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Psychotherapy and Indian Thought (I)

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The Indian psyche has some special inherent features that act as checks to mental imbalance. This article discusses how they can be used in psychotherapeutic practice.

Introduction: the two approaches

If psychotherapy is the science and art of changing psychological patterns creating mental distress and disorder, then it must base itself on the most complete possible knowledge and understanding of what a human being is and can become. Much psychotherapy is, however, based on what a human being was, either in his remote past as a race or in his more recent infancy and childhood. Tracing the roots of our present problem in this way, it tries to put a corrective by setting things right there. The principle sounds good in its own right but there arise two fundamental difficulties. The first is about defining the past itself. In other words, how far back does our past go? The second is about the future. In other words, is the goal of psychotherapy to return the client to his past (when he was healthy) or maximum present possibility or is it to utilise his crisis for an inner evolutionary journey towards a more meaningful future? That is to say, can it be used as a learning experience for growth and progress? It is here that we come across divergent world-views of man and his goal, his destiny and scope, views which give a different understanding of his past and future. Broadly these can be divided into two main categories, though risking oversimplification for the sake of easier comprehension.

1. Man is a creature of the mud formed by a process of chance evolution. He is essentially a physical or perhaps even more a chemical being. Psychologically, he is nothing more than an outgrown animal or worm that has somehow managed to form itself through a series of random and accidental mutations. There is no essential goal or purpose in his life except to struggle and survive as other creatures do, and this tussle between an individual instinct to save himself and the social or collective instinct to save others, is the source of inner conflict. The crude animal is his past, the refined animal his maximum scope.

2. The other view holds man as a creature of heaven fallen here upon earth, high and sublime in his origin and parentage. Psychologically, he is a soul, a miniature divinity shut in a prison-house of matter seeking release and escape. His goal and purpose is to find his true spiritual self. An animal in nature but divine in essence, he is a cross between the two and that is the secret of his difficulty and conflict. The animal nature is the trap, freedom from this trap his hope of salvation.

As we can see, so different are these views, so disparate their understanding,that to think of a reconciling synthesis becomes nearly impossible. Therefore they have existed side by side in each civilization and culture in one form or another, but without any reconciling station. There have been compromises here and there, such as the one attempted by Descartes himself, giving each idea a scope in its own domain. Sometimes their fortunes seesawed. The sophist of old, latter-day positivist, and modern materialist each try to explain everything on the basis of our material sense perception and struggle of animal life, denying every other experience as hallucination or poetic imagination. Equally strong has been the rejection of material life by the anchorites and ascetics as a vanity of vanities, a delusion and nightmare of the soul.

The vedantin’s solution

There has generally been a tendency to attach the term Indian thought to this world-view. Here, the mayavadin and illusionist totally rejects the problem by labelling it as non-existent, a fever and malady of the soul which can only be cured by abolishing the world along with the problem. The solution therefore becomes a greater problem for those left behind, the cure so radical as to fell the body along with the disease. All life is summarily dismissed as painful illusion and escape from it the sole remedy. In its extreme outlook, birth itself is seen as an illness, the grand sire of all illnesses and human life a supreme opportunity to escape from this cycle of birth, death and all that lies in between. According to this view, the soul, or whatever else, (for some views do not admit the possibility of an individual soul though not denying it either) will continue to experience some form of psychological suffering as long as it chooses to be born upon earth. The reasons attributed to this suffering vary according to the different doctrines. Some blame it again on the past, not on the individual past in this life alone, but other lives as well. Others show some mercy on the soul, a learner prone to stumbles and falls in its heroic journey and attach the root-cause of suffering to the larger cosmic principle of Ignorance, avidya. It is this child of maya that clouds the soul and keeps it a slave and prisoner of Ignorance with its natural consequence of suffering. Still others speak of the cosmic principle of desire as the source of all misery and herald a cessation from desire, the state of blissful calm and freedom or Nirvana. It may be noted that suffering, according to these conceptions, is not only the conscious suffering experienced by the mind but a deep unconscious and greater suffering experienced by the soul through being trapped in this meaningless world of Ignorance. Yet so long as the soul chooses to be part of this avidya, it will continue to suffer in some way.

The task of a counsellor of this type, if there is one, is to awaken the soul out of this earthly nightmare and remind it of its essential nature. The only solution is to cease from the cycle of birth. The experience of conscious suffering is only used as a strong point of support, a lever to develop vairagya, a state of detached indifference towards life and world, thereby leading to non-affliction. It is a kind of desensitisation or de-addiction programme for the world-addiction and craving for material happiness that brings so much suffering in its wake.

In actual practice, however, one does not take this extremist approach. The mind of the client is led through a cognitive framework, starting from its present crisis, to reveal the transient rather than illusory nature of this world and its events. The mind is made to see the utter impermanence of things, here today and gone tomorrow, the riches and wealth, position and fame, the women and children one has, the fortune no less than misfortune, all are too little to grieve for. To this, the God-believer adds that the only thing worth pursuing in life is that which is eternal and imperishable, the soul in man, and the Divine above, or as some roll both these individual and universal aspects of the Divine into a single formula – Brahman. A common misconception needs to be clarified here in passing. Some modern writers tend to use the word Brahman as interchangeable with that later Puranic deity Brahma, the progenitor of our world. Brahman is not this or that god, though all the gods originate from It. Brahman is rather the stable, unchanging and eternal basis of all existence. Even if all creation is dissolved, including the trinity of the gods, Brahman would still remain, untouched as ever! One of the principle Upanishads, the Kena, describes, in a very forceful way, through the characteristically sublime poetry of the period, how everything originates from Brahman and therefore That alone is the object of our pursuit and not this that men seek hereafter. Tadevabrahman tvamviddhi, nedamyadi damupasate : know That to be the Brahman and not this that men seek hereafter. Another Upanishad, the Katha, describes through beautiful verse, the transient nature of attachment to worldly goods which brings only grief, suffering and ultimately death. Death, in these passages of exquisite beauty, lauds Naciketa, the young aspirant for his choice of sreyas, the truly worthy good of the soul, over preyas, the momentarily pleasant and transient worldly good. Thus, through examples and narrative, drawn both from the everyday life of the client, the crises he has passed through, as well as the cultural context, the person is gradually led away from psychological suffering and helped to focus his attention within, towards the true and ultimate goal. In its partial forms, even the first step is regarded as good enough, since by impressing the reality of impermanence upon the mind, he is able to detach himself from the malady and feel lighter and freer.

But one may precede a step further depending upon the receptivity of the client. One may, for example, help the person view the problem more objectively and stay detached from its emotional and other effects. A certain distancing is always known to help to understand the situation more clearly. Thus impermanence, far from being a cause for grief, becomes something positive since it also means that grief and unhappiness, tragedy, sorrow and suffering are not an eternal damnation or permanent doom. They are only a temporary setback or rather an inevitable learning experience for the soul in its brief sojourn amidst many lives. Through pleasure and pain, happiness and grief, success and failure, the adamantine march goes on. The journey of the soul does not stop at temporary stations but goes on and will go on, till one has reached the goal.

This much is common to all Vedantic systems.That is to say, that this world is not what it seems — that our values are misplaced and wrong due to the mind’s conditioning through centuries of evolutionary process. The psychotherapist corrects this cognitive error through a dialectic process involving thought and uses the experiences of the person to demonstrate this. But there is a later divergence too. It lies in the goal put forward before the soul, after it has disengaged itself and is able to look more dispassionately at the enigma of human life and its events. Though useful for a certain class of problems, it has its own drawbacks. Firstly, it almost presumes a certain degree of intellectual development. Secondly, it requires a very forceful mind on the part of the therapist who should be able to logically lead the person from the surface event to the deeper phenomenon, from the apparent to the real. Thirdly, the solution, if taken to its logical extreme, may induce a tendency for total indifference to the world. While this may be appreciated by certain extremist schools, the seers who propounded this thought were careful enough not to create confusion in the minds of the average person. An overemphasis on this other-worldliness may well lead to inertia, justified under the holy name of vairagya. One often finds such escapists, who have joined the Nirvana bandwagon to avoid responsibilities. A visit to any such schools will reveal quite a few who, unable to bear the stresses and strains of life, have resorted to that jungle trail. Even those who have suffered disappointments, whilst superficially conceding the philosophy, nevertheless continue to nurture secret ambitions which they are unable to fulfil. This hypocrisy creates a serious dichotomy between thought and practice and may lead to its own complications as an aftermath. It may for example lead to unfitness for life itself with its many problems and complex situations, simply waiting for the Nirvana boat to come to the rescue at the end of life. Such an outcome is obviously a most undesirable one. Individually it may induce one to lead a double life, even a sort of spiritual neuroticism. But, on a collective scale, it weakens the very fabric of the race, depressing its vitality and vigour, bringing inevitable decline. Even if there were a genuine individual victory, the doctrine is often misunderstood and used to justify many disparate things, leading to a collective defeat with its fallout of social and other abnormal psychological problems unique to such cultural traditions. Therefore there is an insistence in the wise not to delude those minds not ready for this, by enrolling all and sundry into such counselling. Na buddhibhedam janyedajnana karmasanginam: he who is established in the Knowledge (true Knowledge or jnana) should not create confusion in the minds of the ignorant (who are still attached to their egos and not yet ready).

There is another more serious difficulty. According to the vedantin, most souls are trapped in the snare of worldly maya. So how can the blind lead the blind or the trapped rescue the trapped? The average graduate in medicine opting for psychiatry as his field is not interested in high philosophy of life or its ultimate goal. The therapist like everyone else, client included, is caught in his own nightmare and delusion. Even if one were to intellectually undergo some course at school, it would not serve any purpose unless one was convinced, either through an innate sensitivity to deeper things or life experiences that awakened a deeper outlook. This imposes a serious limitation on who is really qualified to administer this form of counselling. It is evident that academic degrees and qualifications, even a crash course at a Vedantic school, would be of little value here. The only value is what is deeply lived and experienced. The rest only touches the surface mind and cannot bring any inner and radical change.

In other words, the doctrine requires such a high degree of inner development in the counsellor that even some pundits would be considered unfit to impart or facilitate any effective psychotherapeutic process through it. It is important to understand here that ancient Indian thought saw in this experience of impermanence only a passage towards a higher Permanence. The illusion was to be grasped then torn away only to reveal the Real and not rest in some halfway-house built upon the sands of nowhere. But that needs effort, a strong predisposition, a positive seeking which few can command. Yet if the psychotherapist of this type can take this final crucial step in turning a negative experience into a positive seeking for the eternal then it can mean a great and true release for the client.

This form of counselling, whilst useful for a select number of clients who chiefly suffer from depressions due to life situations, is of little use against other forms of psychological disorders. However, there may be partial use in counselling those who suffer due to the psychological suffering of their nearest ones. To take just one example, the depressed and suicidal mother of a mentally handicapped child was asked how she would have reacted if this child was her sister’s. The reply was: she would do all that she was doing now, perhaps even a few things more, but without the depression, perhaps even with a joy born from doing selfless good for someone. As she replied, she realized the obvious conclusion: to live in the world without a sense of attachment. A single short session was enough to change her perspective. She actually recovered and remained stable for years to come.