In this post I like to discuss the Buddha’s Satipattana discourse (The Foundation of Mindfulness) and its relationship to Western psychotherapy as a means for coping with the problem of mans’ suffering in the midst of his daily life.
The Satipattana Sutta was the most significant discourse which the historical Buddha Gauthama delivered to his followers some 2500 years ago. It deals with meditative techniques of body and mind awareness which reveal the true nature of the body- mind organism, its relationship to its environment and how it becomes involved with suffering on the physical and mental levels, and how to eliminate this suffering.
The Buddha’s Enlightenment was centered primarily on what he called the Four Noble Truths: The Truth that suffering (mental and physical) exists; How this suffering arises and continues; That there is or can be an end to all this suffering; And the practice (the way to live, think and meditate) which leads to the complete end of suffering. Most of the meditation techniques which the Buddha taught in his day were directed at helping the individual first of all, to see his problem face to face, see the causes of it and thereby he would also see the way out of it.
The way in which the Buddha tackled this problem was through developing a systematic method of examining and experiencing the body and mind activities through directed and detached awareness. This is all detailed out in his Maha Satipattana Sutta, the Great discourse of the Setting up of mindfulness. Buddha teaches us in this discourse how to use our own body and mind as, so to speak, our own test- tube or laboratory to discover exactly what we are made of physically and mentally, what makes us tick, our relationship with the environment, and how we create our own suffering or happiness in our mind. Seeing the situation and problems face to face in one’s own direct confrontation with his mind has a much more effective and direct impact than just having someone tell you about it, because this direct confrontation and realization is gained from within and the person understands more clearly and is motivated more effectively in transforming himself.
Buddha’s deep wisdom penetrated to the very core of the mind and experienced all the mental processes which gave rise to and created the experience of the world around him. In this experience he saw that the physical body is just an aggregation of material qualities and the mind is just an aggregation of constantly changing sensations, perception, reactions and ‘I’ centered consciousness which flows like a swift-moving river. He experienced that the individual ego or the feeling of a separate ‘I’ inside somewhere was merely an elusive notion deeply ingrained in the conditioned patterns of the sub-conscious mind and that it has no concrete, independent or eternal Self-existence.
The Buddha further realized that it is through this basic delusion of ‘individual-self’ that the alienation and separation from other arises and from which attachment, greed, aversion, hatred and all the other defilements of the mind arise. As this condition grows unchecked there arise all of the other types of mental disturbances and imbalances such as psychosis, schizophrenia, depression and many others which are so prevalent in society today and which affect also the consciousness of society as a whole. The Buddha saw all of this in perspective and therefore he wanted to devise some systematic method of gradual self-discovery which would enable each person to realize face-to- face, within the depths of his own being, how all of his problem originate. To some extent this is what Western psychotherapy is trying to do. The majority of the patients of psychotherapists suffer from psychic disorientation of different sorts, ego alienation, sociological alienation and so forth.
The psychotherapist usually deals with the patient on the basis of being a separate organism who is out of line with the ‘norm of Society’. He tries to get to the source of the patient’s problems by going back in the patient’s history and trying to find something which could serve as a good guide to what has caused the patient’s problems such as incidents in childhood etc. The idea is to get the patient back into a so- called normal state of mind, but usually it is still ego centered. The psychoanalyst tries to eliminate the symptoms which the patient has and when the surface symptoms disappear, then he is thought to be cured. This seems to be the main point or difference in the way psychotherapy handles the situation and how the Buddha sought to remedy the situation.
The analyst observes and tries to figure out the patient’s problem for him according to the symptoms which the patient is exhibiting, and then gives him advice based on the relationship of his ‘individual-Self’ to his environment. This type of therapy gets the person back into a healthier, positive frame of mind about his life and society. But his method still does not tackle the real gut of the problem and that is the ego itself and the way it works itself back into similar problems or further complications. Although the person may find functioning in family and society a smoother process, he still may develop other mental problems such as attachment to things, anger, envy, jealousy, conceit and so forth which stem from deeper reaches of the subconscious.
The Buddha wanted to go to the very root of the whole problem of existence and that was even to realize that the ego as a separate entity was also a mental aberration. It is from this very root delusion/illusion that all other mental conditions and limitations arise. In this way the person no longer conceives himself as a separate individual immersed in an objectified world for his self-centered gratification, but rather he realizes that he is just part of a whole integrated, complex manifestation of different forces. He sees the way in which these forces are integrated and how they flow, their cause and effect relationship and thus he is able to get into that harmonious flow. In this way the whole problem of imbalance and suffering on all levels is gradually once and forever solved. This is, in brief, a look at the general scheme of the situation facing man in the Buddhist conception of man’s predicament. We see how the Buddha went about to find the real end to the problem of suffering, by a system of self-discovery and self-psychotherapy to go to the very root of the whole problem and to bring about total reorientation and harmony in life, based on ‘Reality’. We can also see that the methods of psychotherapists are well and good insofar as they help the individual regain standard reorientation and balance in regard to functioning in society according to the established norm of that region. But the Buddha went a little further to integrate man’s consciousness into the flow of reality, so that no possibility of further complications could arise. It is with the guidance of the Satipattana Sutta and our own skillful awareness that we can completely harmonize our mind with ‘Reality’ and transcend all suffering.
May all beings be well & happy and attain the fruits of Nibbana.