The Buddha and Psychotherapy

BodhAfter 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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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 Headmind 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.

How to regain control over your mind

Dayen Here is a fascinating article sent to me by the Guru of Creative Thinking Mark McGuinness.

Here is that article. You might wish to read it first before you read the rest of my comments.

That misery called meditation – What seven days of silence did to my head

It’s about a journalist who goes on a 7-day Buddhist silent meditation retreat which does his head in. After just one day he thought he was going insane. Symptoms: intense boredom, aching, agitation, restlessness, escapism. All the signs, in fact, of a Headmind that was about to explode with frustration.

Interestingly, his Headmind adopted a very familiar tactic in such situations: which was to chatter about what other people on the retreat might be doing: making up fantasies about who was sleeping with who on the retreat. Everything you would expect, in fact, from a Headmind which would do anything at all to escape from living in the now.

But after the fourth day Bodymind takes over once more and he ends up in a much better place.

Reminds me a lot of the Teachings of Gurdjieff, on which I have written before in this blog. That, in turn, advocated that we human beings need to do a lot of work on escaping our enslavement to Headmind. But that can be difficult to do because Headmind is crafty in feeding the idea that what it thinks is ‘reality’. And then feeding the further idea that escape from that is impossible…

To remind you, Headmind hates:

Silence

Living in the present moment

Being ignored

Raw emotion

The desert (nothing to worry about or do there! – which is why Christ so frequently visited it).

But, as the article demonstrates, when you force Headmind to give up what it habitually likes to do: watch TV, read newspapers, crawl the internet, worry, fantasize, make up stories about the past, chatter about the future, then eventually it just shuts the fuck up.

And then you end up in a very nice place indeed, a place of ‘mindless salvation’; a place of overwhelming peace, happiness and fascination with the world we live in; just as if you were seeing it (again) for the very first time.

What your moods tell others about you

Depressed Far more than emotions (which, after all, we all share) your moods show you what, and sometimes who, you are to others.

But first we need to understand what a mood is.

  • It isn’t a feeling.
  • It isn’t an emotion.
  • And it isn’t something that just happens to you.

It’s based on your attitude to things going on around you.

Your attitude, in turn, is governed by your relationship to people, events, the world – as shown to you by Headmind. It is the atmosphere in which you live. It is the atmosphere you give off to others.

For example, if your relationship to the world is that of Victim, your relationship to the world is likely to be self-pitying or else aggressive (in a negative way). So your mood will either be depressive or hostile.

By contrast, if your relationship to the world is based on the idea that you can do anything you want (within reason) then your mood is likely to be sparkling and aggressive (in a positive way).

Attitudes trigger moods in a variety of ways:

  • Suspicious (morose, surly mood)
  • Hopeless (depressive mood)
  • Self-sufficient (tranquil mood)
  • Self-important (impatient mood)
  • Manipulative (uncomfortable mood)
  • Loving (peaceful, blissful mood)
  • Nihilistic (despairing, suicidal mood)

It was said that the Buddha filled most of those who met him with a mood combined of tranquillity, kindness and awe. Similar reports apply to Christ.

Whatever your attitude to the world, to others, or to the things that happen to you, the rest of us can tell the kind of person you are, not only by the way you react to situations but by the vibe we pick up from you. One reason for that is that Bodymind not only tells us about other people through the emotions but also tells people about usthrough our moods.

If you prefer not to give away so much about yourself I will be telling you in the next post about how you can change both your attitudes and your (negative) moods.