Buddhist Spiritual Medicine for Mental Health Illness, Part 2: Developing Awareness and Meaning
Shi Yao Lian and Shi Yao Hai

Shi Yao Lian and Shi Yao Hai, Practitioners Buddha’s Alchemy

June 4, 2017

In our last post about Buddhist spiritual healing for mental illness, we looked at the main causes,  which are internal or external physical trauma (physical cause), and unskillful creation and use of meaning (spiritual cause). The focus of these teachings is the spiritual cause of mental illness and its remedies.

When meaning is focused on external phenomenon and outcomes, and is used to define a sense of self, it becomes unskillful meaning. In our attempts to sustain our definition of self, we develop negative feelings and interpretations towards that which is not self. These negatively focused patterns are the basis of much unhappiness. Further, unhappiness and resulting aberrant behavior are reinforced by the belief that “there is nothing I can do about it”. This is learned helplessness towards our situation and circumstances. The remedy then lies in changing the negatively focused patterns of feeling, interpretation, and behavior, and learning how to create skillful meaning.

The Watcher That is Awareness

We begin creating skillful meaning by cultivating mindfulness and awareness. Awareness allows us to recognize that all situations, circumstances, and phenomenon are impermanent and much less of a solid reality than what we had previously perceived. We focus on and remember that we are the watcher of the ebb and flow of movement of activities and happenings in our life. The watcher is always present, unchanging and unaffected. The watcher is what is real, in the sense that it does not change with viewpoints or shifting stories, or any amount of mind created drama that we inflict upon ourselves. The watcher, or that which is aware, is our true nature.

Most people do not live from awareness, which is why their meaning is unsatisfactory. When what dominates a person’s attention are the details of life’s stories or dramas, there is no consciousness in watching. When we shift our attention to the watcher and stay in watchfulness, we recognize how much conditioning influences experience. The experience of this can be perceived in different ways. Sometimes, a state of impersonal awareness can arise and the watcher seems to be separate from the experience, almost as if the watcher is watching someone else and their conditioning (or the story-teller) creating stories. It is this that brings about a realization of the illusory nature of the self-creating and being caught in stories. Once a person can start to see the creation of their own stories, they begin to see how others get caught in stories the same way. When one recognizes that how they experience life is a created phenomenon, they can become the creator. One can then consciously choose what they are creating.

The watcher is always present, unchanging and unaffected. The watcher is what is real, in the sense that it does not change with viewpoints or shifting stories, or any amount of mind created drama that we inflict upon ourselves. The watcher, or that which is aware, is our true nature.

Thinking, Feeling and Behaving – The Three Formative Vehicles

However, there is another factor to understand in order to develop the ability to consciously create reality. People have been conditioned into a mindset of getting. Getting is based upon the belief that what is in the world is going to give experiences and be the cause of happiness. What is really important is the recognition that getting is completely incompatible with creating. In order to overcome the idea of getting, one must give up wanting life to be the source of mental-emotional states and experiences. No external phenomenon can transfer a feeling or experience into a person. What we are left with then are our learned patterns of behaving, feeling and ways of thinking. The emphasis here is the patterns, or ways, that these three causes of reality or karma exist. It is not what a person thinks that will influence their world. Rather it is the way that they think that has the power of influencing. Similarly, it is the way of feeling and behaving.

When a person is working with meaning skillfully, it is preceded by the recognition that meaning is a side effect of creating, not a side effect of getting. Instead of looking for meaning, what is required is the development of skillful means. Skillful means is the basis of meaning. It is working with unencumbered awareness focused into creating with the ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving.

Developing Purposeful Thinking

Working with thinking involves changing patterns of interpretation. To do this, interpretation is abandoned and focus becomes more functionally oriented. This means giving up negative descriptors and replacing them with neutral or positive ones, no matter how difficult. This does not entail pretending that unpleasant things don’t exist. It does, however, eliminate the creation of emotional stories that reinforce egotism or mindsets of victimization. Purposeful and functional thinking replaces emotional uncontrolled reactiveness. Buddha’s teachings of mindfulness and the Four Great Efforts provide a way to overcome destructive or dysfunctional thinking patterns.

The Four Great Efforts are:

  1. Preventing negative or dysfunctional thoughts from arising.
  2. Overcoming negative or dysfunctional thinking that has arisen.
  3. Developing neutral or positive replacements that are functional and skillful.
  4. Sustaining and intensifying what has already been skillfully developed.

Feeling vs Emotions

Working with feelings involves first recognizing that feelings and emotions are not the same things. Feelings are superior to emotions. Emotions require a set of conditions which get spun into a story where ego is attacking, defending, or fixated on getting. An emotion cannot exist without an interactive story. A feeling, on the other hand, does not require self-talk or a dialogue in the head. One need only apply attention and sustain it with or without a catalyst (a focus that is already associated with a feeling state, like listening to a piece of music that gives rise to a specific feeling). It’s possible to master feeling states by remembering the feeling alone, and mentally producing it at will. This training is reflected in Buddha’s teachings of meditative absorption.

Changing Experience Through Behaviour

Working with behaving involves elimination of self-centered behavior and the structures that create senses of separation. Separation creates limits. The mental structure of limits prevents going beyond what you already know. Skillfulness in creating requires expansion into limitless possibilities. Behavior is very important because it precedes and supersedes both thinking and feelings. It is the basis for establishing superior habits. Buddha’s teachings of skillful action, skillful liberation, and skillful conduct provide a roadmap for changing behavior and thus the experience of life.

Thinking, feeling, and behavior provide the basis for creating your life. Mastery of these skills allows you to influence your life directly. Feeling states provide the basis for concentration, motivation, and energy levels. Ways of thinking create the structure for accomplishing anything. Utilizing behavior purposefully creates a foundation for meaningfulness. Learning to work with thinking, feelings, and behavior requires time and commitment to one’s own growth. Developing skillfulness in meaning is not just done for one’s own sake, but ultimately for the support of all Life.

Watch our future posts for more details about learning the path to mastering meaningfulness as a basis for spiritual mental healing.


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