Modern education is very much oriented around external things, material things. So in the West there’s not much concept of training our mind… All ignorance is based on appearances. In order to reduce ignorance, we must investigate deeper reality… The Indian tradition, particularly the knowledge tradition, [offers] a lot of explanation about the mind and destructive emotions. So now a number of scientists are paying attention to Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist psychology. I hope we will take modern science and ancient Indian psychology and combine the two. I think we can serve humanity more effectively and more usefully that way. And we can do it without religion. This is just knowledge about psychology, about emotions. It’s simply how to create peace of mind and a happy life, and ultimately, how to create a peaceful world, a happy world. India’s tradition is secular. We can teach the secular way in schools.” – Dalai Lama
I taught meditation, mindfulness, and Buddhist psychology in a university setting, and unfailingly, with each semester, a number of students would voice two things. First, somewhere near the end of the term, several would tell me that they had been in counseling and/or on medication for attention-deficit disorder or for depression, or anxiety since they were, sometimes, in grade school, and they would tell me that the perspective and practices they had learned in this course had helped them more. The second thing that some students would invariably ask was, “Why wasn’t this taught to us when we WERE in grade school?” – To which I could only answer that it would seem that our society wants education that is designed for children to find their way occupationally into our society, and that reflection on the nature of self and society and the training of the mind in stability and self-examination, all of which meditation and mindfulness develop, is not seen as useful or necessary. Rather that our society’s values require function-trained workers, hyper-stimulation, and anxiety-driven ambition to maximize productivity and profit.
I also pointed out to my students that our society doesn’t really have a mental health profession so much as a mental illness profession and that Western psychology is only beginning to recognize the immense value of meditation and mindfulness for managing psychological maladies. Mental health in Western medicine is generally understood as a relative lack of mental illness symptoms while the clinical practice of psychology and psychiatry focuses on minimizing the disabling effects of mental illness – a pretty low bar for defining mental health. To a Buddhist, mental health means enlightenment or being “awakened,” which could be looked at as truly knowing oneself and the nature of life down to the deepest level, a sort of ultra-sanity. It was this perspective and the experience of learning how to steady and calm their minds while being constructively reflective that the students seemed to appreciate. They felt saner for having taken the class.
Students would also sometimes comment that meditation wasn’t what they had thought it was at all, that they thought meditation was about entering into some thoughtless state of perfect bliss. While this can be true at advanced levels of practice as the essential unity of all things is experienced, at the level they were being taught, meditation was more about learning their inherent capacity to sit peacefully and enquiringly WITH their thoughts and emotions. Like fish being taught about the existence of water, they were being taught about that which we all live within – basic awareness – yet our society and our education fail to give notice to at all. They were being taught that a meditation in which they were unable to achieve a fully peaceful, quiet mind can sometimes be the most productive and useful meditation because of the important insights that can be achieved and the practice gained at quieting an unruly and troubled mind. I directed them to notice that while they might not be able to achieve perfect peacefulness, they were able to achieve some greater measure of peace, that they had the capacity to calm and center themselves even while experiencing turmoil. They were being taught that meditation is for calming, centering, observing, and learning about the mind, not suppressing it. They also learned that sitting meditation was not all there is to this practice, that the sitting meditation is training and preparation for bringing a peaceful, non-reactive, inquiring, and insightful mind into their active lives through the practice known as mindfulness. They were learning about real mental health, real sanity.
I shared with my students my belief that perhaps the greatest of Western psychologists, Carl Jung, uniquely DID give us a practical and applicable definition of mental health in noting that the human mind functions in four ways – it thinks, feels emotion, generates sensory experience, and has intuitive insight, and its energy moves both outwardly in extraversion and inwardly in introversion, and that mental health, what he called individuation, was accomplished in the relative balancing of these four mental functions and two directions. I suggested to the students that they had lots of training in thinking – that’s what schools do – and that our society also places a great deal of importance on feeling and expressing our emotions, and that these are the mental functions that western psychology focuses upon, making sure they don’t get completely out of control. What they had next-to-no experience with, however, was systematic recognition and development of their sensation and intuition capacities. This, just by our cultural conditioning, makes us very lopsided in our mental development and prone to psychological instability.
As Americans, they had also been encouraged to be extraverted, to express themselves, and to believe that quietness, introversion, was often viewed negatively and called shyness – which can then sometimes turn into awkwardness as the introverted child experiences that their reluctance, even cluelessness, as to how to engage in boisterous self-expression – is viewed as a problem. This then can sometimes result in the child internalizing this sense of not belonging and being “odd,” and can lead to alienation, even depression, anxiety, and anger problems. I shared with them that introversion is not a problem, merely a way of processing awareness, and a very valuable way indeed, leading to the capacity for insight unavailable to the strongly extraverted person. I could see the notably introverted students taking particular notice of this, warming up to the course even more.
What is not being taught in our schools is that proper management of our thoughts and emotions requires the application of the fourth function, intuition, the silent intelligence of awareness, the mental function that also gives rise to insight, creativity, and spiritual experience, and that like introversion, the whole notion of intuition is generally discouraged as suspect in our society. Also neglected in our education is HOW to achieve the quiet presence necessary to access the intuitive dimension through directing awareness into sensation – into what is being seen, heard, and felt physically at increasingly subtle levels. What is not being taught and valued is the skill of quiet, focused self-inquiry necessary for us to recognize the dimension of awareness and the insights that arise within it. These are skills of mind that are taught through meditation and mindfulness, learned when we are instructed in sitting quietly, relaxed, yet alert, focusing into the subtle sensations of our own breathing and the body sitting, noticing that as we focus into these subtle sensations, a profound sense of presence and of being the intelligent watcher of the sensations, thoughts and emotions occurs. Our educational system teaches none of this.
With these skills we can thus gradually begin to sense our true identity exists in the silent witnessing awareness of our thoughts, emotions, and sensations rather than our being the thoughts, emotions, and sensations as our culture implies to us. We begin to have the insight that we are awareness that has a human mind and body, and that thoughts and emotions are faculties, not our identity any more than is our body. We can begin to realize that silent awareness is the source of insight, intelligence and creativity that can then be brought into the world through our thoughts (words), emotions and actions. What is not being taught is even the existence of the intuitive dimension of mind that is the source of mental health and skill with mind and actions in the world. What is not being taught is how to train the mind, along with the body, so as to be a healthy and complete human being.
I have, at times, with this column, veered from topics specific to what might be generally considered the theory and practice of a contemporary Zen life into social commentary, into the terrible mess human society finds itself. I also did so with my classes because there is nothing that is not the theory and practice of Zen. Zen is life, all aspects and dimensions of life. Zen is an expression of a branch of Buddhism known as Mahayana Buddhism, sometimes referred to as the Path of the Bodhisattva, sometimes called Engaged Buddhism, for this is Buddhism meant to fully engage the realities of life. In this tradition, a bodhisattva is someone dedicated to both their own awakening AND the awakening, or freedom from unnecessary emotional suffering, of all beings – for in a very real sense we ARE one being – the species of human being. Not evangelical or proselytizing, the Mahayana tradition simply makes available to those who are ready the insights and skills necessary to manage a human life in a completely sane manner while fully engaged with human society. It is dedicated to the development and evolution of human society through the development and evolution of the individuals who comprise the society. The idealism and yearning for positive social action in my students resonated strongly with this philosophy.
Buddhist philosophy/psychology teaches that humans have become mentally unstable, creating destructive societies, because we have lost touch with our own nature, the kind of harmony that all non-human beings experience simply being themselves, manifesting their own true nature. Buddhism recognizes that there is a problem for humans due to a capacity that other creatures lack in sufficient strength to dominate their experience as it does in humans, this being the abstracting mind and a highly developed cerebral cortex generating complex thinking and emotion. Buddhism recognizes, as did Carl Jung, that the thinking and emotion functions comprise the experience and expression of ego, the sense of a separate self, and sees that humans have not properly integrated this capacity with their own deeper nature, experienced through sensation and intuition. Buddhism recognizes that ego-dominated experience leaves us feeling disconnected and out of balance, prone to dissatisfaction and confusion, and that this imbalance is what causes human existence to be so problematic. We become dominated by unruly, unwise, uncompassionate thoughts and emotions built around the ego’s cravings, leading to harmful individual and collective actions and social policies. And here we come back to Carl Jung’s formulation for human mental health. Humans, in their primordial stage of evolution functioned mostly through sensation and intuition, living in direct contact with and finding their identity in nature, not particularly developed in complex thinking or emotional expression. Conversely, in the civilized phase of human evolution, the sensation and intuition functions have become sorely neglected as the human ego has taken over, thinking, and emoting us into ever more complex personal and social lives until it’s all quite crazy. Buddhism’s answer, like Jung’s, is to reawaken the sensate and intuitive dimensions, along with skill in introversion, balancing our thinking, emotive, and extraverting capacities, thus fulfilling our true and balanced human nature. This is what meditation and mindfulness can accomplish and this is how humanity’s mature evolution can be realized, and thus, individual, and collective sanity. My students liked all this and expressed their gratitude, voicing regret at its lack in their education. As the Dalai Lama pointed out, while the source of this philosophy, psychology, and practices may be Buddhism, this is not a religious issue, it is a secular necessity, and my students agreed.