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Buddhist Influences on Psychotherapy

By Jim Lehrman

In the early 1960s, Alan Watts said that Buddhism has more in common with psychotherapy than with religion. By that time, western psychologists such as Karen Horney and Erich Fromm had been students of D. T. Suzuki at Columbia University, and the book Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis had been produced from a workshop attended by nearly fifty psychologists and psychiatrists from the United States and Mexico.

More recently, Fritjof Capra, David Bohm, and other scientists have suggested that Buddhism has more in common with Quantum Physics than with religion. Many books exist, for technical, spiritual, and general audiences alike, that draw the same comparisons between the new discoveries in science and the writings of ancient Buddhists.

It is interesting to note that current “cutting edge” psychotherapists today look to the science of quantum physics and the spirituality of Buddhism for conceptual models as well as experiential practices which they believe offer the most efficient direction and effective means for constructive growth for their clients.

I am a psychotherapist in Seattle and have been a friend of Bhante’s since 1986. While our training is different, as well as the language of our “fields”, Bhante and I find when we get together and talk that our experience and orientation enables us to meet each other in common understanding. I think we both know that though our paths may look different, they are made of the same elements.

Over the past 20 years I have studied various schools of psychological thought. My focus throughout this time has been with forms of therapy which embody Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Buddhist principles. The therapies I offer are called Morita, Naikan, Hakomi, and Quantum. In the space provided in this Newsletter, I will offer a brief overview of these therapies.

Morita Therapy is a 70 year old purpose-centered, results-oriented therapy from Japan, based on principles of Zen Buddhism. Instead of working to reduce symptoms, Morita works to help people take action responsively in life regardless of symptoms or natural fears. Acceptance of what is allows for active responding to what needs doing. Dogmatic patterns of collapse are replaced with the flexibility to call upon courage and empowerment. Decisions become grounded in purpose rather than influenced by the fluid flow of feelings.

Morita is named after its founder, Shoma Morita, a psychiatrist and Zen Buddhist. He discovered nearly a century ago that patients into whose treatment Zen principles and practices were incorporated improved better than other patients.

Whereas Morita is oriented to doing, Hakomi is oriented to being. Hakomi Therapy directs your attention to your in-the-moment experience of feelings and thoughts as a means to examine and reassess core beliefs. Core beliefs are the underlying structure around which your experience, perceptions, judgments, attitudes, self-esteem, and actions unconsciously organize, in turn influencing and maintaining the flow of experience itself. We do this work together in order to transform the way you organize all experience. The function of the Heart Sutra (…Form is no other than emptiness; emptiness is no other than form…) might come to mind with this description in that core beliefs are like a window through which your mind sees what is, through which your mind thus applies meanings and judgements, and through which you create the experience of the thing observed.

Hakomi was created by Ron Kurtz about 20 years ago. A Laughing Buddha in his own right, Kurtz integrated principles of such sciences as general systems theory and quantum physics with the spiritual systems of Buddhism and Taoism. It’s principles include nonviolence, organicity, unity, mind-body holism, and mindfulness.

Mindfulness, a major tool in Hakomi, is attention to present experience. It is “simply noticing” what is so in your experience, without the addition of judging, analyzing or even understanding. It is different than “thinking about.” In using mindfulness, we create opportunities which allow your unconscious a clear chance to express and be seen, heard, and felt. We work with the interaction of belief and experience, of conscious and unconscious, of mind and body. We work to establish and enhance communication between parts of the whole of who you are. Acknowledging, accepting, allowing, being, responding. In therapy, strong emotions are sometimes felt and early memories come back with intensity and clarity. In mindfulness these experiences can be examined and used to free you from the painful unconscious compulsion to repeat them again and again.

Quantum Psychology®, a fairly recent development by Stephen Wolinsky, is a practical approach to becoming mindful of the relationship between your automatic responses and what triggers them, as well as the mechanism, itself, of those automatic responses. It offers a means to enable you to stay in your adult experience of what is in your present moment, and maintain rather than lose access
to inner resources which your automatic responses cut you off from. You are able to notice the mechanism of your automatic response “trance” and thus exercise choice and control over it. You are then able to respond more effectively and free of the emotional charge of past experiences. More than any school of psychological thought today, Quantum is both a theoretical and practical embodiment of both quantum physics and such central notions of Buddhism as shunyata.

In Quantum, one transcends the innumerable identities of self; in Hakomi, one transcends the constraints of history; in Morita, one transcends the self imposed limitations of the moment; and in Naikan, one transcends self-centeredness and lack of gratitude to others.

Naikan was founded by Yoshimoto Ishin in 1935. Its roots are in the Jodo Shinsu sect of Japanese Buddhism. In its pure form it is done from 5:30 AM to 9:00 PM over seven days in residence and then for an hour or two each day at home. Simply, it is a form of introspection therapy in which you are in isolation and reflects systematically on significant people, starting with your mother, and focusing solely on these three questions: what you received from that person, what you have given to that person, and what troubles you caused that person. Compassion is greatly opened from such a practice.

Among the therapies described here, Naikan is least like a psychotherapy and is the only one that focuses on the past. All the others focus attention on how you organize around what is happening in the moment, and are oriented to empowering you to make conscious choices in support of freedom.

For further reading, see: Body-Centered Psychotherapy, The Hakomi Method, Ron Kurtz, LifeRhythm, 1990; Constructive Living, David K. Reynolds, University of Hawaii Press, 1984 (on Morita and Naikan); Trances People Live, Stephen Wolinsky, Bramble Co., 1991; and Quantum Consciousness, Stephen Wolinsky, Bramble Co., 1993.