A New Map of the Mind

It is now practically a cliche, and has been so ever since Howard Gardner published his work on the 7 different types of Intelligence, that we human beings possess multiple minds. Of which the ‘Rational Mind’ and ‘Emotional Mind’ are perhaps the most familiar.

I was thinking about this fact when one of my clients reminded me of the ‘Rational Mind – Emotional Mind – Wise Mind’ scheme which (I think) was first sketched by Marsha Linehan – the founder of Dialectical-Behaviour Therapy. DBT is the treatment of choice for Borderline Personality Disorder and in my view is a very powerful model indeed and I have great respect for Linehan’s work. The purpose of the model is to help people with Borderline Personality Disorder stay in ‘Wise Mind’, avoiding over-analytical thinking and ‘irrational’ emotions and retaining Mindfulness. This is a good strategy for people who are overwhelmed by anxiety, bad moods and tantrums but I think it is too negative about the Rational Mind and the Emotional Mind. It also leaves out ‘Bodymind’ – the real source of emotional intelligence.

So here is my own model:
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The Buddha and Psychotherapy

After Siddhartha Gautama was enlightened he became the Buddha. Before that time he had been first a great prince and then, after his renunciation, a wandering monk. His aim was to uncover the secret of suffering and find enlightenment. He tried several teachers, starved himself close to death, practised self-torture and meditation, but none of these worked. In despair he decided to sit under a Bo tree, not leaving until he had found either enlightenment or death. Four weeks later it came to him in the night. He ‘saw’ into the ultimate nature of reality: that it was without names, time or permanence. He realised that he was it and it he.

A few weeks after that he gave his first sermon in the Deer Park at Sarnath to five disciples. He told them that he had discovered that everything that arises is subject to cessation, including suffering. The path to enlightenment lay in the Four Noble Truths:

1.   Know that there is dukkha

2.   Understand the origin of dukkha in attachment

3.   Let go of attachment and dukkha

4.   Follow the Eight-fold path

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7 things they don’t teach you at therapy school

When I graduated as a psychotherapist in 1990 I had been taught a lot of things that were never any use in therapy – watching out for ‘transference issues’ was one of them. I had also not been taught a lot of things that I really needed to know but only found out later. So like most therapists I had to make it up as I went along. But now I have been doing it for 23 years I have learnt a few things I am going to share with you.

Here is my list of seven things that really do work.

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How exercise changes the brain

Run

When working with clients who have anxiety or depression I ask them to do some hard exercise at least once a day.

My reason for asking that is that I know that exercise improves mood. Several studies show that 30 minutes daily aerobic exercise was as – if not more – effective than anti-depressants in depressed patients. We also know that exercise fosters endorphin release – which counteracts anxiety.

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Zen things

Dukkha Whenever I study Zen I am reminded of the saying (invented by me) that ‘Life is so ridiculously simple that a child of five could get it.’

And the fundamental point of Zen, it seems to me, is that Headmind over-complicates life. With worries, self-pity, guilt, unsatisfied expectations, perfectionism, inertia, over-analysis, as well as a variety of bananas. And, in doing so, it creates unhappiness and prevents us from seeing things as they really are, in the moment.

In the sermon on the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha (Gautama) refers to the human tendency to view reality as ‘Dukka’. In the original Pali (the language spoken by Gautama) ‘dukka’ means a bent, or incomplete, wheel (see the Buddhist picture on the right). In English ‘dukka; is usually translated as suffering, but it doesn’t really mean that. What it means is the way in which Headmind is constantly looking for the perfect wheel: but disastified, discontented, worried and oppressed by actual experience. That is is always looking for things to be ‘just right’: contented, happy, and at peace. But never finding peace of mind because – even when glimpsed – Headmind always looks for something more.

There is a story told by the Buddha (Gautama) meant as an analogy for the human condition. It concerns a man who is shot by an arrow who, instead of seeing his pain and doing something about it in the moment, insists on talking about the arrow – where it came from, who shot it, why it had to be him of all people, etc etc. Thinking doesn’t make you aware and it sometimes just makes you stupid. In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha encourages us to release Dukka by seeing through this Junkmind tendency.

Zen Buddhism is a systematic attempt to get back to the original teachings of the Buddha, using a variety of exercises and meditational forms on the path to enlightenment. One such form is to meditate on a koan. A koan is an impossible question; one that can never be answered by ordinary ways of thinking. For example:

Maitre “The master placed a vase of water on the ground and asked: ‘Who can show what this is without saying it’s name?’

(The correct answer: The Zen monk kicks over the vase with his foot and walks out).

Zen koans are designed to help people bypass Headmind. When you see that there is no answer to the absurd question ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping’ you are enlightened in that moment because you have seen through the tricks that language (and Headmind) plays on you. You have realised that stupid thoughts get you nowhere. By implication, you may also realise that Headmind perceptions are not reality. And, if you get that, you sometimes also get a glimpse of what reality looks like when you are not thinking about it.

I once, briefly, had such an experience a few years ago while I was looking at my back garden on a glorious sunny day. Maybe because I was surprised by the beauty of what I saw, my intellectual mind stopped chattering for a couple of minutes. And I caught a glimpse of just how ok the world was when left to itself: without words, without worries, and without instant judgments about the way things ‘ought’ to look like. Absent of dukka, in fact.

Because Reverse Therapy favours Bodymind over Headmind (because that is the route through which the person begins to understand the meaning of symptoms instead of resisting them) we spend quite a bit of time teaching our clients what Zen teachers call ‘zazen’ (mindfulness) – just sitting quietly, focusing attention on what goes on in the hera and now, in the body. And, on the way, letting Headmind chatter die down.