An introduction to Buddhist counselling

What is counselling, how does it work, and what does Buddhism have to do with it ?

Counselling takes place when someone looks to a professional for help in gaining insight into a problematic aspect of their lives. The problem could be something as straightforward as a decision that needs to be made, or it could be something very complicated and vague, such as questions relating to meaning and fulfilment. The counsellor does their best to help the client see clearly what life is confronting them with, so that the client feels able to deal with the situation in a positive frame of mind.

In popular culture, counselling is often portrayed as a quasi-medical science, and the counsellor is seen as both an authority figure, and as some kind of medical expert. But this is a mistake, because it gives rise to false expectations as to what counselling can achieve, and it also encourages a passivity in the client which prevents them from engaging with the problem at hand. Counselling ought not to be seen as a branch of psychological medicine, but rather as a branch of the philosophy of life, with no connotations of illness, or disability, or embarrassment. People should feel that going to counselling is a natural and intelligent thing to do, if you are someone who takes life seriously.

A counsellor needs to be someone with considerable experience of life and its difficulties, so as to be able to make objective assessments of a multiplicity of life situations. This is not a question of book learning, or technique, but rather of direct experience, if the counsellor is not to pretend to knowledge they do not possess. In this regard, being young is a considerable handicap for a counsellor, even if they are well-educated and extremely intelligent, because intelligence and education count as nothing when compared with first-hand experience: being well-informed about psychological distress is not the same as having lived through it.

How does counselling work ?

Counselling begins with discussion of whatever it is that the client wishes to talk about.. The topic of concern can be approached head on, or it can be approached in a roundabout way. The counsellor will attempt to give shape and focus to what the client has to say, but without imposing any kind of ideological framework on what is being said. Often a client is not sure for themselves exactly what it is that is bothering them, so a variety of possibilities need to be looked at. This introductory phase is all about letting the situation speak for itself, and seeing things as they are.

Then comes a period of analysis, in which the key points of what a client has had to say can be examined from several angles, so that the client can be presented with an objective view of their situation. Once objectivity has been achieved, client and counsellor can then begin to discuss the most positive way to move forward.
Each meeting generally lasts about an hour, and should take place once a week. A counselling period – made up of a succession of meetings – is normally spread over several weeks, or months, depending on how easy or difficult it has been to get to the heart of the issues at hand.

Where does Buddhism fit in ?

Most counselling within the medical framework is a very superficial affair, with an emphasis on technique, and an almost complete – if unacknowledged – acceptance of the world at face value. In other words, mainstream counselling is simply about successfully reintegrating the client back into society, where they can carry on like everyone else, working and playing at the game of life. Ordinary existence is the goal, with functional normality as the measure of success.

But if you yearn for something deeper than day to day life, with its endless highs and lows, and trivial pleasures, mainstream counselling has nothing to offer. This is not to condemn such counselling as a fraud, but simply to point out its limitations. Mainstream counselling has no capacity to see beyond life as it is lived, and has nothing to say about profounder concerns. It is only interested in solving problems by way of technique.

Buddhism, on the other hand, offers genuine access to a realm beyond everyday obsessions, and tries to address the deepest possible questions of life and existence head on. It is not a religion, or a system of beliefs, but instead a more resourceful way of approaching the human condition, bringing into play hidden perspectives which give the client a greater sense of meaning and worth than is possible through counselling as it is normally practiced. No strange techniques or esoteric practices are involved – nothing that couldn’t be argued in front of an audience of sceptics – and everything is kept as straightforward and as transparent as possible.This might seem – at first glance – to be an endorsement of any kind of religious counselling, or any kind of holistic esotericism which supposedly offers more than a mere return to everyday life. But this is not the case, because Buddhism strives to be wholly realistic and unsentimental about our inner life, so that we are not led astray by fantasy.
Furthermore, Buddhist counselling does not involve the kind of confessional intimacy – with its sexual connotations – which has come to be associated with psychodynamic schools. It is more concerned to get things into a wider perspective than with highly-charged confessions, and does not require of a client that they be prepared to flay themselves emotionally.

Buddhist counselling generally involves two stages: one, dealing with the specific and immediate problem that has brought the client to counselling in the first instance – and two, working towards a wider perspective, in which the client – in their own unique way – embarks on a deeper quest towards ultimate self-fulfilment. This many sound very vague and nebulous, but it is not. It has been carefully and systematically worked out, and accords with the highest standards of the Buddhist tradition itself.