Buddhism: A Practical Psychology
Yesterday, I wandered into a Borders book store. Two books by Buddhist monks were prominently displayed in the front. Half the shelf space in the psychology section was given over to books about Buddhism.
What gives? Granted, this is California, but still …
Buddhism has very much influenced how I practice my life and manage my illness. It forms the backbone to such essential recovery tools as mindfulness and optional ones such as meditation, not to mention therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy. In this context, we are talking about a psychology - a guide to practical living - rather than religion or spirituality.
Following is a brief overview of some of the principles, all which overlap and interrelate:
Think of the mind watching the mind. Mindfulness, says Buddhist expert and molecular biologist Jon Kabbat-Zinn, "is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are," rather than as we want them to be.
As we learn to watch our thoughts in a detached manner, we slowly develop the capacity to reel in our runaway brains and more skillfully negotiate our way though the mine field we call life. Being microscopically attuned to subtle shifts in our thoughts and feelings and energy levels allows us to act before events spin out of control.
I have a long way to go before I can claim mastery over my brain. My tendency to overthink and panic nearly resulted in my failing my road test a second time just two weeks ago. But I can deal with stress and head off anxiety and anger a lot better than I used to. As for nipping incipient mood swings in the bud, I regard mindfulness as my ultimate mood stabilizer.
(Check out my six-part series on mindfulness, part of my Recovery feature here at BipolarConnect.)
The Here and Now
We tend to fret over our futures and obsess over our pasts, totally oblivious to the present. In the arena of life, we tend to be a no-show. Be mindful. Stop. Smell the roses. As you start living in the present, your past will lose its terrible dominion, your future its strange attraction.
We suffer. This is the Buddha’s First Noble Truth. Not only that, we excel at suffering. Received ten compliments recently? Chances are you are obsessing on the one negative one.
We tend to live in an unreal world created by our fantasy thoughts and expectations. I recall going to pieces because a girlfriend broke off our relationship. The reality: we were enjoying a short-term fling. The fantasy: this was the woman I could spend the rest of my life with.
Guess which world I was invested in? Guess which basket all my happiness eggs were sitting in? How stupid was that? We do it all the time.
Our suffering derives from our perverse ability to attach ourselves to our fears and desires. Letting go frees us to focus on what is important in life. This is the essence of the Buddha’s Second and Third Noble Truths. Since our fears and desires are hardly real in the first place, we set ourselves up for a lot of suffering.
Nothing lasts forever, but at the same time we transform and grow. Think twice before you get worked up over something you’re not likely to recall two days from now. But also have the courage to take on new challenges.
Your inflated sense of self is getting in the way of your own happiness. You want to be loved? You want to be successful? Then get over yourself. Your ego is what separates you from those around you, not to mention from greater insight and awareness. When it’s all about you, no one wants to know you. Put others first and, before you know it, the last shall be first.
It all comes down to this. We are all peeing into the same pool. Think before you pee.
Imagine someone you really cherish. What are you feeling? Imagine someone inconsequential in your life. What are you feeling? Imagine someone who is giving you a hard time. What are you feeling?
Now imagine all three together. Try this. Try feeling the same kind of love for all three as you feel for the individual you really cherish.
I failed miserably when I first came across this little mind game 20 years ago (still do). But the exercise made me realize that my feelings of hate and bitterness were a lot stronger than my feelings of love and compassion. Since I was miserable at the time, I saw the wisdom in putting some effort into cultivating loving kindness. No one is about to mistake me for a saint, but neither do they run away when they see me coming.
All of the above principles exist in one way or another across virtually all faiths and philosophies. The gift in Buddhist teaching lies in the ability of its teachers to articulate these principles and integrate them into a blueprint for skillful living.
By now, you realize the object of Buddhist psychology is to achieve happiness. True happiness, not just fleeting pleasure. Happiness from things that matter, not from what others tell us what is supposed to make us happy.
But happiness is problematic. Suffering comes naturally. Happiness takes a lot of work. Be happy. It’s not a cop-out. It’s life’s greatest challenge.
John is an author and advocate for Mental Health. He wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Depression and Bipolar Disorder.