Buddha, Wittgenstein and Postmodern Therapies
Tapio Malinen. M.A, Psychologist, Private Practitioner, Teacher
Helsinki Psychotherapy Institute, Finland. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
In this article the author is exploring the parallels between
postmodern psychotherapies, the later philosophy of Wittgenstein
and Buddhist psychology. Key elements of the modern, the postmodern
and the buddhist theory of knowlegde are highlightened. The authors
conclude by demonstrating how the narrative practice and mindfulness
can be integrated in a way that thickens the subordinary story
with the embodiment of the present moment.
Buddha, Wittgenstein and Postmodern Therapies
The world that we know and of which we create our conceptual
map is not necessarily the world we actually live in. As I embark
on writing on the topic of what Buddhist psychology, the later
philosophy of Wittgenstein and postmodern psychotherapies have
in common, I am painfully aware of something: my words in this
article are inevitably at least two steps away from reality. Language
does not reach the being itself, which escapes all concepts and
juxtapositions. If my mental images are a model of reality and
my language is a model of my mental images, a direct experience
of, for instance, meditation – the central practice of Buddhist
psychology – cannot be obtained simply by reading about
it. If you want to learn to swim, you must eventually go into
Our intellectual map is much easier to handle than reality itself,
and therefore we have a tendency to confuse these two and see
our concepts as reality. According to the Austria-born philosopher
Ludvig Wittgenstein, ”Philosophy is a battle against
the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language”
(Wittgenstein, 1968, § 109). Aware of the limited nature
of conceptual knowledge and its belonging to the so-called relative
or conventional reality, I will attempt to describe some connections
of Buddhist psychology and the so-called postmodern therapies
in this article. I hope this will offer therapists an even wider
view of their own work and life and perhaps even a hint of a novel
relationship with reality.
Wittgenstein will act as the reflector of my story by enriching
what I have to say with notes from Philosophical Investigations
and Tractatus. He can be considered the most psychological
of all philosophers, much in the same way that Buddha was the
biggest philosopher of all religion-founders (Strong, 2005). Wittgenstein
only published one book in his lifetime, starting his philosopher's
career with a mathematical-logical approach and ending up with
the idea that philosophy should perhaps, after all, be practiced
as a poetic act. While reading Wittgenstein, Steve de Shazer,
the father of the solution-focused approach, realized that the
structure of uncertainties is similar to therapeutic uncertainties:
it is a question of liberating oneself of the philosophical confusion,
which arises when we separate language from ”the stream
of life” (de Shazer & Miller, 2000).
“Philosophy cannot be transformed into science, because
it has nothing to find out. Its puzzles are the consequence of
a misuse, a misunderestanding, of grammar, and require, not solution,
but dissolution. And the method of dissolving these problems consist
not in constructing new theories, but in assembling reminders
of things we already know. In philosophy we are not, like the
scientists, building a house. Nor ere we even laying the foundations
of the house. We are merely ´tidying up a room´”(Monk,
It is not Wittgenstein's goal to teach us anything new with his
investigations. Nothing ever needs to be added or deducted from
a person. As therapists, we always already have everything that
is the way as it is. The only thing that matters is to understand
and to perceive what has been open before our eyes the whole time
and what we, for some reason, cannot see (Malinen, 2008). Wittgenstein's
philosophy leaves everything the way it is. However, it is good
to remember that while he is not changing anything other than
our way of seeing the world, he is attempting to – no more
or less than – change everything.
In this article, the term 'postmodern therapy' refers to solution-focused,
narrative and collaborative approaches. The late social psychiatry
professor Tom Andersen thought that postmodernism, which is a
manifold and somewhat obscure as a concept, is simultaneously
a chronological consept and ideology. The central ethos of modernism,
developed in the 17th century, was to strive for certainty, universality,
liberty, rationality, and individualism. Postmodernism, which
became prevalent in the 1950's, was a reaction to ”development”,
control, the destruction of nature, and forgetting tradition,
ethics and aesthetics (Andersen, 1993). What is common and unique
to postmodern therapies is that they have no unified theory of
human behavior, personality, normative individual development,
health and disease, or the causes for psychological problems.
Instead, their theories can be considered a philosophical stance
on the nature of knowledge, the social construction of reality,
and the creative potential of language. Instead of being a scientific
theory on human behavior or personality, this stance offers clues
to how one can construct change-inspiring conversations.
Steve de Shazer, the developer of solution-focused therapy,
relates: ”I stopped trying to explain things over 30 years
ago and started to only describe what my clients and I found to
work. Theories tell us what should happen. Descriptions tell us
what happened. Traditionally, we think that theory leads to practice,
but as Lyman Wynne said many years ago, practice is always ahead
of theory. Furthermore: when we have a theory, then according
to human experience, we also have a tendency to make facts correspond
to the theory – just like Sherlock Holmes showed –
even if facts should be able to change theories. If solution-focused
therapy had a theory, it would be as complex as any other Theory,
and it could also easily blur people's minds” (de Shazer
& Miller, 2000, p. 24). The way I understand this is that
the ”theory” of solution-focused therapy is not attempting
to explain reality, but it rather organizes the brain and productive
”There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations.
We must do away with all explanation, and describtion alone must
take its place. The problems are solved, not by giving new information,
but by arranging what we have already known” (Wittgenstein,
1968, § 109).
Michael White, who was the most central creator of the narrative
therapy, simply states: ”There is no theory, just talking
about ideas!” He did not even consider the narrative approach
as a unified therapy movement, but rather as an open process of
development, which changes the whole time (Malinen, 2001). The
most central influences for this approach have been poststructuralist
thinkers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.
Harlene Anderson, on the other hand, describes the ”theory”
of her own collaborative approach as a philosophical stance, in
which knowledge is created as a discursive action and its truthfulness
is defined locally and contextually. Language is considered a
tool creating different realities. With this tool, dialogical
conversations innately lead to change (Anderson, 2007).
”Language is an instrument. Its consepts are instruments.
I don´t offer any philosophical theory, but instruments
in order for us to liberate from a need of such a theory”
(Wittgenstein, 1968, § 569).
Even if postmodern therapies have clear differences in, for instance,
their relationship with power, directivity, strageticness, goal-orientedness,
or focus on society and politics they also share nowadays well-known
common base assumptions (Anderson, 2002).
• Everything existing and real is created in social relationships.
We live in a world of meaning, which is built with the help of
language in a certain social and historical context.
• Problems and solutions are not inside the individual or
the family; they are formed and given meaning in social relationships
and dialogical contexts.
• The goal of therapy is to create a social and dialogical
space for change.
• There is no interpretable, hidden, constant self; we construct
ourselves all the time in the stories that we create of ourselves
in relation to other people.
• The human being is multi-storied and has many identities;
one constantly redefines oneself in one's social relationships.
Instead of the individual, postmodern approaches emphasize social
and historical networks and linguistic practices in the rise and
solution of problems. According to these approaches, psychotherapy
is a process or a language game, where the client's problematic
situation is changed or is dissolved through conversations into
a discourse, which is more flexible than before and offers a possibility
for a new kind of interaction. All postmodern therapies are also
deconstructive in nature, for when they work, they make the clients
doubt the self-evident truthfulness and power of the problem saturated
story. Questioning the therapy process via different follow-up
procedures is also included in these practices. The deconstruction
of the therapist's own practice comes across the most clearly
in narrative therapy.
Towards Buddhist Psychology
According to an old story, the Sri Lankan monk Dharmapala was
lecturing on the non-self in Harvard University in 1904. After
the lecture, William James, the founder of American psychology,
said to the audience, ”This is the psychology that everyone
will be studying in 25 years.” Now, 104 years later, we
can truly witness the rise of Buddhist theory and practice in
western psychology and psychotherapy. Interest in the Buddhist
concepts of self and consciousness goes back as far as Jung (Moacanin,
1988). Epstein (1995) and Rubin (2000) have studied the relationship
between modern psychoanalysis and Buddhism. American Buddhist
Alan Watts (1961) was often in contact with Gregory Bateson's
research team at the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in regard
to family therapy. He found that the western psychotherapy and
oriental wisdom traditions benefit each other by calling therapists
away from individualism, towards a social and cosmic context.
During the past twenty years, the so-called third wave cognitive
approaches have eagerly adapted Buddhist practices, particularly
mindfulness, into psychotherapy. Kabat-Zin's (1990) use of mindfulness
in stress reduction is perhaps the most extensively researched
adaptation of this Buddhist core practice. Mindfulness has also
been used to prevent depression (Teasdale & Segal & William,
1995), as well as working with so-called borderline problems (Linehan,
1993). Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), which also adapts
Buddhist meditation, is also gaining more and more ground among
modern psychotherapies (Hayes & Strosahl & Wilson, 1999).
Also worth mentioning is the contemplative psychology program
at the American Naropa University. Psycotherapists have been trained
within this program since 1974 (Kaklauska et al, 2008).
The connections of Buddhist psychology and postmodern therapies
have been studied by Gehart & Parré (2008), and specially
in a narrative therapy context by Lax (1996), Bankart (2004) and
Blanton (2007); in a solution-focused context by O´Hanlon
(2006) and Simon (1996); and in the collaborative approach by
The Three Marks of Conditional Existence
The psychology of the classical Theravada Buddhism has been exhibited
in the so-called Abhidhamma-pitaka, or basket. It is composed
of books that contain systematic documentations and philosophical-psychological
interpretations of sutras, or texts of canonical literature (Rahula,
1959). Buddhist psychology is a systematic and empirically proven,
broad theory of the human mind. It has its own scientific method,
the meditation, which does not only produce scientific knowledge,
but also gradually transforms the researcher. To understand Buddhist
psychology, it is useful to know Buddha's lessons about a) the
three marks of conditional existence, b) emptiness, c) the four
noble truths, and d) the noble eightfold path.
1. Conditional existence is unsatisfying (duhkha) (1).
The material world and life as we usually live it cannot give
us perfect and permanent satisfaction, and there are three different
reasons for this. Life inevitably contains both physical and mental
pain (birth, aging, disease, death). We do not get what we want;
we get what we don't want. Not accepting these facts, we resist
and reject the pain-inflicting state of affairs, and by doing
so, we create suffering into our lives. We also suffer when we
don't accept that everything changes. Suffering is created when
we consider our self-centered reality as objectively true and
our self as an unchanging, lasting identity.
(1) Unless otherwise noted,
the Buddhist terms used in this article are Sanskrit translations.
2. Conditional existence is impermanent (anicca). The
world created by the mind has actually been constructed out of
short episodes of cognitive activity (perceptions, thoughts, feelings,
memories), which rise and disappear at a fast pace. In reality,
all phenomena are impermanent, temporary and disappearing. They
are defined on many levels, and the cause and effect relations
appear according to the contexts. Even our inhalations and exhalations
are never the same. No pleasant state remains forever, and unpleasant
states cannot be avoided. We are so conditioned to avoiding discomfort
and clinging to comfort that our existence is usually tinted with
a constant feeling of dissatisfaction, a feeling that there is
always something missing from our lives, that we are not home.
This feeling is born out of a deep misunderstanding of the nature
of our mind and existence. Suffering is not the symptom of a disease.
The essential question is what kind of relationship we have with
the existential reality of our lives (de Witt, 2000). According
to Buddhist psychology, the greatest cause for suffering are false
ideas of ourselves.
The ”self” is not an unchanging entity, but rather
a process. Even if most of us feel that the ”self”
and its basic essence is unchanging from day to day, this view
is probably closer to our wishes than it is to reality. Also postmodern
theories share the idea that the ”self” is subject
to constant change. Instead of problems, these practices pay close
attention to ”exceptions” or ”unique outcomes”.
The thought of everything constantly changing corresponds completely
to the Buddhist concept of anicca as one of the basic qualities
of the conditional world.
As therapists, we often use concepts of our clients that reify
them, instead of seeing people as changing, ”flowing”
creatures. Our client is ADHD or is an anorectic;
the symptoms might easily become the thing that defines the person's
whole being, and constantly changing self-states end up becoming
an unchanging personality. If we experience the world as static
and unchanging, we are blind to those numerous opportunities for
change that exist in every moment. When the therapist understands
anicca, a realization follows that he or she is also
subject to constant change. One moment we can be very attentive,
other times we are completely in our own world. Sometimes we will
work magnificently, other times we are very careless. Sometimes
we are warm and compassionate, other times very self-centered
and frightened. It is good for a therapist to be aware of his
or her own ”flowingness”, to accept it and to constantly
strive for a new inner balance (Segall, 2003).
3. There is no inborn, constant nature to conditional existence
(anatta). This is perhaps the most difficult thing of all to understand
and/or experience in the midst of our ordinary, everyday existence.
Life is a constant flow, a network of interactions, where objects
and things – including myself – only exist as part
of a greater whole, just like the whirl of a stream only exists
as a part of the water mass surrounding it. Therefore, nothing
has any innate essence. The ”self” is not a lasting
identity, but rather a constant stream of consciousness, a process
that we have identified with in our lives.
Anatta, the non-self, is one of the most central concepts of
Buddhist psychology. A meditating person can experience it directly
after meditating for a while. The quality of our feelings and
interactions and how we experience our identities depends on how
we understand the structure of our ”self”. Ordinary
epistemology consider the ”self” as the center of
personal experience. This contains the idea that the ”self”
has some kind of objective ”essence”. Philosophical
realism assumes that the world consists of separate objects, which
can be perceived by a separate perceiver. Buddhism and the basic
theories of postmodern therapies – constructivism, social
and critical constructionism and post-structuralism –, on
the other hand, assume that reality and its perceiver cannot be
defined independently of one another; knowledge is never an objective
image of reality, but is instead created during the process of
knowing in the prevalent social and societal relationships (Rosenbaun
& Dyckman, 1996).
”The picture held us captive. And we could not get
outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to
repeat it to us inexorably. We say that this picture with its
ramifications stands in the way of our seeing the use of the word
as it is.” (Wittgenstein, 1968, §115 and §305).
According to Kenneth Gergen, a basic theorist of social constructionism,
the very fact that knowledge is constructed in social relationships,
instead of discovered outside of us, creates a bridge between
Buddhism and postmodern therapies (Gergen & Hosking, 2006).
In Buddhism, the ”self” is not seen as an inner entity,
but rather as a process, a story that we construct out of constantly
changing body sensations, thoughts, feelings, perceptions and
mental events (shankhas). The human being is seen from the context
of social meanings, and thus the so-called local knowledge is
emphasized instead of scientific information. There is no hidden
”self”, but rather a ceaseless process of consciousness.
The stable ”self” is only an illusion, a story with
which we define ourselves and to which we then easily cling. Things
and objects that we ”see” are only concepts in our
stories, not something that really exists ”out there”.
Buddha tells us to see things the way they are and to realize
that we construct our world according to our desires and fears
by clinging to pleasure and pushing away unpleasant things.
It is interesting to notise how closely the postmodern and Buddhist
concepts of the self resemble each other. According to the former,
the story has a special position in our lives. Every person forms
a story of his or her life, and this becomes the basis of their
identity. The story defines who we are in relation to how we perceive
others thinking of us. Our identity is not born solely discursively
in so-called everyday speech practices, but it actually is
that discourse. There is no interpetable, hidden self; we construct
ourselves constantly in the stories we create of ourselves in
relation to other people. This is the very process that we have,
misguidedly, come to call our self. We believe that we exist as
creatures separate from others. However, a constant, separate
self is nothing but an illusion, a picture that we usually cling
to and that therefore causes us a lot of suffering (Lax, 1996).
Our clients often complain and say: ”I am not myself.”
A therapist who believes that there is a ”real self”
somewhere inside the person often starts helping his or her client
to find this ”better self”. The therapist might also
be thinking – according to the very dominant discourse in
western thinking – that people's problems are a result of
rejected or oppressive inner forces that distort their true essence.
It is, of course, also possible to not use our power in a situation
like this, and to simply state that we cannot constantly avoid
being whatever we are from one moment to the next. To think and
experience in this way, it is useful to see the ”self”
as empty, i.e. a constantly changing manifestation of different
Since all things are impermanent and only exist in relation to
each other, they are also, according to Buddhist thinking, devoid
of a separate being. The term ”emptiness” (sonyata),
employed particularly in Mahyana Buddhism, refers to the nature
of an ultimate, absolute reality as a separation of a conventional
or relative reality. The insight of emptiness naturally arises
from realizing the non-self (anatta) of phenomena, as well as
the impermanence (anicca) of conditional phenomena and their interdependence
in its whole scope.
When the selves are empty and rise out as a response to immediate
experience, we are all in close connection with each other. Families
are realized through their members, individuals through their
families. The therapist creates him- or herself while creating
his or her client. The client creates him- or herself while creating
his or her therapist. The Vietnamese monk Thiet Nhat Hanh calls
this state of affairs arising from emptiness ”interbeing”.
It is a very different situation compared to situations where
people meet each other while being full of themselves (Nhat Hanh,
1987, p. 83).
The concept of emptiness is often misguidedly taken to mean
that nothing exists. When Buddhists say that all beings are empty,
they are not being nihilists, but are rather referring to the
ultimate reality that cannot be subdued into the categories of
logic. A Zen poem expresses it thusly:
It cannot be called emptiness
or both or neither;
but so that it can be exhibited,
it is called emptiness.
This so-called quadruple negation means to impress that experience
of the ultimate reality is completely unreachable to our concepts.
It will not stick to the forceps of our words while pointing towards
the ultimate reality, the absolute; in the midst of all things
that are conditional and disorderly (Klemola, 1988).
”There exists really something that we cannot express.
It emerges, it is mystical” (Wittgenstein, 1971 §6.522).
The difference between relative and absolute realities does not
mean that there are two different objects of knowledge, i.e. the
ordinary world and the ultimate reality. There is only one reality,
this world here and now, but we can experience it in two different
ways: through subjective and separate phenomena and concepts,
or so that both subject and object are a part of a larger whole,
In other words, ”the empty self” does not mean that
nothing exists. It only refers to how the ”self” has
no independent expression outside of its relations. When the context
changes, the ”self” also changes – or more precisely:
a ”self” in its context is a constantly changing process.
When we are consciously and accepting in here and now, there is
no separate ”knower” and ”object of knowledge”,
there is just a process of knowing, which we are. If one of the
basic questions of therapy is ”Who am I?”, then the
answer must be ”Here I am.” If this leads to the question
”What or where is here?”, the answer must be: ”Now!”
The fact that we experience the ”self” as empty
does not mean that we should have some specific technique in therapy.
Just like the ”self” changes all the time, our work
is also different with different clients. When the therapist is
able to experience the non-self, he or she creates a certain mental
space for meeting the client. When the identification with the
self is loosened, a natural compassionate joining to the other
person's suffering is free to happen. Now that the therapist gives
up his attempts to obtain a certain result, the therapist's and
the client's action is an expression of non-self and change usually
happens naturally. Just like sound is born out of silence and
movement out of immobility, a therapeutic relationship is, at
its best, a process of building an interpersonal space of possibilities.
In this empty space, meetings between people and therapeutic techniques
depend on each other and in the best case scenario, happen by
The Modern, the Postmodern, and Buddhist Theory Knowledge
The following table displays – as a kind of repetition
and with a help of the consept of knowledge – the main points
of our story so far.
|The nature of knowledge
||A copy or representation of reality
||A construction of the person's mind or action
||A direct, immediate experience of reality
|The competency of knowledge
||The correspondence of truth; the correspondence between
map and territory
||The coherence of truth; the map affects the territory
|The nature of truth
||Singular, universal, outside of history
|The goal of knowledge
||Finding permanent laws
||Transformig the person,
|The method of knowledge
||Quantitative measurements, and controlled experiment
||Qualitative and narrative
|The role of language
||Relays social reality, sign system, monologue
||Creates social reality dialogue, polyphony
||a Tao, which can be discussed, is not a real Tao
|”The three eyes”
||The eye of the flesh, the science of sentient experience,
||The eye of the mind, the science of experience,
|The eye of the spirit, the science of the spiritual experience
The Four Noble Truths
According to legend, when people met Buddha after his enlightenment,
he was no longer like an ordinary person. When they asked him
who he was, the answer was: ”I am Buddha.” Are you
God? ”No, I am awake.” In his first speech, he introduced
the four basic truths. They are considered noble, because they
help us understand the difference between automatic reactions
and appropriate actions. 1) Human life, in its conditioned
state, is unsatisfactory and suffering. Suffering is understood
very broadly here, referring mostly to a very basic feeling of
dissatisfaction and longing. The meaning of many of our actions
is to obscure this truth, but as with all healing, the first step
is to face this pain with honesty and courage. 2) Suffering
is caused by a discrepancy between how things are and how we wish
they were. All human suffering has one simple cause: desire.
3) We may be liberated from our suffering by changing our
relationship with the unpleasant experience. Unpleasant thoughts
and sensations are an inevitable part of our existence. By changing
our attitude towards the resistance the suffering can be alleviated
or stopped completely. 4) There are eight strategies
(the noble eightfold path), with which we can be liberated
from our suffering. The basic strategy on this path is meditation,
bhãvanã (de Silva, 2000). It enables us to follow
the movements of our mind, i.e. our thoughts, feelings, and sensations,
and to recognize the basic qualities of our existence through
the direct perception (all phenomena are changing, they have no
essential basis, and suffering is created out of not seeing all
of this clearly).
As we understand how suffering is conceived when we cling on
ideas and feelings, we can start a natural process of letting
go. It's very reminiscent of a situation where we let a hot piece
of iron fall from our hands (Fulton & Siegel, 2005). After
we've realize how we have kept our perceptions and ideas more
real than what they really are, we can now move on to deconstruct
our identification with the ”self” and learn a new
way of positioning ourselves to our mind contents and reality.
As the meditation process advances, the perceiver and perceived,
the subject and the object even unite, and the meditating person
simply follows the ceaseless stream of phenomena, or more precisely:
becomes this stream. The border between what is outside and what
is inside becomes blurred: dualistic perceiving becomes non-dualistic
experience of the unity of everything, and instead of the ”small
self”, we can identify with consciousness.
The basic element of Buddhist psychology is ”sati”.
This Pali concept means the skill of observing an experience as
it appears each moment. Mindfulness can be used in three meanings:
1) to describe a certain theoretical construct; 2) to describe
the practice of mindfulness; and 3) to describe a certain psychological
process. In this article, I will use Kabat-Zin's short definition:
mindfulness means an accepting awareness to the unfolding experience
moment to moment (Kabat-Zin, 1990).
The traditional Buddhist meditation technique is theoretically
simple, but in practice, it can be a very demanding practice.
We sit still in the so-called meditation posture and follow the
flow of our breathing either in our lower belly or nostril area.
When we notice that our mind is starting to wander, we return
to follow the breathing. Over and over and over and over and...
For 5-10 minutes at first, but as the meditation advances, the
process can be extended to up to 35-60 minutes. When a solid,
calm state of mind has been created (samatha), the person moves
on to the so-called vipassanã or ”insight”
meditation. At this stage, attentiveness is maintained from one
moment to another by acceptingly acknowledging everything that
happens to appear in the mind-body at any given time. Without
reacting to the mind contents or body sensations, the meditator
is beginning to realize through his experiences that phenomena
are impermanent (anicca) and to see reality the way it is, in
its suchness (tathatã) (Nyanaponika, 1962).
Buddha has been called the first deconstructionist (Gehart, 2004).
The information gathering method he devised, which is meditation,
deconstructs each individual mind content into smaller parts,
which are acknowledged, accepted consciously, and then let go.
In postmodern therapies, the unfavourable story content is changed
deconstructively by using language. In Buddhist psychology, on
the other hand, the deconstruction targets our experience. Meditation
does not replace a meaning with another, redefine the experience
or build a new, more beneficial story. Insights born during the
meditation process enable us to form a new attitude on our mind
contents and reality.
”Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither
explains nor deduces anything. Since everything lies open to view
there is nothing to explain. The aspects of things that are most
important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity.
(One is unable to notice something – because it is always
before one´s eyes” (Wittgenstein, 1968, §126
Professor Han de Wit, a Dutch teacher of contemplative psychology,
has an excellent metaphor that describes meditation (de Wit, 1990).
An untrained consciousness is like a stick that floats in the
stream of our thoughts. We are in our thoughts. We are our thoughts.
In this state, we do not acknowledge the power of the stream at
all. When we pick up the stick out of the stream, hit it in the
bottom of the stream and keep it there, we have established the
conditions for mind stability. This planting of the stick is like
sitting still and paying attention to the breath; it is the samatha
aspect of our discipline. The stick is no longer floating in the
stream, so we can feel the force and nature of the stream; how
the water pushes and splashes up against our stick and how its
force and other qualities are constantly changing from one moment
to the next. These observations are the vipassana aspect of the
discipline. We become aware and get increasing insight into the
nature of our sream of thought and its confluence in what we have
called our conceptualized experience.
Many therapists have not learned how to silence the mind. While
the client is talking, the therapist is evaluating, classifying
and planning. By silencing his or her mind, the therapist can
listen without evaluations and classifications. There is no need
to amplify the power of one's ”stream” with anxiety-inducing
thoughts, and one can rest in one's consciousness regardless how
wild, depressing, extatic or frightened one's thoughts or feelings
are. Due to one's inner power, there is no longer a need to automatically
react to the events in one's mind; one can act consciously, spontaneously
and appropriatively in different situations. One learns to give
up the wrong kind of self-importance or ego and to feel and think
compassionately. One learns to see the client the way he or she
is, without falsifying one's perceptions with theories or predispositions.
It is obvious how this affects the effectiveness of the therapist's
work and his or her energy in continuing with it.
Mindfulness in Action
Maria is a professional, articulate, succesful and creative.
One of her hobbies is painting, something she had neglected when
she became depressed. In an narratively oriented consultation
she first explored the impacts of the Depression and Its requirements;
practices and believes the
Depression was depending on. During the inquiry that was strongly
influenced by the poststructuralist curiosity of the therapist
(Young, 2008) Maria mentioned that she experienced the Depression
getting its nourisment by her not being in touch with the creative
part of her personality - “the need to be free”. After
a while the therapist started to ask questions in order to give
Maria an opportunity to deconstruct the naturalistic account of
her “need to be free”. When answering the question
“When this need to be free is most present for you, how
does it affect what you do?” Maria said that it among other
things made it possible for her to come to the consultation.
(T)erapist: Are you in touch with this need to be free at
the present moment?
T: Could you label the feeling that you are mindful of at the
M: A feeling of lightness.
T: Could you just acknowledge the feeling?”
M: I am feeling light.
T: Just experience that feeling throughout your body... can
you label any bodily sensations
associated with this feeling.
T: Now see if there are any images associated with the feeling?
M: I see myself as a tree swaying in the wind. Standing effortlesly
Maria was encouraged to experience this feeling of lightness
and the image of herself as a tree, to let the image be, and
then to let go of the feeling, the bodily sensation and the
T: What are you feeling now? Can you label your feeling now?
M: There is a feeling of disappointment in letting go of the
warmth. A feeling of loss in
letting the previous feeling go.
Again Maria was encouraged to simply label, acknowladge and
experience this feeling of loss, and to be mindful of any bodily
sensations and images associated with this feeling.
M: Heaviness in the chest. Tension. There is an image of a snowy
hill. The coldness of the
Initially Maria experienced some difficulty in letting go of
the feeling of loss, the bodily sensation an image. When I suggested
that she try focusing on the breath, she was able to let go of
the feeling and reported experiencing a feeling of neutrality.
At the end of this exercise Maria recounted her experience:
M: I think that this is illuminating. In the way that the
feelings come and go. I was surprised
at the feeling of disappointment that brings back some of the
heaviness. That when I
focused on it, it came back. The image of of the tree is very
significant. I think it
is the wish to be free and stand on my own. The snowy hills
from negative feelings. I was struck by how difficult it was
to identify bodily
sensations. I think if you cannot express yourself and be who
you are, you get
depressed... now I have the framework to understanding it.
After this the therapy proceeded by thickening Maria´s
subordinate storyline by sending a letter to her community of
consern. In this letter the process of Maria reclaiming creativity
back to her life from Depression was described through her experiences
and with her words. People were asked to support her in this new
project in a way that would be suitable for each one.
”Not, however, as if to this end we had to hunt out
new facts; it is, rather, of the essence of our investigation
that we do not seek to learn anything new by it. We want to understand
something that is already in plain view. For this is what we seem
in some sense not to understand. What is our aim in philosophy?
– To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle” (Wittgenstein,
1968, §89 and §309).
In the beginning of the 1970's, lama Kalu Ringpoche, now passed
away, was introducing a Tibetian meditation practice in a university.
To help people better understand what it was about, he started
by describing Tibetian cosmology. One of the listeners asked him:
”Revered Lama, don't you agree that this cosmology needs
refreshing?” Lama Ringpoche selected his words carefully
when he replied: ”Cosmologies are people's descriptions
of the universe. The cosmology of science is one of them.”
While postmodern thinking has many different sources (phenomenology,
French post-structuralism and critical theory, hermeneutics, critical
literary theory, cultural anthropology, Marxism), Buddhism only
has one source: Buddha. However, it is interesting to see the
similarity between the ideas these two traditions have of the
human being and life. Both approaches give central meaning to
a person's own experience. Both aim to liberate us of the story
or conceptual reality that causes suffering. Both postmodern theories
and Buddhism are deconstructive: they make us doubt ”truths”
we consider self-evident – truths about knowledge, power,
the self and language. The usual dichotomies (good-bad, beautiful-ugly,
body-mind) are also deconstructed, and the dominant discourses
of the culture are seen very critically. Buddha encourages his
students to not trust any ”truth” and to believe only
in their own experience; this also applies when evaluating Buddhism.
The most central Buddhist practice, mindfulness (sati), can be
integrated into psychology in many ways. 1) The therapist may
meditate personally to create a more mindful presence in his work.
Meditating therapists often report being more present and feeling
more relaxed if they meditate before meeting their clients (Germer,
2005). Regardless of his or her approach, the psychotherapist
may maintain an open, enthusiastic and compassionate method with
the help of mindfulness. 2) The therapist may use the frame of
reference provided by mindfulness in his or her work. Ideas borrowed
from both Buddhist and western psychology may be adapted into
the practice. However, to be able to truly understand sati,
it is crucial that the therapist have personal experience of meditation.
3) The therapist may teach his or her clients how to practice
mindfulness as was done with Maria. Particularly the new cognitive
psychotherapies have employed numerous Buddhist practices. With
the aid of these methods, clients are taught awareness skills
to help them face their problems in a novel way.
It is my understanding that mindfulness is becoming a concept
and practice also for the field of postmodern therapies, one which
brings clinical theory, research and practice closer together.
It also integrates the therapist's professional and personal life
in a creative way.
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