Friday, October 19, 2007

Psychology for the Selfless

A "Buddhist psychology" would seem to be an oxymoron, since the Buddha taught that there is no permanent, enduring self. Yet a Google search turns up 96,800 entries for that term, reflecting my sense that psychological theorists are particularly attracted to Buddhism because of its well-developed explanations for how the mind, however temporary, works. At Assumption University in Bangkok yesterday I attended a lecture in the graduate Department of Psychology by Phra Cittamasvaro, a British Monk living in Thailand, who argued that while there can be no fusion of Buddhism and psychology, the two can fruitfully borrow from each other.

"The goals and methodologies are different," Pandit explained to the cosmopolitan audience of faculty and students who are studying to be counseling psychotherapists. "In Buddhism you are taught to leave home and family, put on rags, and sit at the foot of a tree. You can't squeeze a psychology out of that." The goal of Buddhist practice is nibanna, enlightenment, while the goal of psychology is normalcy, relief from mental disorders and anxiety. It's important to keep the goals separate, Pandit told the group.

Some Buddhists, like Ajahn Sumedo, take a dim view of psychologists, Pandit said, believing that all they do for their clients is help them rake over the past. Another said that psychology was rubbish because it can't take you to enlightenment. The Dali Lama apparently said that Buddhism provides all we need, and that psychology is unnecessary. Although Pandit (who admitted he disagreed with the Dali Lama) did not detail a critique of Buddhism by psychologists, it's obvious that many no doubt think enlightenment the delusion of a disordered mind. In his handout to the seminar, Pandit quoted Pope John Paul II's view of Buddhism as "an atheistic system which aims to make its devotees perfectly indifferent to the world around them."

But Buddhists and psychologists can borrow from each other. Psychology has borrowed meditation techniques for stress reduction, using concentration and mindfulness methods to relieve both ordinary anxiety and clinical depression. Other psychologists, like Martin Seligman, are designing therapies for positive goals like happiness. Buddhist teachings about promoting wholesome states of mind through "right efforts" like dana (giving), sela (morality) and bhavana (development) are useful in psychotherapy as "stabilizing practices" that encourage positive thoughts and habits. Rather than fix the past, as in traditional therapy, they involve action in the present leading to a better outcome in the future. Also, the teaching on karma can help show how bad habits grow from wrong choices. "The Buddha never talked about the subconscious," Pandit said, "but it may be that the subconscious mind equates to karma, or bad habits."

On the other hand, Buddhists can benefit from psychology, Pandit said, by recognizing that it has "expanded outside its original purpose and is now a broad institution." People speak of "applied Buddhism" which includes economics and politics, even though the Buddha had nothing to say on these subjects. Monks are now teaching in schools, and they are counseling people in temples with little or no training. "The Christians are good at this," he said, "training priests to be counselors. Much bad advice is being given to people by the monks." He said that Buddhism could make use of the concepts of "constructs" and "defense mechanisms" to explain how the mind attempts to avoid anxiety, "a better translation of the term dukkha." Buddhists like Jack Kornfield are recognizing that people need to have a certain degree of mental stability before undergoing a meditation retreat, and psychology may be of some help here.

Psychology aims at replacing unsatisfactory emotions with others more conducive to mental health. But Buddhism, Pandit said, would give up all constructs and replace them with emptiness, shunyata. "The mind is naturally self-ordering," he said. "If we stop replacing one thing with another, letting all cease, then things would become clear."

But contemporary psychology abhors a vacuum as much as so-called nature, and the "emptiness model of mental health" is not likely to catch on very soon with the popular imagination. I'm still troubled by the model of selflessness that I get from my Buddhist studies. The human mind, it would seem, is adept at generating a self. Can there be mind without self? If not, then psychology, the study of the mind, would be an exercise in delusion. There is much in Buddhism that goes beyond the purview of psychology: rebirth, the divas, and the hell realms, for example. Of course there is much in Thai Buddhism that goes beyond anything that I experienced in American Buddhism (spirit houses, amulets, protective string, etc.). But I have long thought of Buddhism as a psychology rather than a religion. Stripped of ritual, as Stephen Batchelor describes in his book Buddhism Without Beliefs, Buddhism is a system of teaching that promotes health, physical, mental and spiritual, through right understanding and practice (that's pretty sketchy, but my copy is not close at hand). All of this would seem to require at least a mind and at most a self to direct it.

After all, the hubris of writing a blog is the consequence of a self deluded that anyone is reading.

I was invited to Pandit's talk by my friend Dr. Holly who teaches and advises students in psychology at Assumption University's graduate school. She showed me around the modern campus (one of two, the undergraduate campus is some distance away) which includes several high rise buildings as well as a Buddhist temple by a lake full of fish and turtles (a large basketball court is in front of the temple, not seen in the photo). Holly received her Ph.d. at the California Institute of Integral Studies and has been living and teaching in Thailand for several years. Walking around the garden-like grounds and through the academic halls , I watched feelings of jealousy arise in me (good mindfulness training), and thought how nice it would be to teach in such a pleasant place. Run by the Brothers of St. Gabriel, a worldwide catholic religious order, founded in France in 1705, the obviously well-funded university was established in 1969 as a business college and, since becoming a university in 1990, now gives advanced degrees in philosophy and religion, as well as psychology, computer science and tourism. While I would love the intellectual stimulation of teaching there, a few minutes reflection helped me to see that full-time retirement remains a better option for this aging religious philosopher whose field of investigation is much wider than the Halls of Academe.


Anonymous said...

>After all, the hubris of writing a
>blog is the consequence of a self
>deluded that anyone is reading.

Oh, we're reading all right.....



Marcus said...

Indeed we are! What a fabulous account of your adventures, travels, and encounters! Keep writing Will!