Shared views of the mind
Psychologists look to Buddhism for a better understanding of mental health - and themselves
It cost Bt1,000 to attend a recent seminar on the links between modern psychology and Buddhism, yet the turnout was better than the Thai Psychological Association expected.
The enthusiasm was a pleasant surprise for association president and Chulalongkorn University psychology dean Dr Soree Pokaeo, who moderated the discussion.
Its aim, he said, was to find a practical synthesis of the two disciplines, to merge them outside of academic theory. Psychology professionals might well benefit in their work as well as their own lives, he suggested.
Whereas psychology has largely studied the abnormal mind, Soree said, Buddhism deals with the normal, and thus should be able to provide the former with useful insights.
Phra Maha Prayoon Teerawangso, head of psychology at the Buddhist Mahachulalongkornrajwittayalai University, pointed out, though, that while perfectly healthy bodies can be found, there is no such thing on earth as a perfectly healthy mind.
"Those who consider themselves normal and are unaware of their own suffering, are they not all the more abnormal?" he said. "The Buddhist study of the mind is the study of the troubled mind."
Comparing the two disciplines is by no means a contest, said Phra Maha Prayoon, adding that psychology can enable fresh assessments of Buddhist teachings that many may have taken for granted.
"The crux of the matter is how much one knows about one's own mind and how the mind works within one's own perceptual field," the monk said.
A doctor of psychology himself, Phra Kru Silawattanapirom, abbot of Wat Panyanantaram in Pathum Thani province, noted that the sutras contain "many examples to illustrate how a wrongful mind can transform into an enlightened one.
"More importantly, this can take place instantly and independently from any physical change."
The abbot retold one of the tales from the sutras - about Vaggari, who became a monk so he could admire the Lord Buddha closely, only to be harshly rebuffed, forcing him to recognise the peril of attachment.
The abbot's message was that the teacher must know his student and adjust his teaching accordingly, but the story illustrated the difficulty of linking Buddhist studies and psychotherapy. Few people would be able to distinguish the fine line between the abbot's story and his message.
Thus it falls to a handful of people, like Dr Soree, to serve as a bridge in discourses about the two disciplines.
As an example, Soree noted the correlation between psychological terms and Buddhist concepts, such as stress and grief matching dukka, or suffering.
But his main concern is in enabling psychology professionals to cope with their own suffering and help others to do so. He presented two papers: "Buddhist Counselling and Psychotherapy" and "The Buddha's Four Noble Truths (Ariyasacca) as a Conceptual Scheme for the Psychologists, Counsellors and Psychotherapists".
"I hope each of us can start doing our own first-person psychology," Soree said later, having referred in his keynote address to the science's focus on "third-person" healing.
"To be able to help others psychologically," he said, "we must be aware of our own mental health."
The Thai Psychological Association can be reached at email@example.com or (02) 612 2670, Dr Soree Pokaeo at firstname.lastname@example.org.