The Urban Dharma Newsletter - August 2011

In This Issue: Buddhism and Therapy

The Practice of the Wild (Trailer) San Simeon Films
1. Buddhism and psychology
2. The Snowy Heron in the White Moon Hides
3. Buddhism and Healing
4. A Buddhist Middle Way Approach in Therapy

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Hi, This newsletter is about Buddhism as a Therapy, can Buddhism reduce suffering as a therapy? Also a link to the trailer for ‘The Practice of the Wild’ and film/Doc with Gary Snyder.

Peace… Kusala

The Practice of the Wild (Trailer) San Simeon Films

‘Trailer’ – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRS-UO8wOQU

The Practice of the Wild (Trailer) San Simeon Films - Poet and naturalist Gary Snyder has been at the center of cultural changes which transformed the modern world. Along with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, he was a founding author of the Beat generation. He helped bring Zen Buddhism into the America scene, was an active participant in the anti-war movement, and served as literary inspiration to seekers of freedom, mindfulness and higher human potential.Snyder won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. His great epic poem: Mountains and Rivers Without End was completed in 1996. He has been called the poet laureate of Deep Ecology.Since a childhood in the Cascades, he has been the voice of a new environmental awareness, which never loses sight of direct wild experience -- local people, animals, plants, watersheds and food sources.The film follows Snyder and novelist Jim Harrison (Dalva, Legends of the Fall), as the two old friends wander along trails of the central California coast -- in a remote area untouched for centuries. They debate the pros and cons of everything from Google to Zen koans. The discussions are punctuated by archival materials and commentaries from Snyder's literary contemporaries, friends, and intimates.

1. Buddhism and psychology – From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Buddhism and psychology overlap in theory and in practice. Over the last century, three strands of interplay have evolved:

Descriptive phenomenology: Western and Buddhist scholars have found in Buddhist teachings a detailed introspective phenomenological psychology (particularly in the Abhidhamma).

Psychotherapeutic meaning: Humanistic psychotherapists have found in Buddhism's non-dualistic approach and enlightenment experiences (such as in Zen kensho) the potential for transformation, healing and finding existential meaning.
Clinical utility: Contemporary mental-health practitioners increasingly find ancient Buddhist practices (such as the development of mindfulness) of empirically proven therapeutic value.

1 Buddhism's phenomenological psychology
        1.1 Overview of the Abhidhamma
        1.2 Rhys Davids' early scholarship (1900)
        1.3 Trungpa Rinpoche and the Naropa Institute (1974)
        1.4 The Dalai Lama and the Mind and Life dialogues (1987)
2 Psychotherapy and Enlightenment
        2.1 Suzuki & Jung (1948)
        2.2 Suzuki & Fromm (1957)
        2.3 Mainstream teachers and popularizers
        2.4 Caveats regarding "Romantic Buddhism"
3 Buddhist techniques in clinical settings
        3.1 Mindfulness practices
        3.2 Cognitive restructuring

Buddhism's phenomenological psychology

The establishment of Buddhism predates the field of psychology by over two millennia; thus, any assessment of Buddhism in terms of psychology is necessarily a modern invention. One of the first such assessments occurred when British Indologists started translating Theravada Buddhism's Abhidhamma from Pali and Sanskrit texts. Long-term efforts to juxtapose abhidhammic psychology with Western empirical sciences have been carried out by such Vajrayana leaders as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the 14th Dalai Lama.
[edit] Overview of the Abhidhamma

The earliest Buddhist writings are preserved in the three-part Tipitaka (Pali; Skt. Tripitaka). The third part (or pitaka, literally "basket") is known as the Abhidhamma (Pali; Skt. Abhidharma). Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, president of the Buddhist Publication Society, has synopsized the Abhidhamma as follows:

Part of the Tipitaka written in Thai on traditional wood slices.

"The system that the Abhidhamma Pitaka articulates is simultaneously a philosophy, a psychology, and an ethics, all integrated into the framework of a program for liberation.... The Abhidhamma's attempt to comprehend the nature of reality, contrary to that of classical science in the West, does not proceed from the standpoint of a neutral observer looking outwards towards the external world. The primary concern of the Abhidhamma is to understand the nature of experience, and thus the reality on which it focuses is conscious reality.... For this reason the philosophical enterprise of the Abhidhamma shades off into a phenomenological psychology. To facilitate the understanding of experienced reality, the Abhidhamma embarks upon an elaborate analysis of the mind as it presents itself to introspective meditation. It classifies consciousness into a variety of types, specifies the factors and functions of each type, correlates them with their objects and physiological bases, and shows how the different types of consciousness link up with each other and with material phenomena to constitute the ongoing process of experience." (Bodhi, 2000, pp. 3-4.)

Western recognition of the phenomenological-psychological aspect of the Abhidhamma started over a century ago with the work of British Indologists.

Rhys Davids' early scholarship (1900)

Caroline A. F. Rhys Davids was one of the first to conceptualize canonical Buddhist writings in terms of psychology.

In 1900, Indologist Caroline A. F. Rhys Davids published through the Pali Text Society a translation of the Theravada Abhidhamma's first book, the Dhamma Sangani, and entitled the translation, "Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics" (Rhys Davids, 2003). In the introduction to this seminal work, Rhys Davids writes:

    "... Buddhist philosophy is ethical first and last. This is beyond dispute. But among ethical systems there is a world of difference in the degree of importance attached to the psychological prolegomena of ethics.... [T]he Buddhists were, in a way, more advanced in the psychology of their ethics than Aristotle — in a way, that is, which would now be called scientific. Rejecting the assumption of a psyche and of its higher manifestations ..., they were content to resolve the consciousness of the Ethical Man, as they found it, into a complex continuum of subjective phenomena.... The distinguishable groups of dhammā — of states or mental psychoses — 'arise' in every case in consciousness, in obedience to certain laws of causation, physical and moral — that is, ultimately, as the outcome of antecedent states of consciousness.... It postulated other percipients as Berkeley did, together with, not a Divine cause or source of precepts, but the implicit Monism of early thought veiled by a deliberate Agnosticism.... [S]o Buddhism, from a quite early stage of its development, set itself to analyze and classify mental processes with remarkable insight and sagacity...." (Rhys Davids, 1900, pp. xvi-xvii.)

Buddhism's psychological orientation is a theme Rhys Davids pursued for decades as evidenced by Rhys Davids (1914) and Rhys Davids (1936).
Trungpa Rinpoche and the Naropa Institute (1974)

"Buddhism will
come to the West
as a psychology."
- Chogyam Trungpa, 1974

In his introduction to his 1975 book, Glimpses of the Abhidharma, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote:

    "Many modern psychologists have found that the discoveries and explanations of the abhidharma coincide with their own recent discoveries and new ideas; as though the abhidharma, which was taught 2,500 years ago, had been redeveloped in the modern idiom." (Trungpa, 1975, p.2.)

Trungpa Rinpoche's book goes on to describe the nanosecond phenomenological sequence by which a sensation becomes conscious using the Buddhist concepts of the "five aggregates."

In 1974, Trungpa Rinpoche founded the Naropa Institute, now called Naropa University. Since 1975, this accredited university has offered degrees in "contemplative psychology."
[edit] The Dalai Lama and the Mind and Life dialogues (1987)

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama brings together Buddhists and Western scientists every two years.

Every two years, since 1987, the Dalai Lama has convened "Mind and Life" gatherings of Buddhists and scientists. Reflecting on one Mind and Life session in March 2000, psychologist Daniel Goleman notes:

    "Since the time of Gautama Buddha in the fifth century BC, an analysis of the mind and its workings has been central to the practices of his followers. This analysis was codified during the first millennium after his death within the system called, in the Pali language of Buddha's day, Abhidhamma (or Abhidharma in Sanskrit), which means 'ultimate doctrine'.... Every branch of Buddhism today has a version of these basic psychological teachings on the mind, as well as its own refinements" (Goleman, 2004, pp. 72-73).

Psychotherapy and Enlightenment

British barrister Christmas Humphreys has referred to mid-twentieth century collaborations between psychoanalysts and Buddhist scholars as a meeting between "two of the most powerful forces operating in the Western mind today."[6] Ever since, a variety of renowned teachers, clinicians and writers such as D.T. Suzuki, Carl Jung, Erich Fromm, Alan Watts, Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzberg have attempted to bridge and integrate psychology and Buddhism in a manner that offers meaning, inspiration and healing. More recently, some traditional Buddhist practitioners have expressed concern that attempts to view Buddhism through the lens of Western psychology diminishes the Buddha's liberating message.
[edit] Suzuki & Jung (1948)

A number of psychologists have identified a pivotal collaboration between Buddhism and psychology was when psychoanalyst Carl Jung wrote the foreword to Zen scholar Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki's Introduction to Zen Buddhism, first published together in 1948.[7] In his foreword, Jung highlights the enlightenment experience of satori as the unsurpassed transformation to wholeness for Zen practitioners. And while acknowledging the inadequacy of Westerners' attempts to comprehend satori through the lens of Western intellectualism,[8] Jung nonetheless contends:

    "The only movement within our culture which partly has, and partly should have, some understanding of these aspirations [for such enlightenment] is psychotherapy. It is therefore not a matter of chance that this foreword is written by a psychotherapist.... Taken basically, psychotherapy is a dialectic relationship between the doctor and the patient.... The goal is transformation...." (Suzuki & Jung, 1948, p. 25).

Suzuki & Fromm (1957)

Referencing Jung and Suzuki's collaboration as well as the efforts of others, humanistic philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm noted:

    "...[T]here is an unmistakable and increasing interest in Zen Buddhism among psychoanalysts" (Fromm et al., 1960, pp. 77-78).

Suzuki, Fromm and other psychoanalysts collaborated at a 1957 workshop on "Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis" in Cuernavaca, Mexico.[10] In his contribution to this workshop, Fromm declares: "Psychoanalysis is a characteristic expression of Western man's spiritual crisis, and an attempt to find a solution" (Fromm et al., 1960, p. 80). Fromm contends that, at the turn of the twentieth century, most psychotherapeutic patients sought treatment due to medical-like symptoms that hindered their social functioning. However, by mid-century, the majority of psychoanalytic patients lacked overt symptoms and functioned well but instead suffered from an "inner deadness":

    "The common suffering is the alienation from oneself, from one's fellow man, and from nature; the awareness that life runs out of one's hand like sand, and that one will die without having lived; that one lives in the midst of plenty and yet is joyless" (Fromm et al. pp. 85-86).

Paraphrasing Suzuki broadly, Fromm continues:

    "Zen is the art of seeing into the nature of one's being; it is a way from bondage to freedom; it liberates our natural energies; ... and it impels us to express our faculty for happiness and love (p. 115).

    "...[W]hat can be said with more certainty is that the knowledge of Zen, and a concern with it, can have a most fertile and clarifying influence on the theory and technique of psychoanalysis. Zen, different as it is in its method from psychoanalysis, can sharpen the focus, throw new light on the nature of insight, and heighten the sense of what it is to see, what it is to be creative, what it is to overcome the affective contaminations and false intellectualizations which are the necessary results of experience based on the subject-object split" (p. 140).

Mainstream teachers and popularizers

In 1961, Philosopher and Orientalist Alan Watts wrote:

    "If we look deeply into such ways of life as Buddhism and Taoism, Vedanta and Yoga, we do not find either philosophy or religion as these are understood in the West. We find something more nearly resembling psychotherapy.... The main resemblance between these Eastern ways of life and Western psychotherapy is in the concern of both with bringing about changes of consciousness, changes in our ways of feeling our own existence and our relation to human society and the natural world. The psychotherapist has, for the most part, been interested in changing the consciousness of peculiarly disturbed individuals. The disciplines of Buddhism and Taoism are, however, concerned with changing the consciousness of normal, socially adjusted people." (Watts, 1975, pp. 3-4.)

Since Watts's early observations and musings, there have been many other important contributors to the contemporary popularization of the integration of Buddhist meditation with psychology including Kornfield (1993), Joseph Goldstein, Tara Brach, Epstein (1995) and Nhat Hanh (1998).

Tracing the roots of modern Western spiritual ideals from German Romantic Era philosopher Immanuel Kant through American psychologist and philosopher William James, Jung and humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, Thanissaro Bhikkhu (undated) identifies broad commonalities between "Romantic/humanistic psychology" and early Buddhism: beliefs in human (versus divine) intervention with an approach that is experiential, pragmatic and therapeutic. However, Thanissaro asserts that there are also core differences between Romantic/humanistic psychology and Buddhism. These are summarized in the table to the right. Thanissaro implicitly deems those who impose Romantic/humanistic goals on the Buddha's message as "Buddhist Romantics."

Recognizing the widespread alienation and social fragmentation of modern life, Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes:

    "When Buddhist Romanticism speaks to these needs, it opens the gate to areas of dharma [the Buddha's teachings] that can help many people find the solace they’re looking for. In doing so, it augments the work of psychotherapy....

    "However, Buddhist Romanticism also helps close the gate to areas of the dharma that would challenge people in their hope for an ultimate happiness based on interconnectedness. Traditional dharma calls for renunciation and sacrifice, on the grounds that all interconnectedness is essentially unstable, and any happiness based on this instability is an invitation to suffering. True happiness has to go beyond interdependence and interconnectedness to the unconditioned. ... [T]he gate [of Buddhist Romanticism] closes off radical areas of the dharma designed to address levels of suffering remaining even when a sense of wholeness has been mastered."

Buddhist techniques in clinical settings

For over a millennium, throughout the world, Buddhist practices have been used for non-Buddhist ends.[12] More recently, Western clinical psychologists, theorists and researchers have incorporated Buddhist practices in widespread formalized psychotherapies. Buddhist mindfulness practices have been explicitly incorporated into a variety of psychological treatments.[13] More tangentially, psychotherapies dealing with cognitive restructuring share core principles with ancient Buddhist antidotes to personal suffering.
[edit] Mindfulness practices

Fromm (2002, pp. 49–52) distinguishes between two types of meditative techniques that have been used in psychotherapy:

    auto-suggestion used to induce relaxation; and, meditation "to achieve a higher degree of non-attachment, of non-greed, and of non-illusion; briefly, those that serve to reach a higher level of being" (p. 50).

Fromm attributes techniques associated with the latter to Buddhist mindfulness practices.[14]

Two increasingly popular therapeutic practices using Buddhist mindfulness techniques are Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Marsha M. Linehan's Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Other prominent therapies that use mindfulness include Steven C. Hayes' Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and, based on MBSR, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) (Segal et al., 2002).

Clinical researchers have found Buddhist mindfulness practices to help alleviate anxiety, depression and certain personality disorders.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR):

Kabat-Zinn developed the eight-week MBSR program over a ten year period with over four thousand patients at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center (Kabat-Zinn, 1990, p. 1). Describing the MBSR program, Kabat-Zinn writes:

    "This 'work' involves above all the regular, disciplined practice of moment-to-moment awareness or mindfulness, the complete 'owning' of each moment of your experience, good, bad, or ugly. This is the essence of full catastrophe living." (p. 11)

Kabat-Zinn, a one-time Zen practitioner, goes on to write:

    "Although at this time mindfulness meditation is most commonly taught and practiced within the context of Buddhism, its essence is universal.... Yet it is no accident that mindfulness comes out of Buddhism, which has as its overriding concerns the relief of suffering and the dispelling of illusions." (pp. 12-13)

In terms of clinical diagnoses, MBSR has proven beneficial for people with depression and anxiety disorders; however, the program is meant to serve anyone experiencing significant stress.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT):

In writing about DBT, Zen practitioner[16] Linehan (1993a, p. 19) states:

    "As its name suggests, its overriding characteristic is an emphasis on 'dialectics' – that is, the reconciliation of opposites in a continual process of synthesis.... This emphasis on acceptance as a balance to change flows directly from the integration of a perspective drawn from Eastern (Zen) practice with Western psychological practice."

Similarly, Linehan (1993b, p. 63) writes:

    "Mindfulness skills are central to DBT.... They are the first skills taught and are [reviewed] ... every week.... The skills are psychological and behavioral versions of meditation practices from Eastern spiritual training. I have drawn most heavily from the practice of Zen...."

Controlled clinical studies have demonstrated DBT's effectiveness for people with borderline personality disorder.

Cognitive restructuring

Dr. Albert Ellis, considered the "grandfather of cognitive-behavioral therapy" (CBT), has written:

    "Many of the principles incorporated in the theory of rational-emotive psychotherapy are not new; some of them, in fact, were originally stated several thousands of years ago, especially by the Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers (such as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius) and by some of the ancient Taoist and Buddhist thinkers (see Suzuki, 1956, and Watts, 1959, 1960)." (Ellis, 1991, p. 35.)

To give but one example, Buddhism identifies anger and ill-will as basic hindrances to spiritual development (see, for instance, the Five Hindrances, Ten Fetters and kilesas). A common Buddhist antidote for anger is the use of active contemplation of loving thoughts (see, for instance, metta). This is similar to using a CBT technique known as "emotional training" which Ellis (1997, pp. 86–87) describes in the following manner:

    "Think of an intensely pleasant experience you have had with the person with whom you now feel angry. When you have fantasized such a pleasant experience and have actually given yourself unusually good, intensely warm feelings toward that person as a result of this remembrance, continue the process. Recall pleasant experiences and good feelings, and try to make these feelings paramount over your feelings of hostility."

2. The Snowy Heron in the White Moon Hides – by Mark Rivett and Eddy Street Family therapy and Buddhism two traditions, two authors, one article



For many years our professional lives and personal /spiritual lives have had a curious intertwining. We have similar and different backgrounds and have interests in both family therapy and Zen Buddhism. We have worked together as family therapists and at work so often our discussions have drifted to spirituality and Buddhism. We have sat in meditation together in our own little Sangha group and so often here our discussion has turned to family therapy.
Thoughts Arise and Thoughts Pass Away

Zen Buddhists meditate in front of a wall, a method that date back to the Buddha's own technique at least 2,500 years ago.

My body gradually settles into a restful (though not comfortable) position. My mind does the opposite. It seems that when I sit still, my mind takes this as an excuse to work overtime. Sometimes I get lost in these thoughts; at other times I manage just to notice how my mind works and then that train of thought drops. This keeps happening during the half an hour of 'sitting' or Zazen. My mind puts up all sorts of obstacles to non-activity. Memories arise: some have emotional impact; others such as tiredness seem to excuse a mental wandering. Bodily discomfort spreads: I must scratch that itch on my knee. Somehow, and it isn't always associated with time spent sitting, a moment comes when the mind stops its games. Experience is. I only know that happens after it has happened. Then my mind begins its dialogue again. My ego thinks it has achieved something, so once more I return to watching the experience. Like sitting beside a river. Watching thoughts, feelings, desires and memories arise and pass away.

How do Buddhism and therapy relate? What do Buddhist thinking and practices bring to the theory and practice of therapy? We have pondered these questions in many ways and what we would like to do here is to offer to others some of the distillation of our ideas. A kind of "Cooks tour" of the area. We think there are three types of relationships between psychotherapy and a Buddhist perspective and we will look at each in turn.

1. In the first relationship type there is an intellectual activity in which traditional Buddhist psychological conceptions of psychology are used as a guide to therapeutic practice. This also includes the practical application of Buddhist ethics. These tend to rely heavily on the Indo-Tibetan view of human action and emotionality. An example of this is David Brazier's book 'Zen Therapy'. Within this approach one can also find the practice of psychotherapy explained or interpreted via traditional Buddhist texts. Robert Rosenbaum 's 'Zen and the Art of Psychotherapy' is a good book of this type. For example, he uses ideas from the Heart Sutra, which outlines a view of the 'emptiness' of things to explain what happens when someone investigates the 'self' in therapy. If things have no inherent quality other than their own being what is the self-construction of the 'Self'. In therapy clients (and therapists) struggle with the self they believe themselves to be and seek to experience the beingness that emerges from behind this self-construction. "When knowing and not knowing meet, who is it that truly comes forth? In another paper we have described this type of approach to spirituality as an "instrumental" one, in that the therapist consciously uses ideas and concepts from the spiritual domain to apply to therapeutic practice.

It may surprise some that there is a psychological theory both implicit and explicit in Buddhist thought but this is what marks this particular brand of spirituality out from others. As it is rooted in meditation, Buddhism has always included a theory of mind. The Buddha also built his teachings on the nature of human psychological suffering, therefore quite clearly Buddhist thought has a lot to offer psychotherapy.

2. The second approach is also an instrumental one and bases itself on a specific relationship and process that is found particularly within Mahayana schools of Buddhism (especially the Chan or Zen traditions). A Zen approach would see no difference between someone seeking to resolve a personal dilemma or issue and a 'seeker of the way'. The seeker of the way is advised to find a teacher who can offer instructions and guidance on methods and give feedback on experiences. This relationship is seen in active form primarily on a retreat through the interview between teacher and trainee known by its Japanese title of 'dokusan'. It is this relationship/interview to which Haley refers (1994) when he says ". Zen Buddhism is apparently the oldest continuing procedure in which one person sets out to change another". The usual way people know of dokusan is through the stories of what the master said to the trainee. However this is to overfocus on the content or to be more accurate to overfocus on minor elements of the interaction rather than on the overarching process of the ongoing teacher/trainee dialogue within the context of the trainee developing awareness. This link between therapy and Buddhism tends to encourage the view of the interaction as a metaphor for therapy rather than seeing it as an actual process of change that has relevance to the psychotherapist. Some masters have written about the process of dokusan and numerous trainees have described their experiences of it in the retreat context. (See Crook 1991). These insights into the process of change have an essential relevance to the psychotherapy. In the interaction between spirituality and therapy the role relationship between the seeker (client) and the teacher (therapist) is maintained and the understanding and techniques from one area are applied to the other. It still retains an instrumental relationship however and indeed the therapist can apply it with out subscribing to the spiritual tradition.

3. The third approach of Buddhism to psychotherapy is the most straight forward but the most difficult to talk about. It is approaching the world with the luminosity of the Zen mind. Now at his point the intellectual reader will say "Ah now we go into the jargonised doctrine" on the contrary now we go into experience!!! Buddhism points out and then teaches that problems of the mind dissolve when there is no duality, no differential of subject and object. "Not two and not one". This is achieved not by an intellectual understanding but through experiences that are obtained primarily from meditative practices. We suggest that those who have obtained some benefit from their own meditative practice and who have become able to appreciate the nature of thought, the mind and non duality bring a different quality to their work with others. It is evident that one of the reasons numerous psychotherapists from the west have embraced Buddhism is that its core ideas/practices make very good sense to those engaged in being a therapist.

Zen in the art of family therapy is being part of the flow of the moment. As Zen masters say "When walking walk, when sitting sit" to which we can add "when doing family therapy do family therapy". This is the process of flow that can arise with any skill - doing something in which the doing does it (not the person trying to do it). Those who have experienced 'the flow' will know that it arises without conscious effort and what happens when interacting with others is that in a very real direct way the need to be meaningful is lost but the feeling of oneness with the process is pervasive. Of course this process of 'flowing' comes with experience in any activity and what is clear from the experience of Buddhists is that it is a process that can be found in every aspect of life indeed in living itself. And this can be attained and enhanced through the process of becoming a 'seeker of the way' and sitting on your meditation cushion. It may also be attained in the process of becoming and being a psychotherapist. As Dogen a 13th century Zen Master states in the Genjo Koan "to study Buddhism is to study ourselves" (Tanahasi 1985). Buddhism is a way to answering the question "Who am I?" and finding an answer that allows us to live our lives. "To have some deep feeling about Buddhism is not the point; we just do what we should do, like eating supper and going to bed. This is Buddhism" (Suzuki 1970). Human problems arise because of the way that we construct our understanding of the world and for each combination of individuals, for each context, there are a myriad of way of conceiving and viewing what is happening. Our 'mind' constructs something and we respond to the construction.

To which our post modern social constructionist family therapist adds "yes of course and therapy is about helping people realise that they have choices and that we can construct our world differently and more helpfully." To which our ancient 2,000-year Buddhist sage adds "Agreed, but are you willing to take a step in the unknown and wonder what would happen if you gave up, suspended construction? What is there when there is no construction? Who is there when there is no construction happening?" This cannot be answered intellectually (though many try). It can only be answered from the experience of it - by eating supper, going to bed and perhaps doing therapy. To complete the Dogen quote above "To study ourselves is to forget ourselves" - is that an achievement for the reflexive practitioner like just eating and sleeping? In this relationship between the spiritual and therapeutic no distinction is made as both are the same thing, all are seekers and all are attempting to express their natural selves. We have termed this approach to spiritually one of the "integrative" approaches as the practitioner is expressing his/her spirituality directly in the therapy process and actively pursues the link.

This view about how to live our lives is not now solely held within Buddhism for interestingly post modern Christian theologians also have arrived at this very 'Zen' position. Don Cupitt (1997) has argued that in our post modern world we can no longer look for a spiritual practice which posits any 'outside', 'real' being who intervenes in peoples' lives. Rather he asserts that because our culture now lives on the outside of ourselves we should adopt an ethic of "Solar living". This ethic demands that we live like the sun pouring out our self-expression and being fully present in the moment of existence. "We can get ourselves together only by leaving ourselves behind" he writes. Why is it that when family therapists have adopted post-modern ideas, they have not considered post-modern spiritualities as well? There has been an assumption within constructionism that it rejects spirituality because of its humanistic, languaged based philosophy. However Buddhists and now some Christians make the opposite assumption that precisely because the reality we construct is language and thought based there is a need to move beyond this and hence spirituality has an essential place within our lives.

Given all the above it is interesting to speculate what a family therapy course based on Zen principles would be like. It would teach techniques and skills and the process of forgetting them. It would elaborate and discuss the whole range of theoretical ideas and how to give them up. It would talk about integration of mind, body, ideas, clients, being, theories, skills, therapists, naturalness. It would focus on the awareness of the moment and it would teach meditation so that trainees studied themselves beyond mere 'personal development'.

In the course of working with a depressed mother who feels she can give no more to her children I find myself asking, "Imagine you were 75 years old and knew you were going to die the next day, what would you have to do between now and then to feel that your life had been worthwhile?"

As I ask the question, I ask myself it too.

I am stuck. I do not know what to say. The family has said all they can. We look at each other and become embarrassed by a silence.

I offer my thoughts. "I sometimes feel embarrassed when there is nothing to say."

"That doesn't mean there's nothing to do." Says a father who has not contributed much.

"Good grief John, that something deep from you." Says his wife.

"All things are possible," he says.

"Yes," I add, "all things are possible.

We laugh together at the challenge and foolishness of it all.

Brazier, D, (1995). Zen Therapy. Constable. London.

Crook, J. (1991). Catching a Feather on a Fan. Element Books. Shaftesbury, Dorset.

Cupitt, D. (1997). After God; The future of religion. London; Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Haley, J. (1994). Zen and the art of therapy. Family Therapy Networker,Jan/Feb.1994

Rosenbaum, R. (1999) Zen and the Heart of Psychotherapy. Brunner/Mazell. London.

Suzuki, S. (1970). Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. Weatherhill. New York.

Tanahashi, K (Ed.) (1985). Moon in a Dewdrop; Writings of Zen Master Dogen. North Point Press. San Francisco.

3. Buddhism and Healing – by Alfred Bloom, Professor Emeritus, University of Hawaii


Buddhism began in India about 5th century BCE and began its spread through Asia from about the 3rd century BCE when King Asoka sent out missionaries to South Asia and to the West. In the course of time, it evolved into two major traditions known in ancient times as Hinayana and Mahayana, the Smaller and the Larger Vehicles. Today, we do not us the term Hinayana or the Small vehicle, because it is pejorative. The style of teaching of that early tradition is now called by the name Theravada, which means "Way of the Elders." There are significant differences between the two traditions which we will not take up in detail, except to indicate that Mahayana Buddhism spread largely to the Northwest and then North and East Asia, including the countries of China, Mongolia, Tibet, Korea and Japan.

Buddhism is sometimes described as a philosophy seeking a religion, in contrast to Christianity which was a religion seeking a philosophy. The consequence of this difference has been that Buddhism focuses on certain philosophic principles rather than beliefs. There are beliefs but they are not the primary consideration. There is, therefore, a considerable variety of teachings in Buddhist tradition, sometimes contradictory and confusing if one does not know the history.

However, Buddhism is a religion of practice and in its monastic forms strives to realize the principles as experiences in one’s own life.

Ultimately, they hope to achieve enlightenment as Gautama experienced. Speculation and doctrine are secondary to experience guided by a teacher and the major principles. Hence, meditation is a central feature of Buddhism.

Gautama’s enlightenment experience reached after six years of intensive spiritual search includes basic principles that permeate all Buddhist traditions. These are the Middle Path between extremes of hedonism and asceticism; the four noble truths and eightfold path, and the principle of interdependence, no-soul, and impermanence.

These teachings are first expressed in what we call now the Theravada teaching and practice. As indicated by its name, it is more conservative. The Mahayana tradition is more flexible and adaptable so that each country and culture where it spread developed its own distinctive styles of Buddhism which have been maintained to the present time.

Mahayana Buddhism elaborated on the initial principles and developed a cosmic, universal perspective indicating that all beings have Buddha nature and all beings will attain Buddhahood. Mahayana has been very positive in affirming life in this world, though it also has beliefs about the afterlife. It has a philosophy of education that takes into account individual differences whereby the teaching is to be given in harmony with the level of understanding and spiritual development of the student. This has been the basis of its adaptability and integration with native cultures. It is replete with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who meet the spiritual need of each individual. While merging with folk traditions, Mahayana also developed subtle systems of philosophy focused on the concept of emptiness and exploring the nature of reality and our perception of it. There is a a wide variety of literature.

Buddhism in Hawaii is mainly the Mahayana tradition in its various forms which we see in the differing denominations. There are South Asian Buddhists from Vietnam and Laos; East Asian from China, Korea and Japan; and Tibetan Buddhists. There are Theravada Buddhists mainly from Thailand and some from Cambodia.

Mahayana Buddhism never denied the Theravada but built its teaching with that as its foundation and precedent. They considered the Theravada as elementary teaching and background for the more advanced Mahayana teachings.

Buddhism has had a concern for health, spiritual health, from its very beginning. Gautama, who became Buddha or Enlightened One, initially tried to solve the problem of human existence through extreme ascetic practice. He found this harmful and ineffective. He discovered that enlightenment could come only when there was a healthy mind in a healthy body. He enunciated the principle of Middle Path between extremes. Spiritual development can only come when one avoids hedonism, devotion to pleasure or asceticism, mortification of the body.

The Buddha is sometimes described as a physician because his analysis for the human condition proceeds as a doctor might in observing the condition, seeking the cause, prescribing the cure and applying it. In Buddhism these are called the Four Noble Truths.

The first truth is that all life is suffering. Westerners often see this declaration as a negative, pessimistic assessment of life. Rather, it is realistic, looking at the actual conditions of human life. The term for suffering -- Dukkha -- refers to a broad spectrum of conditions, namely dis-ease, not merely disease as a physical experience, anxiety, frustration, dissatisfaction. It takes into account that there is suffering in parting from things we love and meeting things that are unpleasant. There is suffering in what we call surfeit or too much of a good thing. Suffering in Buddhism comprises both physical and mental features.

Based on the principle of cause and effect, Buddhism sees the core problem in suffering caused by ignorance, not knowing the true nature of our life and world. We avoid facing the impermanence of life in all its dimensions. We are deluded by focusing on permanence and not realizing the non-soul character of all things. Non-soul is one of the difficult concepts of Buddhism and it means that nothing has its own essence or is totally self explainable or contained. Everything is interdependent with every other thing and the failure to see this leads to our egoism and our problems and conflicts with others who also pursue their own ego interests. We see everything only in reference to ourselves and as self-centered beings, we encounter resistance in the world, which increases our unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

Going deeper, the cause of the many forms of suffering is desire, perhaps better craving, lust, thirst or in general passions of hatred, greed and anger. These passions arise from our ego attachments to things, our ideas, our bodies etc.

However, Buddhism is an optimistic system and proposes a cure or healing. Whatever has a cause can be remedied by removing the cause.

The way to remove the cause is known as the Noble Eightfold Path It includes: Right View, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

The system is a total spiritual discipline involving the body and mind. It aims not only at improving life, but also to liberate one from the bondage to finite existence and repeated reincarnations in the stream of births and deaths. The goal is ultimately Nirvana.

Though Buddhism aims at a final solution to the problems of existence, it also provides a pattern for living holistically in this world. Initially, it was for monks but its principles have relevance for ordinary life. The system of eight aspects of Buddhist spirituality begins with Right Views, which contributes to mental health. By having a proper and realistic understanding of the self as a dynamic, evolving process, we may become more adaptable and flexible confronting life situations. Accepting the impermanence of life and things, we may become more tranquil. There is a famous story about a mother, Kisa Gotami. Her baby had died and she was distraught. She pleaded with the Buddha to restore her child. The Buddha agreed, on the condition that she bring a mustard seed from a home where there had never been a death. She searched but could not find such a home. She gained insight and returned to the Buddha, now understanding that her child suffered death as all others do. She then accepted the death of her child.

The five aspects of Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort take up the inner and outer dimensions of our life activities. Buddhism focuses on the activities of the mind, body and speech, which are involved in all our activities. These should be integrated and in harmony with our understanding of reality. It involves ethical, spiritual and physical dimensions of living.

Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration are perhaps the best known features because we hear so much about meditation in Buddhism and other traditions. Mindfulness is maintaining a focus of attention, an awareness of what is going on without focusing on a particular objects. It is a detached observation of what is happening within us and around us in the present moment

Right Concentration describes the unification of all mental functions on an object of meditation. It involves deep attentiveness and tranquility. Essentially meditation enables a detachment from the distracting flow of stimuli that assault the mind and permits an inner unification of the psyche to develop. As Jon Kabat-Zinn has written on mindfulness and meditation, it is like climbing out of a raging current in a stream and watching the stream from the bank. This unification can become the basis for more creative activity or involvement. We call it centering or working from the inner quietude of our minds. In meditation our egoism and its stake in things is set aside, allowing other perceptions and alternatives to emerge. When people get angry and wish to retaliate for a hurt, we say count to 10. That is, give space for the mind to truly assess the situation and find a more proper response. Meditation is a more developed spiritual approach to our problems.

Buddhism contributes to mental and physical health through encouraging the development of a unified and centered personal approach to our life affairs. It assists the well-being of the body through the body-mind synthesis in which the physical elements and the psychological and spiritual dimensions are all part of a continuum and a dynamic interrelation. In the west, we are prone to distinguish flesh and body, matter and spirit, body and soul, etc. However, Buddhism sees things as process in which all features of existence are interdependent and ultimately one. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn:

"Since the mind plays such an important part in people's experience of their bodies and what's possible in their lives, it seemed that a hospital would be a perfect place to train people in meditative awareness. They could optimize their inner resources for healing and take responsibility for their health." ("Mindful Medicine")

According to Kabat-Zinn, meditation-mindfulness can help in reducing stress, pain and depression. By letting go of stress, one may even enhance the body's self-healing powers. Studies have shown that anger and hostility affect our health. According to one study, they influence heart disease (Dalai Lama, Dr. Howard Cutler, "The Art of Happiness," New York: Riverhead Books, 1998, p.247.)

The Dalai Lama states:

"The destructive effects of hatred are very visible, very obvious and immediate. For example, when a very strong or forceful thought of hatred arises within you, at that very instant, it totally overwhelms you and destroys your peace of mind, your presence of mind disappears completely. When such intense anger and hatred arises, it obliterates the best art of your brain, which is the ability to judge between right and wrong, and the long term and short term consequences of your actions." (Ibid., p. 250.)…

However, the role of Buddhism in creating healthy life-conditions does not involve miracle cures, but employs methods for dealing with the emotional elements that accompany pain and even intensify it. The Dalai Lama indicates that happiness is not merely a feeling, but is the result of right thinking. Our problems begin with negative thinking. However, negative thought is not intrinsic to our minds and the mind can be trained to develop positive attitudes of love, compassion, patience and generosity. This approach has taken form in what is known as cognitive therapy, which seeks the source of negative and self-defeating ideas. Right thinking is not just a matter of correct information and belief. Right thinking in Buddhism means a transformation in one’s understanding of the nature of existence. Enlightenment is transformation of one’s total being.

I should point out that there are forms of therapy based in Buddhism. From the Pure Land tradition, there is the method of Naikan therapy which is a system of introspection to make one aware of our interdependence with others and to arouse the sense of gratitude for their contribution to our lives. This positive force can offset personal problems that induce negativity.

There is also Morita therapy based in Zen Buddhism and is reality therapy, that is living in harmony with reality as it is. According to Morita therapy, "the gap between the world as it is and the world as we think it ought to be can fill with pain. When we do not look the way we think we ought to look and when we cannot accomplish our goals as rapidly and effortlessly as we think we ought to be able to accomplish them, we worry that either there is something wrong with us or we are victims of injustice. Rather than futilely railing against nature or trying to force it into complying with our ideals, we can learn to live in harmony with it. To live in harmony with nature, we accept as parts of ourselves our talents, imperfections, painful feelings and real desires."

I should conclude by indicating that Buddhism has all the elements of folk religions common around the world. There are Buddhas and bodhisattvas who offer healing and prayers requesting their blessing. There are shrines and services where people seek alleviation and healing from their illnesses. Among the most common figures are: Yakushi Buddha, the Buddha of healing; Kuan-yin, the Bodhisattva of compassion (a central figure in healing); and Jizo Bodhisattva who cares for children and the dead and also heals. Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra devoted to Kuan-yin presents the blessings she gives to her devotees. The text called the Heart Sutra, a profound philosophical text which is one page, is often recited in times of disaster and personal problems. There are practitioners who are considered to have special powers for healing and are consulted for many problems. There are practitioners in this community, some well known and others not.

In addition, there is the Daishi-sama cult based in Shingon Buddhism. The central figure is Kobo Daishi, a great teacher in ninth-century Japan who founded the Shingon sect. He became known in popular tradition as a healer, as well as culture hero. Many people in Hawaii also pray to Kobo Daishi.

Much of Japanese religion focuses on healing using different methods. The popular religion is focused on benefits in this life of health, wealth and success -- though still holding traditional beliefs about the afterlife. The modern new religions also maintain this emphasis.

Buddhism is a complex of spiritual principles, practices and practitioners all designed to enhance the life of people corresponding to the level of their understanding and devotion. The heart of Buddhism is the Buddha’s compassion, which takes many forms and applications.

4. A Buddhist Middle Way Approach in Therapy – Mark O’Donoghue


Mark O’Donoghue. Originally published in Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, Volume 23, Number 4, 2002, pp. 196-201. Mark O’Donoghue is a counsellor at Adelaide University and is a Buddhist practitioner and meditator (since 1987). Address for correspondence: Adelaide University, SA 5005, Australia or email: mark.odonoghue@adelaide.edu.au

For many years I have been practising Buddhist meditation in my personal life. In this article, I present one way in which Buddhism has influenced my work. People who seek counselling often swing between two unsustainable or unsatisfactory alternatives, for example being ‘full on’ or doing nothing. Polarisations that trap people can be lived, remembered or imagined.

Buddhism proposes the middle way as a path out of these extremes. I present ways to deconstruct dichotomies, allowing people to find more effective alternatives. I show how to actualise a ‘middle way’ approach that is appropriate to Western therapy. I will also examine times when a middle way is not an ethically acceptable response.


This article is my attempt to adapt Buddhist ideas and practices, in a careful and critical way, to therapy. Buddhism and therapy have two very different aims. Therapy is to help people live their day-to-day lives more effectively and perhaps with less pain. The central problem of Buddhism is how to deal with the inevitability of sickness, old age, death and anguish in general. Someone may have a life that does not require or desire therapy, and yet may not have confronted the central concerns of Buddhism. Equally a person may have resolved the central concerns of Buddhism, but on a more ordinary level, may not be living a good life (Kornfield, 1998). Kornfield shows that many meditation practitioners and teachers have been left with serious problems such as alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, or misuse of power and money. Over the last ten years, many stories of this nature have been coming out and I have observed some myself. Kornfield also notes that even when these larger problems do not exist, meditators may still need to sort ordinary parts of their lives, e.g. how to relate to people, hold a job or have intimate relationships. So in bringing Buddhist ideas and practices into the therapy domain, I do not wish to deny the aims of therapy. If therapy tries to persuade people that they should become Buddhists, that is not useful. However, I believe Buddhism can contribute to therapy.

There are two ways that Buddhism can be related to therapy. Firstly, as transpersonal therapists do, by developing a therapy that fully embraces the ‘spiritual dimension’, such as Assagioli’s Psychosynthesis (Assagioli, 1971), which incorporates the Hindu Higher Self, and Fenner’s approach (1995) which draws on Buddhist notions of emptiness. The limitation of these approaches is that if one’s spiritual values are not consistent with those being incorporated, then there will not be an appropriate fit. It makes sense to seek out a therapy that aligns with one’s spiritual commitments. The second way is to maintain a non-spiritual therapeutic position, but to include the useful insights from spiritual traditions, as I will do here with the Buddhist middle way.

The Buddhist Middle Way

The Buddha was an historical person whose life and teachings gave rise to the religion called Buddhism. The story as we know it describes a person brought up as a prince, living an indulgent life that was protected from anguish. He then for the first time encountered a sick person, an old person and a dead person, conditions which had been unknown to him. He realised that his princely life had not prepared him to deal with sickness, old age and death. He rejected all worldly pleasures, adopting an ascetic’s life of mortification and meditation. This was the second extreme, the first being his former life of pleasure. This second life still did not prepare him to deal with sickness, old age and death. He continued to meditate, but modified his ascetic practices and this provided a suitable foundation for his enlightenment. He concluded that neither the extreme of sensual pleasure (indulgence) nor physical deprivation (mortification) (Bachelor, 1997) was the way to go, and thus proposed the ‘middle way’ between these two.

The middle way was subsequently prescribed as ‘the way’. Advice from a middle way perspective on how to write this paper would go something like this: do not make the article too long or too short; do not go into too much detail nor too little detail; do not write too forcefully nor too softly. Thus a space of non-extremes would be created. Many Buddhist writers since have defined ‘right behaviour’ in this way.

A concern with a middle way, or with ‘being balanced’ is not unique to Buddhism; it is also a part of the ‘common sense’ of our own culture. A journalist captures this: ‘The balance is difficult to maintain — too much influence is seen as prescriptive and patronising, and too little as indifferent’ (McPhedran, 10.6.2000: 69).

Although lay wisdom includes a middle way approach, it also includes other approaches, exemplified by phrases such as ‘Go for the max’, ‘Pull out all the stops’ and ‘Crash through or crash’, that are not consistent with a middle way approach. Within Buddhism, the middle way is given a more central place, and is drawn from more consistently.

My Use of the Buddhist Middle Way

If therapy becomes simply a prescription for a space of non-extremes, it becomes yet another standard against which people’s lives can be measured and to which they must conform, rather than assisting people to find out the way that will best suit, and serve, their lives.

In the Buddhist and lay wisdom, the middle way often becomes an ethical prescription. People can be accused of ‘going too far’ or ‘not far enough’. Recently I saw someone on television describe their position as the ‘middle of the road’ in contrast to the ‘mad greenies’. These are all ways of saying the speaker is right because they have the ‘middle ground’. They are claims to moral superiority, often deviously so, because they avoid debate about the ethics of different positions. This is very similar to the tactic of declaring one’s position to be ‘neutral’ and thus morally superior and beyond question.

There are many extremes I find it important to support. For example, to talk of a middle way between ‘too much’ and ‘too little’ abuse, rape or assault is totally against my values. The middle way I have found useful for therapy is a way out of polarities rather than the prescription for an ethical position.

I have found a middle way approach most useful when people swing between two unsatisfactory or unsustainable extremes. This is a very common reason for people coming to therapy. Some dichotomies that have trapped people who have come to counselling with me are: trust vs distrust; optimism vs pessimism; positivity vs negativity; idealised happy self vs depression; over-indulgence vs self hatred; perfection vs imperfection; total control vs no control; and the possession of very good friends vs friendlessness.

Sometimes people have found a way to do things that works, but as time goes on, this position ‘drifts’ towards an extreme, so that it becomes unsustainable. In these cases, a brief reference to the extreme usually suffices to situate change within the middle way.

A Simple Case Example

When I see people who are very stressed, I will often ask them to imagine a stress scale from zero to ten. When they are at the ten end of that scale, they are so stressed that they cannot work effectively. When I suggest that they need to reduce their stress a bit so that they can begin to work effectively again, they agree with me. One day I discovered that Mario and I had not been talking a common language: on closer examination I found that even though Mario (not his real name) said ‘Yes’, he was thinking ‘No’ because he thought I was saying his stress should be at zero, i.e. he should give up work entirely. I was talking a language that has a series of graded steps between zero and ten, whereas Mario was hearing only zero and ten.

Kelly’s ‘Personal Constructs’

The Buddha advised us to take the middle way rather than either extreme. However, he did not elaborate a theory to account for the polarised nature of our thinking. For such a theory I have turned to George Kelly and to Buddhist Madhyamika philosophy (Fenner, 1990, 1995).

George Kelly founded his Psychology of Personal Constructs on one postulate: ‘A person’s processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he [sic] anticipates events’ (1955: 46); and eleven corollaries. For Middle Way therapy, the most relevant corollary is the Dichotomy Corollary: ‘A person’s construction system is composed of a finite number of dichotomous constructs’ (56). Kelly ascribes ‘… a dichotomous quality to all human thinking’ (1955: 109). The conceptualisation of constructs as polarised is contrasted with ‘concepts’ and ‘categories’, both of which are unipolar ways of describing thought (Bannister & Fransella, 1980: 21).

Expanding on this, Kelly wrote:

Each construct involves two poles, one at each end of its dichotomy. The elements associated with each pole are like each other with respect to the construct and are unlike the element at the other pole (Kelly, 1955: 137).

Polarities can be either explicit or implicit (Bannister & Fransella, 1980: 22). Explicit polarities are obvious to most people. For example, ‘small’, ‘slow’, ‘short’ imply the corresponding polarities ‘big’, ‘fast’ and ‘tall’. Implicit polarities are not so obvious. Kelly argues that all statements are at least implicitly linked to their opposite, for example, ‘red’ and ‘not red’, ‘talk’ and ‘not talk’ and ‘sitting’ and ‘standing’.

The ‘common abstraction’ that defines a construct is itself defined in contrast to other constructs, and so on. For example, when we look at the construct ‘chairs’, we might have at one pole lounge chairs, and at another, kitchen chairs. ‘Chairness’ is the aspect they have in common, that makes possible the comparison of two types of chairs. Again, chairs might be one pole of the construct ‘furniture’.

The Madhyamika (Middle Path) Theory of Dichotomies

In the Middle Path tradition of the Buddhist writers Nagarjuna (2nd Century) and Candrakirti (7th Century), ‘analytic’ meditation is used to achieve a state of liberation or unconditional freedom (Fenner, 1995: 29). Analytic meditations take many forms, one of which is to collapse two polarities into each other, thus dissolving the polarity. An example of this in ordinary life is to be neither aggressive nor passive. The result is dissolution of the conceptual category that is made up by the dichotomies. Taking this route results in a cessation of conceptuality, resulting in a direct perception of reality unmediated by conceptuality, which is the Buddhist enlightenment. This is not the aim of therapy, at least as most people (including myself) practise it, although the various Transpersonal Therapies may constitute an exception. However, the Middle Path meditators’ understanding of how conceptuality works provides another useful answer to the question: ‘Why dichotomies?’

Within a Middle Path account of dichotomies, there are five developmental steps: (1) undifferentiated objects; (2) characterised objects; (3) concepts; (4) thoughts and (5) language. According to Middle Path theory, the world is made up of undifferentiated ‘objects’. The undifferentiated objects of the world are divided up into separate objects by a conceptual process of the ‘characterisation of objects (via dichotomies)’. Based on a characterisation of objects, concepts are formed and these are in turn the basis for thoughts and language.

Concepts are formed by a process of defining what the concept is and is not, for example, ‘good’ and ‘not good’ define the concept ‘good’. According to this theory, ‘good’ is not an intrinsic quality but is a relative one, because ‘good’ only exists in relation to ‘not good’. In thought and language we refer to one end of the dichotomyon on its own. This gives the illusion that the concept (e.g. ‘good’) exists in and of itself, isolated from its opposite. However, the two ends remain connected in some way, which continues to influence their use. It is this connection that results in all the forms of polarisation and their consequences. Thus if we identify ‘good’, then implicitly there must be ‘bad’, and vice versa. Because the two poles are connected in this way, people’s judgements may shift from one pole to another if one pole is not sustainable.

To demonstrate how this theory works, I will use the example of a ‘table’ and show the evolution from an undifferentiated ‘object’ to defining an object as existing separately from all other objects (Fenner, 1995: 37–38). The world is made up of undifferentiated objects. Through a conceptual process, the undifferentiated ‘objects’ are divided up into objects that have been ascribed the relevant characteristics of tables and those that do not. Tables and not tables are explicitly linked because they are defined in opposition to each other. We then go on to use the word ‘table’ as if it is not defined in opposition to ‘not tables’. We cease to be aware of the other pole, that is, ‘not tables’, but of course, the polarity between tables and not tables still structures our thinking.

Therapy and Middle Path Buddhists

In the Middle Path analysis, dichotomies are brought together to generate a paradox and thus produce liberation by ‘destructur(ing) conceptuality” (Fenner, 1995: 44). Middle Path meditators aim for a state where all conceptuality, which is necessarily bipolar, is destructured, leaving a non-conceptual state that ends anguish, since anguish is itself a concept. In contrast, the Middle Way approach to therapy that I am proposing can begin with a deconstruction of particular concepts which will be replaced by other concepts — ones that are less painful or more in alignment with what the people who see me want, but of course still bipolar.

When people are caught in a swing between two poles, the dichotomous structure of the concept shifts them between the two poles as if they were in a maze in which they are trapped. When one pole is unsustainable or unsatisfactory people tend to shift to the other pole, which leaves them no room to display any other behaviour, feeling or thought. The role of the counsellor is to locate this trap and help people out of it. When one pole is sustainable, workable or satisfactory people will not swing to the pole to which it is linked.

Bipolarities can be divided into two types, one that is necessarily always present and another that exists within the former but has varying degrees of bipolarity or different bipolarities. These are sometimes called ‘bipolar’ and ‘scalar’ (Bannister & Fransella, 1980: 22). Scalar constructs exist as a product of bipolar constructs. For example, black and white can be two poles of a bipolar construct and shades of grey is a scalar construct that can exist between these two poles. Another example may help. There are two types of choices that we can be given. One involves a bipolarity that is either 0 or 10 and we must choose which number we want, giving us only two choices. The second set of bipolarities is 0 &1, 1 & 2, 2 & 3 ... 9 & 10. In the second set, we can choose between ten separate dichotomies. If people believe they have only the first set of choices (as Mario did in my earlier case example) and this is unsatisfactory for them in some way, we can assist them to have access to the second set, thus giving them more and different choices.


When I describe the way thinking is dichotomised, and how the middle way leads out of that situation, the solution looks obvious. However the way out does not look obvious to a person caught in such a polarity. The middle way is obvious from a middle way paradigm but not from a bipolar paradigm, in the same way that visual gestalts (like the picture which is ‘both’ an old woman ‘and’ a young girl simultaneously) are obvious once you see them, but not if you cannot see them. We therapists get trapped in the obviousness, which can block us from the creative ways to assist people to step out of such dichotomies. For example, just saying to someone that they need to be balanced has little benefit, since the obviousness of this statement renders it ineffective. What we need is a systematic way to bring about this change.

A Middle Way Therapy

I have distinguished four types of middle way, which I will demonstrate by using the example of how a person might deal with someone with whom they are in conflict.

Firstly, for a scalar construct, a middle way is half way between the two defining poles. Passive or aggressive communications are two poles that people often get caught between. A common middle way out of these dichotomies is assertive communication. Halfway along a scale is probably ‘the’ middle way as defined within the original Buddhist middle way presentation. However, subsequent developments in Buddhist philosophy and practice defined the middle way as neither a nor b, thus including the scalar middle way but also other possibilities. This second type of middle way includes all points along the scale between the two poles, not just the half way point. Then, the option ‘neither passive nor aggressive’ could be replaced by a large range of possibilities including: less aggressive, slightly aggressive, assertive, less passive or slightly passive — anywhere along the scale other than the two extremes.

A third type of middle way can be obtained by stepping out of a specific construct altogether. This is appropriate when both extremes are located within a non-helpful or non-preferred construct, for example if the construct is aggression and the extremes are verbal aggression and physical aggression. Such a construct might make a person swing between two unsatisfactory types of aggression that are dichotomously linked. We might question the construct’s usefulness or preferability, and perhaps locate another more useful construct, for example, ‘communication’. Thus a person could be neither verbally nor physically aggressive, but respond in a way that is not within the construct of aggression, but perhaps can be located within the construct of ‘communication’.

Fourthly, following Madhyamika philosophy, we can devise another category that steps out of both poles but does not step into another construct, thus moving to a non-conceptual realm outside of all constructs. Such a state cannot really be described by language, because by definition language is founded on dichotomies; it involves a direct non conceptual experience of reality as it is. Such a person would be in (Fenner, 1995: 29) ‘a state of liberation’ and ‘unconditional freedom’. Such a person might have a more fluid sense of reality, such that things and states form and dissolve continuously, removing the likelihood of being caught in any one state.

Lived, Remembered and Imagined Polarities

So far I have written about polarities in peoples’ lives, and will call them ‘lived polarities’. Polarities can also be remembered as lived in the past or imagined as possibilities for the future; both of these can also trap us.

The memory of a past extreme can result in people living at the alternative extreme. The memories of abused trust can lead people to be overly distrustful; recalling that they failed because they did not work hard enough can induce people to try so hard that they get exhausted and fail again, and memories of times when they have been naively idealistic can lead people to be overly cynical.

A polarity can also be imagined. Sometimes people can imagine only an extreme and unsatisfactory alternative and this keeps them in their current and unsustainable extreme. An example is students who work too hard and come to me in a stressed condition. The only alternative they can imagine is not to work at all. Because they have worked so hard for so long, this becomes a very appealing alternative for them. Their thinking becomes trapped in this polarity.

People can also worry about being too kind or too harsh. For some this has never happened, but they imagine it and know that the imagined extreme is not workable. The imagined extreme becomes the reference point that keeps them ‘stuck’ at the other polarity. For example, when counselling someone who is very harsh with her or him self, we might look to kindness as a way out. Such people often comment that you can be too kind, and I agree. When kindness is located between harshness and being too kind, we have a more precise definition of appropriate kindness that is not trapped in a dichotomy.

How I Present this Information

Earlier in my career, I used to present this concept very dramatically. On two sides of a white board, I would write a list of the two extremes and all the things that would go with them. I also might ask about the voice tone, colour, feeling and phrases associated with these ways of thinking or looking or feeling. I would explore consequences of that belief and why they were not acceptable or working for the person. This is very useful in locating statements, beliefs, actions and feelings within these extremes. Once I had done this and the person was clear why each did not work, the swings stopped or were deconstructed. I would then dramatically draw a circle in the middle and ask if this was the way out. People would usually agree that it was but would be at a loss to know what this middle way would look like. This was not surprising, because their thinking and responses had been structured by a dichotomy, and some creative work was needed to create a middle position. At that time I was more influenced by the strategic approach to family therapy as exemplified by Haley (1973), Erickson (Rosen, 1982) and the earlier White (1979, 1986). I now mostly prefer a more ordinary and less dramatic presentation.

Samantha: An Illustration from My Work

Samantha came to counselling to deal with a range of problems. For the purposes of this article I will focus only on the problem we called ‘stewing’. Stewing would involve Samantha going over and over events in her life, which she was not happy about. As she kept going over these events, she would feel worse and worse until she was like a rabbit caught in a spotlight unable to escape. For her the solution was the non-existence of stewing.

In the first week of meeting we discovered a contrast between ‘thinking’ and ‘stewing’ as responses to a supervisor with whom Samantha had difficulties. When she stewed on the interactions with the supervisor she became angrier and could not study. Thinking put these difficulties in context and again gave her a perspective that allowed her to continue studying and working with her supervisor. During the next week, we discovered a number of ways Samantha had used to get out of stewing. These included recognising that stewing was happening, using thinking to reduce the intensity of stewing, laughing at herself for stewing and thinking about roller blading.

Samantha objected that ‘I cannot always laugh’ as a way to stop stewing. The benefit of thinking about roller blading was that ‘Stewing was sitting on the side’. When measured against the extreme of the non-existence of stewing, however, these did not count as ways out of stewing. These two responses to two of the potential ways out of stewing both indicate that Samantha has in mind some state where there is no stewing, rather than steps to reduce stewing. We have a polarisation between ‘stewing’ and ‘non existence of stewing’. The non-existence of stewing is an idealised, non-sustainable and imagined extreme and was destined to fail as a goal.

I have (at least) two ways of responding to such a polarity. Firstly, I use a process of questioning that deconstructs the extreme preference. This then allows for the discovery of other ways out of stewing that are not extreme. Secondly, I present some counter ideas and examples for consideration.

I ask questions such as ‘Is it possible for there ever to be totally no stewing?’ Samantha replied: ‘NO’. (If the answer had been ‘Yes’, I could have asked, ‘If someone is to get to a point of no stewing do you think there will be steps along the way, which will include some stewing? Is half stewing better than all stewing? Is three quarters stewing better than all stewing?’)

With Samantha, I talked about change being a process of small steps and contrasted this with trying to take one big step. I drew a diagram on my white board to represent this (see Diag. 1) in which a person swings between ‘all at once and going nowhere’ and ‘giving up and going nowhere’. I then contrasted these two extremes with ‘one step at a time and getting there’ (Diagram 2) which is a middle way for the polarities of ‘all at once and going nowhere’. If one step is too large, we can break it up into smaller steps and if those are too large, then we break them down into smaller steps and so on, until a step is found that can be taken. I also like to suggest that we zoom in as if we have a telephoto lens and keep doing this until we find steps that can be taken.

During week three, Samantha spent one weekend off with her family, did not stew and during the following week studied for a few days. A new criterion began to emerge against which these developments could be measured and could contribute towards reducing stewing. We then had a concept of degrees of stewing. Samantha could see changes and answer ‘Yes’ when asked if these new ways out of stewing were desirable.

The first polarisation was between stewing and non-stewing and a second polarisation was uncovered between there being no solutions and only one solution. We discussed the possibility of laughter as a way to overcome stewing and Samantha said, ‘I cannot always laugh every time when I am stewing’. Her statement was based on the presupposition that laugher could be the only response to overcoming stewing.

I asked if it was possible that only one thing would solve the problem, or was it more likely that a diversity of approaches would help, so that she could move from one to the other if one approach did not work. I drew on the analogy of a tool bag filled with many different tools for dealing with stewing. I also drew a diagram with many lines converging on one point to suggest a multitude of approaches to solving one problem.

Before using a Middle Way approach, I would have focused much of our effort on thinking as a way out of stewing. Within the domain of thinking, we would have had both thinking that was a way out of stewing and thinking that was a polarisation of stewing, which would have inevitably flipped back to the other pole, stewing. Now I can better help her to focus the domain of ‘thinking’ so that we separate thinking that is useful and thinking that is an extreme and unsustainable. I still ask people to assess whether ‘thinking’ is useful, but they have different criteria against which to measure it.


A Middle Way approach to therapy can deal with the pervasive tendency to polarise and swing between two unsustainable extremes. The Buddhist middle way made this clear to me, and the work of Fenner and Kelly explained why it is so.

Over the years I have considered grounding this work in a number of alternative theories including: Hegel’s dialectics; Russell’s work on logical types and Bateson’s subsequent use of that work; Derrida may also have relevant things to say from a post modern perspective and Trialectics has also been suggested as a compatible approach. Rather than focus on these authors I decided to focus on Buddhism’s contribution and Kelly’s theory. I chose Kelly because his work provided a clear and close fit to my practice. However, I wrote this article from a Buddhist perspective for two reasons. Firstly, Buddhism was the source of inspiration for my middle way approach. Secondly, it provided a new, inspiring and, I believe, interesting source of ideas from which to draw.

In my work as a therapist, I am always attending to the influence of dichotomies either in the background or explicitly. It has helped the people who consult me to step out of the polarisations that trap and limit their lives. I have tried to avoid naively or inappropriately pushing Buddhism into the western therapeutic tradition, and I have endeavoured to engage critically with the Buddhist approach.


I would like to thank people who have made comments on earlier drafts of the article: Jane Copeland, Natalie Fuller, Sally Hebenstreit, Greg Smith and Denis Heath. I have presented versions of this paper at The South Australian ANZSSZ Conference, 2000, and The Pan Pacific Family Therapy Conference, Melbourne, 2001.


Assagioli, R., 1971. Psychosynthesis: A Manual of Principles and Techniques, NY, Viking.
Bachelor, S., 1997. Buddhism without Belief: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, London, Bloomsbury Publishing.
Bannister, D. & Fransella, F., 1980. Inquiring Man: The Psychology of Personal Constructs, 2nd edn, Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Fenner, P., 1990. The Ontology of the Middle Way, Dordrecht/Boston/London, Kluwer Academic.
Fenner, P., 1995. Reasoning into Reality: A System-Cybernetics Model and Therapeutic Interpretation of Buddhist Middle Path Analysis, Boston, Wisdom.
Haley, J., 1973. Uncommon Therapy: The Psychiatric Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D., NY, London, Norton.
Kelly, G., 1955. The Psychology of Personal Constructs, Vols 1 and 2. 2nd edn. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Kornfield, J., 1998. Even the Best Meditators Have Old Wounds to Heal, Psychotherapy in Australia, 4, 3: 37–40.
McPhedran, I., Trouble in Paradise, The Advertiser (Adelaide), 10.6.2000: 69.
Rosen, S., 1982. My Voice will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson, M.D., NY, London, Norton.
White, M., 1979. Structural and Strategic Approaches to Psychosomatic Families, Family Process, 18, 3: 303–314.
White, M., 1986. Negative Explanation, Restraint and Double Description: A Template for Family Therapy, Family Process, 25, 2: 169–186.

Mark is a counsellor at The University of Adelaide and OCAR Services.
Address for correspondence: The University of Adelaide, South Australia 5005.

Fenner writes about ‘destructuring’ which is different from deconstructing. To destructure is to undo and not replace with another concept. To deconstruct is to undo but to replace that concept with another one. This distinction hinges on whether you believe unmediated experience is possible, as Madhyamika Buddhists do.

I often draw simple diagrams in counselling sessions because people find them useful. I suspect other counsellors do the same but we do not write or talk about this so I have decided to include some in this paper. It might be a useful thing for others to do.

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