“The purpose of meditation is to make our mind calm and peaceful. If our mind is peaceful, we will be free from worries and mental discomfort, and so we will experience true happiness. But if our mind is not peaceful, we will find it very difficult to be happy, even if we are living in the very best conditions.” Kelsang Gyatso, Tibetan meditation master
I used to be a practicing clinical psychologist. I became a practitioner of deep meditation twenty-five years ago and a teacher twenty years ago because I became convinced that what I sought in the study of psychology, the realization of true human potential for mental health, is only accessible through meditation and the path of wisdom that naturally flows from meditation taken to deep levels.
As a mental health professional, I found it tragic and telling that Western psychology has no model of mental health. Rather, it offers a categorization of the varieties of mental illness and some theoretical models as to how to address them, none with any consistent success. It basically settles for allowing mental health to be defined as a relative absence of debilitating symptoms of mental illness, and to me, this is not good enough. It always seemed that rather than an approach that sought to minimize and control the symptoms of mental illness, if we had a positive direction in which to move that took us to mental health, the symptoms would naturally fall away, for they are, in actuality, only defenses against the misalignment of our distorted, neurotic perspectives placing us at odds with life-as-it-is. Much as it is with physical health, where we are much less likely to fall ill if we keep the body well-tuned through exercise and diet, so too it is with the mind. If we have a methodology for maintaining a state of true mental health, the problems of the mind have nowhere to take root. I have found meditation to be that methodology proven over thousands of years – yet largely ignored in Western culture and psychology.
Meditation is understood in Buddhist culture to be the practice of training the mind in concentration, peacefulness, insight, wisdom and what is called “vastness,” the realization of our true source and identity arising within the vastness of the Universe, a kind of “cosmic consciousness.” This happens by awakening the practitioner to the dimension of mind that is awareness, that which observes the activity and content of the mind – the thoughts and emotions – yet is not caught in the turbulence of the thoughts and emotions. A gradual dawning occurs that this dimension of awareness is the true source of intelligence and insight – capable of seeing how imbalanced and unreliable the transient thoughts and emotions are. Identity that had been trapped in thoughts and emotions begins to shift into awareness, bringing with it a great liberation from the disturbances of the mind. We realize we are not the thoughts and emotions, but rather that which is witness to the thoughts and emotions that have their origin in psychological and social conditioning; therefore, there is no need to be defensive or to identify with them. They will lose the energy of identification and begin to be readily available to modification as our clearer experience of reality-as-it-is strengthens.
Western culture and psychology certainly has no equivalence to this harmonization of the psychological with the philosophical, spiritual and even cosmological in a way that has the potential to generate the deep relaxed presence, insight, balance, and even joy that has to be the hallmark of true mental health and sanity. Through deep meditation practice there becomes increasingly accessible the ability to maintain our sense of well-being, perspective and calm, even while the events and circumstances around us – and even those events in our own minds, the thoughts and emotions – may be tumultuous and even threatening.
Western psychology has been very good at understanding that non-biological mental illness is the result of a poorly developed ego, the psychological sense of self relating to others and events, and that a poorly developed ego creates grave distortions in a person’s experience that then manifest in excessive anxiety, depression or anger, as well as in confused thinking and unskillful and interpersonally problematic behavior. This is a very valuable observation, and Western psychology has pretty much placed its eggs in the basket of ego psychology along with symptom-managing medication in working with these distortions. In this model, the therapist acts as a neutral witness as the client relates their experience, and the therapist helps the client toward insights into ways to not be so carried away by these distortions. This is good, but quite limited, for it is dependent on the therapist AND on the therapist being a truly wise, authentic and insightful seer and interpreter.
Tellingly, only European culture (and modernized, Europeanized cultures) have a study and practice of psychology. In traditional and aboriginal cultures, the role that psychology plays in modern societies is filled by spirituality and its practitioners – priests, monks and shamans with accompanying meditative practices. Now, given this, it might seem that modern cultures would have less of a problem with mental illness, when, in fact, it has a considerably greater problem with it. A telling anecdote about the Dalai Lama has it that on one of his first visits to America, he was attending a convention of psychologists where the topic was the problem of disturbances of self-esteem – either low self-esteem or its opposite in narcissism. The Dalai Lama found the topic quite confusing, and after he fully grasped what was being discussed, shared that while the people of Tibet live without all the material and medical benefits of the West, problems of self-esteem are unheard of in this traditional spirituality-based culture. It is very important for us to ask why this should be.
The problem with modern culture that leads to what amounts to an epidemic of mental illness is the same problem that limits psychology – the placing of the ego in supremacy as a person’s identity. Modern psychology and culture have a one dimensional model of mind – telling us that ego is who we are, while ignoring the realm of awareness completely. There is a lack of recognition of awareness as the guiding and mediating dimension of mind – that which we must most fundamentally be – for it is awareness that observes the activity of the mind and all of our experience in the world, and without this perspective, we are left as prisoners of the chaotic realms of thought and emotion. Psychology seeks to bring the awareness of the therapist to the task of insight, but this is quite insufficient and strangely has never made the connection that effective therapy is based in the clarity of the therapist’s awareness – that it is awareness that is the insightful healing faculty. What the practice of meditation proves is that if a person can be trained in focusing into clear awareness, they can do for themselves what the best therapist can do, and do it more effectively, because it is their awareness, and it is always there as witness to the machinations of mind. No appointment needed.
Buddhism understands completely why modern culture and psychology wrestle so with mental illness because Buddhism recognizes human egoic separateness and the compulsion to cling to identity in separateness as the source of human suffering (the Buddhist term that can be viewed as equivalent to mental illness). This identity in separateness, in ego, with all its insecurities and attempts to assuage insecurities brought on by attachment to the material and to individual and collective importance, is the hell, the insanity, humans create for themselves and others.
As a curative, meditation is training in the steady application of awareness in compassionate and insightful observation of the chattering and insecure egoic dimension of mind bringing about an amelioration of these insecurities through ever deepening insights into their origin in psycho-social conditioning and the discovery of an inner silence, peace and balance beneath the noise and activity of the mind. This inner quiet and peace reflects and makes real for us the balance and perfection of our true and deepest nature reflective of the balance and perfection of the natural world. We experience that as our practice steadies and deepens, we learn to exist increasingly within and as this realm of peaceful and insightful witnessing awareness with the result being a gradual awakening of a profound sense of calm and insightful clarity. Ego assumes its appropriate role as a faculty for discerning and working with separateness while relinquishing its mistaken assertion as being who we are. From a psychological standpoint, what is being achieved is real and profound sanity, and if this sanity is what you are looking for, my suggestion is simply this: meditate, meditate, meditate.