak.

I hope that doesn’t sound like so much psychobabble, and apologize if it does sound that way!

David Burns, MD

Chapter Begins Here

I’ve worked with many men and women with troubled relationships throughout my career, and I’ve had the chance to observe how I myself think, feel, and behave during conflicts with patients, family members, colleagues, and friends. I’ve also published research on emotional and interpersonal problems. These experiences have given me a pretty clear understanding of what works, and what does not, when it comes to relationship problems.

In this book, I’ve tried to convey what I’ve learned in a practical way, with specific, step-by-step tools that can help you change the way you think, feel, and communicate with any person you’re not getting along with. The approach I’ll describe is new, and quite different from the many books that have been written on relationship problems, as well as the many schools of psychotherapy that have been developed to help people with trouble relationships. And the results will often be spectacular.

However, if there’s one thing I’ve learned along the way, it’s this: true change requires more than psychological insight or a few new communication techniques. I’m convinced that the change I’m talking about has to be spiritual as well. I believe that self-examination and reconciliation with someone you’re not getting along with are not just psychological events, but spiritual experiences as well. If you use the techniques I’ve described to develop a more meaningful or loving relationship with someone you’ve been at odds with, you’ll experience this on a personal level.

I’m not referring to any particular religion, but rather to the spiritual concepts that are at the core of nearly every religion. I’m convinced that personal and spiritual values play a vitally important role in our lives, and it makes no difference whether you’re Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, or even an atheist. A former student and esteemed colleague, Mickey Trockel, MD, PhD,  put it like this: religion is all about the differences between people; spirituality is about what unites us and brings us together.

What are the spiritual dimensions involved in resolving relationship problems? One of the basic ideas behind CIT (Cognitive Interpersonal Therapy) is that blame triggers most relationship conflicts. The real problem is not so much the fact that the other person is to blame, but rather the fact that we’re blaming them. Furthermore, we’re nearly always triggering and reinforcing the problems that we’re complaining about, but we can’t see our own role in the problem, so we feel like victims and tell ourselves that it’s all the other person’s fault. We don’t realize that we’re creating our own interpersonal reality at every moment of every day.

Self-examination is a component of practically every religious faith. Self-appraisal takes the form of confession in Christianity and Yom Kippur in the Jewish faith—in both cases, the idea is to acknowledge when we’re wrong, or when we’ve hurt others. Although I developed CIT in a secular setting, drawing on research and clinical experience with men and women with troubled relationships, you could think of CIT as a spiritual treatment. In fact, the Relationship Journal is really a practical and systematic form of self-examination.

For example, when you’re not getting along with someone, I’ve encouraged you to focus on one unpleasant interaction you had with that person and to write down one thing that the other person said to you (Step 1), and exactly what you said next (Step 2). At this point, you’ll probably be absolutely convinced that the other person is to blame for the problem and you’ll be cataloguing all their annoying behavior—for example, they may treat you shabbily, complain constantly, or argue defensively without ever listening to your point of view.

In Step 3 of the Relationship Journal, you examine how you responded to the other person—the response you wrote down on the RJ. You examine it from the perspective of EAR, which stands for Empathy, Assertiveness, and Respect. You ask yourself these questions:

E = Empathy. Did I acknowledge how the other person was thinking and feeling, or did I ignore his or her feelings? Did I find truth in what the other person was saying, or did I respond defensively?

A = Assertiveness. Did I share my feelings openly, directly, and tactfully using “I Feel” Statements, or did I argue and attack the other person, insisting that he or she was “wrong” or to blame for blame for our problem? Did I hide or deny my feelings and avoid expressing how I really felt inside?

R = Respect. Did I convey warmth, caring, or respect, even if I felt angry, annoyed or irritated?

When you do this, you’ll nearly always discover that your statement was a prime example of bad communication. You didn’t empathize, you didn’t share your feelings openly, and you didn’t convey genuine caring or respect. This can be a pretty shocking discovery when you’re used to noticing all the things the other person is doing wrong.

When you do Step 4, you ask yourself how your statement is likely to affect the other person. Will it make the problem better or worse? If you do this analysis honestly, you’ll begin to comprehend the negative impact of your own behavior on the other person. You’ll also make the unsettling discovery that you were provoking and reinforcing the problem all along. You’ll suddenly see that you really weren’t the victim, but were the director of the drama the entire time. This insight can be incredibly empowering, but it can also be extremely disturbing, and it involves the death of the ego. You’ll definitely have to c heck your ego at t he door if you want to learn how to do the type of analysis I describe in Feeling Good Together.

Early in the book I describe a woman named Hannah, who attended a workshop I did for the general public one Saturday morning several years ago at a high school gymnasium in Southern California. The program was sponsored by a local hospital as part of their PR campaign. Several hundred men and women were present.

At the start of the workshop, I encouraged the participants to think about some difficult person in their lives, and to focus on one specific problematic interaction they’d had with that person. For example, it might have been a family member, friend or colleague who was relentlessly stubborn, critical, self-centered, or argumentative. I asked them to write down one thing the other person said to them that was upsetting on Step 1 of the Relationship Journal, and then to write down exactly what they said next on Step 2.

I explained that one brief interaction—any one specific moment from any troubled relationship—would provide us with total understanding of all the problems in that relationship. And that in addition, when they learned how to respond differently, they would learn not only how to get close to that person, but to any person they’d ever had a conflict with.

I gave them two minutes to complete Steps 1 and 2, and then asked if anyone wanted to tell us about the difficult person in his or her life. Who was the person? What was the problem? What, exactly, did the other person say to them, and what, exactly, did they say next?

A woman in the front row started enthusiastically waving her hand, so I called on her first. Her name was Hannah. She explained that she’d been feeling upset and miserable in her marriage for 35 years because her husband, Hal, was relentlessly critical of her. She said she’d come to the workshop to find out why men were like that.

I explained that scientists don’t yet know why men and women are the way they are, but if she’d tell us what she wrote down on her Relationship Journal, perhaps we could see what was going on in her relationship with Hal.

She said, “Well, just last night he said, ‘You never listen.’” I asked her what, exactly, she said next. She replied, “Oh, I said nothing. I just ignored him!”

At this point, the entire audience began to laugh. They could see something that Hannah did not seem to be aware of. I’m sure you can see, too. This may be an overly extreme or obvious example, but it’s something that happens in every interaction in every troubled relationship. I have no doubt that happens to you, too.

Let’s do Step 3, the EAR analysis. This is clearly a no-brainer. Hannah obviously did not listen or empathize or find any truth in her husband’s criticism. She wasn’t assertive, either. Instead of sharing how hurt, angry, put down and lonely she felt, she decided to attack him in a passive-aggressive manner by saying nothing and freezing him out. And finally, she clearly did not convey warmth, love, or caring. Instead she conveyed the hostile message, “You aren’t even worth the breath it takes to respond.”

That insight can be painful enough, but in Step 4, you take the analysis one step further. You ask yourself, “What will be impact of my statement probably be? How will the other person think, feel, and behave?”

Once again, it’s pretty easy to see that Hal will conclude that Hannah, once again, is not listening to him. She has proven that he’s right. As a result, he’ll continue to criticize her in exactly the same way. In addition, if Hannah examines other interactions she’s had with Hal, she’ll discover that she’s been ignoring him or arguing with him every time he’s said something critical or tried to express his feelings.

So now she knows the answer to her question, “Why are men like that?” The answer is—because she’s been forcing him to criticize her, and to be like that. And she’s been doing that to him for 35 years. The finger of blame has not turned around 180 degrees and is pointing directly at her. This discovery can be enlightening but extremely painful.

Of course, the goal is not pain, but intimacy. If the person using the Relationship Journal can endure the harsh assessments in Steps 3 and 4, there will be a tremendous reward. In Step 5, you learn how to respond to the other person in a far warmer and more effective manner, so you can end years of bickering and tension and experience warmth and love. So although the price of intimacy is steep, the rewards are equally huge.

To learn more about the Five Secrets, and how to use them in your own life, I would encourage you to read Feeling Good Together. However, if you really want to comprehend the methods and hope to use them to improve your relationships with loved ones, friends, and colleagues, you’ll have to do the written exercises while you’re reading. And you’ll likely have to experience the death of your own ego.

Philosophers through the ages have talked about self-examination—looking within to find “the answer.” What is this “answer” we’re supposed to be looking for, and how do we “look within?” I never knew quite what that meant until I started working with individuals with troubled relationships with others. Now it seems crystal clear.

Buddhist philosophers have told us that the universe is One, and that our suffering results from the illusion that we’re separate from the rest of the universe. They maintain that there is no external reality and no separate “self.”

The Buddhist notion of Oneness can also be difficult to grasp, because it really does seem like there’s a separate, external reality that’s quite real. For example, there’s a lamp on the table, and I’m sitting on my chair typing on the keyboard to my computer. I feel totally convinced that the lamp and I are separate. It doesn’t seem like we’re “One.” For example, no one has ever called me “lamp” or referred to the lamp as “David.” What could this Buddhist concept of “Oneness” possibly mean? It seems nonsensical.

When you think about a conflict with someone you’re not getting along with, the concept of Oneness springs to life. We’re usually convinced that we’re the victim of the other person’s badness. We feel like something is being done to us by the other person, who appears to be a part of some malignant external reality. This perception sets us up for suffering because the more we blame the other person, the worse the conflict gets.

The belief that we’re the victims of someone else’s badness really is an illusion because we’re constantly triggering positive and negative reactions in other people, including the people we’re at odds with. You could think of Steps 3 and 4 of the Relationship Journal as a form of practical Buddhism because you discover that you and the other person are not separate, but are enmeshed in a system of circular causality. You’re constantly provoking and reinforcing the other person’s negative behavior, and she or he is doing the same thing to you. The other person is not usually a “separate” and malignant entity that’s doing something to you, but is the manifestation of the interpersonal reality that you are creating at every minute of every day.

Hannah and her husband really are “One.” You and the other person really are “One.” Each of us is living in a world that’s the manifestation of our own perceptions and expectations. This discovery can be extraordinarily liberating and empowering, but it comes at a steep price—the death of the ego.

The concept of death and rebirth is a central theme in many religions, and the death of the ego is also at the heart of CIT. From the Christian perspective, Jesus experienced utter defeat and desolation on the cross. Nevertheless, Christ’s crucifixion was his greatest triumph. Some mystics have called this experience “the void of nothingness and . . . the dark night of the soul.[1] The descent into the void is a terrifying but necessary step on the path to enlightenment, regardless of your religious orientation. Of course, Christians believe that Christ rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Whether or not you believe that this literally happened, the story of his death and resurrection conveys a profound spiritual and psychological truth.

The five steps of the Relationship Journal are really about learning new communication techniques, although that is a part of it. But it’s really about death and rebirth. When someone criticizes us, most of us feel hurt or threatened by what the other person is saying. Our discomfort results from the fact that we feel like we’re on the verge of losing something important to our sense of self-esteem, such as the love and respect of someone we care about. Or, we may feel threatened because the other person appears to be challenging one of our deeply held beliefs. From the perspective of CIT, we have a choice. We can get defensive and insist that the criticism is wrong or unfair—which is what most of us do most of the time—or we can listen respectfully and try to find the truth in what the other person is trying to tell us.

We talked about this in the chapter on the Disarming Technique and the Law of Opposites. When you disarm a critic, you find the truth in what he or she is saying instead of getting defensive. If you have the courage to so this, you’ll have to face your shortcomings and look at something about yourself that you don’t want to see. This feels like dying. No one wants to die or loose face, so we cling to life, arguing defensively and insisting that the other person is “wrong.” But the problem gets worse because the other person will be all the more convinced that what he or she is saying is absolutely correct. That’s the Law of Opposites, which states:

When you defend yourself against a criticism that appears to be unfair, false, or exaggerated, you prove that the critic is right. That’s a paradox. And when you immediately and genuinely agree that a false criticism is absolutely valid, you will put the lie to it, and the critic will stop believing the criticism. That’s also a paradox.

But if you acknowledge the truth in the criticism, you’ll probably have to experience a kind of psychological or emotional death. You may feel a stinging sense of shame and the loss of something that seemed enormously important. But then, a strange thing will often happen. You may suddenly discover that you’ve put the lie to the criticism, and it won’t be true any more. In addition, you may experience immense joy and feel closer to the other person than you’ve ever felt before. This is your resurrection, and you and the person you’ve been at odds with will suddenly ascend into heaven together.

The death of the self also plays a central role in Buddhism. In his book, Christianity Meets Buddhism, Heinrich Dumoulin, S.J., writes:

“. . . man must undergo a conversion, a breakthrough or awakening, in order to become his true self and gain access to what is authentically real. Zen Buddhism names this conversion the ‘great death’ (taishi)—the sole way by which man can enter true life. Life-and-death is a favorite theme of Zen-Buddhists. . . . They are familiar with the paradoxical words of our Lord, ‘lose your life, in order to gain it,’ and with the Pauline theology: ‘die, so that you may live’; and they are fascinated by the words of Paul, ‘No longer do I live, Christ lives in me.’ Buddhists understand these passages in Scripture to be testimonies that this phenomenal, temporary ego must die so that one may attain authentic life.”[2]

Of course, subjecting yourself to a “great death” may sound unappealing. And if you’ve never had this experience, what I’m saying probably sounds like so much mumbo-jumbo. But if you have had this experience of agreeing with a harsh criticism and watching a battle almost instantly dissolve, you know how powerful and moving this experience can be. Was that a psychological experience? Or a spiritual one?

If you’re willing to endure the pain of self-examination and the death of your ego, there will be a reward. When you do Step 5 of the Relationship Journal, you learn how to respond to the other person in a radically different way, using the Five Secrets of Effective Communication. If you do this skillfully, you can quickly transform your relationship with the person you’re at odds with, and you’ll also begin to understand how to resolve practically any problem in any relationship.

You could view this experience as a form of enlightenment. The Buddhists tell us that the moment we experience enlightenment, the entire universe will experience enlightenment. That’s because the universe is One. But what could that possibly mean? This sounds like more Buddhist mumbo-jumbo.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that when you let go of your own defensiveness and convey genuine humility and respect, the other person will nearly always do the same. When you resolve the problem and experience joy and love, the other person will also experience joy and love. Have you ever noticed that when you radiate genuine warmth and joy, without any defensiveness or sense of ego, the people you interact with usually reflect the same feelings back to you? They’ll feel the same way you do. In other words, you’ve both experienced enlightenment at the same time.

Now you’re creating a radically different kind of interpersonal reality for yourself. There may far more fantastic forms of enlightenment than this, but learning how to create joyous, loving relationships with others has to qualify as one huge step up the ladder of enlightenment.

Please take this ultra-brief poll to let me know if you enjoyed this chapter. That will guide me in knowing whether to prepare some additional “lost chapters.” Thanks!


[1]   Johnston, W. (1924). The Inner Eye of Love: Mysticism and Religion. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Inc., p. 116.

[2]   Dumoulin, Heinrich S.J., (1974). Christianity Meets Buddhism, LaSalle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company, pp. 83–84.