Deconstructing the Self: A Buddhist perspective on addiction and psychotherapeutic treatment

Deconstructing the Self:

A Buddhist perspective on addiction and psychotherapeutic treatment

(By Ven. Edo Shonin, Ven. William Van Gordon, and Dr. Mark Griffiths)

ego 5

Psychological approaches to treating mental illness or improving psychological wellbeing are invariably based on the explicit or implicit acceptance that there is an inherently existing ‘self’ or ‘I’ entity. In other words, irrespective of whether a cognitive-behavioural, psychodynamic, or humanistic psychotherapy model is employed, these approaches are ultimately concerned with changing how the ‘I’ relates to its thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, and/or to its physical, social, and spiritual environment. Although each of these psychotherapeutic modalities have been shown to have utility for improving psychological health, there are inevitably limitations to their effectiveness and there will always be those individuals for whom they are incompatible. Given such limitations, research continuously attempts to identify and empirically validate more effective, acceptable and/or diverse treatment approaches. One such approach gaining momentum is the use of techniques that derive from Buddhist contemplative practice. Although mindfulness is arguably the most popular and empirically researched example, there is also growing interest into the psychotherapeutic applications of Buddhism’s ‘non-self’ ontological standpoint (in which ontology is basically the philosophical study of the nature or essence of being, existence, or reality).

Within Buddhism, the term ‘non-self’ refers to the realisation that the ‘self’ or the ‘I’ is absent of intrinsic existence (Shonin, Van Gordon, & Griffiths, 2014a). On first inspection, this might seem to be a somewhat abstract concept but it is actually common sense and the principle of ‘non-self’ is universal in its application. For example, Buddhism teaches that the human body comprises the five elements of water, wind (i.e., air), earth (i.e., food), sun (i.e., heat/energy), and space (i.e., in the bodily cavities and between molecules, etc.) (Shonin et al., 2014a). This means that although the body exists in the relative sense, it does not exist in the absolute sense because the body cannot be isolated from all of its contributing causes. Just as a wave does not exist in separation from the ocean, the body does not exist in separation from all other phenomena. According to the Buddhist teachings, when looking at the body, we should also be able to see the trees, plants, animals, clouds, oceans, planets, and so forth (Shonin et al., 2014a). Thus, the body, and indeed the entire array of animate and inanimate phenomena that we know of, cannot be found to exist intrinsically or independently.

The Buddhist teachings go on to assert that suffering, including the entire spectrum of distressing emotions and psychopathologic states (including ‘addiction’), results from adhering to a false view about the ultimate manner in which the self (and reality more generally) exists. As a means of operationalising this notion within Western psychological and clinical domains, we recently introduced the concept of ‘ontological addiction’. Ontological addiction can effectively be considered a new category of addiction (i.e., in addition to what are typically called chemical addictions and behavioural addictions) and is defined as “the unwillingness to relinquish an erroneous and deep-rooted belief in an inherently existing ‘self’ or ‘I’ as well as the ‘impaired functionality’ that arises from such a belief” (Shonin, Van Gordon, & Griffiths, 2013, p.64). Due to a firmly-embedded (yet scientifically and logically implausible) belief that the self is an inherent and independently existing entity, Buddhism asserts that afflictive mental states arise as a result of the imputed ‘self’ incessantly craving after objects it considers to be attractive or harbouring aversion towards objects it considers to be unattractive (Shonin et al., 2014a).

In Buddhist terminology, this process is known as ‘attachment’ and it is deemed to be an undesirable quality that reinforces ontological addiction.  We have previously defined attachment as “the over-allocation of cognitive and emotional resources towards a particular object, construct, or idea to the extent that the object is assigned an attractive quality that is unrealistic and that exceeds its intrinsic worth” (Shonin et al., 2014a, p.4). Thus, attachment takes on a different meaning in Buddhism in relation to its construction in Western psychology where attachment (i.e., in the context of relationships) is generally considered to exert a protective influence over psychopathology.

Having understood from a Buddhist perspective that attachment (and harbouring an erroneous belief in an inherently existing self) is not advisable for adaptive psycho-spiritual functioning, Buddhism teaches that the next step towards recovery from ontological addiction is to embrace ‘non-self’ and begin deconstructing our mistaken belief regarding the existence of an ‘I’. Based on this Buddhist approach, a number of novel psychotherapeutic techniques have recently been developed that integrate meditative practices aimed at cultivating an understanding of the ‘non-self’ construct. For example, Buddhist Group Therapy (BGT) is a six-week program that has been shown to be effective for treating anxiety and depression (Rungreangkulkij, Wongtakee, & Thongyot, 2011). Another example is Meditation Awareness Training (MAT), an eight-week secular program that, in a number of separately published studies, has been shown to be an effective treatment for individuals with anxiety and depression, schizophrenia, pathological gambling, workaholism, work-related stress, and fibromyalgia (e.g., see reviews by Shonin et al., 2013, 2014a, 2014b).

From a mechanistic point of view, greater awareness of ‘non-self’ is believed to assist in gradually uprooting egoistic core beliefs and can complement therapeutic techniques that work at the surface level of behaviour and cognition (Chan, 2008). Furthermore, an understanding of non-self can enhance therapeutic core conditions because “the more the therapist understands non-self, the less likelihood that the therapy will be about the selfhood of the therapist” (Segall, 2003, p.173).

For some, Buddhist concepts such as non-self may be difficult to conceptually grasp and reflect what might be seen as a paradigm shift when compared with well-established Western psychological beliefs regarding the ego and the self. As such, psychotherapists will carefully need to assess the suitability of utilising ‘non-self’ meditative techniques for their own clients. Although further empirical evaluation of these new approaches is required, preliminary findings indicate that techniques aimed at cultivating an awareness of the Buddhist ‘non-self’ construct may have applications in psychotherapy settings.

Ven. Edo Shonin, Ven. William Van Gordon, and Dr. Mark Griffiths

References

Chan, W. S. (2008). Psychological attachment, no-self and Chan Buddhist mind therapy. Contemporary Buddhism, 9, 253-264.

Rungreangkulkij, S., Wongtakee, W., & Thongyot, S. (2011). Buddhist Group Therapy for diabetes patients with depressive symptoms. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 25, 195-205.

Segall, S. R. (2003). Psychotherapy practice as Buddhist practice. In S. R. Segall (Ed.), Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings (pp. 165-178). New York: State University of New York Press.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Buddhist philosophy for the treatment of problem gambling. Journal of Behavioural Addictions, 2, 63-71.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014a). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, doi: 10.1037/a0035859.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014b). Mindfulness as a treatment for behavioral addiction. Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy, 5, e122. doi: 10.4172/2155-6105.1000e122.

The Scientific Study of Buddhism and the Noble Eightfold Path: Dividing the Whole into Many

The Scientific Study of Buddhism and the Noble Eightfold Path:

Dividing the Whole into Many

eight steps

The Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path is sometimes referred to as the “eight steps to freedom”. This tends to give the impression of a graded approach to liberation – we begin at white belt and then progress through the various colours until we reach black belt. However, this is decidedly not the case with the Noble Eightfold Path. As the Mahãcattãrisaka Sutra (The Great Forty Sutra, Majjhima Nikãya, 117) explains, each of the eight factors that comprise the Noble Eightfold Path (i.e., right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration) are the individual parts that make up the whole. They are like the single strands that collectively make up a mountaineer’s rope – the rope is at its strongest when all of these fundamental strands are present and closely interwoven.

Rope strength

However, in certain scientific and medical contexts, the intricate and complex process of meditation has been dissected into the individual practices of  ‘mindfulness’, ‘concentrative meditation’, ‘insight meditation’, ‘self-compassion’, ‘compassion’, ‘loving kindness’, and so forth. Consequently, a growing number of scholars (including ourselves) have expressed concerns in the academic literature that by isolating these elements from one another, we may be taking unnecessary risks. Indeed, if we start to remove strands from a rope or work with only a single rope strand, there is a danger that the rope will snap. In this week’s post, we briefly attempt to highlight the deeply interconnected and interwoven nature of the Noble Eightfold Path, and of Buddhist meditation more generally.

Right view(Sanskrit: samyag-drsti / Pali: sammā-ditthi) essentially refers to the ability to see and understand the absolute nature of reality. Seeing that both we and reality are empty of inherent existence liberates us from suffering. However, in order to develop this clarity of vision, we first need to be able to give rise to a particular form of concentration. In this case we don’t just mean the ability to keep our attention placed on a particular task or object. Right concentration (samyak-samādhi / sammā-samādhi) refers to the meditative state whereby we have completely encompassed all mental activity within a single state of meditative calm. It means that we have effectively tranquilised the mind and in this state, we are profoundly aware of everything that is happening both internally and externally. The only problem with right concentration is that because this state is so blissful, we can forget that the blissful experience is also empty of inherent existence. Thus, although right concentration is a prerequisite for cultivating right view, we need the wisdom of right view to help us transcend any attachment and ignorance that remains when we are dwelling in right concentration.

Wisdom 5

If we want to develop meditative concentration, then we need to know when the mind is succumbing to attachment or aversion. If we are attempting to engulf the mind in tranquillity but we become attached to a particular thought or object, then this will interfere with our concentration and it may well cause us to lose awareness altogether. Consequently, we need to watch over the concentrating mind to ensure that it is in fact still in a state of meditative concentration. This is where mindfulness comes in. Right mindfulness (samyak-smrti / sammā-sati) allows the mind to remain fully concentrated in the here and now. If the mind becomes too excited or too drowsy and begins to drift out of its state of concentration, mindfulness observes that this is happening, so that we gently loosen or tighten our concentration as required.

mind 2

As you can imagine, until we reach a certain level of awakening, constantly being mindful of the mind requires a lot of determination. So right effort(samyag-vyāyāma / sammā-vāyāma) is needed to continuously remind ourselves to be mindful. However, it is not just with regard to right mindfulness where we require right effort – right effort essentially underlies and fuels every other element of the Noble Eightfold Path. For example, right effort is required to cultivate right speech (samyag-vāc / sammā-vācā), right action (samyak-karmānta / sammā-kammanta), right livelihood (samyag-ājīva / sammā-ājīva) and so forth. Likewise, an active and focussed effort is required to cultivate right view and to see all phenomena exactly as they are – empty of intrinsic existence. Thus, as with every other aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path, right effort cannot be treated in isolation.

Right speech, right action and right livelihood are basically concerned with our ethical conduct. Everything we think, say and do in this present moment will create the next present moment – not just for ourselves but also for others. In other words, before we open our mouths we should stop and ask ourselves “is what I am about to say going to cause me or anybody else harm”? If we are not very nice to other people or to ourselves, then this is actually going to cause us a lot of worry and a lot of bother. We are constantly going to be involved in internal and external squabbles. If we get caught up in things it is extremely difficult for the mind to relax and find peace. It becomes difficult to establish right effort and, therefore, it becomes difficult to establish right mindfulness. Without maintaining mindfulness of our mental processes, it is impossible to rest in meditative concentration and – in turn – cultivating right view and meditative wisdom becomes a very distant prospect.

Ethics

Thus, it is absolutely essential for effective spiritual and meditative development that we infuse all of our actions with gentleness, awareness, and compassion. This is where right intention (samyak-samkalpa/sammā sankappa) comes in. Right intention means that we live our whole life with the primary goal of helping ourselves and others to develop spiritually. Right intention should permeate each of the other seven aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path. For example, when we are practicing mindfulness, we should be practicing with others’ long-term wellbeing in mind. Some people have told us that they practice mindfulness in order to overcome a medical problem or to get ahead in their career. However, this doesn’t embody the meaning of right intention and so actually, these individuals are not practicing mindfulness at all.

Because we allow right intention to completely pervade our being, everything else falls nicely into place. By having the right intention, the spiritual path becomes very enjoyable and progress happens automatically. As we discussed in our recent post on the ‘Top Ten Mistakes Made by Buddhist Meditation Practitioners’, it is because people don’t have the right intention that their spiritual practice fails to bear fruit. Some people sit in meditation for hours each day and/or they diligently study the teachings for many decades. But right intention is something that comes from within – it can be learned but it is actually quite intuitive. You either really want to evolve spiritually or you don’t. You’re either willing to subdue your ego or you’re not. It is quite simple. In a nutshell, right intention means that due to knowing all phenomena are impermanent and our time here is limited, we are ready to work hard in order to leave suffering behind.

To summarise, each aspect of the meditative journey is intrinsically connected to every other aspect. We need to practice all of the components of the Noble Eightfold Path at the start of our journey, and we need to practice them all at the end. If we only focus on one component of the path, things will be unbalanced. We will end up like one of those people who only works on their biceps when they go to the gymnasium – they end up with huge arms stuck onto a matchstick body. If we dissect the individual elements of the spiritual path and we treat them as isolated units, then we are basically misconstruing the Buddha’s instructions of how to practice and apply the teachings. By getting caught up in categorising and analysing things – it is a sign that we are becoming attached to the teachings. No doubt some people find this very interesting, but it basically means that we are moving things from the spiritual to the academic plane. At this point, the practice is no longer going to be of any long-term benefit. The Buddha explained that the Buddhist teachings are rather like a raft or a boat that we can build and use in order to cross the ocean or a wide and turbulent river. We are born on one shore of this turbulent river (life) and in order to get to the other shore, we build ourselves a boat. When built, we set sail with joyful effort, great diligence, and equanimity. However, when we arrive on the other shore, we don’t lift the boat onto our shoulders and carry it around with us. We let go of the raft, we let go of the teachings.

 Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Bodhi, B. (1994). The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.

Bodhi, B. (Ed.). (2009). Majjhima Nikaya: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (4th ed.). (Bhikkhu Bodhi, & Bhikkhu Nanamoli, Trans.) Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications.

Buddharakkhita (Trans.). (1966). Dhammapada: A Practical Guide to Right Living. Bangalore: Maha Bodhi Society.

Chah, A. (2011). The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah. Northumberland: Aruna Publications.

Dalai Lama. (1995). The Path to Enlightenment. New York: Snow Lion.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-127.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). The consuming mind. Mindfulness, DOI: 10.1007/s12671-013-0265-z.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The top ten mistakes made by Buddhist meditation practitioners. The Buddhist Voice, 1(5), 22-24.

Suzuki, D. T. (1983). Manual of Zen Buddhism. London: Rider.

Can a Person be Ignorant and Intelligent at the Same Time?

Can a Person be Ignorant and Intelligent at the Same Time?

ignorance 3

A few years ago, we made the decision to add a new dimension to our role as Buddhist monks by immersing ourselves in Western academia and undertaking research into the health benefits of meditation and Buddhist philosophy. After having devoted decades to the study, practice, and teaching of Buddhism (that is obviously based on Eastern philosophical principles), and despite the fact we are both originally from the West, the move into the Western academic setting has – for various reasons – been an eye-opening experience. This doesn’t so much relate to the challenges of writing for academic journals (because in just the last two-years we have accrued over 100 academic publications – including numerous articles in leading peer-reviewed psychology and medical journals), but relates more to coming to terms with what many  Western academics appear to perceive as desirable qualities for the modern scholar.

As regular readers of our blog will know, Buddhism places a great deal of importance on the generation of wisdom. Wisdom is that which overcomes ignorance, and ignorance is that which prevents people from realising their enlightened nature. Therefore, according to Buddhist thought, the amount of respect awarded to a practitioner or teacher should be based on how much spiritual wisdom they have accumulated. Essentially, the meaning of wisdom – at least in the sense that we are contextualising it here – is identical to the meaning of the word enlightenment. Thus, from the Buddhist perspective, the wiser a person is the more enlightened they are and vice-versa.

There are lots of definitions of Buddhist wisdom but we would briefly define it as the extent to which an individual accurately apprehends and understands both themselves and reality. A wise person knows every inch of their mind. They know why it exits, where it exists, and how it exists. Not only do they know their mind, but they also know that part of them that knows that it knows the mind. They appreciate fully that they are both the observed mind as well as the mind that observes. Because they know their own minds, they also know every inch of everybody else’s minds andthey are fully aware that all minds are interconnected. They are aware that their mind is without limitations and they know that all other sentient beings also have the potential to have a mind without limitations. In short, their outlook is vast and unconditionally compassionate – everything is encompassed in it.

Although the wise person has realised the full potential of their mind, they are in no way conceited or boastful about this. In fact, the wiser a person is, the more humble they are. Wise people don’t have goals or agendas per se, and they place no importance on being recognised for their efforts or successes. Their main objective is to simply be, and from this state of simply being, profound tranquillity and lucidity arises that allows them to act in a way that is inconceivably skilful yet completely uncontrived.

An interesting observation concerning the Buddhist construal of wisdom is that intelligence is not a prerequisite for being wise. Obviously, there are lots of different types and interpretations of intelligence, but here we are using the term ‘intelligence’ as per its popular (and Oxford English Dictionary) definition of: the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. Thus, although there is a strong probability that a wise person will be intelligent or academic in the conventional sense, there is also the possibility that they won’t be. Intelligence is a tool that wise people can cultivate and make use of if they wish to, but wise people understand that intelligence needs to be developed and handled carefully. This is because in the absence of wisdom, intelligence can significantly limit the mind. It can become an obstacle to enlightenment and therefore an obstacle to the ongoing development of a dynamic and fluid wisdom.

In effect, what we are saying here is that incorrectly handled, intelligence can actually make you more stupid. This is quite a strange thing to say but it does seem to us that there are quite a number of people – including many academics – who are thought of (or think of themselves) as being intelligent, but who seem to think and act without any wisdom. In Western academia, it is often the case that people obtain their PhD and then continue to develop knowledge and expertise in what is often a relatively narrow field of study. In fact, in many cases, academics often end up shaping the terrain, rules, and boundaries of their given field of study.

In our opinion, what seems to happen reasonably often is that academics (and indeed many other professional groups) live in a bubble that they themselves have created. In this bubble, they are the masters, the game developers, and rule keepers. Living in the bubble means that they can command respect from people that are not in the bubble – from people that don’t really have a clue what they are talking about but just presume it is tremendously complicated and important. However, when one looks at the crux of what is actually being proposed within a given scholarly theory, it can more often than not be reduced to some very simple themes and ideas. And for those instances where things cannot be explained in simple terms, then, in our experience, it normally means that the bubble owners have got so caughtup in the language and rules of their own self-created reality that they have begun to lose sense of how their research or sophistry relates to the real world.

Since such individuals (and there is quite a lot of them) are more interested in being intelligent than wise, the thinking and reasoning skills that they develop become useful only within their own (often very narrow) field of study. Consequently, when they are presented with a completely new idea or way of working, they have difficulty in assimilating it – principally due to their own ego construct. This is particularly the case when a bubble-dweller meets with a wise person. The bubble-dweller’s normal reaction is to feel threatened by the wise person and to reject them and/or their ideas. Because the wise person is just simply being and is not trying to be somebody in particular, their wisdom is very powerful, unshakeable, incredibly piecing and absolutely logical. By piercing, we don’t mean that they have a smart retort to everything, we just mean that their basic presence – even when they aren’t saying anything – is very penetrating. The wise person’s wisdom gives the intelligent person’s ignorance a sudden and massive shake. The intelligent-ignorant person (or, if you prefer, the ignorant-intelligent person) starts to feel threatened because they know that if they remain in the presence of the wise person, they will be forced to accept that they have created and are living in a very small bubble. They know that the wise person’s wisdom will burst their bubble and they will no longer have any ground to stand on.

Please don’t misunderstand what we are saying here – we are not saying that contemporary academics are actually quite stupid. Indeed, we are fortunate to know some very wise people – from both the East and West – that are also incredibly intelligent. However, in our humble opinion, it does seem that there are increasingly fewer and fewer “true” scholars – people that can think freely and with a big mind, but who also know the limitations of their intelligence and can therefore transcend it.

 

Further Reading

Fancher, R. E. (1985) (Ed.). The Intelligence Man: Makers of the IQ Controversy. W. W. Norton & Company: New York.

Gottfredson, L. S. (1997). Mainstream Science on Intelligence. Intelligence, 24, 13-23.

Hunt, E. (2011). Human Intelligence. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Jensen, A. R. (2011). The Theory of Intelligence and Its Measurement. Intelligence, 39, 171-177.

Robinson, A. (2011). Genius: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University

Trewavas, A. (2002). Mindless mastery. Nature, 415 (6874): 841.

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