Buddhist Psychology: a different way of thinking about ourselves
Western psychology tends to speak of the unconscious. There are notable exceptions — even James Hillman, whose work is with imagination and archetype, never mentions the unconscious — but since Freud, the unconscious has played a major role in the way we think about and understand ourselves. I tend to think of the unconscious as a vast inner storage space that contains all my memories, my pain, my desires, my habits, and everything else I’m not explicitly aware of at the moment, and perhaps will never be. I’m sure I’m not alone in forgetting that the unconscious is merely a model, just one metaphor describing how we seem to function. We speak of the unconscious as a realm, a place deep within us, and Freud spoke of dreams as the “royal road to the unconscious.” The unconscious is a place, an aspect of ourselves, and we have a tendency to identify with it.
If the unconscious is a place, it makes sense to say, “There is so much anger in me.” It makes sense to say “There is so much sadness in me, how can I ever be happy? I need to get rid of that sadness somehow before I can ever be happy…” We have a tendency to think of the unconscious as a storage space, as containing things, whereas Andrew Olendzki suggests that “the foundation of Buddhist psychology is a process view of personhood.” In the Buddhist view, anger simply arises and disappears, arises and disappears. Sadness arises and goes away. Phenomena come and phenomena go; the sadness and anger are not “always there.” That perception probably causes a lot of suffering. We may even feel happy, but as soon as we remember how “messed up” we are, how much pain we have “in there,” we convince ourselves that actually we’re not happy, and the happiness we were experiencing just a moment ago is nowhere to be found. We tell ourselves, “This isn’t the way I really am. This won’t last. I’m not a happy person. I’m an anxious person,” and so we fail to appreciate the moment of happiness. The happiness goes away! Buddhism tells us that one of the main causes of suffering is the attempt to cling to identity. We’re always reminding ourselves of the reasons we shouldn’t be happy. We think we can’t be happy because we identify with all the crap we assume is down there in the unconscious. As long as we have that story, how can we be happy?
While Western psychology speaks of the unconscious, of this “realm” that one can encounter by traveling down the “royal road,” Buddhist psychology takes a process view and speaks of seeds. Seeds are potentials. We each have within us the seed of anger, of joy, of love, of appreciation, and we can choose whether to cultivate these seeds or not. If we cultivate them, they’re more likely to arise, but the wonderful thing about Buddhist psychology is that, until they arise, they are merely potentials! What matters is the present moment and our experience here and now. Rather than saying “I have so much anger inside of me,” and identifying with that, a Buddhist approach might suggest that, yes, I have great potential for anger, it arises easily within me, but it’s not true that it’s there all the time; or that I am “full” of anger; it arises when it arises, and when it’s not arising, it’s merely a potential. I was sitting in meditation a few days ago and it occurred to me how wonderful this was! At moments when I am not feeling anger, it’s simply not there! The potential for it is there, as it is in everyone, but that’s all. It’s a seed. When I’m experiencing happiness, I’m really experiencing happiness! When I’m experiencing calm, I’m really experiencing calm! The Western mind, trained to think in terms of the unconscious, might think: “Yes, I feel happy now, but deep down, I’m miserable.” A person is likely to water the seeds of misery this way. Too often the stories we tell ourselves, even in the name of psychological healing, water the seeds of misery. We tell ourselves we are a certain way. That we are depressed, that we are angry, that our hearts have been irreparably wounded, that there’s something wrong with us. It can be so valuable to pay attention to moments in our day when we are not depressed or angry. We may want to tell a story about ourselves based on the unconscious, but the Buddhist perspective reminds us, “No, this is happiness. This is the moment. Anger isn’t here right now. Sadness isn’t here right now. Depression isn’t here right now. Enjoy.” Every moment matters. Every moment is an opportunity to choose to water healthy seeds and not water unhealthy ones. Olendzki writes, “[The doctrine of independent origination] elucidates how the present mind moment is influenced by preceding mental states, and how present states condition succeeding moments of experience.” That is, in every moment, we have the opportunity to condition the experience of the next. The seeds we water in this moment affect the next one.
Our experiences of depression or grief or fear might be pretty manageable if it weren’t for the looming possibility that somehow they consume our identity. “I feel depressed now, and I’ll always feel depressed!” We even say “I *am* depressed.” We identify with it and can’t imagine feeling any other way. In meditation we see that one session is so very different from the next, that the constant thoughts coursing through one’s mind are gone just a few hours later and replaced by, say, a sadness, or an excitement, or a calmness, and we come to the realisation that life is always changing. We will never “always be this way.” It may not be that we are depressed, but rather, that an experience of depression is happening to us. I am sitting in meditation with great anxiety, believing I will never again be calm, and the very next day, I’m sitting in meditation, and I’m experiencing a considerable calmness. Conditions change. We don’t think they will, but they do. Eventually we may become aware of our thought — “it will always be this way” — and see it for what it is — a thought. Not certainty. Not identity. A thought. Simply one aspect of our experience in the moment. We have deeper faith (from experience) that despite this thought conditions will change. We learn about impermanence by paying attention to the moment as it arises for us. Each moment is new if we look deeply.
There’s a common misconception about what it means to be “in the moment.” We often think that being in the moment means we can’t have thoughts about the past or longings about the future. In reality, we can’t escape from being in the moment, but we forget that we’re there, and we get entangled in our stories: that’s the problem. The moment is so full and so rich, it contains both the past and the future. When we remember something from our childhood, this is something occurring in the present moment. If we forget this, it can be easy to get wrapped up in that memory; but if we remember that the memory itself is occurring in the present moment, this awareness is enough. More important in Buddhism than the stories we tell about our past or our future or our identity is our experience in the present moment (which, as I’ve said, contains everything.) This very moment, we may be experiencing happiness. We may be experiencing happiness regardless of our awful experiences in the past. There is no need to taint our experience of happiness with stories about how we are not good enough, or how much pain is there, because the fact is, happiness is there now. We can appreciate it, and we can cultivate it. Buddhist psychology is in many ways about not complicating things. There’s a saying that suffering = pain x resistance. One could also say in more general terms that suffering = (pain or pleasure) x (clinging or resistance). We can cling to our happiness, or we can resist it, but either way we create suffering
Buddhist psychology helps us become aware of the subtle and not so subtle ways in which we complicate our experience through resistance or clinging. Rarely do we experience pain as it is: we get annoyed by our pain; we complicate it in myriad ways. Think of the annoyance a fly can cause, crawling on the leg, or buzzing in the ear, and think of how much of that annoyance is of our own creation, is due to the stories we tell about those innocent sensations: a simple tickling on the leg, or a buzzing in the ear! Meditating on insects is a great and challenging way to become aware of the ways in which we resist (or cling to) and thus complicate our experience. “Insects are annoying! How dare they buzz in my ear like that!” The pain we feel isn’t about the experience itself but the story we tell about it: if it were a lover tickling us with a feather (which can feel much the same) the experience might actually be pleasant.
Shoma Morita, founder of the Zen-influenced Morita Therapy, has said: “Trying to control the emotional self willfully by manipulative attempts is like trying to choose a number on a thrown die or to push back the water of the Kamo River upstream. Certainly, they end up aggravating their agony and feeling unbearable pain because of their failure in manipulating the emotions.” Once, when asked what a shy person should do, he gave a one-word response: “Sweat.” This is the simplest, least complicated approach to shyness! Don’t make yourself feel bad about being shy, or tell yourself all sorts of stories about why it shouldn’t be that way; just sweat. This is the Buddhist way: if you’re going to sweat, sweat, and don’t sweat it!
The seventh of the Eightfold Path is right mindfulness. Mindfulness practice is about, first, being aware of our experience without judgement, and second, being compassionate towards whatever we experience. The Buddha has an excellent sermon, on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, which describes “the direct path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow & lamentation, for the disappearance of pain & distress, for the attainment of the right method, & for the realization of Unbinding…” He speaks of mindfulness as “the direct path!” Indeed I’d be amiss to talk about Buddhist psychology without writing in a little more detail about the psychology of mindfulness. One incredible thing about mindfulness is that being mindful of states of suffering tends to have the effect of decreasing such states, while being mindful of states of joy and happiness and peace tend to increase such states! Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of holding one’s anger like a mother holds a baby. If we can do this, over time, we will slowly weaken the seed of anger within us. We have stories that we are not okay, but we can look deeply, and recognise it as a story. And we can have compassion for this story. As Thich Nhat Hanh might say, “Hello, story. I know you, my friend.” What is this story, really? It is something that’s happening in the present moment. It’s composed of thoughts and emotions and sensations. When we bring such awareness to it, it no longer has such power over us. According to Andrew Olendski, who puts it in more technical Buddhist terms, “The foundation of Buddhist psychology is a process view of personhood. One expression of such a view is the dynamic model of interdependent phenomena—the five-fold classification of subjective experience into material form, feeling, perception, formations and consciousness. When we attend to our experience from this perspective it undermines our tendency to construct misleading theories of self, illuminates the changeability and impersonality of phenomena, and points towards the importance of our relationship to our experience. The discourses of the Elephant’s Footprint (MN 28) and of the Full Moon Night (MN 109) from the Majjhima Nikàya help clarify these five important categories of experience.”
We can be mindful of everything we experience. In the Four Foundations of Mindfulness the Buddha speaks of being mindful of urine and feces and puss! It can be really joyful to pay close attention to aspects of our experience that we’ve never paid attention to before. What it feels like to stand up. What it feels like to breathe. What it feels like to breathe when you’re afraid. What it feels like to breathe when you’ve just eaten a big meal. The experience of really and fully tasting your food. What it feels like to have skin. As we cultivate mindfulness (which is another seed within us that can be watered), we may come to the conclusion that, no matter how much we hurt, our awareness itself can never be touched. We are aware of our suffering but our awareness never suffers. This can be a great refuge. I can be aware of a pain in the stomach but my awareness is not in pain. I may find myself bothered by this pain, and wish that it would go away. I may begin to feel anxious and then become even more annoyed at this pain because I want to eat in order to suppress all these feelings! But I can be aware of all of this: I can be aware of feeling bothered, I can be aware of the anxiety, I can be aware of wanting to eat, and the awareness itself is never affected! What if I began to identify, not with the pain or annoyance or wanting to eat but with awareness itself, with that which can never be touched?
Mindfulness purifies whatever it touches. Gil Fronsdal talks of mindfulness practice as soap and water gently washing through the mind, and in this article from The Humanistic Psychologist, Shinzen Young describes how mindfulness has the capacity to purify:
Whenever one brings mindfulness and equanimity to ordinary experience, an evolutionary process takes place, consisting of two aspects. One aspect is insight and the other is purification. Let’s talk first about what we mean by purification. We all have within us sources of unhappiness. You notice that very quickly when you sit down to meditate. You’ll feel just fine and then there will be something that will make your world less than perfect. You get sleepy, or your mind wanders, or this or that emotion comes up, negative tapes start to come up, traumatic memories appear, you feel angry, you want to jump out of your skin, you’re running all sorts of fantasies, doing things to divert yourself, you’re aware of inner conflicts. We are chock full of sources of unhappiness which are completely foreign to our being. It is not in the nature of consciousness to suffer. However, we have acquired certain limiting forces: cravings and aversions, painful memories, inappropriate yet habitual behavior patterns, and so forth.When we sit down and do this practice that’s all going to come up. So you don’t always feel good while doing Vipassana meditation. In fact you might feel lousy. I know, having heard that, some of you may want to leave right now. You say, “I thought meditation is supposed to make a person feel great.” Yes, in the long run, but an important aspect of meditation is to sit down and start working through the sources of not feeling great, whatever they may be. You literally eat your way through them, one after another, after another, after another. How? By just being mindful and having equanimity, that’s all. Whatever comes up, you’ll observe it and you’ll do nothing. You’ll be very aware and that’s all.Now that may seem trivial at best, stupid at worst. But it is actually quite powerful. Let’s say that one of these blockages to happiness comes up as we meditate—a negative tape, a craving, an aversion, an inner conflict, a congealing. If we reject it and say “I don’t want you,” we’re pushing it away. But in order to reject it we have to “touch” it, by pushing on it. If on the other hand we identify with it, buy into it and let it pull us away, then again we’ve “touched” it. As soon as one touches it, one recharges the energy supply of that negativity. If you try to push it away or you let it pull you, you are identifying with it, touching it. Any touch whatsoever means that this particular negativity is able to ‘recharge its individual battery’ as it were, from your general pool of your energy. But if we don’t touch it then it has to play itself out on its own power source which is quite finite and if we continue to be alert and simply observe, eventually the intrinsic energy source of that negativity dissipates and it goes away forever. It gets worked through.
This process of “watching negativity to death” is called purification. As we work through the blockages to happiness, our intrinsic happiness—the nature of our consciousness which is effortless effulgent joy—becomes evident. If the dirt is cleaned away from the window, the sun that was always there is able to shine through. The spiritual reality which is the nature of ordinary experience is able to shine forth.He describes the essence of the process:
So the essence of this practice can be stated as a simple formula:
ordinary experience plus mindfulness plus equanimity yields insight and purification. In this formula, each term is defined very precisely. Ordinary experience is defined as hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, the feeling body and the thinking mind. Mindfulness is defined as specificity in awareness, clarity in awareness, continuity in awareness, richness in awareness, precision in awareness. Equanimity is defined as not interfering with the flow of the senses at any level, including the level of preconscious processing.
This is Buddhist psychology as I’ve experienced it in a nutshell. My intention here is merely to suggest that Buddhist psychology offers a valuable perspective that can help us think about ourselves and our experiences in a more healthy way. I’m certain I’ve forgotten something important. I’m certain this description of Buddhist psychology is painfully incomplete, oversimplified, and misinformed. I’m certain that even if what I’ve said here were clear, accurate, and complete, words cannot replace the experience of practicing mindfulness for oneself.I recommend these articles on Buddhist psychology and especially Andrew Olendzki’s Overview: Basic Themes, which also suggests Buddhist texts which address these themes. I recommend a Discussion of Buddhism and Mindfulness Among Psychologists which elucidates how the principles of mindfulness are relevant in a therapeutic setting. Most of all I recommend the talks by mindfulness teacher Gil Fronsdal which are available online for anyone to download and enjoy. His five-week Introduction to Meditation course is a joy to experience.