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Lions Roar : July 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2008 44 life, lying on his deathbed, vulnerable, open, with noth- ing to hide. Or we can simply see him as a fellow way- farer, struggling with his burdens, wanting happiness and dignity. Beneath the fears and needs, the aggression and pain, whoever we encounter is a being who, like us, has the tremendous potential for understanding and compassion, whose goodness is there to be touched. We can perhaps most easily admire the human spirit when it shines in the world’s great moral leaders. We see an unshakable compassion in the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains steadfast and loving in spite of her long years of house arrest in Burma. We remember how former South African president Nelson Mandela walked out of prison with a gracious spirit of courage and dignity that was unbent by twenty-seven years of torture and hardship. But the same spirit also beams from healthy children every- where. Their joy and natural beauty can reawaken us to our buddhanature. They remind us that we are born with this shining spirit. So why, in Western psychology, have we been so fo- cused on the dark side of human nature? Even before Freud, Western psychology was based on a medical model, and it still focuses primarily on pathology. The psychiatric profession’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which orients the work of most ther- apists, clinics, and health care providers, is a comprehen- sive listing of hundreds of psychological problems and diseases. Categorizing problems helps us study them and then, it is hoped, cure them in the most scientific and economically efficient way. But often we give so much attention to our protective layers of fear, depression, con- fusion, and aggression that we forget who we really are. As a teacher, I see this all the time. When a middle- aged man named Marty came to see me after a year of painful separation and divorce, he was caught in the re- petitive cycles of unworthiness and shame that he had carried since childhood. He believed there was some- thing terribly wrong with him. He had forgotten his original goodness. When a young woman, Jan, came to Buddhist practice after a long struggle with anxiety and depression, she had a hard time letting go of her self-image as a broken and damaged person. For years she had seen herself only through her diagnosis and the various medications that had failed to control it. As psychology becomes more pharmacologically oriented, this medical model is reinforced. Today, most of the millions of adults seeking mental health support are quickly put on medication. Even more troubling, hundreds of thousands of children are being prescribed powerful psychiatric drugs for conditions ranging from ADHD to the newly popular diagnosis of childhood bipolar disorder. While these medications may be ap- propriate, even lifesaving, in some cases laypeople and professionals increasingly look for a pill as the answer to human confusion and suffering. It need not be so. INNER FREEDOM: LIBERATION OF THE HEART If we do not focus on human limits and pathology, what is the alternative? It is the belief that human free- dom is possible under any circumstances. Buddhist teachings put it this way: “Just as the great oceans have but one taste, the taste of salt, so do all of the teachings of Buddha have but one taste, the taste of liberation.” Psychologist Viktor Frankl was the sole member of his family to survive the Nazi death camps. Nev- ertheless, in spite of this suffering, he found a path to healing. Frankl wrote, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” When we are lost in our worst crises and conflicts, in the deepest states of fear and confusion, our pain can seem endless. We can feel as if there is no exit, no hope. Yet some hidden wisdom longs for freedom. “If it were not possible to free the heart from entangle- ment in unhealthy states,” says the Buddha, “I would not teach you to do so. But just because it is possible to DAMONBILLIAN JULY 40-45.indd 44 JULY 40-45.indd 44 4/25/08 11:39:28 AM 4/25/08 11:39:28 AM