On avoiding and embracing our pain:
Buddhist psychological and Western psychotherapeutical approaches to defensive conditioning
Adeline van Waning

One 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 mind.
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 ignorance.
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.