Full Body, Empty Mind

Will Johnson explains that by turning our awareness to the full range of physical sensations, the body becomes a doorway to awakening.

In many Buddhist groups, the body is addressed only in basic instructions on posture for meditation, sometimes lasting no more than a few minutes. Many practitioners are drawn to body-based practices such as yoga, martial arts, or the Alexander technique to complement or even enable their sitting practice, but they are often on their own when it comes to integrating these traditions with their larger spiritual path. What is being lost in this gap? One of the most convincing voices for the importance of the body in meditation belongs to Will Johnson, author of several books on the topic, including The Posture of Meditation; Aligned, Relaxed, and Resilient; and Yoga of the Mahamudra.

Johnson, the director of the Institute for Embodiment Training in British Columbia, Canada, began his Buddhist practice in 1972 and was certified in the deep bodywork system of Rolfing in 1976. Drawing on his experience in these traditions, Sufism, and others, he now teaches embodiment training, what he calls “a path of awakening that views the body as the doorway, not the obstacle, to personal growth and spiritual transformation.” I exchanged emails with Johnson to discuss how meditators can explore the body and what they might gain from the practice.   –Andrew Merz

You’ve said that in order to experience emptiness of mind, one must first experience fullness of body. While this intuitively resonates with many meditators, clear explanations of why that is true and how it can be integrated into a Buddhist meditation practice are hard to find. How do we start to understand this view in a Buddhist context, and how do we address it without feeling as though we are detracting from our usual sitting practice?

This focus on awareness of the body is what, for me, the teachings always kept leading to. The part of the Four Noble Truths that attracted me the most, for example, was the explanation about why we suffer. The Buddha’s observation that we create upset for ourselves when we’re in reaction, and that we manage to do this to ourselves through the twinned actions of desire and aversion, just rang true.

The teachings tell us that actions disturb our peace of mind, but what I’m suggesting is that we can’t just look to what we conventionally call our mind to sort this out. Reaction, clinging, and aversion are physical actions that the body performs and that, no matter how subtle, create muscular tension through the repeated motions of either “pulling toward” (desire) or “pushing away” (aversion). Repeat anything often enough, and you create holding patterns in the body that predispose you to continue doing that action. Sitting practices that focus on relaxing the underlying tensions and holdings you feel in your body, as well as restrictions to the breath, help you mitigate the legacy and habit patterns of reacting, clinging, and aversion.

As the eleventh-century Mahamudra teacher Tilopa said, “Do nothing with the body but relax.” When we start to relax, we start feeling the body. Tensions and contractions in the body serve as a numbing blanket that keeps the tiny physical sensations that exist on every part of the body from being felt. Learning how to relax while remaining upright in the sitting posture allows the body’s full range of sensations to come out of hiding and make their existence felt. It’s always struck me as peculiar: If I know that sensations can be felt to exist everywhere in the body, then why don’t I feel them? And what effect does blocking out awareness of feeling have on me? And finally, if the mind that is “lost in thought” is somehow dependent on my not feeling the sensations of the body, what happens to the mind if I let myself feel the entire body, head to toe, as an unbroken field of sensations? The sitting posture itself can be a kind of crucible for burning off the tensions and restrictions to body and breath that all too often keep us lost in thought and unaware of feeling presence.

A good place to start is examining what happens to the body when you’re lost in thought. This, of course, is tricky to do, because when the mind is off wandering in involuntary thought, you’re not very aware of the body at all. But if you can include an observation of the body while you’re off in a thought, you’ll find that the condition “lost in thought” is directly accompanied somewhere in the body by muscular contraction and tensing, stillness and rigidity, and a subtle contraction or holding quality to the breath. In other words, when you’re lost in thought, you’re tense in body. It follows, then, that if you can consciously work with the body during your sitting practice to soften and relax the tensions and allow more resilient and natural movement to accompany the passage of the breath, the chatter of the mind can be reduced, and your practice can start going really deep.

Once we begin to burn off the tensions and restrictions, how is this release manifested in the mind and emotions?

Vipassana teachers speak of sankharas, the accumulated residues of resistance and reactions that we store in our bodies and that, through long, focused hours of meditation, gradually come to the surface of awareness in the form of sensations (often not very pleasant ones). If we can simply feel them without reacting to them, they eventually burn themselves up and disappear, leaving a much more pleasurable shimmer in their place (that is, until the next deeper level of sankharas make their way to the surface to be felt, accepted, and released).

Wilhelm Reich, one of the earliest Western psychotherapists who became interested in how the energies of the body affect states of the mind, believed that what we call the unconscious is not stored in some remote repository in the brain but rather in the soft tissues of the body. Think about this for a moment, because it makes a lot of sense. Even though we know that sensations can be felt to exist on every part of the body down to the smallest cell, most people, most of the time, have very little conscious awareness of the felt presence of their bodies. In other words, we are unconscious of the presence of sensations, and so it is in the unfelt sensations of the body that the unconscious is to be found. I would suggest that most people, at any given moment, are probably only aware of 5 to 15 percent of their bodily sensations.

The work of Buddhism is to awaken, to come out of the sleepy dreams and notions of reality that we hold to be true and replace them with a direct experience of what is more accurately occurring. To awaken in this way, we need to become conscious of what’s actually going on at the very depths of our experience.

So when we unlock a particular physical tension, are we also releasing potentially difficult emotional aspects of the clinging or aversion that originally caused the tension? Many people report strong emotional reactions to bodywork—memories of a childhood trauma arising during massage therapy, for instance. In Buddhist terms, is this our karma stored in the tension in our bodies?

For Western somatic therapists and Theravada Buddhists alike, much of the work that needs to be done is to rekindle a felt awareness of the whole body as a field of vibratory sensations. I sometimes joke with people that as we start to become aware of bodily sensations, we very quickly realize why we haven’t wanted to feel them! We may have visions of relaxing the body and opening to an awareness of shimmering bodily sensations that feel like soft falling rain, but more often than not what we are first going to have to go through is a phase in which we feel highly intensified, sometimes very painful sensations, and through these periods of practice we face our karma directly. When we silently weep in our meditation practice over the discomfort we might be feeling, it is likely that a sankhara of sadness has come to the surface and is being released through that sensation of pain. When we get angry and irritated in our meditation because of what we might be feeling, it’s likely that a sankhara of aversion has emerged out of the repository of our unconscious.

So when I speak of relaxing the tensions and holdings in the body and breath through sitting meditation practice, please don’t think that I’m implying that everything is going to proceed like a pleasant Sunday outing in the country. More often than not, large emotional and physical storms may occur during practice before the skies clear. But if we can be courageous enough to work with the simple principles of alignment, relaxation, and surrendered resilience during our sitting practice, these storms do seem eventually to abate, and what appears in their place is worth the price of admission. Sometimes the clearing of the storms can take quite a bit of time (this is not fast-food therapy), and it is for this reason that I increasingly prefer to enter into retreats that last several weeks. Meditation practices that instruct students to focus solely on the activities and contents of what we conventionally call the mind may unwittingly contribute to keeping contained the deep unconscious sankharas, which always appear as sensation. Many techniques can bring about a calming effect at the surface level of the mind, but if we’re sincere about wanting to truly awaken and become truly conscious, we really need to embrace the experience of the body as a focus of our practice and allow the deeply unconscious and unfelt sensations to start coming out of hiding. And yes, this can be a very intensive undertaking, one definitely not for the faint of heart! But what, really, is our choice? We either face our karma and release the accumulated tensions of the past, or we continue to avoid feeling the reality of the body and enshrine the tensions forever.

As you say, this does indeed sound like an intensive undertaking and one that many practitioners today may feel they simply don’t have room for in their busy lives. When we sit down and encounter our deepest unconscious feelings first thing in the morning, how do we then get up and go about our day effectively? How can we approach this work in a manner that doesn’t threaten to make us fall apart completely?

The kinds of emotional storms that we’re talking about generally only erupt during long, intensive retreats. When we return home to our more familiar environment, things will settle out after a day or two, and so I don’t think you really have to worry about falling apart while driving to work. If we’re sincere about truly going deep and purifying out some of the residue of our karma, then I think an intensive retreat at least once a year is very important. When we come back from retreat, it’s helpful to keep up our formal practice by sitting daily for an hour or for however long our schedule permits.

As important as formal practices undeniably are, I feel that it is even more important to view the rest of our lives as “informal” practice. What I mean by this is that the awareness of embodied presence need not be confined to the time spent sitting on our meditation cushion. Every single moment provides an opportunity to relax the tendency to create tension in the body and unconscious thought patterns in the mind, and this can be a very gentle process. If intensive retreats are like turning up the flame on the stove, informal practice is like simmering at a low and steady heat that is practically unnoticeable and so allows you to go about your daily life without the emotional upheavals that can occur during more intensive periods of practice.

I think of informal practice as “embodied mindfulness.” In truth, every single moment of our lives presents us with a choice: either awaken to the reality of the present moment, or stay sleepy and push aspects of that reality away. Sensations are here every single moment. Why don’t we feel them? The visual field, in all its dazzling play, is here every moment that our eyes are open. Can we remember to look and actually see? Sounds are here constantly. Blocking them from our awareness creates a great deal of tension in the body.

Let alignment, relaxation, and surrendered resilience be your physical guides not only in your sitting practice but also as you go about your day. These three keys allow you to stay in touch with embodied presence. Merging an awareness of body with the awareness of vision and sound allows you to truly become one with this present moment. As you bring alignment, relaxation, and resilience into your daily life, your breath automatically becomes fuller and starts moving through your entire body, just as the Buddha suggested in his description of meditation. Without forcing a thing, let your breath breathe you: breathe into your entire body, and breathe out just as effortlessly. This condition, nothing more, nothing less, is really the reward and benefit of the practice. And in this way you can walk in full awareness through the city or countryside, like a knife cutting through the softest butter. Always be on the lookout not to bring any tension into this practice. Striving to attain this kind of awareness is simply self-defeating. Relax into presence. It’s been there all the time.

(NOTE: This article is taken from Tricycle Magazine, Fall 2007. http://www.tricycle.com/)


The Case for Contemplative Psychology

My research path is taking me into the Christian Mystics and other contemplative traditions. I found this article during my search. I hope it’s helpful. With metta, John

A Case for Contemplative Psychology

Han F. de Wit argues that spiritual tradition can be viewed as its own school of psychology. As such, it offers more effective techniques and profound goals than the “ordinary unhappiness” aspired to by conventional psychology.

Why is it that some people become wiser and gentler during their lifetimes, while others become more hard-hearted and shortsighted to the needs of others? Why do some people develop the ability to cope with suffering, while others fall apart? And what is it that causes some people to experience an increasing measure of joy in their lives, while others become more anxious and fearful?

These questions are central to contemplative psychology. They concern an inner flourishing—sometimes willed, sometimes not—that occurs in the depth of our being. Whether it is present or absent can determine our attitude toward life.

Although this flourishing occurs, in a certain sense, in the hidden depths of our heart, it is not something abstract and detached from our lives: this inner flourishing manifests in how we live our everyday life. Its fruit is visible in the specific way in which we relate to our environment, our fellow beings and ourselves—a way that deepens and elevates our own lives as well as those of others.

We all know people who, at moments or perhaps continually, radiate something—a certain warmth, an unconditional interest in their surroundings, a clarity of mind that is catching and inspiring. This is not necessarily because their situation in life provides them with a special opportunity or because these people are especially fond of us. Rather, these qualities appear to belong to their very nature.

Furthermore, all of us experience moments in our lives which like a flood wash away our self-centeredness. These are moments of liberation that reveal new possibilities. Faced with a crisis, people often “rise above themselves”: they abandon concern for their own private projects and ambitions and act from a much broader perspective. At such moments people experience freedom, strength and even joy, in a very fundamental sense. This is why, even in the most difficult of circumstances, they are able to encourage and inspire those around them.

We sometimes have the tendency to view people who act from this broader perspective as special and far above us spiritually, as people who possess a spiritual power that is beyond our reach. But the spiritual power and joy in life we recognize in them is not essentially alien to us. We ourselves also have moments when our attitude to life is like this—moments when our fundamental humanity is awakened and manifests itself.

The inner flourishing of which I speak concerns the uncovering of this fundamental humanity. The term “fundamental humanity,” or “humaneness” for short, may sound quite pompous or theoretical, if not somewhat moralistic, but I use this term to refer to a very concrete and familiar experience. Let us take a closer look at humaneness and how it is visible in our own lives.

Because fundamental humanity manifests itself under circumstances of both prosperity and adversity, there is no single way to describe its qualities. In times of personal adversity, it takes the form of courage. Confronted with the adversities of others, it manifests itself as compassion. In times of personal prosperity or in viewing the prosperity of others, it manifests itself as taking joy in life.

In addition to these three forms, there is a fourth, clarity of mind. This clarity allows us to be realistic in our view of the world and ourselves. It is not so much an intellectual clarity; rather it resembles the inquisitiveness, sensitivity and interest that we can see in healthy young children. Yet age has little to do with it. This clarity is the universal human capacity and desire to learn, to see, to be aware.

In moments when we experience our humaneness we feel that we are “at our best”—not in the sense that we could make a top-notch job of something or that we feel happy, but rather in the sense that we feel that we have been born fully equipped for human life in all of its prosperity and adversity. At such moments we realize that we are born first and foremost as human beings, and not as “John” or “Mary.” Experiencing our humaneness lifts us above individual identity and brings us closer to ourselves simply as human beings.

In a certain sense such moments go beyond, or lie hidden under, the satisfaction or frustration of our desires. It is as if the rich soil of genuine humaneness exists within us independent of our desires. We are aware of this soil sometimes in prosperous circumstances and sometimes in adverse circumstances. Yet more often, it does not manifest itself at all. Why is this?

Joy in Life Versus Satisfaction

When we are born we know nothing. We are naive, in a certain sense; our existence is veiled in darkness, unarticulated.

There are no instructions for life lying beside our cradle. But small and helpless as we are, we are not out of the game: from the very first we have an open, unconditional interest in and devotion to the world of phenomena. We are, apparently, born this way.

But look: with some people, this unconditional zest for life manifests increasingly in their lives, while for others it seems to disappear as they grow older. Even over the course of our lives there are periods in which it manifests itself in a greater or lesser degree. Why this happens is one of the central questions that contemplative psychology addresses.

Let me give a broad indication of the answer to this question by contrasting one of the four aspects of humaneness, joy in life, with the notion of satisfaction. Joy in life is a state of mind directed toward our life in its totality, and not toward certain circumstances. In contrast, there is a conditional form of joy called satisfaction, which we experience when we succeed in satisfying our needs and desires. Ordinarily we use the word “happiness” to refer to this satisfaction of our desires, and we can lose this kind of happiness, just as we can lose material possessions.

Viewing happiness in terms of satisfaction can be called a materialistic view of happiness, and this view is the soil for a life dominated by anxiety, by hope for gain and fear of loss. Then there is a spiritual view of happiness, understood as joy in life—the profound, unconditional quality of being in touch with one’s humaneness.

When we live joyfully from the perspective of our humaneness, then the other three qualities—compassion, courage and clarity of mind—also manifest themselves freely and unconditionally. Whenever suffering appears we quickly jump to someone’s aid. Whenever we meet with confusion or fear, our humaneness manifests as clarity of mind and courage. We do these things not because it is some sort of duty, but because we cannot do otherwise.

Contemplative Psychology

The desire to realize our humaneness fully is the basis of the spiritual traditions. It is precisely in the great spiritual traditions that we find all kinds of psychological insights into our humaneness and disciplines through which it can be cultivated.

In fact, the spiritual traditions contain a psychology in their own right, a contemplative psychology very different from our conventional Western psychology. This psychology has as its main objective to discover the dynamics that make our humaneness flourish or wilt. For that purpose, it looks at our human mind and designs ways to cultivate it.

The assumption of contemplative psychology is that human beings have a certain degree of freedom to shape their own minds. They have the freedom to imprison themselves within a state of mind, and the freedom to liberate themselves from it. And because our mind determines what we say and do, the way this freedom is used manifests in our actions and speech, which in turn is felt in our personal lives and our society.

When this freedom is continuously used to form certain egocentric habits, they become rigid patterns, difficult to change. Not only individuals but entire cultures can become so convinced of the inevitability of the formed patterns that they view them as absolute. When this happens they become part of our very concept of humanity: “That’s how human beings are.” This influences the way in which people raise their children, thus closing the circle. Within this vicious cycle it is very difficult to unravel what is the cause and what is the result.

Spiritual traditions are concerned with identifying and letting go of the mental habits or patterns that obscure the manifestation of our buddhanature, the working of the Holy Spirit in our heart, or whatever the particular tradition calls it. In the terminology of contemplative psychology, the spiritual path is directed toward opening a mental space in which our humaneness can flourish.

The Spiritual Disciplines

Why can the spiritual traditions be of so much more benefit to us than conventional Western psychology? It is because their psychology has an eye for the basic plasticity, or freedom, of the human mind. Traveling on the spiritual path involves working with this plasticity, molding the mind by means of spiritual disciplines. In fact, it is because of this plasticity that something like a spiritual path exists.

In analyzing the enormous wealth of spiritual disciplines and methods, contemplative psychology draws on a classic spiritual division: the disciplines of mind, the disciplines of speech, and the disciplines of action.

The mental disciplines are naturally concerned with cultivating insight into the nature of our mind. They are par excellence directed at the cultivation of inner flourishing by exploring our attitude toward life and allowing us to connect with our humaneness. The disciplines of speech and action are then directed at manifesting our humaneness through the cultivation of a decent, caring way of relating to our fellow human beings and our environment.

Within the range of the mental disciplines, contemplative psychology distinguishes two main groups: the disciplines of thought and the disciplines of consciousness. Simply put, we can think about our perceptions and we can perceive our thoughts.

The Disciplines of Thought: Intellect and Imagination

The disciplines of thought work with the creation and use of mental content—concepts, ideas, theories, representations, images and symbols. So the term “thought” has a very broad meaning here. Some of these disciplines are specifically directed at enlarging our intellectual understanding of the spiritual path, our mind and experience. This is like studying the road map. Other disciplines of thought make use of our power of imagination. They offer us mental images that can evoke a different, more humane way of experiencing reality.

The systematic use of our intellect and of our imagination are, psychologically speaking, two very different disciplines. So the disciplines of thought can be divided into the intellectual disciplines and the disciplines of the imagination.

Of these, the intellectual disciplines are the best known. Since ancient times they have been considered very important and have been widely used in the spiritual traditions. The strength of the intellectual disciplines is that they are very communicable, for they work with language and concepts.

The disciplines of imagination are less familiar to us. Although we make representations of everything and anything in everyday life, our culture—with the exception of a few modern cognitive psychotherapies—hardly values the systematic use of the imagination as a means of transforming our experience of reality.

The disciplines of imagination amount simply to the replacement of unwholesome images by images that have a beneficial experiential value. In general terms, they work with images that are at odds with our conventional egocentric mode of experiencing reality. Even though these are nothing more than images in our stream of thought, they can open our eyes to the qualities of our own fundamental humaneness. In fact, these images derive their effectiveness from being the expression of our fundamental humaneness, just as our conventional images derive their power from being representations of an egocentric mind. The visualization practices of vajrayana Buddhism are a good example of this discipline.

The Disciplines of Consciousness: Mindfulness and Insight

It is striking that the disciplines of consciousness are found in almost all spiritual traditions, and that the reasons given for practicing these disciplines are almost identical.

The first reason is that our minds are so scattered and fragmented. The second important reason is that our mind has the tendency to lose itself in a self-created and egocentric mental world that prevents us from seeing phenomena as they actually are. We are caught up in a consciousness that can no longer distinguish completely between illusion and reality. Thus we live in a hazy, imaginary reality and suffer from that.

The disciplines of consciousness allow us, first, to overcome our mental agitation, and second, to see clearly the nature of our mind and experience. Because of this double purpose, the disciplines of consciousness are divided into the disciplines of mindfulness and the disciplines of insight. The disciplines of mindfulness are mainly preparatory exercises for the disciplines of insight.

A familiar metaphor for the agitation of our mind is that of a wild horse. The horse seems free to come and go as it pleases, but precisely because it is wild, it is extraordinarily skittish: it takes only the flutter of a leaf to send it rushing off. This is the way our mind is when it is captured by the egocentric conception of reality: it only takes one ego-threatening thought to make it bolt. The mind is too high-strung, too vulnerable to unrest, to give itself the time to take a good look around.

Because of this, we are not fully conscious of our actual situation; we are “absent,” not completely there. As many traditions put it, we are asleep, not awake. The purpose of the disciplines of mindfulness is to do something about this absent-mindedness. To this end, we practice focusing our attention on one point.

The discipline of mindfulness is simply a way to do this systematically. In many traditions, it takes the form of sitting meditation: we sit erect in quiet surroundings on a chair or a meditation cushion and focus our attention on, for example, our breathing. When we notice that our attention has got caught up in the content of our stream of thoughts, we turn our attention again to our breathing, the focal point for our mindfulness.

How is it that we are able to bring our mindfulness back to its focal point at all? The human mind is apparently shaped in such a way that moments naturally occur when we notice that we have been caught. These are the crucial moments in the practice of the disciplines of mindfulness. It is at such moments that we can choose to direct our mindfulness once more to the focal point. All disciplines of mindfulness make use of this ability of the mind, this natural wakefulness.

Then once mindfulness has been established, how do we practice the disciplines of insight? Is there a certain technique for training our discriminating awareness? The answer is typical of the disciplines of insight: the practice goes beyond every technique. Nonetheless, it is a very disciplined practice.

How are we to conceive of this? As the disciplined practice of open-mindedness itself, by which we mean a mind that is free from being fixated on or lost in the contents of thought.

Open-mindedness, which is the fruit of mindfulness, forms the basis for the disciplines of insight. This open-mindedness creates the space in which our discernment, our discriminating awareness, operates and can be active.

This discernment allows us to see the world of phenomena from the vantage point of unconditional open-mindedness. It penetrates and clarifies our egocentric experience of reality. We begin to recognize our self-created experience of reality for what it is: an illusion. At the same time, it gives us insight into reality and allows us to experience its qualities, which are none other than the qualities of our fundamental humaneness.

Gradually we discover that this open space is inhabitable, real and joyous, and not a spiritual myth or mystery. This gives rise to an enormous inspiration, one based not on hope but on experience. From an egocentric perspective this open space may appear groundless, deadly and lonely, but seen from its own perspective it is alive, clear and warm. It is the space from which our fundamental humanity can arise and flourish. It gives us insight into human existence, with all its shortcomings and suffering, and offers a perspective that makes us more caring, milder and wiser. Discovering this space and allowing it to embrace our experience is nothing other than the cultivation of the flourishing within.

Han F. de Wit is a leading European writer on the connections between science, religion and spirituality, and is actively involved in Buddhist-Christian dialogue. He is the author of The Spiritual Path: An Introduction to the Psychology of the Spiritual Traditions (1999) and Contemplative Psychology (1991) both published by Duquesne University Press.

From: The Case for Contemplative Psychology, Han F. de Wit, Shambhala Sun, March 2001.

Sanity We are Born With

Lately, I am researching Buddhist Psychology and found this brief writing that I felt was worth sharing. I hope you find it useful in your personal path to purification.


Sanity We Are Born With
A Buddhist Approach to Psychology

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Extract : 
The Viewpoint of HealthBuddhist psychology is based on the notion that human beings are fundamentally good. Their most basic qualities are positive ones: openness,
intelligence, and warmth. Of course this viewpoint has its philosophical and psychological expressions in concepts such as bodhichitta (awakened mind), and tathagatagarbha (birthplace of enlightened ones). But this idea is ultimately rooted in experience-the experience of goodness and worthiness in oneself and others. This understanding is very fundamental and is the basic inspiration for Buddhist practice and Buddhist psychology.Coming from a tradition that stresses human goodness, it was something of a shock for me to encounter the Western tradition of original sin. When I was at Oxford University, I studied Western religious and philosophical traditions with interest and found the notion of original sin quite pervasive. One of my early experiences in England was attending a seminar with Archbishop Anthony Blum. The seminar was on the notion of grace, and we got into a discussion of original sin. The Buddhist tradition does not see such a notion as necessary at all, and I expressed this viewpoint. I was surprised at how angry the Western participants became. Even the orthodox, who might not emphasize original sin as much as the Western traditions, still held it as a cornerstone of their theology.

In terms of our present discussion, it seems that this notion of original sin does not just pervade Western religious ideas; it actually seems to run throughout Western thought as well, especially psychological thought. Among patients, theoreticians, and therapists alike, there seems to be great concern with the idea of some original mistake which causes later suffering-a kind of punishment for that mistake. One finds that a sense of guilt or being wounded is quite pervasive. Whether or not such people actually believe in the idea of original sin, or in God for that matter, they seem to feel that they have done something wrong in the past and are now being punished for it.

It seems that this feeling of basic guilt has been passed down from one generation to another and pervades many aspects of Western life. For example, teachers often think that if children do not feel guilty, then they won’t study properly and consequently won’t develop as they should. Therefore, many teachers feel that they have to do something to push the child, and guilt seems to be one of the chief techniques they use. This occurs even on the level of improving reading and writing. The teacher looks for errors: “Look, you made a mistake. What are you going to do about it?” From the child’s point of view, learning is then based on trying not to make mistakes, on trying to prove you actually are not bad. It is entirely different when you approach the child more positively: “Look how much you have improved, therefore we can go further.” In the latter case, learning becomes an expression of one’s wholesomeness and innate intelligence.

The problem with this notion of original sin or mistake is that it acts very much as a hindrance to people. At some point, it is of course necessary to realize one’s shortcomings. But if one goes too far with that, it kills any inspiration and can destroy one’s vision as well. So in that way, it really is not helpful, and in fact it seems unnecessary. As I mentioned, in Buddhism we do not have any comparable ideas of sin and guilt. Obviously there is the idea that one should avoid mistakes. But there is not anything comparable to the heaviness and inescapabiity of original sin.

According to the Buddhist perspective, there are problems, but they are temporary and superficial defilements that cover over one’s basic goodness (tathagatagarbha). This viewpoint is a positive and optimistic one. But, again, we should emphasize that this viewpoint is not purely conceptual. It is rooted in the experience of meditation and in the healthiness it encourages. There are temporary habitual neurotic patterns that develop based on past experience, but these can be seen through. It is just this that is studied in the abhidharma: how one thing succeeds another, how volitional action originates and perpetuates itself, how things snowball. And, most important, abhidharma studies how through meditation practice, this process can be cut through.

The attitude that results from the Buddhist orientation and practice is quite different from the “mistake mentality.” One actually experiences mind as fundamentally pure, that is, healthy and positive, and “problems” as temporary and superficial defilements. Such a viewpoint does not quite mean “getting rid” of problems, but rather shifting ones focus. Problems are seen in a much broader context of health: one begins to let go of clinging to one’s neuroses and to step beyond obsession and identification with them. The emphasis is no longer on the problems themselves but rather on the ground of experience through realizing the nature of mind itself. When problems are seen in this way, then there is less panic and everything seems more workable. When problems arise, instead of being seen as purely threats, they become learning situations, opportunities to find out more about one’s own mind, and to continue on one’s journey.

Through practice, which is confirmed by study, the inherent healthiness of your mind and others’ minds is experienced over and over. You see that your problems are not all that deeply rooted. You see that you can make literal progress. You find yourself becoming more mindful and more aware, developing a greater sense of healthiness and clarity as you go on, and this is tremendously encouraging.

Ultimately, this orientation of goodness and healthiness comes out of the experience of egolessness, a notion that has created a certain amount of difficulty for Western psychologists. “Egolessness” does not mean that nothing exists, as some have thought, a kind of nihilism. Instead, it means that you can let go of your habitual patterns and then when you let go, you genuinely let go. You do not re-create or rebuild another shell immediately afterward. Once you let go, you do not just start all over again. Egolessness is having the trust to not rebuild again at all and experiencing the psychological healthiness and freshness that goes with not rebuilding. The truth of egolessness can only be experienced fully through meditation practice.

The experience of egolessness encourages a real and genuine sympathy toward others. You cannot have genuine sympathy with ego because then that would mean that your sympathy would be accompanied by some kind of defense mechanisms. For example, you might try to refer everything back to your own territory when you work with someone, if your own ego is at stake. Ego interferes with direct communication, which is obviously essential in the therapeutic process. Egolessness, on the other hand, lets the whole process of working with others be genuine and generous and free-form. That is why, in the Buddhist tradition, it is said that without egolessness, it is impossible to develop real compassion.

The Practice of Therapy

The task of the therapist is to help his or her patients connect back with their own fundamental healthiness and goodness. Prospective patients come to us feeling starved and alienated. More important than giving them a set of techniques for battling their problems, we need to point them toward the experience of the fundamental ground of health which exists in them. It might be thought that this is asking a great deal, particularly when we are working with confronting someone who has a history of problems. But the sanity of basic mind is actually close at hand and can be readily experienced and encouraged.

Of course, it goes without saying that the therapist must experience his own mind in this way to begin with. Through meditation practice, his clarity and warmth toward himself is given room to develop and then can be expanded outward. Thus his meditation and study provide the ground for working with disturbed people, with other therapists, and with himself in the same framework all the time. Obviously, this is not so much a question of theoretical or conceptual perspective, but of how we personally experience our own lives. Our existence can be felt fully and thoroughly so that we appreciate that we are genuine, true human beings. This is what we can communicate to others and encourage in them.

One of the biggest obstacles to helping our patients in this way is, again, the notion of a “mistake,” and the preoccupation with the past that results from this. Many of our patients will want to unravel their past. But this can be a dangerous approach if it goes too far. If you follow this thread, you have to look back to your conception, then to your family’s experiences before that, to your great-grandfathers, and on and on. It could go a long way back and get very complicated.

The Buddhist viewpoint emphasizes the impermanence and the transitoriness of things. The past is gone, and the future has not yet happened, so we work with what is here: the present situation. This actually helps us not to categorize or to theorize. A fresh, living situation is actually taking place all the time, on the spot. This noncategorizing approach comes from being fully here rather than trying to follow up some past event. We do not have to look back to the past in order to see what we ourselves or other people are made out of. Things speak for themselves, right here and now.

In my days at Oxford and since then, I have been impressed by some of the genuine strengths of Western psychology. It is open to new viewpoints and discoveries. It maintains a critical attitude toward itself. And it is the most experiential of Western intellectual disciplines.

But at the same time, considered from the viewpoint of Buddhist psychological tradition, there is definitely something missing in the Western approach. This missing element, as we have suggested throughout this introduction, is the acknowledgment of the primacy of immediate experience. It is here that Buddhism presents a fundamental challenge to Western therapeutics and offers a viewpoint and method that could revolutionize Western psychology.

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