In the first week of December last year the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies held a five-day residential course on Buddhist Psychology. The intention of the course was to introduce students to the classical models of mind and mental processing contained in the primary texts of the Pali Canon and other Buddhist texts, and then to review this material from the contemporary perspectives of modern psychology.
The program was co-sponsored by the Cambridge Institute of Meditation and Psychotherapy, and four of the institute’s members gave presentations during the course. Continuing education credits were available through the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, and many of the participants were practicing therapists or other trained health care professionals.
As with all course offerings at BCBS, the intensive program of lectures, reading and discussions was framed by a schedule of contemplative practice—sitting meditation morning, midday and evening, with regular periods of silence overnight and in the early morning. The course is being repeated again in May and December of 1997, and we hope to offer some variation of it twice a year into the future.
Overview: Basic Themes
What is Psychology?
The field of psychology—whether Buddhist or western—involves both theoretical and therapeutic dimensions. Theoretical psychology has to do with understanding the mind and how it works, in part by formulating models of the human psycho-physical organism. Practical or therapeutic psychology has more to do with health—what it is, how to achieve it, how to sustain it. Each perspective is of course dependent upon and informed by the other, and the two need to be studied as siblings. Our goal will be on the one hand to try and open our minds as much as we can to some ancient and in some ways quite challenging ways of looking at ourselves and our world, and on the other hand to try equally hard to examine these ideas and practices in the critical light of our contemporary experience.
The foundation of Buddhist psychology is a process view of personhood. One expression of such a view is the dynamic model of interdependent phenomena— the five-fold classification of subjective experience into material form, feeling, perception, formations and consciousness. When we attend to our experience from this perspective it undermines our tendency to construct misleading theories of self, illuminates the changeability and impersonality of phenomena, and points towards the importance of our relationship to our experience. The discourses of the Elephant’s Footprint (MN 28) and of the Full Moon Night (MN 109) from the Majjhima Nikāya help clarify these five important categories of experience.
Six Sense Spheres
Another way to look at our subjective experience is in light of the “door” through which sense data reaches the mind: the eye-, ear-, nose-, tongue-, body– and mind–doors. Each of these organs is receptive to different sorts of stimuli, and each combines in an interactive relation-ship with a corresponding sort of sense object to give rise to different modes of conscious awareness. Each also touches off a cognitive series of processing by which we add perceptions and feelings to the sense data and construct a world, a personality, and a sense of self. According to the analysis of this cognitive process detailed in the discourse of the Six Sixes (MN 148) or of the Honey Ball (MN 18), the craving that causes all our suffering emerges directly from the feeling tone of this constructed experience. We can begin to recognize the way craving arises naturally out of sensory experience—and much of this can be directly observed in meditation.
The doctrine of interdependent origination synthesizes much of Buddhist psychology in a single sophisticated model that describes some of the interrelationships between mental states that arise in the mind from moment to moment. It elucidates how the present mind moment is influenced by preceding mental states, and how present states condition succeeding moments of experience. When we look at texts that describe the Buddha’s penetration of the doctrine on the night of his awakening, such as the Samyutta Nikāya’s discourse on the Great Sākyamuni Gotama (SN 12.10) or Asvaghosa’s Buddhacarita, we can better see how the system can be used to understand the causal conditioning that affects us in every moment of consciousness.
Working With Mental States
One of the practical skills taught by the Buddha for bringing about psychological transformation is the ability to discern the two different sorts of mental states that arises in the mind: healthy and unhealthy. The latter cause and constitute the bulk of our unhappiness, but can, through patient and consistent application of method, be gradually replaced by the former. The Majjhima Nikāya’s discourse on the Two Kinds of Thought (MN 19) and on the Removal of Distracting Thoughts (MN 20) discuss this method, and offer a wealth of practical guidance for the process of healing and transformation of the mind.
The Role of Intention
One of the tools for liberation in the Buddhist tradition is understanding and utilizing the power of intention. Although it may often seem like we are compelled by our conditioning to think, speak or act in certain ways, the Buddhist approach places great importance on the exercise of our free will. Being able to get in touch with our motivations experientially, and then being able to recondition our activities by transforming our intentions, is a major strategy for treading the path to freedom. This is discussed in some detail in texts such as Advice to Rahula (MN 61) or the discourse on Inference (MN 15).
The most effective means of accessing the inner life, both to recognize tire various classical schemes of classification and to work with mental states, is the cultivation of mindfulness. Mindfulness is developed by the practice of insight meditation, a process of introspection and self-awareness that has been well explicated by modem western meditation teachers over the last two decades. Both the theoretical understanding of how mindfulness works and the development of an effective personal practice are im portant tools for understanding Buddhist psychology. A careful reading of the Foundation of Mindfulness (DN 22, MN10, etc.) and related texts, as well as the literature on concentration techniques, can help ground a modem sitting practice in the classical systems of Buddhist meditation.
Self as a Cultural Construction
I would like to look at the idea of the self, and Buddhist psychology, from a perspective that might be new to many of you—the perspective of psychological ethnography. Psychological ethnography sees the self as a construction, built of materials provided by the cultural context in which it is found. It views psychological systems as indigenously conceived by each cultural group, drawing on such influences as biology, historical period, personality, personal developmental history and life experiences, family context, and culture. The self exists, the cultural anthropologist might contend, as a multidetermined product of all these factors.
One of the key questions in this field is whether or not, and to what degree, there exists a sense of self that is a universal across cultural settings. Are the differences we perceive among peoples merely local conventions, minor variations oven laid on a human nature which is universal to everyone? Or, alternately, perhaps the way we think about ourselves—what and who we think we are—actually constitutes or creates that self; perhaps there is nothing about the self which stands apart from our efforts to construe the self. These are two major positions debated among psychological ethnographers and they sometimes fall under the titles of “universalistic” versus “culturally specific” (also objectivist vs. constructionist views of the self.)
One example of a universal of human nature is biology—all human beings have basically the same anatomy, which shapes development. For example, all cultures must embrace universals of birth and death, puberty and procreation.
Yet it is very difficult to find or establish similar psychological universals across all cultures. In its extreme form, a culturally specific position would argue that there are no such psychological universals, and that we can understand another culture’s psychology only within its own unique context. An exception to this, it is arguable, is that every culture provides its members with some sense of what a person is within that society, and a sense of self. However, having said this, the range of meanings, and the range of the experience of the self, vary hugely.
Despite this variation, there are two qualities of self which are universal: that the individual can take oneself as an object, and distinguish between what is self and what is not; and that this distinction between self and not-self is mediated through symbols, such as language. It is because our symbol systems vary cross-culturally that we can begin to see how the experience of what is self—what it embraces, how mutable it is, and its relations with other selves—varies across cultures.
The way we experience ourselves is conditioned by the means available to us for understanding and construing. Therefore, psychological reality itself cannot be known except through the process of coming to know it, and this process of understanding is mediated by language, symbol and metaphor.
From this perspective, the terms used by indigenous psychologies are not appendages added on to a deeper universal human nature, but actually determine that experience. The symbolic languages used to grasp and make sense of experience usually exist outside of the user’s awareness, at deep and unconscious levels of mind. (Many of us can use proper use of subtle rules of grammar which we would be at a loss to articulate. Similarly, it may take years of psychoanalysis to discover the subtle conditioning of early childhood experience on our adult relationships.) In this sense, the terms and concepts and metaphors we use to make sense of our experience are not phenomenologically separable from what they try to describe. To think about something, you have to think with something, and what you think with is going to have a tremendous influence on what you can think. Because the categories, language, and symbol systems are provided by culture, the experience of self becomes a cultural product.
Is our, or my, or anyone else’s system of psychology more accurate than any other? Does any ethnopsychology of self more closely approximate what is truly “true?” From a relativistic, or culturally specific perspective, the assessment of the relative truth of different systems of psychologies is a spurious issue. There is no basis on which to judge. Each system invents meaning, and meaning does not exist outside of our efforts to make sense of it.
We don’t experience ourselves, or our world, as so conditioned. It is taken for granted that the way we see things is representation of the world “as it is,” as it is objectively given. But the shaping influence of our language, for example, becomes abundantly clear after an experience of samādhi (concentration, meditation), when one perceives experience in its rawest form, without the mediation of language or metaphor.
Buddhism contains a model of the psychology of self, which itself was indigenous to a particular remote time and place—India, 2500 years ago. Yet it has travelled to culturally remote environments, such as China, Tibet, Southeast Asia, and now the West. How is it possible that a system of psychology which arose in such specific conditions can describe aspects of human experience which appear to have immediate resonance to late 20th century Americans? Might not the successful adapation of Buddhism to different cultural settings be evidence of something universal in human nature, which its teachings touch? Is Buddhism just another form of cultural relativism, or is it somehow getting down to some deeper structures of mind?
Some aspects of the Abhidhamma are, in my opinion, constructions; they are theoretical representations of the mind which are suggestive, but are not themselves universals. For example, the analyses of the self described by the skandhas, or aggregates, is a useful model—nothing more or less. Such models draw on metaphors available in the Buddha’s day—for example, the self as an accumulation of parts, much like a chariot.
Less culturally-specific, however, was the Buddha’s direct observation of the nature of conditioning at a very fundamental level of mind. As psychological experience becomes complex, it becomes more influenced by—and accessable to—personal history, personality, and differentiated experience. This is the domain of psychotherapy: the understanding of the particular conditions of one’s life. By comparison, as Dan Goleman noted, meditation moves toward understanding of the process of conditioning itself. As such, it is separate from this or that experience, this or that personal history.
This may point the way to how psychological ethnography helps to inform the “Buddhist model.” Most of what can be described, the complex ideas which culture generates about selves and the elaborate interrelationships within and among people, vary enormously and are conditioned. The most central and enduring aspects of Buddhist psychology address something more basic, transcultural, and yes, universal: the means by which all that diverse construction occurs, the consequences of taking such constructions as reality, and the means for granting freedom through the direct understanding of this process.
The Unconscious Motivations for Meditation Practice
I think there was a tendency in the first generation of vipassanā practitioners in America to look upon meditation in the same way as a traditional Catholic would look upon the sacrament. There is a principle in sacramental theology, called ex opere operato, according to which the sacraments are efficacious in and of themselves, independent of the person administrating them or the person receiving them. In the early days of vipassanā practice at IMS, we tended to adopt the same attitude towards meditation practice: “Here are the instructions—you understand them, you do it, and it works.”
My experience over the years is much more complicated than that. I find that meditation practice, like any other kind of behavior, can be used for good or for ill. It can be liberating—or we can yoke it into the service of our own neuroses. Buddhaghosa called practice a “path of purification.” It’s like refining the alloys out of ore until what you’re left with is the pure metal. As a process of refinement, practice is often loaded with trial and error. We make mistakes and discover how we’ve lost our balance again and again; but gradually we learn what’s right effort and what’s compulsion, what’s straining, what’s avoidance. A lot of practice is just the process of discovering what is not the path.
From a certain perspective of course it is all path—the process itself is the path. But in asking the same kinds of questions of a spiritual practice that a therapist, for example, might ask of any experience, one might discover a dozen unconscious motivations towards practice. And it’s worth looking at these for a moment, because meditation practice—like any other behavior—is multiply determined. It may have a lot of different meanings and be driven by a host of different motives. This is of course very much the Buddhist teaching of conditionality: there is no one simple cause and effect, but many ways in which even a single sitting is conditioned by many factors.
For example, at certain stages of the life cycle the major developmental task is the task of identity formation, of finding out who I am as a person, what values I am going to live by, who I am going to be. And if one is having trouble with that, or is ambivalent or conflicted about it, you can adopt the view of selflessness and egolessness and use it as a way of not really tackling this task.
Or practice can take the form of a narcissistic wish: through practice I am going to become self-sufficient and invulnerable, I am not going to hurt any more, I won’t feel pain or disappointment. I think for most of us this is buried somewhere in our psyche, though it would usually be subtle. It may be a lingering kind of narcissistic ideal around the notion of perfection. Practice can be fueled by the hidden thought, “I’ll be rid of all these yucky things about myself that I don’t like.” It’s important to be aware of this impulse or motive to the extent to which it is there.
You see how these things can skew even how you pay attention and what you pay attention to. Attention itself is very conditioned. The day that you can sit down and be mindful is probably the day you don’t need to practice anymore. It’s like the old principle in psychoanalysis: the day you can come in and just free associate on the couch is the day you don’t need analysis anymore. In other words, mindfulness and free association have to be learned and sorted out from all of the potential distortions. But that’s the wonderful part of practice, discovering all this and sorting it out, refining it.
Another unconscious motivation is often a fear of individuation, a fear of becoming independent and asserting oneself. This may show up as a certain passivity which could be rooted in avoidance of commitment and accountability. My experience with western practitioners is that we’re too detached—we need to learn how to become attached, in a healthy way. When people talk about detachment and renunciation, it often means there is some phobic avoidance. True detachment or true non-attachment is really plunging in and doing something with your whole heart, giving yourself totally to the act, totally to the person or totally to the situation and not holding anything back, doing whatever you are doing completely and then letting go.
Sometimes practice can be driven by devaluation of reason and intellect, especially for people for whom thinking is painful or who don’t like to think. It’s the converse of people who find feeling painful. Or it can, even in the act of looking into the inner world, be an escape from the inner world. So I can say to myself, “Well, it’s all just sensation, or it’s just thinking, or it’s just feeling.” That’s the classic instruction right? The classic way of noting, just noting; don’t get all caught up in the content. But that in itself can sometimes be an avoidance, not really wanting to know what I’m thinking, not seeing my thought very clearly and not seeing what I’m feeling very clearly.
There may be other hidden motives in practice, like the fear of intimacy or the fear of social involvement. Practice can sometimes be a substitute for grief and mourning. Dharma asks the same question as a therapist would ask: How do we let go of the things that bind us? How do we let go of unhealthy attachments? They have to be grieved, they can’t just be observed or watched or dismissed by the kind of noting we use for mindfulness practice. There’s no way to avoid the process of mourning.
Insight by itself is not enough, in therapy or in meditation, because insight doesn’t necessarily lead to change. We all know that we can have a very good conceptual grasp of something, or insight into ourselves, and still do the same damn thing we’ve always done. It’s the inner resistance that has to be dealt with before change occurs. So there really is no way around grieving in this transient world.
But sometimes we use practice to immunize ourselves from the feeling and the pain–practice can be used to avoid feeling. It can be done in an intellectual way through obsessive observation or by splitting off affect and feeling from insight and understanding, so the observation stays very cool and dry. But this detached coolness has a certain lifelessness about it. Of course you can use practice to wallow in feeling too.
Then there are motives of passivity and dependence. Practice can become self-punishing, out of some kind of guilt or bad feeling about yourself. The stubborn refusal not to move until the end of the sitting, for instance: “I’m in a lot of pain but the bell hasn’t rung yet and the instructions are not to move until the end of the sitting.” Now, this can be an opportunity to work with pain and that can be a very powerful form of practice in that moment. It can also have other roots though; there can be a self-punishing quality in staying with pain when it’s not really productive or when we’re doing it in a masochistic way.
The art of practice is gradually teasing out that difference and gradually being able to distinguish the healthy and skillful motivations from the unhealthy and unskillful. That is why practice can be so creative, because it requires these constant discriminations all the time. You can’t do it in a mechanical way. There’s so much to learn and so many wonderful choices all the time in practice–and this is one of them.
Buddhism and the Unconscious
I believe that the psychodynamic theory, or analytic theory, as it is presently used and understood, and Buddhist meditation of Buddhist psychological theory, taken very broadly, have a somewhat similar analysis of the causes of human suffering, and have somewhat similar techniques for trying to understand and deal with it, and have somewhat similar results in practice.
This may seem heretical here at the study center because as Freud himself said, the goal of analytic treatment was to replace neurotic misery with ordinary everyday unhappiness; and there is a lot of Buddhist literature saying that the goal of Buddhist meditation is a much deeper and more thorough transformation. And I think that’s true.
However in the actual experience of Buddhist meditation, very few of us get to full-scale enlightenment; most of us continue to live our regular old neurotic lives, but over time our meditation practice does help us to open up, to be a little less caught. Our neuroses are not likely to go away, but they get to be a little more transparent, and I think that is the goal of insight-oriented therapy. You still get caught in it the same way as before but not as powerfully, or as much of the time, or as blindly as before; there are opportunities to step out and be aware of what’s going and be able to say, “Oh yeah, I’m doing that again…”
Our current understanding, within the framework of the psychodynamic theory, involves two different aspects of the unconscious: a) the pre-conscious–what is potentially available to us but to which we are not paying attention to right now. It is not something we are focused on right now, but it’s not so hard to see either if we wish to. This phenomenological unconscious is available to us at any given time; it only requires awareness for us to filter out whatever is coming in order to pay focused attention. And b) the dynamic unconscious–the thoughts and feelings that we are not aware of and can’t get access to just by trying to focus on them.. The lack of such access is because of defenses, which are created by the unconscious because the thoughts and feelings are uncomfortable, scary, or otherwise unpleasant.
One new interpretation that is emerging in the field of analytic theory is that it is feeling that drives us; the word used is affect. Sylvan Tompkins, a leading thinker in the field, says that affects act as amplifiers. Feelings make us take notice of things; they are a call for action.
The working proposition in the field is that our feelings are too intense for us, too much for us to handle. So we try to manage them–something everyone does and needs to do. It is not a compliment when we say of someone that they can’t handle their feelings. A lot of the business of growing up is training in learning how to manage our feelings because they are in and of themselves quite primitive. And these affects are all biologically wired in so that we all have to learn how to modulate, control, ignore, et cetera.
We do this by blinding ourselves to what is going on, by not feeling, more or less. And this blinding is absolutely necessary–we could not live the way it feels when you come out of general anesthesia; we could not live the way it feels in the middle of a trauma. Stuff just comes in too strong, and it fries the circuits.
So in order to cope we create defenses in lots of ways–repression, denial, reaction formation, intellectual control, and so on. We all have styles, and some range of skill, but we tend to specialize in one style more than another, and that is the basis for our character. But though it may be necessary at times to shut off or not notice our feelings using defense mechanisms, this also causes suffering–because in order to do this we are blinding ourselves to most of what is going on in the world of our experience.
In the parallel Buddhist analysis, we are also blinding ourselves to a good deal of our affective experience, to so much of what is actually going on in the moment. We do this thinking that it will make us feel better, under the influence of desire and aversion. We are trying to hold on to feeling good, and stay away from feeling bad. This is the basic Buddhist analysis of what leads to suffering.
Analytic theory uses different terms, but these are not really so different from Buddhist terms: trying to stay in the territory of good feelings, and stay out of the territory of bad feelings. (In fact we defend against good feelings almost as much as we defend against bad feelings—joy is actually quite a threatening emotion.) So we blind ourselves and we limit ourselves—and then we suffer because we now have a limited, stale and dull life, and we miss what we have shut out. It also takes an incredible amount of effort to shut things out, and that is a big waste of time. To successfully blind yourself to a feeling takes an incredible amount of work.
This is basically also the Buddhist theory of karma. To understand the ways in which we recycle the same issues again and again is to understand the ways of working out our karma. Many Buddhists regard this process as rebirth between entire lifetimes, but it can also be viewed as moment to moment rebirth, hour to hour, five minutes to five minutes, etc.—you can use it for intervals of time. The notion of karma works so well in parallel to the analytic analysis of neurosis, because according to that theory once we blind ourselves we get into repetitive neurotic patterns and suffering that come up over and over and over again, even when we try to get out of them. One of the basic analytic clinical questions that you are always asking as a therapist, is “Where is this person stuck?” In both models desire and aversion set in motion a cycle of repetitive neurotic suffering.
Buddhist and Western Psychology
I would like to make a few remarks about some of the differences between western and Buddhist psychologies. Please keep in mind that everything I say here will be both true and untrue; it will be an exaggeration or an oversimplification. I will be trying to stimulate some thinking by pointing to some rather general differences.
We are not doing this to take sides or to decide where to place our allegiance. It is a natural tendency to try to integrate things that are different, and by pointing out some of these differences, the issue of bringing them together in our consciousness becomes more deliberate. I want that to be the backdrop—how to find a balance between these two disciplines.
To begin with, we should recognize that a great deal of the Buddha’s teaching emanates from experience in the meditative realm. Most teaching takes place in the hermeneutic realm, but that is not where the original understanding arises. In Buddhist psychology our knowledge is derived primarily through meditation practice. It doesn’t stop there, but meditation is where it all starts. So much of the teaching that has come down to us over the millennia has come from people who have spent years in retreat.
Much of western psychology, experimental psychology for example, derives from the empirical realm, although some of it—the analytic traditions in particular—stem from the hermeneutic realm. Our knowledge of the mind comes from scientific and empirical investigation, from experimentation or analogues to experimentation, and trial and error; and some of those same techniques are employed in the meaning-making, hermeneutic realm. So western and Buddhist psychologies come from different ends of the spectrum, and they overlap in the hermeneutic arena, the arena where we talk with each other and try to make sense of our experience.
These arenas of experience of course do not have chain link fences around them—the boundaries are very permeable. In fact all are present at any moment. We live in a time and a culture which is forcing us to think, if we are so inclined, that the only matters worthy of our attention dwell in the empirical realm. And yet we all know in our hearts that this is not enough. A satisfactory marriage cannot be negotiated in the empirical realm alone. The meaning of Hamlet can not be discerned in the empirical realm.
In Buddhist psychology the data base is primarily internal. Our laboratory is the meditation hall and the crucible is our mind. The data base in Western psychology, even to a great extent in the analytic traditions, is somewhat external, phenomenal. Western psychology studies the object, behavior that is exhibited. Buddhist psychology studies the instrument, the mind itself. Another way of saying this is that Buddhist psychology places emphasis on process; Western psychology and culture places emphasis on result.
From the Buddhist point of view the result is seen to be empty. The teaching of emptiness is of course not nihilistic; emptiness is just the emptiness of the power of your conceptual mind to embrace reality fully. The teaching of the Buddha is to find the middle way between what he called eternalism, the belief in the immutable existence of everything and, nihilism, the belief that nothing actually exists. It is just the failure of the conceptual mind to embrace reality fully. Another way of understanding emptiness is through the doctrine of codependent origination, the notion that everything is in some fashion related to everything else around it.
I think it is fair to say that western psychology takes the world “out there” a bit more seriously than Buddhism does. From the Buddhist perspective, the world is understood to be largely a projection. This is not to say that there is no stuff out there, but what we understand in our minds to be out there is our projection onto that. And when those projections are undone through meditation practice, we begin to see that our experiences are comprised of aggregates. Things that seem quite solid at the beginning of the week begin to fall apart by the end of the retreat. Western psychology views the world much more solidly, the empirical view of matter.
There are no actual boundaries between the empirical, the intellectual, and the meditative, and ultimately they are just heuristics for breaking down a reality which is seamless and has no natural distinctions or categories. The light comes into your eye and it registers, but it doesn’t register “tree.” Tree is the label that you place onto it. It doesn’t even register image; image is also a concept. The arising and falling of these things and their understanding, cannot be separated from experience of the tangible world, but they are not totally circumscribed by that world either.