Spiritual or psychological?

Apr 19, 2019

The usual view of “spiritual” is that it’s different from “psychological.” From the Buddhist point of view they come to the same thing. But the differences between our contemporary views of the mind and the Buddha’s are vast, and understanding them gives us the key to understanding Buddhist practice. As one Tibetan teacher, Lama Yeshe, puts it: “Being a Buddhist is being your own therapist.”

First of all, the word “mind” is used synonymously with the word “consciousness” and includes the entire spectrum of our inner being: all the thoughts, feelings, emotions, unconscious, subconscious, intuition, instinct, as well as what we call spirit or soul.

Second, this consciousness of ours is not physical – you ask a great Tibetan yogi who’s meditating up in the mountains where his brain is and he wouldn’t have a clue! But he certainly knows his mind – deeply, clearly, and precisely.

Third, it’s not given to us by anyone else, neither a creator nor our parents. So fourth, therefore, it’s our own: all the tendencies within it are there simply because we’ve done them, thought them, felt them before. From the first moment of conception in our mother’s womb we are already fully programmed with our own personality traits. Think of consciousness as a river of mental moments that goes back and back into the past, before this birth, and will continue after death.

And fifth, by using the marvellous, sophisticated psychological techniques known as “meditation” – first developed by the Hindus before the time of the Buddha more than 3,000 years ago – we can access far more subtle, more refined levels of our consciousness than any of our contemporary models of the mind would even assert as existing.

In fact, if you were to see a person sitting in meditation who had learned to access this subtler level, they would look as if they were dead: there’d be no breath, no brain activity, because this level of consciousness does not depend upon the brain for its existence.

But what are these meditators actually doing? They’re not just spacing out! And they’re not doing anything mystical. They’re accomplishing the work that Buddha says we can all do: the job of fundamentally changing, reconfiguring, the contents of their own mind.

Which brings us to the most radical difference of all: the long-term potential of this mind of ours. From the Mahayana Buddhist perspective, every sentient being – in Tibetan, every “mind-possessor” – necessarily possesses the potential for perfection, for enlightenment, for Buddhahood: simply speaking, the full development of all goodness: love, compassion, courage, confidence, bliss, and the rest of our good qualities; and the utter eradication of all attachment, anger, fear, jealousy and the other disturbing emotions so familiar to us.

Goodness is at the core of our being, in other words, and, contrary to what we instinctively assume, the disturbing emotions are not – in fact, according to Buddhist psychology they are adventitious: they are not integral to our being and thus can be removed.

On the face of it, this is almost shocking. Ask your therapist for methods to get rid of all ego, all fear, all anger and the rest, and to develop infinite love and compassion for all beings equally – they’ll think you’re crazy! But this is exactly what Buddhist psychology is asserting.

We shouldn’t simply believe this; we need to think about it, analyze it, understand it, find the truth of it. Because as the Dalai Lama often says, believing in something is not enough; we need to prove that it’s true ourselves – and, indeed, if we can prove the Buddha is wrong, then we must reject him.

We need to have confidence in the process, because it’s probably the hardest job we’ll ever do. Changing this mind of ours takes such courage! Because as we know, old habits die hard. But knowing that anger, fear, jealousy and the rest are just that – habits – gives us the energy to persevere.

Because we also know with absolute certainty that practice makes perfect.

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