Basic necessary skills a Buddhist counsellor ought to have
[Sketches and outlines – this is a work in progress – each section will be regularly redrafted as key ideas are improved upon]
The Capacity for Psychological Insight: it is crucial for any counsellor to have, as their primary capacity, an intuitive, elemental grasp, of the workings of the human psyche. They should feel completely at home with all aspects of the functioning of the soul, from art, to religion, to altered states of consciousness. This is not as painfully obvious as it might seem. The capacity for psychological insight is neither commonplace, nor that evident in scholarly literature. Many very intelligent and educated people have no psychological insight at all, and the subtleties of the human psyche are a mystery to them. They may, for example, be successful business people, well able to read and second-guess a market, yet completely in the dark as to the moods and atmospheres of their own family, let alone those of their colleagues.
The intuitive feel for psychology is not something that can be legislated for, or taught, or acquired by osmosis. It is a talent, akin to music, or drawing. It can be developed, and nurtured, and refined, but not constructed out of nothing. It deepens over time, but this deepening depends for its successful evolution on a wide exposure to all aspects of life, not only as an observer, but also as a participant. Observing tragedy is one thing, being on the receiving end of it, another. What value the pronouncements of a counsellor who has never experienced loneliness, rejection, failure, despair ?
A Mature Grasp of the Buddhist Project: Buddhism is often presented in the west as a specific form of oriental mysticism, and one which not only permits but actively encourages all kinds of sentimentality and maudlin thinking, under the guise of a universal compassion. It is still very much allied to new age perspectives, which have their origins in the 1960s flower power mysticism. But Buddhism, as a radical metaphysical ideology, ought to begin with a rejection of all forms of received wisdom, comforting ideas, and easy answers. If anything, it seeks to free the individual from the tyranny of mystification and self-delusion, which are the stock-in-trade of the religious enthusiast. It wants to have nothing to do with the cloying world of ‘easternism’, in which numinous words like ‘dharma’ and ‘nirvana’ are bandied about as if merely being able to use them in conversation were a sign of great spiritual prowess.
The Buddhist counsellor has to begin with a clear understanding, from the inside, of the first noble truth: that life is no joke, and that everyone, despite appearances to the contrary, has a hard time of it. This is an adult perspective, and not to be confused with teenage pessimism. It is also the ground of a simple human fellow-feeling, with the recognition that we are all in it together, whether we want to be, or not. Where Buddhism differs completely from Calvinism and the like, is that, in accepting life as a vale of tears, it still decrees that we should make the best of it, come what may. We should treat life as an opportunity, and have a go at cracking its metaphysical code, however humble our resources.
This does not mean that counselling ought to begin in a gloomy atmosphere, and that consoling thoughts should be snuffed out. But it does mean that most of what passes for psychological theory, insofar as it does not shed objective light on the human condition, but only on itself, is to be treated with great scepticism. Buddhist counselling begins with a simple, positive attitude, and a basic clarity of mind; let’s look at the situation, whatever it is, and see how we can improve on it, without resorting to grandiose theory, and flights of fancy.