The autonomy of Buddhist Psychology
Last week I attended a workshop on Gestalt Therapy. There I met old dharma friends and we had very interesting discussions; especially one among them showed a blatant divergence between the tenets of our positions. The basic tenet that my friend grasped vigorously (following the tradition of her zen sangha) is that it is a big mistake (and even dangerous) to go for spirituality without having been before in a therapeutic process of a western therapy [I will call it the “Therapy first hypothesis” (TF)]. I will try to explain why I think this approach is not proper at all.
TF assumes that the Buddha’s teachings are just another kind of transcendental path. So you have to go for western therapy first, and then begin to practice the Buddha’s path. This position doesn’t regard the fact that Buddhism is not just a way to transcend reality and become connected to the Unconditioned, but also a way to understand our conditioned reality. This understanding is drawn from the vision of a Fully-Enlightened Being, who had a perspective of the mind much broader then the materialistic western psychologies. From that vision, many clues to deal with reality are given; I find relevant for the subject discussed here the following: i. a determinate model of mind; ii. a determinate model of the healthy mind; and iii. a determinate model of morality/method to overcome the disease [I will refer to that triad as (MHM)].
Considering the former lines, we have to consider these questions:
- Cannot Buddhism be a guide to understand and relieve non-extreme pathological mental affections of the ‘average citizen’?
- Is the Buddhist paradigm completely in tune with other paradigms (e.g. the gestaltic)? Do the different therapies work under a particular model of MHM?
- Are those models important for the success of the therapy?
i. I really think that Buddhism is sufficient to the understanding and relief of some non-extreme pathological mental affections because, as other types of psychologies (gestaltism, behaviorism, cognitivism, humanism, systemic therapies, etc), it has an autonomous model of MHM. And I also think that is more complete than those types because it covers and explains aspects of the mind that other views of the mind cannot explain.
ii. The problem can come when we mix those different paradigms. In that instance, different models of MHM are melted and this, maybe (although I do not have empirical evidence to say so), can guide the client more toward chaos than to the harmony and final positive resolution of the therapeutic process. We can see the former better in the following example (based in the workshop that I undertook). The exercise that was proposed was to choose someone of the group and then hug each other for a while. The exercise was aimed to explain the ‘gestaltic circle’ of Joseph Zinker. Since the beginning up to the end, many interesting things happened to my mind. For example, I was chosen by a lady towards whom I had some aversion (mainly due to her odor). I could have refused her invitation because the negative to accept someone was accepted and even encouraged if we felt so, but it was very interesting for me to study those aversions and I tried to achieve a positive state of being even in such situation. And of course, I didn’t want her to feel bad. The result was, from the gestaltic circle’s point view, that I couldn’t satisfy my needs. From that could be deduced some unwholesome interruptions (for example that related to do something because we don’t want to hurt somebody) in the wholesome tendency to satisfy my needs.
But I really question that paradigm. We can question whether to satisfy our needs should always be a moral must. This paradigm blatantly partakes of the ‘naturalistic fallacy’. Something naturally conditioned MUST always continue like this; otherwise you will generate unwholesome mental attitudes. I don’t agree at all with that paradigm. Human beings have something called ‘culture’, and Buddhism a ‘mind culture’. This offers us infinite possibilities to go beyond the realm of the ‘naturally-conditioned’ organism that just seek immediate satisfaction. I am not saying that we have to overlook those needs, but their immediate satisfaction cannot be either the model of freedom or the model of a wholesome mind; in fact they can be an important obstacle to it.
Following my example, I could have refused her invitation to go for another more appealing person that could have made the experience more ‘enjoyable’; but this would have prevented me from developing some sides of the mind which are really encompassing and capable of embracing even the most unpleasant situations. This example can be interpreted from a perspective as a lack of freedom due to an action made by other’s will; from another, as an act of freedom because it’s been possible to create a new state-of-affairs based on wholesome states of mind rather than following the naturally-conditioned model of immediate look for sensorial/emotional pleasure and avoidance of the disagreeable.
So, the conflicts are obvious.
iii. Finally, we have to ponder whether working with different (and sometimes incompatible) models of MHM can be effective for the client’s process of development. I don’t think so. I would not say that that mixing actually leads to mental mess (I don’t have such evidence), but it’s a common sense to think that therapy will not bear the wished results. For example, I cannot imagine a behaviorist physician advising his client to stay for a while under a psychoanalyst’s guidance; or a patient being treated at a time by Watson’s techniques and Freud’s.
Of course, I don’t mean with the former approach that we cannot use techniques and principles of other therapies, but rather that we have to use them under the Buddhist model of MHM. Returning to my example, we can use the exercise of the hugs and analyze it from another perspective/frame (e.g. the Buddhist MHM); for instance: what was your first thought when you were asked to choose someone? Who was that person? Were they appealing to you? Did you go to ask her/him whether she/he would want to do the exercise or did you change and ask another person? If he/she refused your proposal, what was your attitude? If someone asked you to hug and you felt some aversion, what did you do/how did you manage the situation?
- It is a mistake to think that we have to do therapy first for a long while before starting the Buddhist practice because Buddhism itself is an autonomous model of MHM.
- It is very interesting that we use techniques and principles of other therapies in our process always that we keep in mind their compatibility with the Buddhist MHM.