[Sketches and outlines – this is a work in progress – it will be regularly redrafted as key ideas are improved upon]
The psyche, or soul, is of secondary importance, when compared to the ‘understanding’ – meaning the capacity to understand. Human understanding is a mixture of intellectual ability, intuitive insight, and psychological expression; and it functions as a response to the experiences presented to it in life. Experiences happen to you, and you attempt to grasp them, and work out their significance, through your faculty of understanding. There are many paradoxes involved in this, but the principle is relatively straightforward: you live life, and you try to make sense of it. That is the basic experience we all share, and it is our fundamental openness to the world. The mental capacity which allows you to make sense of life – in all its different guises – is the understanding. The understanding is more than the intellect, because it is the ability to grasp things in their widest perspective, and to see things as a whole. It doesn’t always work properly, and it changes over time, but it is our only capacity for an overall view of things.
And in Buddhism, the understanding is granted priority over the psyche, or the soul.
Your psyche might tell you to relocate to Spain, and that this is going to be the best thing in the world, while your understanding tells you that on day two, you are going to wish you had stayed where you are. The psyche might then keep you awake at night, with yearnings, and images of the good life in Spain, and succeed in reducing you to a conflicted wreck. It might take ten years for such a dilemma to resolve itself, or for you to come to a decision. You might even make the wrong choice. But it is the understanding which is the final arbiter, and which will tell you how things have turned out. And the point of principle is that the understanding should be given priority over your emotions, and never the psyche, no matter how strong its pull. Psychic disturbances should be treated like storms; and one should try to sit quietly in a safe place until they pass. You can’t suppress them, or try to defeat them by willpower – they are stronger than you – but you can behave responsibly by not acting until they blow over. Buddhism is always looking for something deeper than psychic pleasure or pain, and the first step on the road is to cultivate the understanding.
Counselling is about creating a context in which the understanding can function, and flourish, and lead to ever greater insight into one’s condition. Then spiritual progress can begin.