Originally posted on August 28, 2012 after which it received 1400 views

The following are some significant features of Buddhist psychology and psychotherapy.

# Ideas of Sudden Awakening and Gradual Transformation

# Nobility of Character and Over-coming of Spiritual Danger

# Emptiness of Inherent Nature

# Distinctive view of Encounter, Relationship and Aloneness

# Distinctive view of the Fully Functioning Person – parallel paths for seeker and guide

# Koan (Hwadu) & Spiritual Maturity

# Seven Factors of Therapeutic Practice. # Conditioning, not Causation

# A Non-normative Approach: Liberation rather than Conformity

# A Non-self Approach: Altruism as Sanity


Fundamentally, transformation of the human mind occurs abruptly. If one discovers that a person one had always regarded as a friend has betrayed one, one's view and feeling change immediately. One's sense of security in the world is impacted directly. This impact generalises to many aspects of one's being, and it all happens quickly.

Thought does not happen slowly. A karmic act is committed and the effect is immediate, even though it might not manifest for a long time. When that effect is triggered, it appears directly. So, in general, the mind is characterized by punctuated equilibrium. States remain until they change. When they change, it happens straight away. For this reason, therapeusis occurs in moments. Although one might see a client for many sessions, the therapeutic effect occurred in a few short moments. The rest was preparation and working through.

However, although the core element of change occurs suddenly, it takes time to work through. Thus a loss occurs suddenly and is followed by a period of grief. The grief may extend over a prolonged period. Buddha's encounters with Kisagotami and with Patacara are like this. His therapeutic intervention caused the grief process to start. They then each spent several years in grief and then emerged sane. The grief process itself is made up of a cascade of smaller changes. The state of shock endures until the person accepts the truth of the loss. The period of anger endures until the person accepts that nothing can be done. The period of depression endures until the person starts to notice new features in their life. Some trigger will suddenly lift the cloud of gloom. So even what seems like gradual transformation is actually simply a cascade of smaller sequential abrupt changes. These changes are holistic and experiential. Cognitive knowledge may play a part, but generally it is a sub-ordinate one.

Similarly, people will remain in a stable state despite mounting counter-evidence or multiple under-mining shocks until a position becomes untenable whereupon it will collapse and a new state emerge. This is the phenomenon of paradigm. Our day to day actions are based on a set of assumptions about our ambient reality which we believe to be true and which we take for granted, rarely thinking about them. We go on acting on this set of assumptions even when we encounter small amounts of contrary evidence. We dismiss such as aberrations. We implicitly defend our paradigm for as long as possible. As contrary evidence mounts, our attempts to cling onto our old way of seeing things may become more and more elaborate. However, eventually, we may encounter “the straw that breaks the camel's back” and wholesale change may ensue. This is really a case of many small abrupt changes gradually accumulating. It has been said that the way to get a person to put down a heavy load is to give them just a little more to carry. Sometimes therapeutic interventions are like that.

A particularly interesting case of this is the phenomena of reaching safety. A person may cope with a succession of difficulties while in a dangerous situation without showing evidence of stress or fatigue, and then collapse when safety is reached. Thus a platoon of soldiers caught in an ambush may perform exactly as they have been drilled to do when under fire; they take cover, co-ordinate their actions with one another, fight back in a systematic manner, and perhaps succeed in driving away the enemy. They then march back to barracks in good spirits. As soon as the barracks gates are closed behind them some of the soldiers may become hysterical or collapse from fatigue. They were able to ignore the mounting stress factors while in danger, but reaching safety everything changes. Safety may be a condition that permits stress to surface and be dealt with. This is why therapy generally begins with the creation of a safe space.

This phenomenon also happens over longer periods of time. The woman who, as a teenager, had to look after her younger siblings because her mother died, then lived in poverty and struggled to find low paid hard work for many years, who then falls in love with an affluent man and finds herself with a prosperous and happy home, may suddenly, and, seemingly unaccountably, fall into depression. All the time that she lived in hardship she remained in good spirits. Now that, at last, she has found safety and happiness, all the denied misery surfaces. This may be very confusing to her and her new partner. She will, however, need to have a period of working through, of grief, before she can fully accept her new good fortune. Buddhism should not be regarded as a way of suppressing feelings or avoiding natural processes. Rather it is about finding and facing the truth and passing through it to liberation beyond.


Buddha's primary concern was not the elimination of suffering from our lives, it was that we not be defeated. What would defeat be? Defeat would be that we fall into a corruption of spirit in the face of the vicissitudes of life. The noble person is one who is not corrupted by wealth or power nor by poverty and oppression – one who can “meet with triumph and disaster and threat those two imposters just the same”. Kipling's poem “If” gives a very clear account of the virtues that constitute nobility of character. This was not just the vision of Victorian England, it has, broadly, been the vision of all cultures and was so for Buddha.

When Buddha speaks of dukkha he is not speaking of something that can be eliminated from human life. We shall all get sick, get old and die. He did. All the projects that we have in this life are impermanent. They will end. We shall eventually lose everything. What is at stake is not whether these things will happen or not, but whether we shall be defeated by them. Buddha's message is essentially that a noble life is possible in a world such as this. The task of therapy is to create the conditions that will support the client in finding a noble way through the challenges that beset them. If a client is facing divorce, for instance, the therapist cannot make the client's partner love the client again. It is not possible to take the dukkha situation away. The client must go through this situation. However, there are differing possible outcomes. The client might emerge embittered, revengeful or despondent, perhaps believing that life is pointless and that he is incapable of loving or being loved, or the client might emerge feeling liberated, having learnt important lessons from the terminated relationship and from the transition out of it, valuing the love that was and ready to love again, resolved to live in a more constructive manner in future and encounter new people in a generous and open spirit. The interventions of therapy should be such as to increase the likelihood of an outcome closer to the latter and diminish the former. The therapist helps the client to not be defeated by life.

In the book The Feeling Buddha this is the interpretation given of the Four Truths for Noble Ones. Ordinarily people may be caught up in the first two truths, just going round in circles responding to affliction with dysfunctional patterns of thinking and feeling based on self-centred craving that merely lead to more dukkha, all the while remaining in a state of denial about what is happening nd what they are doing to themselves. Wise people (noble ones – aryas) are not those for whom dukkha does not happen, but rather those who are willing to face the reality, be it failure, loss, defeat or decay, and do so in a manner that does not generate more pain, but rather puts them and others onto a path of constructive living.


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, or a saleable antique, or a component in an art object, or 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.


There is a good deal of emphasis in contemporary literature on Buddhism that suggests that the essential philosophy of Buddhism is inter-dependence or even interbeing. While there is certainly an emphasis in Buddhism upon the fact that things depend upon conditions and that therefore most things are conditions for other things and consequently the effect of any change can be extensive as the consequence makes its way through manifold repercussions, the idea that everything is dependent upon everything else is clearly not true and, if true, would result in complete paralysis and the end of change. Some Buddhist philosophers are willing to accept this consequence and conclude that change is illusory, that all things arise together without any real cause and effect process. For practical purposes, such a philosophy is unworkable and makes therapy impossible and pointless, since therapy is about facilitating change and about situations where alternative outcomes are possible.

Fortunately, this latter position seems to have been the one advocated by Shakyamuni Buddha even though not followed by all subsequent Buddhist philosophers. In the Pali Abhidharma, interdependence is only one form of conditional situation in a list of 18. In fact, there is a considerable emphasis in the teachings of Shakyamuni upon what resilience and independence of mind. This is called ekagata. Dwell lonely as rhinoceros, says the Buddha. There are two levels of meaning to this. The first is literal. The Buddhist practitioner should have some periods of being alone and should overcome his or her fear and dread so that they can be at ease whether in company or not. The fear of being alone is something quite deeply rooted in the human heart and a Buddhist should root it out. The second level of meaning is to do with responsibility. A practitioner takes responsibility for his or her own life. This is a voluntary act. In reality, much that happens in our lives is not actually of our own making. Nonetheless, Buddhism moves us to a position where we deeply accept our life as it is and entrust ourselves to it, whatever it may be.

Another way of looking at this is in the terms of the Japanese writer Tomoda. He was influenced by both Buddhism and Carl Rogers. He coined the term “Bryan's vacuum” in respect of a published case of Rogers in which the client, a Mr Bryan, desires to be in a state he calls “a vacuum”. Tomoda suggests that Bryan's desire is wise and that it is in this vacuum state that change can really occur. The vacuum state is one in which the person is divested of internalized others. The suggestion is that the ego is actually made up of internalized others and if we can for once experience being free of such we will be liberated in important ways. Tomoda's conception of psychotherapy is, therefore, that the client comes and tells their story and thereby brings forth their internalized others and the therapist, as it were, takes these others and cares for them while the client experiences, at least briefly, a state of being free from them. This is the condition in which a client can find new direction. In Western thinking, this kind of idea generally leads to such concepts as “finding one's true self”, however, Buddhism does not posit a true self, so what the person finds when free from internalized others is not a self but reality, Dharma. This is why the Buddha's final words were “To be a light oneself, make the Dharma your light”.

This means that healthy relationships, in the Buddhist concept, are not a form of merger, but rest upon this state of ekagata, each party taking responsibility for their part in the interaction. This has important relevance for psychotherapy since it is exceedingly common in therapy for blurring of responsibility to occur or to be invited. The client probably fears taking full responsibility for their life and when he or she shows their life to the therapist they are hoping to be relieved of the burden of it. There is thus an implicit invitation to the therapist to take responsibility away from the client and many contemporary therapists do do this. The Buddhist theory suggests that the therapist should not do so but, within an ambiance of kindness and understanding, should continue to respect the client's ability to handle their own life. This requires resilience and subtlety. Simply telling a client to be responsible is generally counter-productive since it carries the subtle message hat the therapist knows more and so is better able to take the responsibility. Many messages are counter-suggestive so it requires skill to not be seduced into a false position.

This matter is also a basis for the methods of Morita therapy in which it is held, broadly, that one cannot be responsible for one's feelings but one is responsible for one's words and actions. There is then some training in distinguishing one from other. This also, of course, relates to the Buddhist theory of karma in which all willful action is consequential.


The fully functioning person is called illuminated, enlightened or liberated. The story of Siddhartha Gotama provides the classic model. However, this does not mean that one should imitate Siddhartha in form. One should find a similar spirit in one's own life. Siddhartha's life is basically one of going to extremes, finding that they are “vain, ignoble and useless” and then discovering the middle way. In his case the extremes were to do with self-indulgence on the one hand and self-mortification on the other. One can posit that these perhaps sprang from his particular circumstance in that his birth had occasioned, seven days later, the death of his mother. The koan of impermanence was thus something that was with him from the beginning as was the paradox of guilt and responsibility. His coming to life had killed his mother, but does that make him guilty? When he was in his phase of self-mortification he was wilfully inflicting pain and suffering upon himself until he reached the point “beyond which one cannot go”. In simple terms this means that he hated himself. Why? Presumably because he had destroyed his mother. Pietistic writers will, perhaps, shrink from admitting that the Buddha suffered from his own greed, hatred and delusion, but it seems that the Buddha story is not really a story of ascending levels of virtue finally reaching completion, but rather one of descent into an ever greater confrontation with greed, hate and delusion until there is a sudden break-through. The break-through occurs when things have reached an extreme. The moral of the Buddha story, therefore, is one of living to the full, facing the reality, however grim or sordid, seeing one's nature, however corrupt, and drawing one's own conclusions in as objective a manner as possible. Buddhism, therefore, is not about giving up sin so much as going beyond it after learning its lesson fully. Hate is a gate and greed is a seed, delusion the root of illumination. This is how Buddhism arrives at such a strong emphasis upon compassion. Buddha had compassion out of fellow-feeling. He had been there. When he says to Angulimala, the mass killer, “I have stopped, it is your turn to stop now” he is implicitly says, “I have been where you are”. His compassion springs from the fact that he does not see himself as in a different class or category. We all share in this human nature, being some of the most destructive creatures on the planet. Nonetheless, we can transcend that state by seeing deeply into it because of the special kind of intelligence with which we are endowed. We can live noble lives, even in this one fathom frame.

So the Buddhist notion of the fully functioning person is one who is deeply honest about his own nature and not trying to defend a false position. This has great relevance to psychotherapy where the process is an investigation into the truth of the life of the client. The therapist seeks to create the kind of conditions that enable such an exploration and allow such a degree of objectivity. Every occurrence in life is a doorway to enlightenment, every suffering a possible access to the path, but only if they are considered fully and clearly without self-serving distortion, either of a positive or negative kind. The therapist tries to hold the investigation on this level of uncompromising honesty and to make it possible for the client to let go of their fear of facing reality.

The fully functioning person, therefore, is, at last, at ease with reality and deeply accepting, even while knowing the inherent pain of some aspects thereof. Such a person is able to help others to make a similarly deep enquiry. So we can say that therapist and client are not on different journeys. What the client is trying to do is not fundamentally different from what the therapist is trying to do in life. Both are seeking the truth, both encounter challenge and adversity and seek to turn such obstacles into the path. Thus they can weep and laugh together. A fully functioning person is thus one who respects, loves, has fellow-feeling and sympathetic joy, who is resilient through the vicissitudes, is honest and free. Such a person can be creative. Their imagination is free. Their energy is no longer tied up in fear and conflict with themselves. They have great acceptance and few desires, yet can act decisively. They are not tied to a single identity or status but can flow into whatever form is required. Reality is their teacher and the miscellaneous circumstances of daily life provide the endless stream of arenas in which their life purpose is endlessly revealed and fulfilled.


A person is matured by experience and by learning. It is not true that everything comes from within. Our being in this world is not for nothing. If everything came from within there would be no point in us being here. The spiritually mature person learns from everything. The purpose of therapy is to facilitate and hasten the maturing of the spirit. It is not primarily a matter of solving problems; more of learning from them. Better to be a bad man who is getting better than a good man who is becoming corrupt, says the Buddha.

Therapy is an investigation into a life, the life of the client, which is an instance of all life. What is most personal is also most universal. Maturity is a matter of having a broader view. It is a progress from narrowness of heart and mind to bigness and openness. We all face the same essential existential problems. We shall die. Friends will die, leave or betray us. Our schemes may fail. We may find ourselves having to bear time with people we hate or who hate us. The way that these existential fundamentals manifest will be distinctive in each life. This distinctive manifestation of the existential dilemma is what we call the koan (or hwadu). People talk about “solving” koans and various systems of training have been evolved in which one “solves” various “levels” of koans and then moves up to another level. This whole schema, however, is itself a koan – all these “levels” that we believe in are purely conventional and so, ultimately, delusions.

The fundamental point about a koan is that one does not solve it. Rather one is defeated by it, It is this defeat, when experienced to its depths, that is liberating. It is this defeat that breaks the ego-power. This process is horribly sobering, but it is the gateway to maturity. In therapy, the client brings their koan. They describe the impossible situation of their life. They invite the therapist to solve it for them. The inexperienced therapist struggles, twisting and turning on the same hook that has the client impaled. There is no escape. The problem cannot be solved. The human spirit can rise above it but only when the full force and implication have been truly digested. We are not here for nothing. There is this important work to do. As Buddha said, a day without striving is wasted.


The Buddha gives seven factors conducive to enlightenment. They are mindfulness (sati), keen investigation of the truth (dhammavicaya), energy (viriya), rapture (piti), calm (passaddhi), wholehearted vision (samadhi), and equanimity (upekkha). These then, we may take as factors of therapy too.

Therapy should be a keen investigation of the truth (dhammavicaya), attending to every detail (sati), conducted with energy and enthusiasm (viriya). The process should be a kind of rapture (piti)from which other disturbance is excluded (passaddhi). The frame for this enquiry should be confidence in a sense of greater meaning (samadhi) that enables vicissitudes to be encompassed (upekkha) without defeat. These are clearly all important elements in therapy. The therapist invites the client into a special space, both physically and psychologically, from which disturbance is excluded and within which there can be confidence and concentrated work together. That work is an investigation into truth within a larger confidence that whatever is discovered shall be insight into a greater meaningfulness. The therapist and client work by examining detail of the client's life. The therapist, in fact, pays very careful attention to every nuance of expression by the client.

Mindfulness has a range of meaning. At one end of the spectrum it refers to attending to the breath. The way the client breathes tells a story. The way the client reaches out an arm, casts a look of the eye, turns his head – everything tells a story. The body lies less easily than the voice. The therapist pays very careful and caring attention. Yet mindfulness does not stop at this level. Mindfulness is also to be aware of the reactions of the person and of the objects of mind to which they react.

Finally, mindfulness is to learn and remember, by experience, by deeply internalizing their actuality, the common features of reality pointed out in the Dharma teachings – impermanence, non-self, truth, dependent arising, reliance upon the sense bases, faith in a greater purpose.

Each of the seven factors can similarly be taken as a window through which the whole therapy process can be seen. The investigation of truth is the core of the matter. The creation of a space where the rapture of therapy can be sustained is a vital foundation. In therapy a person is not in an ordinary space. In therapy they can dare to do and think things that cannot be done ordinarily. This is the rapture of therapy and it needs that its peace be protected, hance the concern with boundaries and confidentiality.

This is why Buddha said, “these seven factors of enlightenment are well expounded by me, cultivated and much developed by me, and when cultivated and much developed, they conduce to full realization, perfect wisdom, to Nibbana.” They are the core of Buddhist therapeutic practice.


A key element in the Buddhist theory of the mind and of existence in general is the principle of conditioning. This is not the same as the theory of conditioning in behavioural psychology. It is, rather, the notion that everything arises in dependence upon conditions and, in particular, mind state arise in such a way. Conditioning, in Buddhism, therefore, refers to support. Things need other things and depend upon them. All our mind states arise in dependence upon a variety of factors. Dependence upon conditions, however, is not the same as causation. Conditions do not determine an outcome, they are merely conducive. My computer is where it is because there is a table underneath it. The position of the table is a condition for the position of the computer, but the position of the table does not determine that the computer shall be there. The computer could be on my lap. Even though conditions may be conducive to a certain outcome they do not make it happen.

For this reason, therapy can never be deterministic. There is no intervention in any situation that has a guaranteed outcome. Wisdom consists in making the kinds of intervention that optimise the likelihood og beneficial outcomes, but they can never force them. Thus many people came to see the Buddha and he showed great skill and imagination in responding to each in a manner uniquely suited to their need and most went away much helped, liberated and pleased, but a few still were untouched. If even Buddha could not reach everybody we can see that there is no way in which a therapist, however skilled, can guarantee outcomes.

Much contemporary thought about psychotherapy tries to match interventions to diagnostic categories. The Buddhist theory suggests that this is a largely misguided endeavour. The client always has freedom and responsibility, even if he or she does not believe that they do. However good the intervention, the client may still do something unexpected.

The most immediate basis for the mind is the senses. Buddhism recognises six, taking the mind's eye in addition to sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste. For each of these there is an organ, an object and a process or power, thus yielding an 18 fold analysis called the eighteen sense bases. Mind depends upon these 18.

In the book Pali Abhidhamma there is another quite different list of 18. These are the 18 kinds of conditioning. These are listed in the book Zen Therapy as follows. 1. Root Relations 2. Object Relation 3. Predominance 4. Association 5. Orderly Association 6. Co-birth 7. Co-dependence 8. Dependence 9. Inducement 10. Pre-condition 11. On-going Dependence 12. Habit 13. Karma 14. Extinguished Karma 15. Food Relation 16. Indriya 17. Dhyana 18. Path. States of mind may be conditioned by any or all of these but will always rely upon some of them.

It is quite common in contemporary literature to see it asserted that Buddhism posits interdependence, but in this listing interdependence or co-dependence is only one item in a list of eighteen. Ideas of interdependence or even interbeing may be apt descriptions of some states of mystical rapture, but they are not an apt description of the normally functioning mind. In philosophical Buddhism there exist theories that, in effect, eliminate time from their ontology. In psychological Buddhism, however, time is a fundamental dimension. The whole point is that past states give rise to present and future ones. Buddha's teaching is about how things may be changed over time. The paradox is that, in advanced states, the change factor may be the relationship that a person has to changelessness: the finding of eternity in the present moment. For the purposes of ordinary psychology, however, it must be noted that such states are rare and the sequence of things over time is more salient.

Thus, the simple principle emerges that if one wants a mind state to change then the most promising approach is to change the conditions upon which that state rests. It will then fall, just as a chair collapses if the legs break. Much of the business of psychotherapy is therefore concerned with ascertaining the pattern of conditions that is operating to sustain the mind of the client in the condition that is undesired with a view to seeing if they can be changed.

Buddhism then asserts that these conditions frequently arrange themselves in cyclical patterns and it provides theory of these circles in varying degrees of detail. There is the twelve step model called the theory of dependent origination and an abbreviated form of the same theory in five steps called the skandhas. These show, in their varying degrees of detail, how a distorted view of reality is the basis for programmed reactions that in turn sustain the mind in a state in which it will have a distorted view. It is this cyclical nature of delusion that makes deluded states of mind resistant to change. On the other hand, the analysis of the cycle into stages also suggests points at which intervention may occur to disrupt the cycle.

All this means that Buddhism offers an extensive model of mental functioning. Corresponding to each of the eighteen modes of conditioning there should in principle be at least one mode of possible therapeutic intervention designed to alter that condition. Again, it should, in principle, be possible to target therapeutic intervention toward any one of the links in the chain of dependent origination. Finally, therapeutic interventions should be possible in regard to any of the eighteen sense bases. Theoretically this suggests 18 x 18 x 12 = 3888 categories of therapeutic intervention and there may be more than one item in any of these categories. This means that Buddhist psychotherapy is certainly not a single method approach.

On the one hand we can say that Buddhism provides a theoretical basis for explaining a great range of different approaches. While Western psychotherapy is divided into psychoanalytic, behavioural, humanistic, cognitive and transpersonal approaches, Buddhism can provide a theory that sees all of these as each addressing one facet of a single whole. Buddhism can, therefore, be a map for an integrative approach. However, on the other hand, some of the assumptions, most notably about the self (see next section), encapsulated within the Buddhist approach are at odds with common Western assumptions.

Finally, to reaffirm the key point, the theory of conditioning describes how states depend upon conditions and how changes in conditions force changes in state, but do not determine what the change will be, thus making intervention effective while leaving responsibility for outcome with the client.


The Buddha encourages people to break free from the confines of conventional life. Buddhism is not a psychology that equates normality with health. The norm is for people to be moderately deluded. Buddhist therapy is, therefore, not merely concerned to help people to get back to normal but to be on a path that leads beyond.

Buddhism loosens up many of the structures that keep people confined. The teaching of shunyata tells us that things can always be otherwise and that we ourselves have many possibilities. The fully functioning person is not a narrow model, but a person in the flow of their experiencing who adapts to the needs of the situation, whatever the situation may be, and is able to do so in a variety of imaginative ways. The theory of conditioning implies that even though a situation may be strongly conducive to a certain response, there are always other options.

When we hear the story of a person's life, if we listen empathically, we can readily think that the way it turned out is perfectly understandable in terms of the experience to which they were exposed. However, other outcomes would always be possible. The person who suffers in some terrible manner may later be a broken person, incapable of loving, working or functioning socially, or they may be a person vibrantly campaigning to rescue others from having to endure a similar form of suffering, or they may have become a functioning member of society who nonetheless guards their dark secret closely and is subject from time to time to terrible moods or breakdowns, or they may have become a saint. Everything is conditioned but nothing is determined. This means that the spiritual path is particular to the person. Although there are various systems of spiritual training and orders of one kind or another, the spiritual life is by definition not completely reducible to an order. Each life has its own logic. Each person seeking the truth may find it but what this means for them individually will be unique. Seekers may assist one another, but each then finds a particular mode of expression. In Buddhism there is a tradition of making statues of arhats, often in great numbers. Arhats are liberated people. What is striking about these assemblies of arhats is that each one is clearly a very distinctive character. No two are the same. Buddhist psychology is concerned with helping each person to find the path each in their own way.

The path, however, lies beyond affliction. Inevitably one passes through some affliction, disappointment, defeat, pain, or failure. Without this passage one does not arrive. Shakyamuni had to see the failure and complete ruin of his two earlier projects – in self-indulgence and in asceticism – before he was able to appreciate the morning star and awaken as a liberated being. The client, by definition, comes with some form of acknowledged affliction. This is, therefore, a good start. Commonly, the client thinks that what they need is to get this affliction removed and return to normality. However, normality was simply their previous condition of moderate delusion. Further, in many cases, the affliction cannot be removed anyway – the dead partner cannot be restored, the aging process cannot be reversed, the failed enterprise cannot be brought back, The inexperienced counsellor thinks that their task is to solve the problem and remove the affliction. The experience guide realises that the situation that the universe has placed the client in is their opportunity. The therapist sees their task as to accompany the client through their travail toward the light beyond, neither knowing at the outset exactly what form that light will take for this particular client.

The Buddha taught ekagata. This word has no exact equivalent in English but means something like singular-proceeding. Buddhism is not a matter of always going with the flow. The Buddha rarely, if ever, uses such a phrase, but he does frequently talk about standing against the stream, crossing the rushing torrent, getting free from prison and so on. Buddha talks about noble living. This involves courage. The role of the therapist is to help the client to find courage.


Self is insanity. Inasmuch as we are caught up in ourselves, we are blind (avidya) to reality. From this blindness arise all our self-serving narratives (samakaras) that keep us unfree and feed our misery. Insofar as we do see reality clearly and engage with the world in a positive and constructive manner we are freed from such self-concern and experience the satisfaction of being in the flow of life. Buddhism is life-affirming and does not see the path as one of attaining to personal extinction any more than attaining to personal immortality. The Buddha wants us to live well in accordance with reality.

When we are caught up in ourselves we lose objectivity and also tend to lose confidence. If one is giving a public talk and one's mind is taken up with the audience or with the subject matter, all goes well. However, as soon as one becomes self-conscious, one's performance starts to fragment. When a person is fully functioning they are in the flow of what they are doing. This is not a matter of being centred in oneself, it is a matter of being centred in what one is doing or concerned with. It is other-centredness that liberates a person to enter the flow of their activity.

Comparing this section and the previous one we see two different uses of the idea of flow. A person in the flow of what he is doing is not necessarily going with the flow of social influence. Such a person may have an independent view and an independent activity. These two need to be distinguished. A healthy person is in the flow of what they do, but a person who just goes with the flow in the sense of conforming to what others want may not be being authentic. A liberated person is not resilient in the service of ego, but in the service of truth, no matter the personal cost.

Non-self, therefore, does not mean having no resilience or making no effort. Non-self basically means “other”. The liberated person is engaged with what is other – their environment, other people, spirit – but is so in a manner that exhibits positive generosity, restraint of conduct, resilience, energy, mental stability and vision (the six paramitas). They are able to be so because they are not inwardly conflicted and so have all their energy available for the task in hand and because they are not attached to a particular identity and so can assume whatever form is necessary.

This all means that Buddhist therapy is an approach in which the ego is minimised. This is not about asserting oneself, defending oneself or any other form of self-cherishing as a primary concern. One eats to live, not lives to eat. The kinds of rhetoric common in Western therapies about loving oneself and deserving special treatment, often associated with blaming attitudes toward parents and others, have no place in Buddhist therapy. Even self-knowledge is not really the goal of Buddhism. One seeks direct knowledge of truth whatever it may be with no privileging of oneself within that.

Inevitably, in some parts of the psychotherapeutic process there is a heightening of self-consciousness. This is true in any process of learning new skills. When learning to drive, one at first becomes painfully self-conscious and experiences doubt that it is even possible to look in the mirror with one's eyes, change gear with one hand, steer with the other, and manipulate the clutch and accelerator with one's feet all at the same time. However, later one does all these things without thinking about it. In other words, the self-consciousness is a passing phase. In Buddhist therapy, self-consciousness is regarded as a passing phase, not a desirable gaol. Insofar as it arises it is a cost rather than a benefit, an impediment rather than a goal.

Similarly, for the therapist, self-consciousness is an obstacle. If the therapist's ego is involved then the therapy is likely to go astray. The therapist needs to pay attention to phenomena arising in his or her being – feelings, images, thoughts, sensations – but needs to do so in an objective, dispassionate manner. These are phenomena passing through. They yield useful information about the client and the process but “This is not me, this is not mine, this is not myself”.

Being in a state of proximity and resonance one is bound to experience things and these form part of the therapy process, not part of oneself. Insofar as the therapist identifies with such arising phenomena they impede therapy and risk burnout. Insofar as they can simply use this knowledge in the service of the therapy they become a good spiritual friend (kalyana-mitra).

In the previous section, when considering the theory of conditioning, we saw that Buddhist theory is comprehensive and accounts for many dimensions and the almost infinite complexity of the therapeutic process. At the same time, when we consider the perspective of non-self we can see the whole of this complexity in a much simpler perspective. Therapy is communication in which one party, the therapist, is less caught up in ego. It is thus a process in which the other party, the client, is provided with conditions in which they may themselves move away from ego concern toward a more direct encounter with reality.


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