Soul of Compassion
Gay Watson

Buddhism sets out not just a psychology, but a way of being where theory is not separate from practice.
THE POPULAR introduction of Buddhism to the West was contemporary with the early development of Western psychology. A hundred years later exchanges between Buddhism and psychology, and more specifically psychotherapy, are even more pronounced. Today, the theory and practices of Buddhist psychology not only share a common ground with Western psychology, but also may have much to offer for a psychotherapy responsive to present needs.

This is not to suggest Buddhism as psychotherapy, which would be belittling to Buddhism and inappropriate for the West and its own very different culture. However, within today's global village one may advocate consideration of the long history of Buddhist psychology and practice both as a complement to Western psychology and as an inspiration for a psychotherapy that may help to restore balance in an unbalanced world. Western psychology followed the scientific path, seeking quantifiable and objective truth, whereas Buddhist analysis of mind has been concerned with total experience. Rather than worrying only about what exists, Buddhism has always sought to know how things exist and, above all, how we know and experience them. For it is through understanding our human condition that we may find freedom. Such an approach may be of particular value today, as the objective foundations of Western science are challenged.

For Buddhism, theory is not separate from practice. Buddhism sets out not just a psychology but a way of being. Its theories are embedded in practices for transforming the mind; to bring it into harmony with the way things are. For Buddhism, true knowledge is not the result of mere theoretical thinking, or even of experimentation, but is an embodied realization. It deals not with the intellect alone, but with body, feelings and spirit: the totality of experience, which may ultimately transform both the experimenters and their world.

The Buddha's four noble truths convey his central interest in the human experience. They are presented in therapeutic terms: diagnosis, everything is ultimately unsatisfactory; aetiology, this is caused by craving; prognosis, there may be freedom from this suffering; prescription, the eightfold path. The first truth of suffering is to be known absolutely; the second, the cause of suffering is to be abandoned; the third, the possibility of cessation, is to be realized; while the fourth, the path to cessation, is to be cultivated. This may provide a model for psychotherapy: to become aware, to abandon harmful patterns, to realize the possibility for greater freedom and to cultivate the means to achieve it.

The first truth, the central problem of Buddhism as of psychotherapy, concerns suffering. We are asked to know that from our normal standpoint life is never entirely satisfactory. Suffering comes in many fashions; the disappearance of what gives us pleasure, the arising of what pains us, and the inevitability of death.

The second truth relates to causation. The cause of our suffering is in the craving of the individual ego, attempting to grasp what makes it feel good, and to push away what makes it feel pain. This craving arises from our inability to understand and accept the basic facts of existence, that all things are ultimately impermanent. All things arise from causes and conditions, exist in mutual dependence and transmute into other phenomena, being empty of solid, unchanging essence. Alongside this general law of interdependence, the Buddha reinterpreted the pan-Indian law of karma, that actions reap their suitable reward. Karma relates not merely to action, but more fundamentally to intention.

Buddhist models describe hum life in terms of processes rather than phenomena; our predispositions affect our physical and mental being and manner of knowing. It shows how experience of our world is dependent upon that perception and thus, in turn, upon our feelings and predisposition. We all know how different the world appears when the sun shines and are loved, from the day when it raining and we are lonely. The therapist knows how differently the world is experienced by one who was cherished as a child compared with one who abused. According to the Buddhist models, however, none of this is essential and unchanging. Though we may not control what happens to us, we may control and be responsible for how we react to it. There is always a possibility for change. The third truth speaks of this.We can realize release from suffering. The release of which Buddha speaks is far different in quantity and extent from that which psychotherapy seeks, but it is not so different quality, the quality of liberation.

The fourth truth concerns the path to be cultivated in order to achieve liberation. This path is organized into three divisions: wisdom, ethics and meditation. The wisdom aspect is that of seeing the mutual dependence of all phenomena. Such understanding may give rise to compassion in the comprehension of our non-separateness; it may foster a feeling of belonging in an ever more fragmented world, and it may underwrite ecological responsibility.

Arising from this view ethics becomes pre-eminent. This is an ethics of responsibility, of an openness to the claims of others and of the planet. The presentation of karma as intention takes a firm stand on the importance of careful and non-harmful thought, speech and action. Such intentions start with the mind. If dispositions are so fundamental in our construction of self and world, it is important to feed the mind with healthy intentions. Not only should we try to avoid harmful thoughts and deeds but we should cultivate qualities of generosity, compassion and equanimity. This may be a useful lesson for psychotherapy, where therapists appear much more at home with pain than with joy.

Yet it is with the path of meditation and mindfulness that Buddhism has most to offer psychotherapists. This teaches a way of being with our emotions, a way of being with our clients and, above all, a way of cultivating presence and attention, that allows transformation. It teaches that change may occur if we can allow ourselves truly to be with whatever arises, to witness it, yet not to identify with it.

Thus Buddhist psychology and its practices may have much to offer to heal present suffering. It may help to respond to the criticisms that psychotherapy has itself exacerbated the suffering of contemporary men and women by increasing the isolation of the individual, irresponsibly retreating into an interior narcissism ever further from engagement with the world. For Buddhism holds that the world and the mind that perceives it cannot be separate, but are interdependent, and that the mind and the body are also not separate. Such views can help restore the wholeness of the psyche, a term which for the Greeks once denoted an unbreakable relationship between gods, nature, humanity and even death. Perhaps these views can help revision psychology and psychotherapy, speaking directly to our contemporary experience.
Gay Watson is a trustee of Dartington Hall where she is helping to organize a conference on Psychology of Awakening from 7th to 10th November.
Speakers include John Welwood, Francisco Varela, Susan Blackmore, Robin Skynner and Jon Kabat-Zinn.