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Who We Really Are - Buddhist Approaches to Psychotherapy

Who We Really Are - Buddhist Approaches to Psychotherapy

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Published by Charles Day
An essay by a spiritually oriented psychiatrist and Buddhist meditation teacher on the application of Buddhist principles in psychotherapy and group psychotherapy.
An essay by a spiritually oriented psychiatrist and Buddhist meditation teacher on the application of Buddhist principles in psychotherapy and group psychotherapy.

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Published by: Charles Day on Nov 16, 2008
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Who We Really Are: Buddhist Approaches to Psychotherapy*Kenneth Porter**See www.desmoinesmeditation.org & Click above on “More from this Publisher”In the last 30 years Buddhism has increasingly influenced a new generation of American psychotherapists. The basic Buddhist concepts of Buddha nature, thedharma, attachment and meditation have opened up new ways of thinking aboutthe self, psychopathology, therapeutic process, the goal of therapy, the affectivefocus of therapy, the super-ego and therapeutic technique. Using a Buddhistapproach to group therapy we can maintain adherence to the traditionalprinciples of group therapeutic leadership technique, while exploring thepossibilities for changing group structure through meditation, increasing insightand empathy in both leader and group members, and deepening access torepressed material. This approach does not create “a new form of therapy or group therapy,” but rather might enable us to do better what it is that we alreadyknow how to do.It is interesting that the history of Buddhism in America, and the history of psychoanalysis, begin at almost the same moment. Although Thoreau in the1840’s, and the spiritual movement of the Theosophists and certain Bostonscholars after the 1870’s, had all been interested in Buddhism, its entrance intothe United States is often dated from the arrival of the Zen teacher Soyen Shakuin 1905 – only four years before Freud’s famous Clark University lectures of 1909. Since then both movements have permeated American society.But it was in the 1950’s that Buddhism began to enter the American mainstream.The writers Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg embraced ZenBuddhism with a fervor. With his easy and brilliant writing style, the transplantedEnglishman Alan Watts began to make Buddhism accessible to a wider audience. And at Columbia University the esteemed (and aged – he was then inhis late 80’s) Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki began to teach the famous seminar thatintroduced Buddhism to psychoanalysis. Attended by Erich Fromm and KarenHorney (as well as the musician John Cage and others), this class led to theseminal 1957 Cuernavaca conference on Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysisand to the book of the same name. This was the first attempt to bring these twopowerful movements together in a scholarly fashion (Suzuki, Fromm and DeMartino, 1960).In the 60’s and 70’s Buddhism grew in popularity. Starting in 1959 another Zenmaster named Suzuki (Shunryu Suzuki Roshi) began to teach in San Francisco,and his collected dharma talks, later published under the title Zen Mind,Beginner’s Mind, (Suzuki, 1972) became a classic. In the 70’s two TibetanBuddhism teachers, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Tarthang Tulku, alsobegan to teach in the United States, and three young Americans, Joseph
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Goldstein, Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg brought back from Asia the formof Buddhism called Insight Meditation and founded the Insight Meditation Societyin Massachusetts. Starting in the 1980’s came pioneering work in the integrationof Buddhism and psychotherapy – especially the books of Diane Shainberg(Shainberg, 1983, 1993, 2000), John Welwood (1983, 2000), and Mark Epstein(Epstein, 1995, 1998, 2001), among many others.It has often been noted that among many spiritual traditions Buddhism seems tohold a particular appeal for psychotherapists. This has been attributed to twocauses. First, compared to the other great spiritual traditions, Buddhism containsa particularly sophisticated understanding of human psychology (the Buddhahaving jokingly been referred to as the world’s first cognitive psychotherapist).Second, the powerful emphasis on love and compassion that permeates all of Buddhist teaching is sometimes contrasted with what is said to be the harshnessof the Jewish conception of divinity, and with the Christian emphasis on originalsin and guilt, and is said to be in harmony with psychotherapeutic concepts of healing.Basic Concepts of BuddhismFor the purposes of this paper we will focus on four basic concepts of Buddhism:Buddha nature, the dharma, attachment, and meditation.
1. The Nature of the Self and Buddha Nature.
The most fundamental idea inBuddhism is that all human beings are, at their core, healthy, wise and loving –brilliantly sane, as one Buddhist teacher put it. This is referred to as Buddhanature. At the same time, Buddhism famously teaches that “there is no self.” Bythis Buddhism does not mean to deny the obvious fact that we all experienceourselves as having a continuous identity, and that this concept is useful in livingour daily lives. The idea is rather that this everyday idea of identity is not thedeepest, most real experience that we can have of ourselves. We might say thatour identity, as we usually experience it, is composed of a set of mentalconstructs, self-representations or self-images, which are actually simply ideas.Buddhism teaches that on a deep level we may sometimes experience ourselvesin such a way as to reveal this ordinary concept of the self to be not completelyreal. Instead, we could experience ourselves as deeply aware, peaceful, wise,and caring, as not a static object but a process, as interdependent with others –“inter-being,” as one teacher put it – rather than as independent of others.Putting these ideas together, we might say that there are fundamentally twodifferent ways to experience the self – somewhat analogous to, although notidentical with, Winnicott’s well-known concept of the true self and false self. Inone mode, which we could call the social self or the false self, we experienceourselves as a
static 
set of self-representations,
independent 
of others, in whichdeficiency and psychodynamic conflict reside. In the other mode – Buddhanature – we may experience ourselves as a fundamentally healthy, loving, wise
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interdependent process.
It is an interesting and crucial fact, for most of us, thatthe capacity to experience ourselves in the mode of our Buddha nature may be acapacity that is even more deeply repressed than the thoughts, feelings andimpulses of what we normally think of as the unconscious.
2. The Journey of our Lives – the Dharma.
The word dharma has manymeanings in Buddhism, but the most fundamental of these is that the universeand our lives are characterized by order, and that we can live our lives with themost happiness if we align ourselves with this order. A corollary is that the mostuseful way to approach any situation in our lives, especially a difficult one, is notto consider it as a problem to be solved, but rather to see it as an opportunity tolearn something new about this order and about how to align with it.
3. The Cause of Unhappiness: Attachment.
Buddhism teaches that our unhappiness in life springs from our not understanding how to be happy. In order to be happy we focus on achieving goals that are basically unstable, such aswealth, power, beauty, health, prestige, pleasure, or the enhancement of certainself-images. Buddhism refers to the need for these goals as “attachment.” Theidea here is not that it is wrong or immature to pursue such goals – they areobviously of value – but that it is a mistake to make them our primary focus, tobase our happiness on them. (Because for us as therapists, educated by objectrelations theorists, the word “attachment” has another meaning; it is sometimesclearer to refer to “attachment” in everyday language as “expectation” or “need”or “mental addiction.”) Instead of focusing on attachments or addictions for our happiness, however, we might make our primary focus a more satisfying andstable goal – for instance, developing the capacity to experience our Buddhanature through fully feeling and accepting what we are experiencing at eachmoment of our lives.
4. Meditation: A Technology for Happiness - Re-training the Psyche.
In hisfamous initial teaching the Buddha suggested eight different techniques whichcould lead to a well-lived life (“the eight-fold path.”) For our purposes the mostrelevant of these might be meditation. The most basic form of Buddhistmeditation, mindfulness meditation, is done by focusing our attention on our breathing, and gently bringing our attention back to our breathing when our attention wanders.The theory of meditation is as follows. The potential exists in all of us for our consciousness to be in contact with the deepest level of who we are. Whatinterferes are the habits of our brain, our habits of thinking and feeling which tendto focus our attention on our attachments, our addictions. Meditation is simply amatter of re-training our brains to focus away from these attachments – theplaces to which our minds wander during meditation – to leave the brain free tocontact something deeper and more satisfying. Focusing on our breathing is atechnique to pull our minds away from our mental addictions.
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