1 Buddhist Analysis and Psychotherapy
We are going to look at Buddhist analysis and its associated use in psychotherapy. We call this approach Zen Therapy, for short. In essence, it is the transmission of wisdom and compassion in the context of a meeting of persons in the roles of therapist and client.
Buddhist analysis means analysis of psychological states, events, functions and changes in terms of the categories established in Buddhist psychology, a system with more than two thousand years of history in development and practical application, deriving originally from the teachings of the founder, Shakyamuni Buddha, whose personal name was Siddhartha Gotama, and subsequently developed through a long tradition of Dharma study, transmission and commentary over the centuries up to the present day.
As a methodology, this psychotherapy can use techniques drawn from any other system or developed in situ, applying them in a manner grounded in the Buddhist analysis. Our prime concern, therefore, is this analysis and our second concern is how this analysis can take from through a variety of practical applications. From a Buddhist perspective, the application of such analysis through psychotherapy is a species of skilful means (upaya). The aim is the transmission of the wisdom and compassion that liberates the heart and mind from the restrictive effects of the ego.
Such liberation may alleviate much suffering, but one should nor see the elimination of suffering as a prime goal. Increased sensitivity, commitment to higher purposes, enhanced boldness in manner of life, the commitments demanded by compassion and so on, may all also bring various forms of challenge with their associated afflictions. The goal is not simply greater comfort, but a nobler, more mature, less petty, manner of life. What a person deeply desires is to know that their life is wholesome, their direction constructive, and that they are fulfilling their life purpose. The mere reduction of suffering is not a goal, it is an epi-phenomenon.
Buddhism can be considered to be a religion, a culture, a prescription for a variety of wholesome ways of life, a philosophy, or an education and training; here it is considered as a psychotherapy. This, therefore, is not Buddhism with psychotherapy, it is Buddhism as psychotherapy.
So Buddhist analysis and psychotherapy is an approach to personal and spiritual development grounded in Buddhist psychology. Buddhist psychology is a system of thinking about the workings of the body, heart, mind and spirit derived from the teachings of Buddha, as found in the Buddhist texts (sutra) and the development of those teachings found first in the refined theories (abhidharma) of the various Buddhist traditions and subsequently in the interpretations and commentaries of different schools.
Zen Therapy, then, is not a technique, it is an approach. It makes use of a wide variety of methods and of anything that is to hand, and it does so in a distinctive way, according to a particular way of understanding. It is the principles of this approach and way of understanding that we are concerned with here.
Some may find Buddhist analysis to be an excellent basis for integrating different currents of psychology, personal growth and spirituality. In itself, it is a system that is all of one piece derived from what is essentially a single coherent body of thought contained in the Buddhist tradition. Nonetheless, looked at from an occidental perspective, it is apparent that it encompasses aspects that are commonly distinguished and thought of as belonging to different categories, or even different disciplines.
Here we are concerned with it particularly in its application to the kind of accompaniment that we nowadays call psychotherapy, or, just, therapy, for short.
2 Meditation and Enlightenment
In recent times there has grown up the idea that Buddhism is primarily or centrally the practice of meditation, or religious contemplation, such meditation being practised in the hope that it will lead to a state called enlightenment, which is the liberation or illumination of the mind. Traditionally meditation was practised primarily by monks, but recently it has also become increasingly popular with lay people. Reflection and contemplation are certainly beneficial activities, especially when one has something significant to reflect upon. As disciplines they can bring greater peace and tranquility to the heart and greater power of concentration to the mind as well as yielding insights and experiential learning. Such learning may be in the form of developing particular qualities, such as compassion, or coming to terms with existential realities, such as impermanence, or gaining insight into spiritual or absolute truth. One should, however, beware of taking meditation to be a kind of treatment with a programable outcome. It is an important adjunct to the holy life, not a medicine for reducing stress.
Buddhism highlights the occurrence of instances of radical change of heart, dawnings of new understanding that can turn a person's life around. However, when we study the history of Buddhism, we see that in the lives of great masters in many traditions, such illuminatory openings occur much more frequently in the context of inter-personal encounters than in solitude, or times of contemplation. When insight does come through contemplation, it is generally at some point of crisis, not in one of reduced stress.
What we know of the founder, Shakyamuni Buddha, is from the records (sutra) and these are mostly of conversations. Buddha, like Socrates, was a great believer in the power of conversation. Modern day therapists can follow in this tradition of illuminating conversation.
Buddha himself had a great spiritual awakening while meditating, but one should not think of enlightenment as a mechanical consequence of a procedure called meditation. To do so is incorrect. Buddha was meditating that night because he was at a juncture in life where everything that he had done up to that point was in question. His valiant and extreme efforts to liberate himself through yogic, ascetic practices had failed. When one experiences a great failure, naturally one reflects upon what has happened. We should, therefore, see the meditation on the night of enlightenment in this perspective. To think that one could become enlightened by copying the body posture of Shakyamuni as he sat under a tree that night would be as productive as thinking that one could write great drama by copying the bodily mannerisms of Shakespeare.
Shakyamuni did not become enlightened by seeking something called enlightenment. He was awakened to reality by reflecting upon the mess that he had got his life into in his attempt to escape from the reality of aging, sickness and death, and, probably, by being touched in his heart by the kindness of one who cared for him at that time. Reflecting soberly upon his life and the functioning within it of all the forces of Mara, by which we means human passion, he arrived at a new clarity about the meaning of life and from then on his purpose became clear. He no longer dedicated himself to a personal quest, but, rather, went forth for the benefit of others.
Psychotherapy is thus. A person comes to reflect upon the mess that is their life and is helped by the attention and care of one, the therapist, who is willing to accompany them through the darkness and confusion until some light appears. Being in such therapy is, therefore, an exploration. It does not have a preordained outcome except in the very general sense that one hopes to emerge more mature and to have clearer vision. What that maturity will consist of, or what will appear in such vision, however, is not known in advance to either party.
However, at this point we should note that it is a common pitfall of many kinds of psychotherapy that, because they focus upon unscrambling the mess in the life of the client, their overall effect can be, to an extent, to lead the client into a more narcissistic orientation. What we notice in the case of Buddha is that his reflection led him to an outlook in which narcissism was defeated. Buddhist analysis, therefore, does have the general goal of leading a person beyond narcissism. Its core questions are more concerned with helping a person to find purpose and direction rather than helping them to feel better or get what they want. The latter may come to pass as by-products, but they are not the goal in themselves. Sometimes the effect of such work could be that the person decide to undertake a course in life that might be more arduous than the life they were leading before.
Psychotherapy is an encounter and an accompaniment. It is not a procedure or the application of a protocol in any narrow sense. It requires imagination and flexibility. The client brings the material that is their life. The therapist brings an understanding of human nature and a skill in intensifying the search. One is not, however, trying to replicate the awakening of Shakyamuni or that of anybody else; each person will have their own awakening according to their conditions and circumstances, experience and insight.
3 The centrality of compassion and love
To plunge straight into the heart of the matter, Buddhism is a mode of thought and action that gives a central place to love and compassion. We can say that these are the main driving forces in life. It is not simply that we desire to be loved, it is that we have to love. Love is a basic expression of life and a person whose expression of love is thwarted is, to that extent, damaged in spirit.
In some later developments of Buddhism, this need to love is called the Buddha-nature of the person. In fact, it is not simply persons that have such a nature. All of existence is said to have such, and certainly all living beings. This is a way of expressing the fact that everything that happens is supported. It is a vitalist way of expressing the idea known in Buddhism as dependent origination: that all the states that arise in this life do so in dependence upon conditions. We exist and survive because we are loved. We could not be what we are without having received such help and support.
At the personal level, however, we can see that life has an essentially outward reaching nature. While we are capable of introspection and some of the time looking inward is extremely valuable, life naturally reaches beyond itself and encounters others. It is not the case that, as some say, everything comes from within. Were it so, Buddha would not have taught and psychotherapy would be pointless. Indeed, there would be no point in us being here in this world. We are not in this world to ignore it, we are here to be loved and to love in return.
Buddhism, therefore, is a “beyond-self” approach. It is not concerned with self enhancement so much as with self forgetting. Self forgetting happens when one is caught up in the flow of activity that one is in tune with and that one feels to be intrinsically worthwhile. When one is doing what one believes in and loves to do one does not think of oneself. Only when one stops to take stock does one introspect. At other times, self-consciousness is a handicap.
Self-consciousness happens when one is losing faith in the things one cares about. At such times there comes a need to protect what one feels to be most precious, to assess the situation and, perhaps, choose a new direction. One can feel self-conscious because of the threat of failure. When one is giving a public talk, for instance, so long as one is enthusiastic about the subject, or one is intent upon the audience, one remains in the flow, but as soon as one starts to fear failure, or loses that confidence, or loses interest, one becomes self-conscious and at such moments one's fluency deserts one. At such times, self-consciousness is a great handicap.
Much contemporary popular psychology lauds self-esteem, but the esteem in which one holds oneself is no indicator of well-being or virtue. What matters much more is the esteem in which one holds one's world. When there are things beyond self that one esteems and treasures, that one feels enthusiasm for and believes in, then one is in the flow of life, and so one has purpose and fluency.
This therapy, therefore, is not impressed by the claims of self, but is primarily centred on those of love, compassion, joy and engagement with what is other than self. However, we have to also admit and appreciate the reality that love does get us into problems. Whatever one gives one's heart to makes great demands and involves one in struggles; setbacks inevitably follow. There is, therefore, always the danger that, faced with such setbacks, one will lose faith and, rather than pursuing one's heart's desire wholly, one will fall into a life of equivocation, or even lose heart altogether and fall further, into a life of meaningless distraction. Many people in modern society live such lives, as if nothing much really matters.
We live, we love and are loved, we encounter the problems thereof, and then what? This is the way that life is made. This is how we come to face our core spiritual problem (hwadu). This is always some variant upon “What is this life?” “What am I here for?” It is what makes or breaks us. Zen Therapy, therefore, is not about eliminating such problems, as if one could, but rather accompanying a person through them and sharpening them. The outcome of such a transit can range from a person becoming more mature and liberated in spirit through to them being defeated, cynical and dispirited. If therapy is worth anything it is in this regard, that it increases the likelihood that a person come through such travail wiser, more mature, more compassionate and freer in spirit.
Compassion is fellow-feeling for all those who face such existential problems, which is everybody. Love is the wish that others come through them enhanced and not diminished. Therapy, therefore, is a kind of loving, a love that is non-possessive, that wishes only the good of the other, that does not try to recruit them to some purpose of one's own ego, not even the confirmation of one's favoured psychological theory, but simply desires their liberation and flourishing.
4 Parts, wholes and faith
Buddhist psychotherapy has aspects that we can recognise as being, inter alia, humanistic, analytical, existential, diagnostic and spiritual. What it has to say about each of these is not the same as the corresponding occidental currents of thought, but it has over-laps. We can, therefore, obtain some perspective on the nature of Buddhist analysis and psychotherapy by looking at each of these.
From the Buddhist perspective these five are not competing schools, they are simply different dimensions of the human condition. Each complements the others. We can understand from this that we have here a holistic rather than reductionistic approach.
However, here lies an apparent paradox, or several paradoxes. The wholeness in Buddhism is constructed on the model of emptiness rather than fullness. It is not so much that the thing in question is the sum of its aspects and dimensions, it is more that there could be any number of aspects and dimensions, that none of these gives the whole picture, and that there are always new ways of seeing the matter. This kind of holism has more to do with openness than completion. The frontier is always open and even the home territory can always be recast in new light.
We find many moments of fulfilment through a process of attention to specific detail, not simply by generalisation and vagueness, yet, on the other hand, meaning always comes from the meta-level, not from reduction. What does this mean? You cannot understand a great book by finding out more about paper and ink, nor by reducing it to single words and seeing the frequency of a particular word in different chapters. The kind of knowledge that comes from such a reductive procedure is extremely limited and leaves one far short of comprehending what the book is all about. To understand the book one needs its context: history, culture, purpose and so on. These are meta-categories, bigger frames. Everything meaningful stands in some bigger frame and derives its meaning from that bigger frame. Nonetheless, once one has a sense of the bigger frame, one's appreciation of the nuances of particular details of word usage increases exponentially. This holism, therefore, is hologramatic: the parts are parts only inasmuch as they are within something greater. The meaning of the activity of neurons is given by an understanding of the mind, not vice versa.
Thus, we have two methods of investigation. One is reductive and the other holistic. They do not preclude each other. They complement one another. By understanding elements we may be able to build up to a comprehensive understanding of how something works. From a position of overview and contextualisation we can get a deeper appreciation of why it is happening. Both types of understanding are useful as they address different dimensions of the whole.
We can reduce psychotherapy to different dimensions and, in the process, we get a partial view that reveals an aspect. If our ultimate purpose is to get a higher sense of completeness, meaning and purpose we have to put all these aspects together and even look beyond them to see what it is that brings them together.
Similarly with the life of the client. Necessarily, it is revealed to us piecemeal, yet while it remains like a heap of jigsaw pieces, simply accumulating more will not reveal the picture. Only when we start to put them together, or we look at the picture on the box and place the individual pieces in relation to it, does it start to make sense.
Thus, analysis is important, but it only makes sense in the context of a bigger frame. When we have the bigger frame, each element seems, hologramatically, to imply the greater meaning and to add to it a particular aspect. However, the frame itself will stand within a greater frame and so we encounter a progression to ever wider frames of meaning, the ultimate of which inevitably is mysterious. This is one of the fundamental human dilemmas. We intuit meaning beyond what we can possibly know. The ultimate ground of our sense of meaning is hidden. Thus all life and action has to rest on a basis of faith.
Everything done is done for a reason. All action has meaning. Meaning rests upon context that gives greater meaning. The greatest meaning is hidden. It is thus possible either to arrive at great encompassing vision (samadhi), or to lose faith in the whole structure of one's life. It is also possible to change it. Freedom brings uncertainty. Faith makes continuance through such uncertainty possible. Faith is to act in a condition of ultimate doubt. Psychotherapy assists a person to have such faith. In Buddhist terms, we call this having a true refuge.
5 A humanistic approach
Buddhist analysis is humanistic, principally, in its emphasis upon the humanity of both parties involved in the therapy endeavour. The client is human. The therapist is human.
When we say that a person is human we are saying more than the trivially true literal meaning, To be human is to have feelings, to be mortal, to be prone to error, to have good days and bad days, to not be omniscient, to err in foretelling the future, to be vulnerable, to be prejudiced and deluded in some ways, to have various culturally formed attitudes and manners, to be expert in some things and inexpert in others, to be proud, smug even, to struggle with conflicts between duty and desire, and to be ashamed.
That therapist and client are both human means that even though there may be a difference of expertise in some matters, at the level of humanity they are in the same boat, and it is this level of humanity that is crucial in the enterprise of therapy. Therapy is an investigation of humanity and this investigation takes place within the resonance between the humanity of one party and that of the other. This is an enquiry into humanity from within humanity.
This means that within the therapy encounter there is likely to be both pathos and humour as each and both recognise aspects of what it is to be fully human. The client talks of his failure, his loss and his error and the therapist smiles gently and says, “Yes, so it is, so it is,” and they weep or laugh together. This is only possible when the therapist is in touch with her own humanity.
Such moments in therapy are times of deep meeting. What is transmitted is a faith in, confidence about, and acceptance of what it is to be human, and it is not really that it is transmitted from the therapist to the client, but rather that it is transmitted from a source mysterious to both of them. Such moments, in which the frailty and ephemerality of human life is most strongly salient, paradoxically have a quality of timelessness, transcendence and eternity. As the famous psychologist Carl Rogers said, what is most personal is most universal.
Rogers was a great humanist and he believed powerfully in the huge potential of persons for growth and change, yet he also had the capacity to appreciate a person in the depths of their frailty.
The dignity of being human manifests in adversity. Zen Therapy is an approach to the task of releasing the full humanity of the person, appreciating the inherent freedom that is a flame that never dies even though it may be hidden beneath ever so great an accumulation of defeat and compromise.
The therapist respects this spirit in the client. This is a man or a woman in whom the fire of life burns and shines. The first step to being a therapist is to respect that fire, in whatever way it is manifesting, be it ever so evil or contorted.
6 An analytical approach
Buddhist analysis is based on the notion of conditioning. The mind is inherently free except that, for the practical purposes of the world, it has to operate within conditions and, to make such operation fluid, conditions are internalised. Nor does one start life from a blank slate; we come into this life equipped with desires, appetites and purpose. Furthermore the physical apparatus of the body with its six senses has its inherent limitations. From these notions we arrive at the structures of the heart-mind
We can thus see three layers of limitation:
- karma, brought from previous lives
- the inherent limitations of the senses, including the mind-perceiver
- the effects of internalised habitual or regular conditions
The mind or heart is thus conditioned in a variety of ways and so functions within a broadly predictable paradigm, and struggles to construct a self-structure, or ego, that will offer some predictability, stability and security through the course of the diverse activities of life. In the process it distorts direct perception, channeling it into routine patterns that yield predictability at the expense of immediacy. The traditional Buddhist literature catalogues the many ways in which the mind is conditioned in ordinary life. Therapy aims to modify this conditioning. Thus there can be a therapy for every type of conditioning.
The general implication that we can take immediately is that change occurs when conditions change. All mental states are impermanent because they depend upon conditions that are impermanent. This does not mean that change is continuous. It is continual, but intermittent. It happens in fits and starts. There is equilibrium as long as supporting conditions remain in place, then, when they are punctured, change occurs. Sometimes it is the therapist's job to do the puncturing.
Many of the conditions that hold a normal mentality in equilibrium are delusions. Many of these are commonly held ones. A culture could be said to be composed, largely, of shared delusions. A therapist may, therefore, have to have liberated herself from many common prejudices. Traditionally the healer or shaman was a person of the margins. He did not live completely outside of the tribe, but nor was he completely within it. His hut, up on the mountainside, or deeper into the forest, was a walk from the village. So must it be if the therapist is not to be submerged in the same waves of delusion that afflict the populous as a whole. There is a certain loneliness in being a healer. The one who would share this dispensation goes forth out of the security of normal life.
States of heart and mind are dependent upon conditions, upon beliefs, upon experience, upon faculties and talents, upon collusion, upon habitual patterns of thought, upon true or false logic, upon pride, fear, envy, humility and so on, upon chance or planned stimulation, upon the gathering or exclusion of evidence, upon a wide variety of factors.
A person holds on to the meaning of their life within a certain frame of reference. Change the frame and you change the meaning. One person's revolutionary hero is another person's terrorist. One person's conscientious loyal staff member is another person's workaholic. Reframing can change the meaning of a life. Arriving at an appreciation of the relativism of frames can yield a higher level of equanimity. The way the client presents himself or others is always open to reframing.
Nonetheless, mere mental shift is not everything. Real conditions still exist. It is the human lot to be a conditioned being in a world of conditions. Inherent freedom exists within this state, not by removal from it.
It is, therefore, part of the role of the therapist to observe the conditions that support the mode of being of the client, to respect and appreciate how the client is responding to and dealing with them, as well as how he is creating them and making something of them. Sometimes it is the therapist's role to challenge or change them, but more often to reflect and dramatise them so that the client can do his own work in relation to them, whatever that may be. Many of the dialogues that individuals had with the Buddha end with the Buddha saying, “and now you must go and do as you see fit.”
7. An existential approach
We exist. As a word, exist implies standing out from a context. Existence is a state of being in a world and shining in some way or other. Life is endowed with an original radiance.
Existing, we act. Although we can, perhaps, establish some logical priority between these two, they are indistinguishable in fact. To be is to act and to act is to be. We can assert that we should act more and be less, or be more and act less, and these statements make some linguistic sense, but fundamentally, acting and being are totally coincident states. They are congruent. The notion of congruence will occupy our attention further in due course.
We exist, we act, and we try to make sense. The meanings we make may be various. They are creations. They are our creations, but they also have a quality that is not of ourselves. They are part construction and part discovery. They purport to be discovery in that they speak to us of something more enduring than ephemeral, something that explains things that are outside of ourselves, not under our control. We seek a structure of meaning that endures by which to navigate that part of our life over which we have only a tenuous control. We could say, we understand, but that word, in English at least, carries some appearance of a guarantee of validity, whereas the meanings that we actually make are less securely grounded. The urge to ground them more firmly presses upon us and we thus give rise to meta-meanings that seem to offer some validation to lesser ones. Science and religion are such. However, none of these are actually any more firmly grounded than experience itself, and experience can be deceptive and, in any case, cannot reach to the limits of meaning. Existentially, therefore, we always exist in a state of ultimate uncertainty. The emotion that accompanies this uncertainty is anguish.
Experience is a means of knowing. It is to know through the path of experimentation with one's own being, one's personal participation, one's entering into the maelstrom of life in some form or aspect or other. Thus, consciously or inadvertently, we become committed, and, in and through our commitments we give rise to the essence of our life. We can say that, phenomenologically speaking, existing, acting and making sense are the three main dimensions of our being.
We exist, act and try to make sense of things in a world of uncertainties. It is uncertain to us, from our perspective, in our experience. Whether it is certain in itself, guided by eternal principles, enduring, rational, solid from its own side, we do not know. Mostly we act as though we implicitly believe that it is. Sometimes we think in a more magical way, but even that relies upon an assumption of some reliable power. To truly believe in an orderless universe seems to be beyond our ability. Thus we all have implicit faith. We exist, we act, we make meaning, and we have faith. Sometimes we fear losing our existence, sometimes we feel unable to act, sometimes things seem not to make sense and sometimes we lose faith. Between these four unfolds a dynamic that is the drama of our life. They support each other. A failure in one affects all the others.
8 A spiritual approach
Some of our making sense of our world is qualitative and some is quantitative. When we think of the quantitative aspect we can distinguish different logics. At the superficial level we think in terms of a materialistic calculus. If an object passes from one person to another we say that one gained and one lost. We can then build a whole rational system of economy upon this simple observation. We live in a material world.
However, we all intuitively recognise another level that is as, or more, powerful a motivator for actual action. We can call this the spiritual level. We can ask in what spirit the transaction occurred. An object passed from one to another, but was this a theft, a loving gift, a bribe, an accident? Depending upon the spiritual reality a different calculus comes into play. In the case of a theft, the one who gains materially, loses spiritually. They are corrupted. In the case of a loving gift, both gain. They are enhanced. In the case of a bribe, both having colluded in a compromised action, both are losers spiritually. Not only themselves, others lose faith in them and that loss is a loss for all concerned. When we lose faith, we lose something essential to our well-being individually and collectively.
Faith, therefore, is our most precious possession. When we have confidence, all seems well. When we lose it, all seems ill. Even the smallest act in life involves some element of risk. Faith is the willingness to take such risks. When it is damaged in a fundamental way a person becomes a psychological wreck, unable to act. The work of a therapist is to bring a person out of such passes where uncertainty has become crippling, or, in less severe cases, to bring the person to a state of enhanced ability to entrust to life.
A client may have a specific problem, but, in general, what afflicts deeply relates to this spiritual calculus and the loss of faith it entails. There are few problems that a person cannot surmount when in a condition of strong faith. We are not, here, talking about faith as belief in a set of metaphysical propositions. Such belief may support faith and make sense of faith, but faith itself is a core, instinctive quality of being human. The things that a client gains from therapy are many and various, but at the core of them all will be found a gain in faith, be it faith in life, in the future, in the universe, in a purpose, or whatever. Faith tends to unify a life and give it direction.
The spiritual, therefore, goes beyond, or deeper than, the material. Gain and loss at a material level do not necessarily correspond to gain and loss at the spiritual level. There are two quite different economies. In practice, these two interact and shape our collective life. Therapeutic work takes place at the spiritual level. The therapist is an artist of this deeper level.
However, the spiritual points to something deeper still. That deepest level is one that we do not inhabit. It is one that we merely touch in occasional moments, one that we know of intuitively, but not one that we can live in. We are conditional beings.
That deepest level we can call the absolute. It is unconditional. In Buddhism it is sometimes referred to as void or vacuity. This is because, at that level, even the calculus of spirit evaporates. All is one, all is different, all is equal. It is the unborn, the deathless, because it is always so. At that level there is no gain and no loss. All is within the samadhi of equality. Samadhi implies an amplitude of vision, a glimpse of the absolute. At the absolute level all calculation fails: there the saint and the sinner are both worthy.
The absolute is the infinity of life. Just as the infinity of numbers behaves according to a completely different logic from relative numbers, so the absolute breaks all the rules of our sense-making instincts. Three and four make seven and seven is more than three and more than four, hence gain and loss, accumulation and deficiency are possible. However infinity plus or minus however many millions is still infinity, and so it is with the absolute. There is something that transcends all our calculations, and we can name it with whatever divine words we choose, but it will always slip through the net in which we attempt to entrap it.
All therapies inevitably engage in diagnosis. Even those therapies that have consciously sought to distance themselves from a medical model have done so by asserting a conception of the optimally functioning person and as soon as one makes such an assertion it becomes implicit that one can then recognise the various ways in which real human beings fall short of the ideal. The ordinary person does not conform to the model of the full-functioning person described by Carl Rogers, for instance, nor the ardent searcher for meaning described by existentialists. Thus, all approaches have a diagnostic element, if only implicitly. Buddhism is no different.
In fact, most Buddhist approaches give high significance to what in Sanskrit is called prajna which is a term cognate with “diagnosis”. Pra-jna in Sanskrit and dia-gnosis in Greek both mean to “through-seeing” or to “perceiving beyond”. This means not being taken in by superficial appearance. In Buddhism, it substantially means a kind of foresight. What the Buddha woke up to was an awareness of the longer term tendency of things. He saw that some courses of thought and action lead to emancipation, liberation and maturity, whereas others debase life and lead to ignoble, troubled states. The former he referred to as noble and the latter as deluded.
Now the forms that delusion can take are innumerable. Buddhism classifies them in terms of different ways in which the mind is conditioned and attached to its conditioning. Practical problems are the tip of the iceberg of spiritual ones and this is the way that the spiritual ones (koans) come to notice. All practical problems are, therefore, in principle, spiritual opportunities. Therapy is more concerned with exploiting this opportunity than with solving practical problems at their own level.
Thus the Zen therapist needs to develop a capacity to sense the underlying spiritual problem, which also has to do with the longer term consequences of intentional action. Buddhism has extensive systems of ethical training, but really it is not a system in which one recognises good and bad and tries to eliminate the latter. Rather it is an approach in which it is acknowledged that the kinds of actions that are commonly thought of as bad are generally a result of taking a short-term perspective. They are not so much evil as mistaken. Socrates said that nobody errs deliberately and the Buddha would have agreed. People are neither inherently good nor inherently evil, they simply find themselves in this world, do the best they can with it and frequently make mistakes and thus create trouble for themselves and others. Sometimes the trouble is trivial, sometimes hugely consequential.
Diagnosis by Buddhist analysis, therefore, includes taking a long term view of the client's intentions. All spiritual ills are, one way or another, expressions of conceit. In order to keep the unpleasant aspects of the world at bay we build a psychological cocoon for ourselves and somehow convince ourselves that we are a special case and that the things that befall others will not afflict us. There are many styles in which such a cocoon can be constructed, but the basic principle remains the same: “I am special; it won't happen to me; my needs take priority.” Further, the process happens at many levels and resolving one level does not resolve everything. The therapist, therefore, also needs patience and fellow-feeling, accepting the realities of human nature at the same time as seeing the nobility and potential of the individual life.
So diagnosis is prajna. It is not a matter of reducing the person on the model of a mechanism. Processes can be recognised, but each individual lives them in a distinctive way. Conditioning can be identified, but the manner in which each attaches to it is distinctive. The means to release must be correspondingly diverse.
Diagnosis is often intuitive. Essentially what is being diagnosed is the way in which love has become distorted. The more empty the therapist is, the more sensitive her intuition will be to such distortions in the client and the more easily she will be able to discern them without falling into blame or judgementalism.
10. The value of multiple perspectives
One of the strengths of Buddhist psychology is that it is self-critical. In one sense, Buddhism is criticism. Constructive criticism can be a way forward. The ability to critique one's own stance is important. Real faith includes the faith to doubt. Do not accept anything simply on authority, said the Buddha, test it and find out for yourself. This does not mean to simply follow your whim, it means what it says, test and find out.
There are many models of psychology and of psychotherapy. Each has its value and perspective. Each has arisen from the wisdom of a particular practitioner-therapist or group of such. It is valuable to be able to appreciate these different perspectives and to see them as such, that is, as perspectives, different angles of view. When you have seen something from many angles then it becomes more real for you and you arrive at a point of dealing with the reality itself rather than a model or stereotype. A good therapist, therefore, needs a critical faculty and a willingness to look at things from a variety of angles.
For the trainee therapist, therefore, there is a considerable value in understanding a variety of models and receiving wisdom from a number of sources. Further, it is useful to get to understand each system in three ways:
- as an abstract theory: a theoretical model,
- from an empathic perspective, with the context in which the model emerged, the approaches that it stood in contrast to, and the kinds of questions or problems that the originator was wrestling with, and
- in practical terms: what type of intervention or style of facilitation does the model imply.
Thus the systems of Freud and Jung differ theoretically and it is useful to consider Jung's idea of the ego as the conscious part of the psyche in contrast to Freud's notion that the ego as mostly an unconscious function. One does not have to take sides asserting one to be right and the other wrong. Rather one appreciates that there are different ways of looking at the phenomenon. One also then can consider, empathically, that Freud and Jung, in general, worked with quite different categories of patients and that there was a considerable difference of culture between Switzerland and Vienna, despite the common language. Finally one can understand that the style of interpretation based on Freud's theory is likely to focus on personal neurosis whereas that in Jung's system may be looking for archetypes emerging in dreams.
In a similar way, one can appreciate that Buddha taught against the background of a culture in which there were many schools of ascetic practice on the one hand and on the other a priesthood that had become corrupt, self-indulgent and magical. He struck a middle course avoiding the excesses of both. Further, at a personal level, he must have been struggling with the effects of his own history in which his mother had died giving birth to him, thus plunging the household into grief and leading his father and step-mother-aunt to treat him with such extreme indulgence that eventually he fled leaving wife and child behind. Later he returned to his family to sort out the mess. These details have left their mark on Buddhism, just as the personal life of any founder must affect the tradition that originates from him. Then one can see that a Buddhist style of interpretation will hinge on the theory of mental conditioning and may involve challenge as well as facilitation.
Thus all systems have their strengths and weaknesses and Buddhism correctly understood does not advocate a slavish following of established doctrine, nor a sweeping rejection of it either, but rather a considered integration within which a personal awakening to greater degrees of authenticity must play a crucial role.
11. The void as the matrix of love
Psychotherapy is a kind of love. It is a way of loving that is completely non-possessive, that only wishes the well-being of the other. Love may be expressed in many ways. It requires wisdom to find skilful expression. Love is never just a formula. Even when expressed in a conventional way it is meaningless without depth of pure intention.
Such love emerges from the absolute. Pure love is for nothing. If we say that we love somebody for something, for their money, for their beauty, for their whatever, it is not true love. Love is not for a reason, love is the reason for everything else. The ultimate goal of all therapy is to restore this fundamental motive to its true place in the scheme of things. This is an ideal. In actual practice therapy might not go so far, but this defines the direction.
Love cuts through the calculus of materialism and the calculus of spirit likewise. Love has an inherently unconditional character. Of course, we are conditional beings, and so our love is never perfect, never completely pure, but insofar as it is love it partakes of, or reflects, the absolute and that is true healing. In the moments in which love goes into free fall, a window onto the transcendent universe briefly opens and all the concerns of the calculating world fall away.
Love thus has something in common with death. At the time of dying we do not worry about our problems; things fall into a larger perspective, ultimately an infinite one. We review our participation in being and take stock. Love too has such an effect. Love is a kind of death, yet it is also a springing into the fullest kind of life.
Therapy, therefore, involves creating spaces of love. In these spacious openings, the meaning of a life expands; spirits that have been hiding in corners come forth and dance. The therapist is caught up in the rhythm and claps hands for joy.
We live and therefore we love. We cannot help it. We all love something. The therapist discerns and appreciates what it is that the client loves. Love drives our life along. Loves may be great and sublime or trivial and petty. They range from “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son...” through Juliette's love for Romeo to Kojak's love for sweet lollipops. Great or small, it is all love.
We live, we love and so we get into trouble. In this conditional world, love for one thing often means rejection of another. Love is compelling and disruptive and it is able to be so because it has no debts. It is a homeless wanderer that may show up anywhere. When it does so magic happens; spaces are opened where previously there were impenetrable barriers. Love is a liberator, but it also enslaves.
The drama of life is the working out of the troubles that love gets us into. A great life is a life of great love or loves. It is not dull. It is not dead. It is risky and passionate. It involves commitment, but it also constantly seeks to transcend whatever point it has reached. To love life involves facing and admitting one's errors. This is not a life of clinging to security. The therapist appreciates why the client would be clinging to whatever security they can find, why they have tied up their boat in a little harbour away from the storm, but is also interested in the adventures that they have had out there on the ocean that have led to this point where they need to pause, make repairs and take on supplies.
Love cherishes and glorifies. In the eyes of the therapist the life of the client is heroic and miraculous and the client sees the shine in the therapist's eye, like that of a good grandmother hearing the exploits of her brood. Even though she does not understand all that they are engaged in, still her love encompasses. Therapy is grand-mother-mind.
12. The art of loving
When the client comes to see a therapist, typically it is in the midst of some disturbance. Business as usual has been disrupted or become suspended. From the perspective of the client this may at first seem merely an inconvenience. The implicit request to the therapist is, “Help me get back to where I was before.” The therapist, however, sees a possibility that something more may be possible. The therapist does not see what the client should do nor how to do it, but has a faith that, with faith, something new is going to open up. The excitement of the work lies in the anticipation of the unknown.
This is why, in this kind of work, the whole idea of syndromes with corresponding treatment plans is anathema. Love does not ask a person to conform. It opens new possibilities that are surprising to both parties. Each begin with their hopes and whether it is true love or not will be revealed by the extent to which they are willing to abandon them as new doors open.
A therapist is like an artist in a situation in which another person is going to come and bring the materials of the art. The client comes, bringing their life and together with the therapist will make some new creation out of it, something unexpected. This work will not be done by imposing upon the materials a preconceived idea or plan. Rather the therapist will bow respectfully before each element and ask it what it wants to be, what they collectively are striving to be. The artist-therapist, being love, is empty from her own side. Merely she has faith in possibility, in growth, in creation, in faith itself, and she has imagination and intuition, because she is open to being touched at the deepest level by whatever message may be coming through.
Therapy is a co-creative art. The co-creators appear to be the therapist and the client, yet each is responding to sources that spring up out of mystery. A mark of good therapy is surprise. Something emerges, something new. There is creation. The creative spirit appears in the room and conjures something unexpected. We rehearse what is known and when we fall off the edge of it we find ourselves in new lands.
13. Leap into Freedom
Liberation stands in opposition to slavery and mechanism. Much psychology is build on the idea of the person as a mechanism or set of mechanisms. These may be thought to be defensive or conative. Zen Therapy is concerned, however, with the possibility of an authentic life within a world such as this one. For sure, there are limitations, paradoxes, frustrations, conflicts, suffering and afflictions. Nonetheless, at our most profound level, we experience these not as constitutive of our existence, but rather as things we come up against. They are our gegenwelt, not our eigenwelt, to use the German language of existentialism. Most people live their lives in some degree of implicit slavery to which they have acquiesced. The deep spiritual pain that this induces is then anaesthetised by dedication to entertainment.
From the Zen perspective, mediocrity is not enough. A life of comfortable delusion is the common lot, but the therapist offers other possibilities. Therapy, therefore, in not just solving problems in order to return to normal functioning. It is a path of realisation of human potential. Yet, we should not think of such potential as a blueprint, pre-formed. Potential simply means power and power can unfold and be used in innumerable ways. Some might talk of a self-actualising tendency, but beware! There is no destiny to be realised, there is an open future where creation will happen.
The therapist is an artist, but the client is an artist too and an artist is a medium, an artist channels the inspirations of the muses and they are not controllable. We can learn skills and we can learn frameworks and models of thought, but these are ways of opening channels and clearing blockages. The spirit that then flows has its own logic that is beyond our ken. It is a dragon. We can ride the dragon, but we cannot tame it. If we get good at riding and we and it learn to trust one another, then it will take us to places we never dreamt existed.
Some of these places will be wonderful and some terrible and everything in between. Therapy is not just about soothing and eliminating unwanted feelings. In the heart of grief, hate, fury, passion, envy, desire, anguish and so on, lies the energy and spirit of life itself. These are rainbow shed by the light of our love passing through the rain of our life.
As we make life safer and more comfortable, more regulated and standardised, people become machines. We turn into robots. The only enthusiasm we are allowed is for entertaining diversions. We can follow celebrities or become fans of this or that popular idol or cause or sport, but this is surely just the frittering away of life.
Authenticity is a leap. And having leapt, leap again. It is a travel in which the next footfall does not appear until the last has been taken. Often enough, the next is at an unexpected angle to the last. Therapy is such. When the therapist makes an accurate response to the client, says something that is deeply true, by the time the communication has been accomplished, it is true no more. The spirit of the client moves on. The therapist has to be endlessly letting go of the formulation that has occurred to them as new revelation comes forward, yet this new material is as much creation as revelation.
The Buddhist teaching of shunyata tells us that the appearance that things have to us is not their inherent nature. To put it simply, Buddhism is about not being taken in by surface appearances. This is a principle that Buddhism carries a long way. Not only is it the case that many things, especially many social situations, are not exactly what they at first appear, it is also the case that the world is replete with unrealised possibilities. The object that I am sitting on is a chair to me, but from its own side, as it were, it has no notion of chair-ness. Therefore, to a different observer who had a different personal agenda this same item could be firewood, a saleable antique, a component in an art object, a ladder for use when changing a light bulb or any number of other things. What we think a thing is is generally a function of our intended use thereof. Change the agenda and the object takes on a new guise. None of these guises are the thing itself. Each of them owes its form to our ego projection. The object is made into a rupa, an object that has some function or power in one's life, and a lakshana, something that implicitly points to and supports one's ego identity, a signpost to myself. Although we use the things of the world as signposts pointing to ourself, this is not what they are in themselves. If they are signposts at all, it is signposts to reality.
Therapy is a process of approach to reality. In this approach some important rupas may be divested of their lakshana. As a client, I might, for instance, start to appreciate my mother, not just as “my” “mother”, but as a person in her own right with her own history and her own reasons for doing what she did in life. I might start to appreciate the glory and pathos of her triumphs and disasters, her realised and missed opportunities, her love and her defeats, no longer simply in relation to myself, but as those of a person with independent dignity who lived some of the most important part of her life before I was even in this world.
Emptiness, therefore, means empty of the projections of self. Understanding emptiness enables respect and gratitude. We can feel gratitude for what we did receive and respect for the independent person that the other is or was. Otherwise, we tend to think of the other as a function of our own supposed needs and on the one hand feel bitter when these were not met and, on the other, feel frustration and resentment at being, as we imagine, tied to the other and not independent ourselves.