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Zen and the Psycho - therapeutic Process

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by Sangharakshita

... ill"? What is meant by "suffering from one's psychic state"? Jaspers, it seems to me, is deliberately being very general here, not to say, even vague.

According to one's conception of what illness is, so will be one's conception of health. According to one's conception of health, so will be one's conception of therapy, or cure. If one is superficial, the other will be superficial, too. If one is profound and far-reaching, the other will be profound and far-reaching as well. So broadly speaking, we may say that there are two kinds of psychotherapy, corresponding to two different conceptions of illness.

The first we may describe as adjustment therapy (this is the usual term), and the second as character therapy.

Character therapy isn't a very satisfactory term but we hope the meaning will emerge a little more clearly as we proceed.

__________________________________________________________________________________________________ Now what is meant by adjustment therapy? Adjustment therapy is exactly what its name suggests: it's therapy which enables you to adjust. So the question arises, "Adjust to what?" Well, adjust to society, adjust to the business of living in the world, earning a livelihood and so on. Not only adjusting to the business of living in the world, but even of being very much of it.

Let's take a rather simple, uncomplicated example. Take the example say, of a young man of about 23 or 24, who is going to work, getting on quite well, everything seems all right - but suddenly it happens one day, that he is attacked by feelings of intense nausea, not just once, but a number of times every day. And eventually it becomes almost continuous. It becomes so bad that he cannot continue working: he has to stop working. So then what does he do? He goes to see a psychotherapist, or a psychoanalyst. He is treated for a few weeks or a few months, as the case may be, the cause of the trouble is located: it may be some childhood experience and so on - anyway, it's resolved - the symptom, that is to say, the nausea, disappears, and the young man goes back to work, and presumably, he lives happily ever afterwards. So the therapy has enabled him to adjust, to adjust to society, to adjust to the business of earning a living.

But there's no question - the question is never raised - as to whether what he has been enabled to adjust to, to go back to, is intrinsically, in itself, good or bad. He's been enabled to adjust to society, but the society in which he is living, in which he is working, may be a thoroughly immoral one. He may in fact be following, and enabled to continue following, a thoroughly immoral occupation. He may be, for example, a stockbroker or he may be an income tax consultant, or he may be a tobacconist. But it doesn't matter - one has just got to adjust to the existing social order, the existing state of affairs, the world as it is. And psychotherapy helps one to adjust, just as in the old days, some forms of religion, too, helped you to adjust, helped you to accept the status quo.

Now some psychotherapists - the more earnest, the more intelligent, the more sincere, even one may say, the more spiritually-minded psychotherapists - are becoming increasingly critical of this sort of situation: increasingly dissatisfied with this state of affairs. And many of them, especially I believe in the United States where things are in a pretty bad way at present, many psychotherapists feel that they are in effect prostituting themselves to an immoral social order. It's as bad as that. But there's very little that they can do about it, because after all, they too have to earn a living. So this brings us from adjustment therapy to character therapy.

Character therapy goes far beyond the concept of adjustment. Let's take another example. Say, take the example of a man of 45. I must apologise for taking examples only from the male sex (I don't mean to leave the ladies out in this way, but it just happens to go like that). A man of 45. He has a successful, or moderately successful, career behind him, a comfortable sort of domestic life, you know - moderately happy, moderately faithful, and the rest of it; the children are doing quite well at school, at college, in employment; and of course he plays golf every Sunday. And he has no particular symptoms. He doesn't feel any nausea or anything like that, but at the same time, he feels ill. Deep down in himself, he feels ill, and in Jaspers' language, he suffers from his psychic state.

Now this is not an illness in the ordinary sense: it's a sort of spiritual malaise, we may say. And it expresses itself in various ways. He may be overwhelmed by a feeling of intense boredom: he may feel an utter weariness, an absolute emptiness and a sense of complete futility. He may feel that nothing which he is doing has any significance or any value or any meaning. And he may therefore ask himself the question, "Well, what is the use of it all? What is the meaning of it all? Why am I here? Why shouldn't I just not be here?" In the old days, of course, a person in this sort of predicament would have turned to religion. He would have gone and consulted his priest. But for many western people this is now impossible. So he doesn't go to church, he doesn't go to the priest, he goes to the psychotherapist. But nowadays we find the priest himself having to go to the psychotherapist! So what is the psychotherapist to do? There's no question of helping this sort of patient to adjust to society, because he's done that already - he's perfectly well adjusted already: he's quite good at his job and so on. So the psychotherapist has to go deeper than that. And he has to point out to the patient that he's ill. That he is sick because he is not being fully himself. And to point out that he's got all sorts of deeper potentialities which had been overlaid by the business of so-called living. and that these deeper potentialities have not been realised, not been actualised. The patient has related successfully to society - but that's comparatively superficial; that's only one level, one aspect but now he has to relate to life itself: has to relate, in other words, to Reality. And this requires a great change: this requires a change of character. A change of attitude, a change of outlook, a change of vision, if you like. And therefore this sort of psychotherapy is called character therapy.

__________________________________________________________________________________________________ Not only is it just a matter of change, however radical - one may say it has to be a sort of conversion, has to be a sort of spiritual rebirth before this sort of patient can be healed, can be brought to terms with himself, and with Reality, and can be cured.

Now, adjustment therapy has very little in common with any sort of religion, except superficial, popular sorts of consolatory religion. In fact adjustment therapy may even be profoundly anti-religious. But character therapy is different. Character therapy in its concept of illness, its concept of health, of therapy, seems to come quite close to religion, if not almost to approximate to religion. Now if psychotherapy is religious, or if it has a religious aspect or at least a religious bearing, religion, also we may say, in the true sense, also is therapeutic.

And this certainly is the case, this is so with Buddhism.

This brings us to the second stage of our discussion: brings us to Buddhism and psychotherapy. Now before pursuing this question of Buddhism as a therapy, I'd like to compare Buddhism and psychotherapy in somewhat more general terms.

Buddhism and psychotherapy are both humanistic. Both are concerned with man - man in his totality, man in his heights and in his depths; in all aspects of his being and character. Both are concerned just with man.

They're not concerned, either of them, with God.

Now Erich Fromm, whose name I'm sure many of you know, distinguishes in several of his writings between what he calls humanistic religion and what he calls authoritarian religion. And he claims that psychoanalysis (which is one form of psychotherapy) and humanistic religion have much in common. He elaborates this in great detail, and it's no doubt true that psychoanalysis and humanistic religion have much in common. But he also goes on to say that the distinction between humanistic religion and authoritarian religion cuts across the distinction between the theistic and the non-theistic religious systems. In other words he says that both the theistic and the non-theistic religions can be either humanistic or authoritarian. But here, I'm afraid, I can't quite agree with him. It seems to me that all the theistic systems, almost inevitably, tend to be authoritarian, especially in their strict monotheistic forms.

For instance, just one or two quotations: St Augustine says, in one place, "God's thundering commands are to be obeyed." Not questioned. And then to come to more modern times, Cardinal Manning says "I don't think - The Pope does my thinking for me." This is authoritarianism, in a sense with a vengeance. So it seems that theistic systems, especially monotheistic systems, inevitably tend to be authoritarian. Their nature is such.

But the non-theistic systems tend to be humanistic: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism: all non-theistic, and all very definitely humanistic. And above all, perhaps, because it's the most fully articulated, above all perhaps Buddhism itself. We may say that an authoritarian Buddhism is a contradiction in terms. You can't imagine it! A Buddhism which says "You must do this," or "You must do that," that doesn't sound like ...

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