The mental pain which some people have to endure can be even worse than physical torment. We should consider carefully whether the spiritual techniques that we pick up are in fact designed to address disruptive mental turmoil. We wouldn’t, for instance, encourage someone to go and see a dietician if we knew that they were recovering from a broken leg and what they needed was physiotherapy.
When the Buddha taught about overcoming the Five Hindrances, I don’t think he was referring to dealing with an intensely painful memory of abuse suffered as a child; I suspect he was alluding to a rather more refined level of enquiry. So what do we do if we are overwhelmed by old pain that we unearth in our practice?
In many meditation centres there is a culture which encourages not needing anybody or anything other than a passionate commitment to the meditation technique. I remember a notice nailed to a tree at Ajahn Chah’s monastery that stated: Eat little, Sleep little, Speak little. However, I know Ajahn Chah also told overly idealistic Westerners that they should eat more. And there can definitely be times in practice when we should sleep more. And sometimes what is needed is to speak more. Desperately clinging to principles and not being able to ‘accord with conditions’ is not the way. The way is what really works. If what is needed is to speak with someone with the skills to help us make sense of our confusion, then what we should do is speak.
What I am referring to here is meditators using psychotherapy. Not so many years ago, the mention of the word ‘psychotherapy’ in the context of a Buddhist meditation centre or monastery was almost heretical. I have heard the opposite was also true: mention within some psychotherapeutic circles of Buddhist teachings on selflessness (anatta) was completely taboo.
These days it seems that both parties are a bit better informed of how different skills and practices are designed to serve different purposes. A good enough sense of self-confidence is necessary to be able to find our way around in this world, and psychotherapy can be helpful in establishing that good enough level of confidence.
But a conventional sense of confidence and happiness does not mean we will have calm and equanimity when it comes to handling strong feelings of insecurity, or, for that matter, the inevitability of our own death. That takes wisdom or a transcendent level of understanding. This is where the tools and techniques preserved within the wisdom traditions are most helpful.
This reflection by Ajahn Munindo is from the booklet, Sanity in the Midst of Uncertainty, (pdf) pp. 29-31.