Mindfulness and Psychotherapy :Behavioral Buddha – It has been said that the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, born 2500 years ago in northern India was the first psychologist. So the story goes that he was born a prince in a wealthy province and led a pampered and sheltered existence. However, upon finally becoming exposed to suffering as a young man, he began his quest to explore and understand the nature and origins of suffering. Leaving his wife and children he became a renuciant and “saddhu”, wandering and meditating in the forests, studying with Hindu teachers. He experimented with extreme self denial and indulgence, but found neither promoted his inner journey. He thus adopted the “middle way” of neither indulgence nor self mortification. It is said that after meditating under a bodhi tree for six years he realized his enlightenment and became known as the Buddha or the awakened one.
After his enlightenment he somewhat reluctantly began to teach what he had learned. He outlined the “four noble truths” which laid out an understanding of the nature of suffering, its origins, and a path to break the cycle of suffering. The first noble truth is that in life, there is suffering “dukkha”, also translated as unease, discontent, unhappiness. Even in the course of joy, we suffer since we know that pleasure is fleeting. I can clearly recall an experience that exemplifies this. When I was about 18 I attended a Led Zeppelin concert in The Madison Garden in NYC. It was the very concert where the film “The Song Remains the Same” was derived. So here was arguably one of the greatest rock bands, at the absolute peak of their creative ability. I was in heaven. But about half way through the concert, I already was aware that the show will soon end and that such a moment could never recur. And thus in the midst of ecstasy, I was struck by the pain of impermanence. The second noble truth is that the cause of suffering is desire and attachment (tanha). And so it our ceaseless grasping and yearning that causes so much suffering.
In my book, I present what I believe to be a critical paradox. Much of what we desire is an end to emotional pain that we face on a fairly regular basis. Especially in western culture, we go to great lengths to control our pain. We avoid pain through a huge array of overt (behavioral) and covert (cognitive) avoidance mechanisms. So for example one might eat to avoid (control) boredom, text our friends to avoid feelings of loneliness and alienation, work long hours to avoid feelings of meaninglessness, hang on to unsatisfying or toxic relationships to avoid fears of loneliness and abandonment, or do drugs to diminish anxiety and emptiness. So much of what we do is born out of a desire to mitigate emotional pain. However, it is our very avoidance and control behaviors that create and maintain suffering. And so the wheel keeps spinning. We experience pain which produces more control mechanisms which increases suffering and so on.
So, what is the way out of this seemingly endless spiral? Stay tuned….