On avoiding and embracing our pain:
Buddhist psychological and Western psychotherapeutical
approaches to defensive conditioning
Adeline van Waning
of the areas where the Buddhist insights find a remarkably warm welcome in western
countries, is in psychotherapy. Three levels may be distinguished in contributions
Buddhism can make to psychotherapy: the level drawn from Buddhist practice, of
direct experience; the level of understanding the workings of the mind; and the
level of attitudes, ethics and values.
In this presentation I will mainly
focus on the understanding of the workings of the mind. In many western psychologies
emphasis has been rather on contents of the mind than on workings or `behaviors'
of the mind. Mindfulness, as a behavior and a way of being, illuminates, accepts
and transforms; and by its nature it helps us to explore other behaviors of the
As a form of 'meditative practice', I like to explore and offer for
discussion, the ways in which we people defensively, by trying to avoid anxiety
and confusion, do avoid reality and truth - consciously, as a reflex, and by conditioning.
This avoidance shows in ongoing perceptual selection, distortion and preconception,
in `movements away from what is'. I will focus in more detail on three Buddhist
psychological views - namely the Three Roots of suffering, the Four Mara's, and
the Five Skandha's - , and western views (from developmental psychology, from
the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of mental disorders), with the following questions:
1. How do we see and name these defenses and avoidances?
2. How do we
evaluate their existence?
3. What is our overall perspective and purpose in
mental functioning? And
4. How do we handle these defensive conditionings,
from our intention to realise this perspective, this purpose?
Even while the
terminology of undistorted perception may be used in Buddhism and in the West,
the notions and strategies for reaching this are far less radical in western as
compared with Buddhist psychology. Western defenses are conceived in a developmental
phase-model, connected to personality development from child to adolescent to
adult, which is not the case in the Buddhist psycholgical view. The Buddhist view,
on the other hand, namely in the skandha cycle, stresses the spiraling process
and conditioning aspect more than most western models do. Where Buddhist practice,
in the end, aims at awakening, where defenses just evaporate, western psychotherapy
clients need to be content with less destructive defensive compromise formations,
within a dualistic context.
It can be said that our preconceptions and faulty
beliefs filter and distort our perception and motivation in powerful yet often
unrecognized ways, constituting forms of collective delusions that are culturally
shared. Attention will be given to the three roots and societal dynamics; and
a client's story viewed with the skandha cycle is presented.
There are basically
two ways of being in the world, two ways of responding to uncertainty, to the
characteristics of suffering and impermanence, and the fragility of our constructed
selves: we can try to control and fixate the world, at the price of amputating
and misleading our senses, ourselves; or we can open ourselves up to the world,
with a greater acceptance of open-endedness, having nothing to stand on. These
are the ways of being in fear (with greed and hatred) or in love: transcending
Buddhist mindfulness, meditation, and disidentification, offer
first-person methods in exploring defensive conditioning. What Buddhist psychology
is teaching is to actively and mindfully engage in our ignorance, and to mindfully
go toward the confusion, uncertainty and pains as the opportunity for transcendence,
for insight and opening up. What we see as hindrances are the teachers that show
us how we are blocked, trapped, stuck. Going toward, being now and here in uncertainty,
instead of trying to escape, opens our heart and our intelligence to be with what
is, and do what needs to be done.
An attempt will be made to connect to findings
in affective neuroscience and a `positive psychology'. Affective neuroscience
research shows a neurophysiology of approach- and withdrawal related emotions;
it also presents neurophysiological correlates to an overall more harmonious regulation
with greater cognitive and emotional intelligence. For conclusion I'll make some
remarks on ways in which Buddhist psychology and psychotherapy can be enriching
for our understanding, also in complementary ways.