Become our own therapist

Jun 21, 2019

The Buddhist model of the mind is deceptively simple, yet it’s a profound method for helping us delve deep into our thoughts and feelings in order to understand and, crucially, change them. “We can mould our mind into any shape we like,” as one contemporary Tibetan master Lama Zopa Rinpoche puts it.

Discovered and articulated by the great thinkers and yogis of India in their meditation 3,000 years ago, and still intact today as a living system for inner transformation, this model divides the contents of the human mind into three categories: positive, negative, and neutral; there’s no fourth. And these are technical terms, not moralistic.

For this discussion let’s forget the neutral. (This term doesn’t imply that they’re not important; it’s referring to the various states of mind such as concentration, vigilance, memory and the many, many others that enable us to function as human beings, but that have neither the characteristics of being virtuous nor non-virtuous.)

So, positive and negative: how do we understand this? These refer to all our day-to-day thoughts, feelings, emotions. The positive ones: so obvious: love, compassion, kindness, generosity, forgiveness, patience. We instantly recognize these words because we can recognize these qualities within us. And we know they’re the good ones: whether they’re prevalent within ourselves and we’re on the receiving end of them, we just know they’re the source of happiness.

Then we have the others, the so-called negative ones: again, so obvious: anger, neurotic neediness or attachment, jealousy, depression, low self-esteem, arrogance. We just know that the extent to which they’re prevalent is the extent to which we’re miserable. They are awful; so painful.

We all recognize these states of mind. We’ve had them since we’re tiny, and we totally take them for granted, the assumption being, of course, that we’re stuck with them: “This is me. This is who I am.” That’s marvellous if we’re the kind of person who can easily access our kindness or stay calm in the face of dramas – how fortunate! – but what if we can more easily access our anger, our hurt, our fears instead, what to do then?

These unhappy emotions, when they’re running the show, feel so utterly overwhelming, so absolute, as if they’re at the core of our being. And in our culture we don’t seem to learn methods for changing them; we just assume we can’t.

But we can. This is the fundamental finding of the Buddha: that the neuroses, the painful unhappy states of mind that we all recognize in ourselves and in others, are in fact not at the core of our being and thus can be removed. And that the positive states are at the core of our being, indestructibly so, and can be perfected.

This is literally the meaning of nirvana. You’ve achieved your own nirvana, your own liberation, when you’ve utterly removed from your mind, your very being, these neuroses and have fully developed the goodness.

It’s almost shocking to hear this. If I were to ask my therapist for methods to get rid of all ego, all fears, all anger, etc., etc., and to develop infinite love and compassion for all beings, she’d think I’m crazy! None of our contemporary models of the mind suggest anything remotely like this.

But this job of moulding my mind, of being my own therapist, takes work, of course: much effort, discipline, clarity, perseverance, and accurate instructions from those who’ve accomplished this goal or who are at least on the path.

First, we need to cultivate the ability to focus the mind, to concentrate, and this is the goal of the meditation technique known these days as mindfulness. It’s actually a very sophisticated psychological technique that enables one, in the longterm, to go to extremely subtle levels of one’s mind, levels of cognition that are not even posited as existing in contemporary views of the mind.

But we don’t need to wait until then. In the short-term this skill enables us to step out of the dramas, to observe the thoughts, the stories, and to become our own therapist. With whatever level of focus we’ve accomplished, we learn to listen to the elaborate conceptual stories our neurotic states of mind are telling, to distinguish them from the positive parts of us; then to unpack and unravel them, to deconstruct them, to argue with them, and to gradually reconstruct the stories to be in sync instead with wisdom, with kindness, patience, self-worth, and the rest of the marvellous qualities within all of us.

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