A Contemporary Buddhist Psychology

When awareness and connectedness replace ego and separateness as the centerpiece of mind, the dysfunctionality of egoic experience can be greatly transcended.

Western clinical psychology, based in personality development, as influenced by brain chemistry, focuses on the personal experience and history of an individual. As such, it explores a person’s distortions and confusions in perceptions, thoughts, emotions and behavior. It examines a person’s sense of self in relationship to their internal mental experience and their social interactions. Collectively these experiences comprise the personal egoic identity, a person’s sense of self-in-the-world as a separate entity in existence, seeking to find safety and significance.

While this is a very valuable study, it struggles to be a complete enough model to bring truly transformational psychological healing. Rather, let us examine how a truly effective healing experience might be based in harmonizing the individual egoic dimension with a dimension of mind that is deeper, yet one largely neglected by Western psychology. Traditionally this dimension is referred to as awareness, and true psychological healing could be viewed as requiring an approach that opens a person beyond the confines of egoic experience into the realization of what contemporary consciousness teacher Eckhart Tolle refers to as the ground of a person’s Being – awareness itself. We need an awareness-centered trans-egoic psychology.

To do this, one effective approach is to bring the wisdom of ancient Buddhism into a modern context. While Buddhism is recognized as a religion, or a philosophy of life, it is, in a certain sense, more of an ancient-culture trans-egoic psychology. But since we do not live in traditional Asia, the question is: Can we, borrowing from this tradition, develop a completely modern trans-egoic psychology that honors the best psychological insights of both the ancient and modern worlds?

When looking at Western and Buddhist psychology, the principle difference between them is in the model of mind. Western psychology is basically two-dimensional. It recognizes the conscious and sub-conscious dimensions of the egoic mind. Buddhist psychology, on the other hand, while recognizing the egoic realm, also recognizes and emphasizes a higher and deeper realm of pure undifferentiated awareness. These realms of higher and deeper awareness are seen in Buddhism as the realm of our true, unconditioned self out of which the egoic dimension emerges, and that is also the psychic connection to a universal realm of consciousness. This psychological perspective holds that it is only when these transcendent dimensions of mind are experienced as the primary sense of self, rather than some vague metaphysical backdrop, that the harmony and wisdom that is inherent within these dimensions can be brought forward as the guiding consciousness for healthy egoic functioning.

Buddhist psychology and Western psychology both agree that the egoic experience is the product of conditioning, both bio-genetic-neurological and experiential. The difference is that Western psychology operates solely at this level, limiting its therapies to modifying the egoic mind’s most dysfunctional aspects through medication and emotion/thought-structure and behavioral techniques, counseling and interpretation. It can relieve grosser incapacitating symptoms, but does not offer a real cure. It is a mental illness model; it does not have a model for true mental health. Buddhist psychology does.

Buddhism recognizes the egoic dimension of mind to be a superficial, limited and deeply flawed mental representation of reality comprised of a matrix of concepts conditioned or programmed into the individual by genetic pre-disposition, society, culture, family and personal experience, creating, in a sense, an artificial reality. As it is superficial, limited and flawed, when ego is experienced as the primary dimension of mind and the seat of the self, humans suffer from a distorted sense of self-in-the-world, leading to distorted psychological, social, even spiritual functioning. In the non-scientific, metaphorical manner of Buddhism, this realm of mental representations or forms is referred to as “little mind,” while the realm of the unconditioned higher consciousness is referred to as “big mind,” the mind of all-inclusive awareness.

The little egoic mind exists within the big mind of clear awareness that is the unwavering witness to our experience. Our problems stem from the little egoic dimension, with all its conflicts and contradictions, being experienced as the primary, even the only, dimension of identity and reality. Little egoic mind is the mind of conditioning, the mind of condensed fragments drawn from the limitless reality of life-as-it-is. It is so limited that, in Buddhism, it is referred to as the mind of “illusion” (samsara), almost, life-as-we-imagine-it. It is the world of thoughts and emotions programmed into us, and since it is a severely limited representation of the total potential of life, it is deeply flawed in its representation. As this perspective is basic to modern life, we are faced with the reality, then, that we are, more or less, all crazy.

Western psychology, then, has been devised in an attempt to address the “more” end of the spectrum. It is designed to help people stay within social “norms”, many of which are so arbitrary and limiting as to be crazy themselves in the bigger picture of human potential. The frame of reference for egoic little mind is always the mental forms of “me” and “the world-as-I-project-it-to-be.” It shapes what is possible in perception, thought and emotional/behavioral response to what has already been conditioned into a person as possible by society and personal experience. These perceptions are fraught with all the contradictions and conflicts inherent in the cross-purposes and confusions of these influences, which in turn, have been shaped by the egoic purposes of the forces that created them. It all adds up to a feedback loop that makes for crazy people in a crazy world.

A contemporary Buddhist psychology is then a psychology that is based in the Buddhist observation that we have sense perceptions, thoughts and emotions, but we are not these sense perceptions, thoughts and emotions. We are much more. These mental phenomena are but psychological tools for conceptualizing, experiencing and engaging the world. We are, at our essence, the clear undifferentiated awareness within which the perceptions, thoughts and emotions of the egoic mind arise and pass – here – in this contemporary modern life. Such a psychology is also sophisticated in understanding and working with egoic mind, very much like contemporary Western psychology, but it is clear that we are not contained within the limits of our egoic mind. It is a liberation from the confines of ego. As it emphasizes contemporary life, this model is free to be practiced within a traditional Buddhist belief system and lifestyle or not. It is not about being a Buddhist. It is about being a fully realized human being.

A contemporized Buddhist trans-egoic psychology holds that the ego’s conditioning can be transcended. It teaches that a person can essentially be healed of psychological dysfunction by shifting the sense of self from a locus solely in the egoic personality into primarily the transcendent dimensions of mind that can observe the distortions of the conditioned mind and make appropriate corrections from a dimension of perceiving wisdom beyond thought. The clear and original ground of pure awareness and trans-egoic connectedness to universal wisdom and truths is what becomes the person’s reference point for living. This realization is what Buddhism calls, “awakening.” Egoic identity is experienced as useful for social and utilitarian purposes, but no longer held as a person’s existential core.

Bill Walz has taught meditation and mindfulness in university and public forums, and is a private-practice meditation teacher and guide for individuals in mindfulness, personal growth and consciousness. He holds a weekly meditation class, Mondays, 7pm, at the Friends Meeting House, 227 Edgewood. By donation. Information on classes, talks, personal growth and healing instruction, or phone consultations at (828) 258-3241, e-mail at healing@billwalz.com.

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