The Four Types of Psychologist: Ineffective, Satisfactory, Gifted and Gone Beyond

Note: The following post was written with Professor Mark Griffiths and has recently been published on PsychCentral. The full reference is: Van Gordon, W., Shonin., E., & Griffiths, MD. The Four Types of Psychologist: Ineffective, Satisfactory, Gifted, and Gone Beyond. Psych Central. Available at: http://pro.psychcentral.com/the-four-types-of-psychologist-ineffective-satisfactory-gifted-and-gone-beyond/0016491.html 

The Four Types of Psychologist: Ineffective, Satisfactory, Gifted and Gone Beyond

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Most introductory books on psychology inform readers that there are many different types of psychologist such as clinical psychologists, forensic psychologists, developmental psychologists, social psychologists, cognitive psychologist, health psychologists, occupational psychologists, sports psychologists, counselling psychologists, neuropsychologists and research psychologists. Clearly there are many other types of psychologist in addition to the list above, and there are also numerous sub-types of psychologist that specialise in a specific area within one of the aforementioned domains.

In this article, we deviate from the traditional model of categorising psychologists according to work setting and/or study perspective, and suggest a new schema that focusses on the underlying qualities and competencies of the psychologist. Our approach is not intended to supplant the aforementioned traditional categorisations. Rather, it is solely intended as ‘food for thought’ by suggesting a method of categorisation that emphasises the core skills and values that are common to the job description of all psychologists (i.e., irrespective of whether they work in clinical, occupational, or developmental settings, or adhere to a specific psychological perspective, etc.). Consequently, we have based our schema on the assumption that regardless of the particular setting or perspective in which a psychologist specialises, there is an expectation that all psychologists – at least to a small degree –  have an understanding of the scientific workings of the human mind and behaviour that exceeds that of the average lay person. Our method of categorisation is also founded on the assumption that, based on this greater degree of insight into the mind, all psychologists have a duty to guide others toward a better understanding of their own minds and behaviour, and where appropriate, toward improved levels of psychological wellbeing. Our ‘food for thought’ model comprises four categories of psychologist.

1. Ineffective Psychologists: The first class of psychologist are those that actually do more harm than good. There are various reasons why a psychologist might fall into this category, but in general it is due to shortfalls in either their attitude and/or ability. Therefore, it is possible that a psychologist in this category may sincerely wish to help a person, but they happen to be ineffective in this respect (i.e., they have the right attitude but lack the ability). Alternatively, a psychologist belonging to this category might be capable of treating people in a manner that helps them to grow as human beings, but they are uninterested in doing so (i.e., they have the necessary ability but the wrong attitude). One explanation of why a psychologist might have the required ability but inappropriate attitude is because the primary purpose for them performing their role is to accrue wealth or reputation.

2. Satisfactory Psychologists: Unlike the first class of psychologist, the second class of psychologist do more good than harm. However, although they create and spread more positivity than negativity, they are not what one might call ‘natural’ in the manner in which they embody and perform the role of a psychologist. In general, when this category of psychologist takes it upon themselves to better the psychological wellbeing of another human being, they are relying heavily on the various theories, models and practice guidelines that they have studied and trained in. These theories and practice techniques are normally evidence-based, and as such, they are generally of assistance to the other person. However, the fact that this second type of psychologist is heavily reliant upon processes and theories, means that there will always be a degree of disconnect between them and the individual they are interacting with. To a certain extent, this disconnect can be useful because it forms a protective barrier that the psychologist can work behind. However, it can also create an obstacle that prevents the ‘core’ of the psychologist’s being connecting and communicating with the ‘core’ of the other person’s being.

Put simply, it is rare for this type of psychologist that a meaningful ‘human-to-human’ interaction takes place, and as such, the person they are attempting to help invariably feels that they are the subject of a process or service. Consequently, an individual in the hands of this category of psychologist is unlikely to feel truly nourished or renewed. In summary, satisfactory psychologists do not embody and live the practice of psychology, and they are invariably unskilled at drawing upon and integrating their life experience into their work.

3. Gifted Psychologists: Individuals belonging to the third class of psychologist are much more natural at performing their role compared with those in the satisfactory category. In fact, one could probably go as far as to say that an individual belonging to this category of psychologist is ‘gifted’. They have an in-depth knowledge of all of the relevant psychological theories and techniques, but they understand that these models and processes are only tools. In fact, more often than not, this category of psychologist develops their own models and psychological techniques and they use these in their work and interactions with others. However, when they interact with other people, it is not entirely accurate to state that they are applying a theory or model. Rather, they are directly connecting with the individual on the ‘human-to-human’ level and they allow their intuition and instinct to guide how the dialogue and relationship evolves. The way in which they do this is still aligned with proven methods and practices, but they are not constrained by these methods and are spontaneous in the manner in which they help others.

Gifted psychologists have an in-depth understanding of their own mind, and as such, they understand well the mind and behaviours of others. When a patient, client, or another individual meets with a psychologist of this category, they immediately feel reassured due to knowing that they are in capable hands. This type of psychologist is confident, positive and energetic, and they inspire and invigorate people. They take the responsibility of being a psychologist and human being seriously and they are, by all accounts, impressive members of society.

4. Psychologists that have Gone Beyond: The fourth type of psychologist is an individual that has transcended all conventional criteria for evaluating the competency of a psychologist. Consequently, accurately determining whether a psychologist falls into this category requires skill, and it is easy to misinterpret their behaviour as evidence of them meeting the inclusion criteria for one of the three aforementioned outlined classifications. The rules that govern the decisions and strategies employed by ineffectivesatisfactory, and gifted psychologists no longer apply here. Psychologists that have Gone Beyond are individuals that have studied and investigated their own mind and behaviour to such an extent, they are no longer limited by it. They understand fully that, much like a spider’s web that spreads out in multiple directions, they are deeply connected to all other life forms and phenomena in the universe. Their insight and wide-ranging perspective means that they have a much more expansive selection of tools, techniques, and materials at their disposition. Psychologists that have Gone Beyond know and make full use of the fact that each of their thoughts, words and actions will reverberate throughout space and time, and will eventually come to touch all other beings. In this manner, they understand that they are a sculptor, and they use the world and its inhabitants as their raw material.

Psychologists that have Gone Beyond are truly remarkable beings – everyone they meet becomes their ‘client’, but in the majority of instances, individuals are unaware of the fact they are being helped. Irrespective of who a psychologist of this category meets or interacts with (e.g., a supermarket cashier, neighbour, work colleague, partner, or even a person wishing them harm), they provide the individual with exactly what they need in order to help them evolve as a human being. Except for a small number of individuals that also want to become Psychologists that have Gone Beyond (and who are searching for a suitable mentor), the work of psychologists belonging to this category often goes unnoticed. However, they are not in any way demotivated by this and in the majority of instances, maintaining a low profile allows them to perform their role more effectively.

Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Just a Thought

Just a Thought

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The term ‘thought’ is widely used in contemporary society. For example, most people probably don’t go for more than a day or two before they say or hear an expression such as ‘I’ve just had an interesting thought’, ‘What are your thoughts on the matter?’, or ‘I’ve thought more about what you said’. However, although common human experience tells us that thoughts definitely exist and are a normal aspect of human functioning, have you ever tried explaining to another person exactly what a thought is? It is difficult to outline in precise terms exactly what constitutes a thought, and even the dictionary definitions of this term are somewhat ambiguous. For example, the Oxford English dictionary describes a thought as ‘An idea or opinion produced by thinking, or occurring suddenly in the mind’. Although this dictionary definition informs us that thoughts are the product of thinking, it doesn’t actually provide us with a definitive account of what constitutes a thought.

An object such as a table can be described to another person without too much difficulty. According to the Oxford English dictionary, a table is ‘a piece of furniture with a flat top with one or more legs, providing a level surface for eating, writing, or working at’. This definition introduces a number of defining characteristics (such as a ‘level surface’, ‘one or more legs’, and ‘surface for eating’) which – whilst allowing for differences in interpretation – would probably make it reasonably easy for a person to picture in their mind what a table is, and then try to locate one should they wish to do so. A thought, on the other hand, doesn’t really have any tangible characteristics that would allow a person to create an accurate picture in their mind. For example, thoughts – as far as we know – do not have a shape, colour, texture, size, sound, or smell. They do not have a top or a bottom and their surface (if indeed they have one) cannot said to be level or undulating.

Neuropsychological studies allow us to study certain aspects of thoughts by measuring (for example) electrical impulses and changes in blood oxygen levels in the brain. However, although such studies provide important information relating to thoughts, they cannot measure thoughts directly (i.e., an electrical signal that corresponds to a thought is not the thought itself) and are not able to observe the ‘raw material’ that thoughts are made of. Likewise, neuropsychological studies are unable to ascertain the precise location from which thoughts originate or how many levels of thought can manifest simultaneously. Therefore, although through scientific study and shared human experience we have learned a lot about thoughts, it is arguably fair to say that contemporary understanding of thoughts is still at an elementary level.

It is perhaps also fair to say that in general, people (and to a certain degree modern science) have a tendency to take thoughts for granted and to overlook their importance. For example, with each and every thought that we have, we change the trajectory of the present moment and reset the future. This may sound like a remark by one of those authors who has jumped on the meditation and mindfulness bandwagon, and who is trying to impress readers by writing a book full of (what they deem to be) deep and meaningful remarks. However, it’s not meant to be a deep or meaningful remark and if you stop and think about it, it’s a perfectly true statement. The world as we know it is shaped by (amongst other things) the words and actions of human beings. Our thoughts influence (and in many cases underlie) our words and actions, and our (and other people’s) words and actions also influence our thoughts. A person’s decision and intention to pursue a particular career might have originated in a single thought. The same applies to the words and actions of leaders such as Mahatma Ghandi or Martin Luther King – perhaps their motivation to inspire political and spiritual change traces back to a single thought that they once had.

From this perspective, it is fair to say that thoughts are incredibly creative. With our thoughts, we shape who we will be in the future. We also shape how other people (and the world more generally) will be in the future. With each new thought, an entirely new future, and an entirely new world, is born. In many respects, thoughts are the creative energy of the universe. In fact, perhaps it is conceivably possible that thoughts are made of the same ‘raw material’ that caused the universe to be created (i.e., during the big-bang). If this statement is correct it would mean that during the process of giving birth to a single thought, the mind draws upon the underlying primordial energy of existence, and that it serves as the strata within which thoughts explode into existence and thus create an entirely new universe. What a marvellous thought!

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Can a Buddha become Angry?

Can a Buddha become Angry?

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      Given that Buddhahood is frequently described as a state of limitless compassion that is completely free of negative and afflictive emotions, it might seem strange that we have decided to write a post addressing the question of whether it is possible for a Buddha to become angry. However, believe it or not, the answer to this question is not a straightforward ‘no’. In today’s post, we begin by exploring some Buddhist and psychological perspectives on anger and then provide our view on the above question.

Within Buddhism, in addition to attachment and ignorance, anger is known as one of the three root poisons (Sanskrit: trivisa). Anger can be thought of as a form of aversion towards another person, situation, or even ourselves. Because we see, hear, smell, taste, or touch something that we don’t like or that we perceive as a threat to our wellbeing or sense of self, we quickly want to remove or destroy it so that things return to normal. Basically, anger manifests because we are trying to keep things orderly and under control – people or situations that threaten to disturb or interfere with the world that we have created for ourselves make us feel angry and afraid.

Although in the Buddhist teachings anger is often described as a form of aversion, it can actually also be thought of as a form of attachment. Indeed, the reason we have aversion towards a particular situation is because we have allowed ourselves to become attached to what we deem to represent the ‘opposite’ of that situation. For example, imagine that for some time everything was cushy at work and things were going really well with the career. But then along comes a work colleague who makes us angry and who starts to create problems – it seems that they deliberately go out of their way to cause us trouble. However, if we stop and think about it, the anger and aversion that we experience arises because we have become attached to the idea of everything being cushy and comfortable at work – the perfect environment where we will always be recognised and rewarded for our efforts and where we can swiftly move up the career ladder.

If we didn’t harbour attachments or have unrealistic ideas in the first place, then we wouldn’t become so angry when our plans and ideas are disrupted. Buddhism asserts that a person’s propensity for anger is closely associated with how much attachment they harbour. A person that becomes very attached to their possessions – which in some people’s minds can also include family members, partners, and friends – is likely to be quick to anger. In a paper that we recently published in the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, we defined the Buddhist notion of attachment as “the over-allocation of cognitive and emotional resources towards a particular object, construct, or idea to the extent that the object is assigned an attractive quality that is unrealistic and that exceeds its intrinsic worth”. As demonstrated by our definition, attachment takes on a very different meaning in Buddhism compared to its use in Western psychology where attachment (e.g., in the context of relationships) is generally considered to exert a protective influence over mental health problems.

In the same way that the Buddhist root poisons of attachment and anger (or aversion) are closely related to each other, they are also both closely related to the other root poison that we mentioned – ignorance. Ignorance is described as one of the three root poisons, but it is actually the primary cause of each of the other poisons and of suffering more generally. Ignorance in the context that we are discussing it here refers to the extent to which a person views themselves as an independently or inherently-existing entity. The more a person is caught up in themselves and thinks that they possess a definite self, the more ignorant they become – and the larger their ego inflates itself. Thus, aversion or anger is a direct result of attachment, and attachment is a direct result of ignorance or ego.

When a person becomes angry, it basically means that the ego-monkey that we talked about in our last post has decided to raise its head. Although ego underpins all of our emotions and behaviours, this is particularly the case when anger is ravaging the mind. In fact, you only have to look at an angry person and it is as though their ego is trying to burst through their skin. We touched on this in our post on the Top Five Beauty Tips for Men and Women where we made reference to research demonstrating that anger is associated with physiological responses such as contraction of the brow muscles, facial flushing (i.e., turning red), flared nostrils, clenched jaws, increased perspiration, increased heart rate, and general tension in the skeletal musculature of the facial and neck regions.

Anger has a tendency to overrun the mind and body and it is generally accepted by Western psychologists that anger can distort a person’s perspective of a situation and reduce their ability to make wise decisions. As we discussed in a paper that we published in the psychology journal Aggression and Violent Behaviour, in addition to causing people to say and do unpleasant things, anger can also cause people to behave irrationally. For example, a few years ago we were guiding a meditation retreat in the Snowdonia Mountains of North Wales where one of the participants was a middle-aged lady who was very angry because she couldn’t get her mind to relax. Part way through one of the meditations, it became apparent that one of the male participants in the group was a ‘breather’. ‘Breathers’ are those people that breathe really deeply and loudly during meditation so that everybody else can hear them and so that everybody knows they are ‘serious’ about their practice. Anyway, about half way through this particular meditation session, it just became too much for the lady who broke her silence and in an angry voice suddenly shouted out ‘stop breathing’!

The point we have been trying to make above is that anger is a major obstacle to happiness and spiritual development. It is a sign that a person’s ego is very much in tact – which from the point of view of the meditation or spiritual practitioner – means that there is still a tremendous amount of work to do. As a general rule, the smaller the degree to which a spiritual practitioner’s thoughts, words, or actions are influenced by ego (and therefore anger), the closer they are to attaining Buddhahood. However, whilst this general rule applies for practically all stages of the spiritual practitioner’s journey, it no longer applies when they have awoken to full Buddhahood.

For a fully enlightened Buddha, the moment a thought or feeling arises in their mind, it is immediately liberated. The Buddhas perceive clearly that all phenomena – including those of a psychological nature – are absent of an intrinsically—existing self. They see that everything that manifests has no more substance than a mental projection or a dream. As it says in the heart sutra, the Buddhas understand that form (i.e., phenomena) is emptiness and emptiness is form. The Buddhas are not bound by concepts such as self and other, past and future (i.e., time), or here and there (i.e., space). Consequently, their mind is unlimited – it is free of any form of attachment or aversion.

This ability of Buddhas to never become attached to physical or mental objects means that they are free to manifest whatever feelings might be most skilful and compassionate within a given situation. In effect, the Buddhas have uprooted the causes of negative emotions to such an extent, that they are now free to use so-called ‘negative emotions’ as they see fit. Ultimately, the Buddhas are 100% focussed on liberating other beings from suffering. They are overflowing with unconditional kindness, compassion, and patience, but if it is a blast of anger that is required to jolt a person to start truly practicing spiritual development, then it will be duly administered. This is very different than pretending to be angry (e.g., as a parent might do) in order to communicate feelings of disapproval towards another person. The type of anger that we are referring to here is very real – it is primordial anger but there is absolutely no ego mixed in with it. Due to the rawness of this anger and the fact that it is not tainted by ego, it enters deeply and directly into the recipient’s mind and gives them a clear choice in terms of embracing or rejecting the Dharma (truth/teachings).

There are quite a number of examples of enlightened beings using this primordial anger to benefit others. Probably the best known example amongst Westerners is that of Jesus Christ when he over-turned the tables and started throwing the traders out of the temple. Buddhist practitioners might have heard about the 11th century Tibetan spiritual adept Marpa who would even administer a physical beating where he felt it would be of some long-term benefit. Another reasonably well-known and much more recent example is Lama Yeshe who died in 1984 – there are reports that he once got hold of a pick-pocket (i.e., a thief) and gave them a right good shaking in order to make them see sense. There are also examples of Zen teachers becoming angry with their students and in some cases this actually prompted an intuitive leap or a sudden flash of realisation.

For the everyday meditation practitioner such as you and us, anger can make it almost impossible to stabilise the mind and it can significantly disrupt a persons’ spiritual progress. Consequently, every effort should be made to practice patience and kindness and to never act out of anger. However, for the fully enlightened Buddhas, although their very being overflows with joy, wisdom, and compassion, it does seem that they can and do use primordial anger as a very skilful and effective means of teaching. This is quite a dangerous subject to write about because some meditation practitioners or teachers could misinterpret what we are saying and start believing that it is acceptable to be angry. However, given that there are reports of Buddhas exhibiting anger, then it seems appropriate to offer an explanation as to why this might be. Another reason for writing this post is because in the event you are one of those handful of people fortunate enough to meet a fully-enlightened teacher – you’ll be less likely to become all haughty and self-righteous if they decide to give you verbal kick-up the backside!

Ven. Edo Shonin & Ven. William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of Meditation: Training the Mind for Wisdom. London: Rider.

Day, A. (2009). Offender emotion and self-regulation: Implications for offender rehabilitation programming. Psychology, Crime and Law, 15, 119-130.

Huang Po. (1982). The Zen teaching of Huang Po: On the transmission of the mind. (Blofeld, J., Trans.) New York: Grove Press.

Novaco, R. W. (2007). Anger Dysregulation. In T. A. Cavell, & K. T. Malcolm (Eds.), Anger, Aggression, and Interventions for Interpersonal Violence (pp. 3-54). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Toward effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-137.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Mindfulness meditation in American correctional facilities: A ‘what-works’ approach to reducing reoffending.Corrections Today: Journal of the American Correctional Association, March/April, 48-51.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., Slade, K., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Mindfulness and other Buddhist-derived interventions in correctional settings: A systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18, 365-372.

Wright, S., Day, A., & Howells, K. (2009). Mindfulness and the treatment of anger problems. Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 14, 396-401.

How to Tame a Monkey Mind

How to Tame a Monkey Mind

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Within Buddhism, the term ‘monkey mind’ is sometimes used to describe people that have very unsettled minds. If you have a monkey mind, it basically means that just like a naughty monkey, your mind constantly jumps from one thing to another and only very rarely does it actually settle down. People with monkey minds might be engaged in some kind of task or conversation, but they quickly succumb to boredom and their mind begins to wander off again. The monkey mind condition normally becomes apparent to people when they start learning meditation. Indeed, people that are new to meditation frequently experience great difficulty in holding their concentration on a single meditative object (such as the natural flow of their in-breath and out-breath). We are not aware of any empirical research that has attempted to quantify the prevalence of the monkey mind condition, but we would estimate that most people would admit to having experienced monkey-mindedness to a greater or lesser extent.

In general, people with a more severe form of monkey-mindedness are quite easy to spot because in addition to being mentally restless, they are invariably also very physically restless. Of course, there can be many reasons – including medical ones – that may influence the degree of physical unrest that a person exhibits. However, generally speaking and based on our experience, if a person finds it difficult to sit still and always has to be doing something, then this is a sign that they may be afflicted by monkey-mindedness. Another good indicator of monkey-mindedness is when an individual is following a certain line of dialogue or conversation and they suddenly go off on tangents and introduce completely-unrelated topics. In fact, we encounter quite a number of people that can thread together what seems to be an endless string of completely-unrelated topics and hold (what they deem to be) a ‘conversation’ for hours on end. Perhaps the monkey in the mind of people like this is bigger than the average-sized monkey or perhaps it is just particularly naughty and restless – who knows?

Although monkey-mindedness often reveals itself through an individual’s physical demeanour and comportment, some people try to conceal their monkey mind. For example, as part of our vocation as Buddhist monks, we have been present at or facilitated a large number of meditation retreats, and as with most of life’s pursuits, there is a tendency for people at meditation retreats to try to give the impression that they are very experienced and/or are much more accomplished than everybody else. You would probably be surprised at the lengths that some people go to in order to convince others that they are a ‘serious’ meditator. Indeed, some people sit in what they believe is meditation for hours on end without flinching or moving a muscle, and whilst keeping a very solemn expression on their face. For people who are new to meditation, seeing others behave like this can actually be quite intimidating – we’re not sure that it creates a hostile environment but it certainly doesn’t help people to feel welcome and at ease.

Despite their attempts to convince people otherwise, you only need to observe these ‘serious meditators’ when they get up and leave the meditation hall to see that their mind is far from disciplined and serene. Because such people are more interested in giving the impression of practising meditation rather than actually practising it, then it doesn’t take long before the ego-monkey in their mind reveals itself and does or says something that is selfish and/or hurtful to others. In fact, on several separate occasions, we have observed a meditator sitting very seriously, but due to trying to supress or ignore their monkey mind, they allow psychological pressure to build-up. The next thing that happens is they suddenly can’t take it anymore and they end up rushing out of the meditation hall.

The wisdom and lesson that can be learned from the above example of the overly-serious meditator is that if we try to ignore or supress the monkey mind, it can lead to both internal and external conflict. The same thing happens if we are too rigid and serious in our efforts to tame the monkey within. In other words, in order to begin taming the monkey mind, in addition to a certain degree of meditative-technical knowhow, we need a great deal of patience, gentleness, perseverance, and a good sense of humour.

If we understand that on the one hand, taming the monkey mind requires lots of effort and is arguably the most important thing we will ever do in our lives, but on the other hand personal and spiritual growth takes time and cannot be forced, then we create the optimum frame of mind for enjoying the process of transforming unwholesome habits and for progressing along the path of awareness. In order to tame the monkey mind, we need to become aware of its undisciplined nature but in a manner that keeps things light, spacious, and airy. As we discussed in our post on ‘the absorbing mind’, the simple act of observing and becoming aware of our thoughts and mental processes helps to objectify them and to loosen their hold over us. However, if we try to watch our thoughts and feelings too intensely then despite our efforts to do the opposite, we end up giving them too much power and importance.

Therefore, when we practice awareness of our thoughts and of our mental processes, we should do so with a very big and generous mind. This means that we accept the mind as it is and that we don’t try to manipulate it. If the mind is particularly wild and out of control that’s absolutely fine – all we do in this situation is take the unruly mind itself as the object of our awareness. In effect, what we are doing is setting the mind free within the field of our awareness. Because we are not holding onto the mind or offering it resistance by trying to keep it under control, it has no alternative but to begin to calm and settle. Believe it or not, attempting to modify the mind actually runs contrary to the general principle of meditation which is that tranquillity and wisdom are naturally present in the mind and will arise of their own accord when the correct conditions come about. One of these ‘correct conditions’ is simply observing and nourishing the mind through meditative awareness. A metaphor that we have used previously to help explain this principle is that of a garden fish pond – every time the garden pond is stirred or interfered with, the water becomes muddy and unsettled. However, if a person sits quietly next to the pond and simply observes it, the water becomes perfectly still and clear again.

The monkey mind will remain a monkey mind for as long as we choose not to tame it. We might decide that we don’t have a monkey mind or that we do have one but that it doesn’t need to be changed. However, if we are being truthful with ourselves and if we examine the mind closely, unless we are already very spiritually enlightened, then we are likely to see that it is only very rarely (if at all) that we experience true peace of mind. Indeed, irrespective of whether or not we are aware of the wild nature of our minds, having a mind that is always racing around – constantly jumping to and fro between the past and the future – eventually causes us to become physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted. In fact, it is our personal view that a lot of mental health problems such as anxiety, stress, and depression arise because people have very unruly minds and are without the knowledge of how to properly tend to their thoughts and feelings. However, it is also our view that by practising full awareness of all of our thoughts and mind movements, we can begin to take care of our monkey mind until it gradually learns to sit in perfect stillness and quiet.

Ven. Edo Shonin & Ven. William Van Gordon

Deconstructing the Self: A Buddhist perspective on addiction and psychotherapeutic treatment

Deconstructing the Self:

A Buddhist perspective on addiction and psychotherapeutic treatment

(By Ven. Edo Shonin, Ven. William Van Gordon, and Dr. Mark Griffiths)

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Psychological approaches to treating mental illness or improving psychological wellbeing are invariably based on the explicit or implicit acceptance that there is an inherently existing ‘self’ or ‘I’ entity. In other words, irrespective of whether a cognitive-behavioural, psychodynamic, or humanistic psychotherapy model is employed, these approaches are ultimately concerned with changing how the ‘I’ relates to its thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, and/or to its physical, social, and spiritual environment. Although each of these psychotherapeutic modalities have been shown to have utility for improving psychological health, there are inevitably limitations to their effectiveness and there will always be those individuals for whom they are incompatible. Given such limitations, research continuously attempts to identify and empirically validate more effective, acceptable and/or diverse treatment approaches. One such approach gaining momentum is the use of techniques that derive from Buddhist contemplative practice. Although mindfulness is arguably the most popular and empirically researched example, there is also growing interest into the psychotherapeutic applications of Buddhism’s ‘non-self’ ontological standpoint (in which ontology is basically the philosophical study of the nature or essence of being, existence, or reality).

Within Buddhism, the term ‘non-self’ refers to the realisation that the ‘self’ or the ‘I’ is absent of intrinsic existence (Shonin, Van Gordon, & Griffiths, 2014a). On first inspection, this might seem to be a somewhat abstract concept but it is actually common sense and the principle of ‘non-self’ is universal in its application. For example, Buddhism teaches that the human body comprises the five elements of water, wind (i.e., air), earth (i.e., food), sun (i.e., heat/energy), and space (i.e., in the bodily cavities and between molecules, etc.) (Shonin et al., 2014a). This means that although the body exists in the relative sense, it does not exist in the absolute sense because the body cannot be isolated from all of its contributing causes. Just as a wave does not exist in separation from the ocean, the body does not exist in separation from all other phenomena. According to the Buddhist teachings, when looking at the body, we should also be able to see the trees, plants, animals, clouds, oceans, planets, and so forth (Shonin et al., 2014a). Thus, the body, and indeed the entire array of animate and inanimate phenomena that we know of, cannot be found to exist intrinsically or independently.

The Buddhist teachings go on to assert that suffering, including the entire spectrum of distressing emotions and psychopathologic states (including ‘addiction’), results from adhering to a false view about the ultimate manner in which the self (and reality more generally) exists. As a means of operationalising this notion within Western psychological and clinical domains, we recently introduced the concept of ‘ontological addiction’. Ontological addiction can effectively be considered a new category of addiction (i.e., in addition to what are typically called chemical addictions and behavioural addictions) and is defined as “the unwillingness to relinquish an erroneous and deep-rooted belief in an inherently existing ‘self’ or ‘I’ as well as the ‘impaired functionality’ that arises from such a belief” (Shonin, Van Gordon, & Griffiths, 2013, p.64). Due to a firmly-embedded (yet scientifically and logically implausible) belief that the self is an inherent and independently existing entity, Buddhism asserts that afflictive mental states arise as a result of the imputed ‘self’ incessantly craving after objects it considers to be attractive or harbouring aversion towards objects it considers to be unattractive (Shonin et al., 2014a).

In Buddhist terminology, this process is known as ‘attachment’ and it is deemed to be an undesirable quality that reinforces ontological addiction.  We have previously defined attachment as “the over-allocation of cognitive and emotional resources towards a particular object, construct, or idea to the extent that the object is assigned an attractive quality that is unrealistic and that exceeds its intrinsic worth” (Shonin et al., 2014a, p.4). Thus, attachment takes on a different meaning in Buddhism in relation to its construction in Western psychology where attachment (i.e., in the context of relationships) is generally considered to exert a protective influence over psychopathology.

Having understood from a Buddhist perspective that attachment (and harbouring an erroneous belief in an inherently existing self) is not advisable for adaptive psycho-spiritual functioning, Buddhism teaches that the next step towards recovery from ontological addiction is to embrace ‘non-self’ and begin deconstructing our mistaken belief regarding the existence of an ‘I’. Based on this Buddhist approach, a number of novel psychotherapeutic techniques have recently been developed that integrate meditative practices aimed at cultivating an understanding of the ‘non-self’ construct. For example, Buddhist Group Therapy (BGT) is a six-week program that has been shown to be effective for treating anxiety and depression (Rungreangkulkij, Wongtakee, & Thongyot, 2011). Another example is Meditation Awareness Training (MAT), an eight-week secular program that, in a number of separately published studies, has been shown to be an effective treatment for individuals with anxiety and depression, schizophrenia, pathological gambling, workaholism, work-related stress, and fibromyalgia (e.g., see reviews by Shonin et al., 2013, 2014a, 2014b).

From a mechanistic point of view, greater awareness of ‘non-self’ is believed to assist in gradually uprooting egoistic core beliefs and can complement therapeutic techniques that work at the surface level of behaviour and cognition (Chan, 2008). Furthermore, an understanding of non-self can enhance therapeutic core conditions because “the more the therapist understands non-self, the less likelihood that the therapy will be about the selfhood of the therapist” (Segall, 2003, p.173).

For some, Buddhist concepts such as non-self may be difficult to conceptually grasp and reflect what might be seen as a paradigm shift when compared with well-established Western psychological beliefs regarding the ego and the self. As such, psychotherapists will carefully need to assess the suitability of utilising ‘non-self’ meditative techniques for their own clients. Although further empirical evaluation of these new approaches is required, preliminary findings indicate that techniques aimed at cultivating an awareness of the Buddhist ‘non-self’ construct may have applications in psychotherapy settings.

Ven. Edo Shonin, Ven. William Van Gordon, and Dr. Mark Griffiths

References

Chan, W. S. (2008). Psychological attachment, no-self and Chan Buddhist mind therapy. Contemporary Buddhism, 9, 253-264.

Rungreangkulkij, S., Wongtakee, W., & Thongyot, S. (2011). Buddhist Group Therapy for diabetes patients with depressive symptoms. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 25, 195-205.

Segall, S. R. (2003). Psychotherapy practice as Buddhist practice. In S. R. Segall (Ed.), Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings (pp. 165-178). New York: State University of New York Press.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Buddhist philosophy for the treatment of problem gambling. Journal of Behavioural Addictions, 2, 63-71.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014a). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, doi: 10.1037/a0035859.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014b). Mindfulness as a treatment for behavioral addiction. Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy, 5, e122. doi: 10.4172/2155-6105.1000e122.

Tips for using Mindfulness in Psychotherapy Contexts

Tips for using Mindfulness in Psychotherapy Contexts

psychotherapy 2

Recently, we were joined by our friend and academic colleague Professor Mark Griffiths in writing a paper on ‘Meditation as Medication: Are Attitudes Changing?’ (the paper is currently in press with the British Journal of General Practice).1 The paper discusses how, amongst both patients and clinicians, the prospect of using mindfulness and meditation as a mainstream medical intervention is becoming increasingly acceptable. Over the last 12 months or so, in addition to mainstream research journals such as the above, we have also published (or had accepted for publication) a series of articles in more practitioner-based and/or professional journals where we offer suggestions on how best to use and teach mindfulness (and other meditative techniques) within medical and/or mental health settings. Examples are articles published in Corrections Today (a journal of the American Correctional Association),2 Thresholds (a journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy), 3 Addiction Today (a practitioner-focused journal focusing on addiction recovery), 4 Education Today (the nationwide journal of the School and Student Health Education Unit), 5 and the quarterly publication of the National Council on Problem Gambling.6

Based on a synthesis of the recommendations outlined in the abovementioned professional/practitioner journals, and based on insights from our own and others’ research and practice of meditation, today’s post outlines what we consider to be helpful strategies for the effective use of mindfulness techniques within client-therapist settings:

1. Therapist-led practice: Findings from our own empirical research into Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) indicate that clients and patients place tremendous importance on the extent to which the therapist’s own thoughts, words, and actions are infused with mindful awareness.7 A therapist who is ‘well-soaked’ in meditation naturally exerts a reassuring presence that helps clients to relax and connect with their own capacity for spiritual awareness. As we discussed in our posts on ‘Teaching Mindfulness to Children and ‘Predicting your Enlightenment, if a meditation teacher (or a therapist) is going to instruct others on how to practise mindfulness correctly, then it is essential that they do so from an experiential standpoint. Furthermore, clinicians and psychotherapists are particularly at-risk for compassion fatigue – a type of secondary traumatic stress caused by working with clients who have an illness of a distressing nature or who have directly experienced a traumatic event.3 Therapist mindfulness practice has been shown to exert a protective influence over compassion fatigue and therefore helps to improve the therapeutic experience for client and therapist alike.8

2. Insight-led practice: This point is closely related to the above point on therapist-led practice and refers to the importance of psychotherapists appreciating that there are many ‘activating agents’ that are essential for the development of ‘right mindfulness’. As outlined in our most recent post on ‘Exactly what is the Present Moment?’, an example of such an activating agent is cultivating insight into the ‘impermanent’, ‘non-self’, and ‘empty’ nature of reality. A firmly embedded understanding by therapists of the principles that underlie effective mindfulness practice (i.e., non-self, emptiness, impermanence, etc.) is likely to enhance therapeutic outcomes in the long term. Indeed, according to psychotherapists Maura Sills and Judy Lown, greater therapeutic connection and transformation can take place as client and therapist begin to acquaint themselves with the non-self construct and work in an “open and empty ground state”.9 Similarly, as Professor Seth Segall of Yale University School of Medicine acknowledges a firm understanding of non-self can improve therapeutic core conditions because “the more the therapist understands anatta [non-self], the less likelihood that the therapy will be about the selfhood of the therapist”.10

3. Deep listening: As with all psychotherapy modalities, the therapist’s ability to listen deeply to what the client is saying, as well as to what they are not saying, is a vital part of the therapeutic process. However, in the context of mindfulness-based therapy, the practice of deep listening takes on a slightly different meaning compared with the more conventional therapeutic modes. When the mindfulness practitioner (or therapist) listens deeply to another person, believe it or not, the emphasis is actually placed more on listening to oneself rather than the client. Let’s clarify what is meant by this statement. Normally, any kind of discussion with another person triggers various kinds of emotional and cognitive responses. The way we interpret the words of others, and the types of thoughts and feelings that are engendered by those words, is heavily influenced by our own conditioning and beliefs. In other words, it is through the lens of the conditioned mind that we experience ourselves and others. So as meditation practitioners, the reason why we make an effort to listen to our own mental chatter during dialogue with others, is to try to limit the extent to which our own conditioning might colour our interpretation of what the other person is actually saying. As we referred to in a short vajragiti (a type of spontaneous spiritual song or poem) called Simply Being with Nothing to Be, the best way to listen deeply to ourselves in this manner is by being fully present with ourselves. When we are fully present with ourselves and are perfectly content with where and who we are, when we are happy to simply experience the present moment without trying to modify it, the pain that has built up inside the other person begins to talk to us. This happens naturally and without us having to look too hard. We can see all of the person’s suffering, we can smile gently at it, and that person’s pain knows that it now has a friend and is no longer alone. Their suffering has exposed itself to us, and because we are not lost or caught-up in our own thoughts or ego-attachments, a true communion of compassion and loving-kindness can now occur.

4. Life integration: Although it is undoubtedly beneficial for a client to meet with the therapist once or twice a week, it goes without saying that emphasis should be placed on empowering the client to introduce mindfulness into all aspects of their lives. Many clients find a CD of guided meditations and written resources about mindfulness practice to be useful props in this respect. Another factor that can make a big difference to the success of the therapy is working with the client to establish a routine of mindfulness practice. Our personal preference is to do this on a case by case basis (i.e., rather than prescribing a blanket-amount of formal meditation practice time for all people). When working with patients or meditation practitioners as part of our research or monastic work, we generally encourage people to try to adopt a dynamic meditation routine. In this manner, people are dissuaded from drawing divisions between meditation during formal sitting settings and meditation during everyday activities.11 As referred to in our post on ‘The Top Ten Mistakes made by Meditation Practitioners’, the purpose of this is to reduce the likelihood of dependency on the need for formal meditation sessions.

5. Meditative anchors: Integral to effective mindfulness training, particularly at the beginning stages, is the use of meditative anchors.3 A good example of a meditative anchor is observing the breath. Full-awareness of the in-breath and out-breath helps clients ‘tie their mind’ to the present moment and to subdue ruminating thought processes. Where clients have noticeably low levels of concentration, then teaching them to count their breath can be quite helpful. However, when using breath awareness as a meditative anchor, it is important to discourage clients or patients from forcing their breathing. In other words, the breath should be allowed to follow its natural course and to calm and deepen of its own accord (i.e., as a regular consequence of it being mindfully observed).3

6. Mindfulness reminders: In addition to meditative anchors, the maintenance of mindfulness during everyday activities appears to be facilitated by the use of mindfulness reminders. An example of a mindfulness reminder is an hour chime (e.g., from a wrist-watch or wall clock), which, upon sounding, can be used as a trigger by the client to gently return their awareness to the present moment and to the natural flow of the in-breath and out-breath (and to the space and time between each in-breath and out-breath).3 Some clients seem to prefer a less sensory reminder such as a simple acronym. For example, in the aforementioned eight-week Meditation Awareness Training program, clients are taught to use the following SOS technique to facilitate recovery of meditative concentration by ‘sending out an SOS’ at the point when intrusive thoughts arise:

 

The three-step SOS technique3,4

 1. Stop

2. Observe the breath

3. Step back and watch the mind

 

7. Meditative posture: Although the focus of mindfulness practice should be directed towards its maintenance during everyday activities, formal daily seated-meditation sessions are an essential aspect of mindfulness training. As part of seated meditation practice, a good physical posture helps to facilitate the cultivation of a good mental posture. The most important aspect of the meditation posture is stability which can be achieved whether sitting up-right on a chair or on a meditation cushion. The analogy used in Meditation Awareness Training for the appropriate meditation posture is that of a mountain. A mountain has a definite presence, it is upright and stable yet at the same time it is without tension and does not have to strain to maintain its posture – it is relaxed, content, and deeply-rooted in the earth.3

8. Psychoeducation: In most psychotherapeutic approaches, a degree of psychoeducation regarding the mechanisms of action and projected hurdles to recovery is generally regarded as a means of augmenting client-therapist trust and therapeutic alliance. Mindfulness-based therapy is no exception to this, and clients generally welcome advance notice of the difficulties they are likely to encounter as their meditative training progresses. One such difficulty, particularly in the beginning stages, is the feeling by patients or clients that their mind is becoming more discursive than before. However, rather than an actual reduction in levels of mindfulness, our own research into meditation has shown that such feelings generally result from a greater awareness by clients of the “wild” nature of their cognitive and emotional processes that had hitherto remained unnoticed.7 Particularly within the context of mindfulness-based therapy, psychoeducation should be regarded as a two-way process. In other words, in working with the client to discuss and explore different dimensions of their mindfulness practice, a co-produced form of understanding or wisdom often emerges. This is something that both the client and therapist can benefit from and is consistent with the Buddhist technique known as ‘Dharma sharing’.

Although the above points are not exhaustive, we believe that when they are implemented as part of a therapeutic relationship based on trust, patience, loving-kindness, and compassion, they will help to add authenticity to the transmission that takes place between client and therapist.

 

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

 

References

  1. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Meditation as medication: Are attitudes changing? British Journal of General Practice. In Press.
  2. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Mindfulness meditation in American correctional facilities: A ‘what-works’ approach to reducing reoffending. Corrections Today, In Press.
  3. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A tool for Spiritual Growth? Thresholds. Summer Issue, 14-18.
  4. Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Meditation for the treatment of addictive behaviours: Sending out an SOS. Addiction Today, March, 18-19.
  5. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2012). The health benefits of mindfulness-based interventions for children and adolescents. Education and Health, 30, 94-97.
  6. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Mindfulness-based interventions for the treatment of problem gambling. Journal of the National Council on Problem Gambling, 16, 17-18.
  7. Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths M. D. (2013). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for improved psychological wellbeing: A qualitative examination of participant experiences. Journal of Religion and Health. DOI: 10.1007/s10943-013-9679-0.
  8. Christoper, J.C., & Maris, J.A. (2010). Integrating mindfulness as self-care into counselling and psychotherapy training. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 10, 144-125.
  9. Sills, M., & Lown, J. (2008). The field of subliminal mind and the nature of being. European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling, 10, 10: 71-80.

10. Segall, S.R. (2003). Psychotherapy practice as Buddhist practice. In S. R. Segall (Ed.), Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings (pp. 165-178). New York: State University of New York Press.

11. Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Sumich, A., Sundin, E., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for psychological wellbeing in a sub-clinical sample of university students: A controlled pilot study. Mindfulness. DOI: 10.1007/s12671-012-0191-5.