By Life Positive
France-based Vietnamese Zen master and proponent of mindfulness meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh, sheds new light on the correlation between psychotherapy and Buddhism, and how Buddhist psychology can be applied to life through elegantly simple ways
Buddhism is usually described as a philosophy, a religion. But it is also a kind of psychotherapy, which Buddhists who are not sick practice so that they don’t become sick. Those who are ill practice to be healed. The first practice is easier. When you do not suffer much, it’s easy to get in touch with the wonderful things in life.
I believe that Buddhism and psychotherapy can learn from and help each other. Sometimes Buddhists practicing in a zendo deal with remote issues such as enlightenment. They think you should deal with jealousy, anger and hatred before you practice meditation. This is wrong. Buddhist practice has to do with daily problems that psychotherapy can help address.
On the other hand, psychotherapists can learn from Buddhist psychology, which is 2,500 years old. Buddhism is based on how the mind works. In Buddhism, we have a treasure of literature called the Abhidharma and a sophisticated teaching on mind called Vijnanavada (The School That Teaches Knowing). Vijnana means consciousness. A deep level of consciousness is called alaya-vijnana, the storehouse.
eelings, perceptions, suffering and happiness exist in two forms. The first form is that of a seed. Suppose you learned to smile when you were five years old. You may not have smiled in the last 20 years, but the seed of smiling is still there. Because you have not manifested this seed on the conscious level, mano-vijnana, your seed of smiling becomes weak.
When someone says something to you, it enters your mano-vijnana. Everything manifested here engenders a similar seed in alaya-vijnana, which makes the original seed stronger. If you allow the seeds of sorrow to monopolize your mano-vijnana, you continue to plant new seeds of the same nature in your alaya-vijnana. Seeds influence and transform each other. Practice allows the seeds of peace, joy and happiness to come up and be strong.
One day, I lost a close friend, who was gracious and gave me a lot of joy. He had a heart attack and died during the night. I could not sleep the following night because the loss was so painful.
So I practiced breathing. I lay on my bed visualizing the beautiful cedar trees I had planted in our yard. During walking meditation, I used to stop and bow to these cedars. I hugged them, breathing in and out. It seemed that these cedars always responded to my hugging and breathing. That night I invited these images up. I just breathed in and out. I became only the trees and the breath. It was very helpful.
Each of us has moments of difficulty. When we are not able to deal with them, we have to ask our seeds of joy to come up. In this way, we counterbalance the suffering.
When I was in Vietnam, the war was intense. People outside the country did not know the war’s true nature. I accepted an invitation to speak about the war at Cornell University in the USA and then made a tour of North America, Europe and Asia, telling people that the Vietnamese didn’t want the war. Sometimes our voices were lost in the sound of bombs and mortar, and we had to burn ourselves alive to draw attention. But people thought our actions were political.
After the tour, I was not allowed to go back to Vietnam. I was not popular with either the anti-Communist or the Communist government. During that first year of exile, I frequently dreamt of going home. The image I have of my childhood is a beautiful green hill with trees, flowers and small cottages. I dreamt of going back, but as soon as I arrived at the foot of the hill, some obstacle was there and I could not climb up. Then I would wake up.
At that time, I was also practicing mindful living, recognizing what is beautiful, peaceful and good in Europe and America. There were trees, flowers and fruits that do not exist in Vietnam, and I practiced being in touch with them.
After some time, the dream stopped. I did not have to analyze it. The new seeds I had planted took good care of the bad seeds, which were the feeling of being in exile, the feeling of not being with my friends in Vietnam who were in difficulty. Also, as I worked and supported the peace work back home, I planted seeds that helped transform the seeds of suffering.
Most of us ask the question: ‘What is wrong?’ We forget to ask: ‘What is right?’ Many things are not wrong. When you focus your attention only on what is wrong, you can make the situation worse. It is wise to meditate on your capacity to enjoy peace, happiness and joy, your capacity to be in touch with what is refreshing, healing and wonderful in the present moment.
During the war, we were so busy helping the wounded that we sometimes forgot to smell the flowers. Night has a pleasant smell, especially in the country. But we would forget the smells of mint, coriander, thyme and sage. I would mention these herbs to the peace workers so they could be in touch with them.
Southeast Asian refugees have a lot of pain within themselves. Many have lost their fathers, mothers or children. But when they come to Plum Village, our monastery near Paris, they don’t show any of this. They are advised to practice breathing, smiling, looking at children. We tell people to make the children happy. By doing so, they get happiness.
Last year, a 16-year-old girl came from England. We did not know she was mentally disturbed, that she had been seeing a therapist. In Plum Village, she lived among other young people without any special attention. After a month, she went back to England where she was staying with other children cared for by British social workers. In their view she was transformed. She showed no signs of maladaptation and also tried to help the other children around her.
COMMUNITY IS THE KEY
The existence of healthy, joyful communities is important, and psychotherapists need to take the lead in organizing such communities. Then we can send people who need help there. Community members will become helpers. First, they will help without knowing about it. That’s the best kind of help. Then you can identify people who need special care and select people to help them. The people who need care will not know they are being helped. They will suddenly find that someone is spending time caring for them. That’s the way we do it in Plum Village.
This model is deeply rooted in the Buddhist tradition. The Buddha is important because he is the teacher. The dharma is the way shown by the Buddha, but without the sangha (community) it is difficult to practice. It might be a Catholic or Jewish sangha, but it must be a mindful and happy one.
In Buddhist circles, there are teachers and students of the dharma. But the dharma is not just a theory. One cannot give students a theory. One has to give them the fruit of one’s practice and experience. Therefore, teachers have to practice.
The same is true of western psychotherapy. If therapists do not practice what they are trying to achieve for their clients, their therapy is not good. A therapist’s practice should be directed to herself first because if she’s not happy, she cannot help people. If I needed therapy, I would look for a therapist who is happy.
As a teacher, I have to practice. That means I am also a student. This illustrates the principle of non-duality. By looking deeply, I can see the student in the teacher and vice versa. If there is no teacher within the student, the student has no future.
A good teacher tries her best to give birth to the teacher in the student. In this way, the student is not dependent on the teacher. We have to practice in such a way that the person we help can soon be on his own. The way to do this is to give birth to the therapist in the client.
A therapist should be able to share everything with her clients because if something has worked for the therapist, it will work for her clients. Some therapists say they have learned a lot by practicing meditation, but hate to share it with their clients. I don’t understand that. If you cannot use your insights to help your clients, it means you have not been able to integrate those insights into your life and understanding.
I hear from Buddhist psychotherapists that the Buddhist teachings about non-self cannot be applied in therapy. They think that for people to recover their mental health, they have to recover their healthy self. Talking about non-self will confuse them.
Some people think that psychotherapy deals with the ‘self’ and Buddhist practices dissolve it. Others say before we can dissolve the self, we have to have a healthy self. I don’t think that is so. You cannot dissolve something that is not there. What have to be dissolved are our wrong views concerning the self.
It’s important that when we look at a person, we know that he or she does not exist alone. No self exists independently of other beings. Buddhists, in their practice, are working for a healthy self, a true self, understanding that this self is made only of non-self elements.
Suppose we look at a leaf. There are many leaves on a tree, but each leaf is individual. When we look deeper, we see the leaf cannot exist without non-leaf elements like sunshine, earth, roots, trunk, branches and so on. Non-leaf elements maintain the leaf.
In the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, there’s a term I translate as interbeing. Interbeing means that you cannot be a separate entity. You can only interbe with other people and elements. You could also call it true self, the awareness that you are made wholly of non-self elements.
When we look at a flower deeply enough, we see non-flower elements in it, like sunshine. Sunshine is not a flower, but you cannot have a flower without it. Another non-flower element is garbage. Those who do not practice meditation look at the flower but don’t see the garbage. If they wait five or seven days they’ll see the flower become garbage. Those who look deeply see it right away. When we look at garbage, we also see the non-garbage. We see the flower there. When good organic gardeners look at a garbage heap, they see cucumbers and lettuce. That is why they do not throw garbage away. They keep it to transform it back. If a flower is on her way to the garbage, the garbage is on his way to the flower. To me, this is the most important Buddhist teaching: non-duality. The flower does not consider garbage her enemy. The garbage does not get depressed and look at the flower as his enemy. They realize the nature of interbeing. In Buddhist therapy, we preserve the garbage in ourselves. We don’t throw it out because if we do, we have nothing left to make our flowers grow.
DEALING WITH ANGER
Western therapists tend to take what they don’t want out of their bodies and minds. Some behave like surgeons, cutting out the negative and throwing it out. Peace activists in the West think of peace that way. They think that throwing out atomic bombs will end war. They don’t realize that the roots of our bombs are within us. We must deal with these roots. Anger is energy; it is garbage. We must preserve and transform it.
During the war, I wrote a poem on my anger after American bombers had, for the fourth time, destroyed a village we rebuilt:
I hold my face in my two hands.
No, I’m not crying.
I hold my face in my two hands
In order to keep my loneliness warm.
Two hands to nourish, two hands to protect.
Two hands to keep my soul
From leaving me in anger .
I held my anger; I did not express it. I took good care of my anger because I knew I had to transform it into the kind of energy that was needed for the peace of my country.
There is a naïve belief that every time you get angry, you must express it in order to feel better. If you say something angry to someone, he will get hurt and say something stronger to you. So you will get more hurt.
Similarly, if you are not very angry, but express anger, you may find yourself becoming angry because you have invited the seeds of anger up. You may feel that you want to express your anger to throw it out of your system. But by doing so, you only practice your anger, rehearse it. The more you express your anger, the angrier you become.
When you close the door and hit a pillow, you think you are getting in touch with your anger. But you are only transforming the energy of your anger into the energy of pounding and hitting. You feel better because you have spent much energy hitting the pillow. But the seeds and roots of your anger are still there. I don’t think you are in touch with your anger as you hit the pillow. You are dominated by your anger and are practicing it. You are planting more seeds of anger within.
The Buddhist attitude is to take care of anger. We don’t suppress it. We don’t run away from it. We just breathe and hold our anger in our arms with utmost tenderness. Becoming angry at your anger only doubles it and makes you suffer more.
The important thing is to bring out the awareness of your anger to protect and sponsor it. Then the anger is no longer alone, it is with your mindfulness. Anger is like a closed flower in the morning. As the bright sun shines on the flower, the flower will bloom because the sunlight penetrates deep into the flower.
Mindfulness is like that. If you keep breathing and sponsoring your anger, mindfulness particles will infiltrate the anger. When sunshine penetrates a flower, the flower cannot resist. It is bound to open itself and reveal its heart to the sun. If you keep breathing on your anger, shining your compassion and understanding on it, your anger will soon crack and you will be able to look into its depths and see its roots.
A 14-year-old boy in Plum Village who practices mindfulness told me this story. When he was 11 years old, he was angry with his father. Every time he fell down and got hurt, his father would shout at him. The boy told himself that when he grew up, he would be different.
Just a year ago, his sister was playing with another little girl on a hammock. Suddenly they fell off and his sister was hurt. The boy got very angry. He wanted to shout at her: ‘Stupid! Why did you do that?’ Fortunately, he controlled himself. Because he had practiced breathing and mindfulness in Plum Village.
While other people were taking care of his wounded sister, he turned away and practiced breathing on his anger. ‘Suddenly I saw that I was exactly like my father,’ he told me. ‘I realized that if I didn’t do something about the anger in me, I was going to transmit it to my children. Yet I saw something important. I saw that my father might have been a victim like me. The seeds of his anger might have been transmitted by my grandfather. I told myself to practice in order to transform my anger into something else. After a few months I was able to look at my father without anger. I brought the fruit of my practice back to my father and told him that I used to get angry at him, but now I understood its roots and wished that he would also practice like me in order to transform his seeds of anger.’
In Buddhism, we talk about suchness. It is the nature of a person or a thing. When we understand a person’s suchness, we can begin to love and help him.
A person has flowers and garbage within. When we love, we accept both. It’s like a cylinder of gas. We know that gas is dangerous, but it cooks a good meal. We can live peacefully with it because we know the suchness of it.
So it is with your wife or husband and children. They, too, have their suchness, they too have their flower and the garbage. If you know their suchness, you will be able to live with them happily and peacefully. You will know how to turn to the flower in them and you’ll profit from that. If you are ignorant, you will turn to the garbage in them. Therefore, you must understand a person if you want to help him and therefore help yourself. Meditation is the practice of nourishing the flower and transforming the garbage to flowers again. It is a continual process. You have to practice it your whole life.
Basic peace work is learning to develop the capacity to enjoy the peace that is already available, like breathing and enjoying fresh, clean air. If you enjoy clean air, you know that it is precious and you will do something to prevent it from becoming unclean.
Those of us who look at the state of the world feel that everyone should become a peace worker, including therapists. Psychotherapists should not deal only with sick people, but with the roots of that sickness in nature, the environment, society and the family. I urge psychotherapists to apply their own principles to their lives, to spend more and more time healing themselves and their families.
In the past, we lived in houses surrounded by trees. It was pleasant to sit among the trees and play with our children, with our grandfathers and grandmothers. The family at that time was big. Now, most of us are in cities where we live in high boxes close to the sky. We don’t have trees up there, we are surrounded by concrete worlds. In the past, we touched the earth; we planted our vegetables; we played with the soil. Now, children don’t play with the soil. They are not in touch with trees or rivers. That is why we become mentally sick.
Therapists, like others, have to try to bring us back to Mother Earth. If we touch our mother every day, we will be all right.
This article has been excerpted with permission from Common Boundary magazine
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