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Absolute Mind and Relative Existence – Buddhism and Psychotherapy

Dorothy Gunne with Alan Mooney

“The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name”.

(Lao Tzu, 1963, Trans. D.C. Lau, Too Te Ching, Penguin)

From the very beginning of the development of humanistic psychotherapy the influence of Eastern approaches to the understanding of Mind has been important and fundamental to the idea of integration. The 1960’s saw an explosive development in Humanistic and Integrative psychotherapy. Many of those involved were strongly attracted to Eastern philosophy and religion, especially the aspect that was suspicious of the intellect as the master organ­iser.


However it is only in more recent years that the debate in relation to the con­tribution the Eastern thought, and particularly Buddhism, has become more public. This has been evidenced by such events as the sponsoring of Conferences by the British Psychological Society such as the “International Conference on Eastern Approaches to Self and Mind” in 1986. It is only since this time that many Psychologists and Psychotherapists have felt free to dis­cuss many issues within this domain which might have relevance to Psychotherapy as practised in the west today.


The understanding of the notion of Mind in the Buddhist tradition has been of particular influence in the development of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy. However, in order to understand how Buddhist Philosophy and Psychology understands “mind” it may be necessary to allow a wider frame of understanding than that which is usually accessible to us based on western philosophical traditions, which might be viewed as somewhat reductionist.


Western psychology would tend to loosely define mind as the totality of the individual’s psychological life, and certainly this should be seen as primarily related to our cognitive processes. In the buddhist tradition Mind is seen as the summation of all our sense perceptions – seeing, hearing, smelling tast­ing, touching AND THINKING.


Thus if you are working with someone in psychotherapy while keeping the latter in focus, there will be a clear emphasis on the relevance of all of these sense perceptions and such a strong distinction will not be made between cognitive functioning and sensory experience. In addition the therapist will be trying to understand the client in terms of an awareness of Body, Speech and Intellect and the integration of these elements.

One of the key concepts of Humanistic psychotherapy is the idea of being present with the client. It is very important to have knowledge, both theore­tical and personal self-knowledge. It is equally important not to let that get in the way of being with and listening to the client as fully as possible in the present moment of the therapy encounter.


Rogers quotes F. Flaherty thus: “What you have to do is let go. Let go every thought of your own, wipe your mind clean, fresh, innocent, newborn, sensi­tive as unexposed film, to take up the impressions around you, and let what will come in. This is the pregnant void, the fertile state of no-mind. This is non-preoccupation, the beginning of discovery”, (cf Rowan, Ordinary Ecstacy, 1988, p.22)


In Buddhism a distinction is made between absolute reality and relative real­ity. If we look at things from the point of view of absolute reality then there is no division between subject and object, between this and that. Dualism does not apply. However, if we look at things from the point of view of rela­tive reality then there is a separation between say outer and inner, subject and object and indeed this and that.


A psychotherapy informed by Buddhist philosophy will take both of these domains into account. Nowadays much reference will be found in western psychotherapeutic literature to circular versus linear causality which recog­nises ‘both/and’ distinctions to be perhaps more useful than ‘either/or’ dis­tinctions.

Linear time is a Western idea and is particularly evident in the Judeao/Christian framework where Creation occurred by the hand of God at a par­ticular time in history and will progress in a linear fashion until the end-time to be determined also by God.


Perhaps to many, Buddhism appears to have a lot of inherent contradictions. How, we ask ourselves, can a Buddhist perspective reveal that there are experiences of God, yet there is no God? How can we have an individual self and yet not have an individual self? Undoubtedly we have to go beyond linear thinking to begin to fathom these supposed ambiguities!


If we work from the Western framework of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy, then these supposed ambiguities may have importance. Perhaps they point towards a notion that a therapist will accept the lived and told experience of the client who may give an account of their experi­ence of themselves as divided, un-whole, damaged. At the same time, the therapist may hold another frame which mirrors something to the client in relation to wholeness and un-dividedness, while not privileging one aspect over the other.

For the therapist working from this point of view the qualities of wisdom (maitri) and skillful means (karuna) are deeply important to the therapeutic endeavour. These are seen as the basis of compassion. A therapeutic relation­ship might be seen as a way of providing a mirror which may help clients (and indeed therapists) to look at different possibilities for their living.

Direct Experience

Therapists need to have explored their own contexts and domains of living and to have some compassion for themselves as they engage with clients on a mutual journey. Thus they will have a direct experience of the many diffi­culties encountered in the notion of personal change and stability.

There is also a strong emphasis on awareness of the many ways in which the client and therapist may be communicating with each other. It could be said that the practice of meditation is very helpful to the therapist.


From the relative point of view, Buddhism recognises all belief systems and has great respect for other traditions. Equally, a therapist will respect the belief and value systems of a client, and will understand that these are deeply based within the cultural and social context of the person.

In the same way it is possible to use many of the elements of expression that a person might find useful in the therapeutic work. This may for exam­ple involve Sound, Art Work, Colour, Bodywork, Imagery, Writing or Ritual as agreed to be appropriate to each situation. Because the therapist respects the client, it does not hold that the value systems of client and therapist must be the same. The therapist does not have to only see things from the client’s viewpoint but may hopefully bring other perspectives to bear which may be useful to the client in their work.

It might be necessary to be cautious about making claims as to what happens to people in therapy. Perhaps it is best left to both client and thera­pist to say what the mutual endeavour has been about for each!

The Zen Teacher

The Zen Teacher hates the horse
But the horse carries him;

At the river both depend on the boat  

For crossing the mountains
It is better to carry a stick  

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1983)


Bibliography (useful)

Claxton G. (ed.) Beyond Therapy: The Impact of Eastern Religions on Psychological Theory and Practice (1986) Wisdom Publications, London.

Flemons D., Completing Distinctions (1981) Shambala Publications, Boston & London.

Hayward, J., Shifting Worlds Changing Minds: Where the Sciences and Buddhism Meet (1987) New Sciences Library, Shambala, Boston & London.

Suzuki, S., Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (1970) Weatherhill: New York.

Tarup, A., Taming the Tiger (1993) Routledge Kegan Paul, London.

Trungpa, C. The Meeting of Buddhist and Western Psychology. Tibetan Bulletin 16 pp 10 – 15.

Trungpa, C, Meditation in Action (1967) Shambala, Boulder & London.

Trungpa, C, First Thought Best Thought (1983) Shambala, Boulder & London.

Watt A., Psychotherapy East and West (1973) Penguin: Harmondsworth.

Welwood, J (ed.) Awakening the Heart (1983) Shambala, Boulder & London.

Wilber, K., Engler, J., & Brown D., Transformations of Consciousness (1986) New Science Library, Shambala, Boston & London.

Wilber K., The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development (1980) The Theosophical Publishing House, USA.

Wilber K., No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth (1981) Shambala, Boulder & London.

Dorothy Gunne works as a Principal Psychologist in Dublin. She has trained in Constructivist and Family Therapies and has for many years been involved in developing a model of Integrative Psychotherapy which is greatly informed by Buddhist Philosophy. She is a faculty member of the Clanwilliam Institute and Para (Rokpa) Therapy Training. She is currently completing a PhD in Families and Systemic Therapies at UCD.

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