Psychotherapy and the Buddhist perspective: introductory ideas

Psychotherapy and the Buddhist perspective: introductory ideas


Buddhism has now entered the mainstream of western society, and is no longer seen as something especially exotic or foreign. Famous Buddhists appear regularly in the media, and books on Buddhism can be found in any general bookshop. Buddhism is widely accepted to be an eastern teaching with much to commend it.

But this casual integration of Buddhism into everyday life masks a very serious problem which has not so far not yet received any attention. And this is the fact that the most provocative and valuable ideas behind Buddhism are almost completely unknown in the west, and its most trivial aspects are given the most attention. Buddhism is seen as just another eastern religion – just another mystical yoga – albeit one with its own particular flavour. Given the way Buddhism was introduced to the west, and given the way western society has developed over the last hundred years, this situation is entirely understandable, and probably inevitable, but it means that there is still much important intellectual groundwork that needs to be done.


The most crucial feature of Buddhism – that which cuts it off from all the rest – is that it is a quest, not a religion. It has nothing to do with what normally counts as a faith, or a philosophy. Buddhism is an expression of intent, rather than a fait accompli. A Buddhist is someone who embarks on the search for ultimate truth, not someone who joins a congregation, or who takes on a set of readymade beliefs. A Buddhist is a seeker, not a believer. This sets Buddhism completely apart from any other religion, philosophy, or set of ideas. Obviously there is also a tradition, but the tradition is simply an institutional record of the thoughts of others who have tackled the same questions, and it does not exert any authority over the individual seeker. The tradition is there to be used if it is helpful, and disregarded if it is not. Buddhists who treat the tradition as if it were a religion are doing themselves a great disservice, and are going against the admonitions of the Buddha himself.

Buddhism is the quest for ultimate metaphysical knowledge, ultimate truth, and ultimate wisdom. These are lofty ideals, and have to be treated with due caution and respect. No one is assured of a successful outcome, or a happy ending; the quest itself would be meaningless if it were. Each seeker has to find the truth for themselves, by their own efforts, and as a result of their own struggles; it cannot be delivered to them as an act of faith, or through mystical initiation, or through devotional prayer.


The quest itself begins with the realisation that there is something inherently unsatisfactory about life, even at its most magnificent and pleasurable. Life is basically fragile, wafer thin, and fleeting. One has to have realised this for oneself, without being prompted. Certainly there are good times to be had, but they don’t last long, and neither pleasure nor success can ever really weaken the problem of life itself. Buddhists take it upon themselves to try to look deeper, and go beyond the superficial. They are mining for insights which will grant them a profounder understanding of the situation they are in, in the hope that they can find a way out.


It is important to stress that Buddhism is not a specialised form of yoga, despite the fact that it is constantly portrayed as such. It is not an invitation to mystical states and psychedelic consciousness, and self-absorption, because it is headed in entirely the opposite direction, towards insight, and metaphysical understanding, and clarity of thought. Yoga has its own massive storehouse of signs and wonders, but penetrating insight is not one of them. Buddhism is not about delusion, or brainwashing, or forcing yourself to believe things which are patently infantile or absurd. Buddhism is about maintaining a thoroughgoing scepticism, and constantly reassessing one’s thoughts and insights.


Depicted in this way, the Buddhist quest may look to be an austere and lonely path, and one which goes against all our human feelings, and all our innermost longings. It appears to deny pleasure-seeking, and denigrate the feel-good factor. It may even seem to have a streak of cruelty to it. And one only has to look at the shaven-headed seriousness of the Buddhist monastic community to see this writ large in actual practice. Even if you take the many fantastic Buddhist temples into account, Buddhist practice compares very unfavourably to the world of hirsute swamis, noisy ashrams and scantily-clad yoginis. Maybe there is something cold and self-denying about putting your likes, dislikes and secret yearnings on the shelf, in the pursuit of a greater truth, but being able to do that is part of growing up. And it doesn’t mean you have to cut your ties with everyday humanity, and occasional hedonism, if the urge is there. You can still give yourself a holiday, and run up the odd lost weekend, provided you do so in a responsible way. Buddhism is really no more than a determined form of self-imposed mental discipline, no more masochistic or cruel than the disciplines followed by musicians or sportspeople, or writers, or anyone who wants to achieve anything in life. Most music fans would be shocked to learn how many hours their apparently dissolute rock idols spend practicing their craft each and every day. Is not the pursuit of genuine metaphysical knowledge worth at least ten times that kind of effort ?


If Buddhism is basically a quest, and not a set of teachings, how can it be related to psychotherapy ? Does it have any relevance at all ?


Psychotherapy is about relieving psychological distress, and as a discipline, it has evolved within the context of western science and medicine. The guiding beliefs underpinning psychotherapy are that psychological healing can be freed from witchcraft and shamanism, and that healing practices can be objectified, and refined according to scientific principles. This is admirable as far as it goes, but the problem has been that, as western society has become more technologically advanced, so it has become correspondingly less interested in life’s deeper questions, leading to a situation where even the humanities are underwritten by shallow and vacuous ideas. Life is pretty much what you see on the streets, or on television; there is not more to it than that. Psychotherapy, for example, is still principally concerned with the remission of symptoms, and this promotes an extremely simple-minded view of life. It never addresses questions about psychological fulfilment, let alone human destiny, and has nothing to offer by way of insight, or clarification, of these issues. It is as if such concerns did not exist.


How can Buddhism improve the situation ? First, and foremost – by introducing the Buddhist perspective. This may look like a forced construct, and mere wordplay, but it is much more than that, and the implications are immense. The Buddhist perspective is that psychological distress, while very real and all-consuming to the person experiencing it, is not the be-all and end-all of life. Psychological suffering is like a certain kind of disaster – horrific at the time, and not something you take lightly, or try to ignore, but you don’t make it the centre of your life. You deal with it as best you can – using commonsense techniques – but you are always looking further ahead than simply ‘getting back to normal.’ To successfully ameliorate an instance of psychological suffering on its own, without making any efforts towards greater insight, or towards some kind of greater wisdom – however humble – would only be to tap on the surface of a much more interesting and worthy issue, that of the purpose of life as experience, or life as suffering.


A word needs to be said here about the variety of new age techniques masquerading as Buddhist psychotherapy. Almost all of these, whether invoking mindfulness, waves of compassion, or energy centres, are essentially yoga derivatives, and, besides being an insult to the intelligence, have nothing to do with Buddhism. Buddhism is not about toying with states of consciousness, or plunging your imagination into psychedelic realms: it is about insight, and perspicacity, and metaphysical discrimination. These are not capacities which can be achieved by self-delusion. Any psychotherapy constructed within the framework of Buddhism ought to be begin with the idea of achieving a simple, ordinary, everyday clarity of thought, out of which – with some concerted effort, and a bit of good luck – one can develop one’s capacity for self-understanding. Grandiose systems involving self-mystification are best avoided. Nothing of value in psychotherapy is ever going to happen by magic, so you are going to have to put in the hours.