|Trans||Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften||16. Nr.||Mai 2006|
9.2. Buddhist Psychology: A Transcultural Bridge to Innovation and Reproduction
Jordan Silberman (University of Pennsylvania, USA)
A convergence of empirical evidence and spiritual philosophies suggests that long-term well-being improvement may be more readily achieved by transforming consciousness than by altering external events and circumstances. Approaches to improving the quality of consciousness include spiritual disciplines, Western psychological therapies, and flow activities (activities that provide challenges corresponding to skill levels such that anxiety and boredom are prevented and attention is focused entirely on the present task). These approaches to transforming consciousness may be thought of as consciousness self-control techniques (CSCT’s). Choosing a CSCT may, for many, be the first step to improving well-being. Various CSCT selection strategies have been suggested, but no suggestions are evidence-based. The lack of evidence-based approaches to CSCT selection is problematic for mental health and wellness professionals who understand the relationship between conscious self-control and well-being, who are committed to promoting well-being, and who appreciate the importance of basing recommendations on evidence. Though difficult to conduct, research suggesting which CSCT may be most effective for whom may be valuable. It may prevent individuals from investing time and energy in a CSCT that is not maximally beneficial, may motivate individuals to try a CSCT of proven efficacy, and may help health care professionals determine the most effective ways to promote well-being.
According to a convergence of scientific evidence and spiritual philosophies, consistent well-being depends more on the ability to control internal experience than on external events and circumstances(1). By no means is this a new view. It is an insight found in many cultures and religions. "The simple truth - that control of consciousness determines quality of life - has been known...for as long as human records exist" (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 20). Put differently by Neale Donald Walsch (1995), "[there are] tools with which to respond and react to events in a way which reduces--in fact, eliminates--pain, but you have not used them" (p. 105). What exactly are these tools, and which are most effective?
If well-being is affected by the ability to control consciousness, then tools for consciousness self-control may be important. These tools include religious and spiritual disciplines, psychological therapies, and flow experiences (activities that provide challenges corresponding to skill levels such that anxiety and boredom are prevented and attention is focused entirely on the present task). Sufism, psychoanalysis, and soccer can all serve as tools for control of consciousness. These tools may be thought of as consciousness self-control techniques (CSCT’s). Meister Eckhart, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, The Dalai Lama, Thomas Merton, and Neale Donald Walsch all practice and disseminate their own CSCT’s (Eckhart, 1941; Mahesh, 1967; Gyatso, 2001; Merton, 1961; Walsch, 1995).
CSCT’s of Wilber and Eckhart, for example, guide people to a consciousness state that Eckhart (1941) calls "central silence" (p. 96), and that Wilber (2001) refers to as "unity consciousness" (p. 41). While these CSCT’s share a common goal, not all CSCT’s do so. By definition, CSCT’s are not limited to practices that elicit certain states of consciousness. They include any spiritual practices, psychological therapies, or flow activities that improve the ability to control the quality of consciousness.
In No Boundary, Ken Wilber hints at the concept of CSCT’s. "There is today an incredibly vast and growing interest in all sorts of schools and techniques dealing with various aspects of consciousness. People are flocking to psychotherapy, Jungian analysis, mysticism, psychosynthesis, Zen, transactional analysis, rolfing, Hinduism, bioenergetics, psychoanalysis, yoga, and gestalt..." (p. 11). These "schools or techniques" may be thought of as CSCT’s.
Wilber goes on to point out that choosing a CSCT is difficult. He suggests that a CSCT may be chosen based on the extent to which an individual has realized the unified nature of the universe. A hierarchy of levels of unity exists, and, according to Wilber, CSCT selection should be based on an individual’s level. Wilber suggests that, for example, people who have yet to dissolve the mind/body boundary, which he considers illusory, might benefit from psychodrama, transactional analysis, or cognitive therapy. For those who are ready to transcend the final boundary and realize unity consciousness, Wilber suggests Hinduism, Esoteric Christianity, or Buddhism.
While Wilber’s CSCT selection criteria are appropriate in the context of his Transformations of Consciousness, his suggestions are inappropriate in the context of No Boundary. Transformations of Consciousness is intended for an academic audience.No Boundary, on the other hand, is intended to be a lay manual for personal growth. As the effectiveness of Wilber’s CSCT selection criteria has not been scientifically verified, Wilber should not suggest that readers put his ideas into practice. Briefly and implicitly presenting his hypotheses as such, Wilber asserts that "If [my theory of levels of consciousness] is true, it allows us to introduce a great deal of order..." (p. 12). This insignificant concession is unbalanced by the remaining text, in which Wilber presents his ideas as facts. From a scientific viewpoint, they are mere hypotheses.
When making recommendations that have the potential to substantially affect well-being, authors should clearly state the extent to which claims have been scientifically verified. Hypotheses must be presented as such so that individuals may make informed decisions. Physicians and clinical psychologists are expected to adhere to this standard at least in part because their advice may impact patients’ quality of life. Because Wilber’s suggestions also have the potential to impact quality of life, he should hold himself to the same standard.
When making suggestions regarding CSCT selection, there is very little empirical evidence on which advice may be based. This creates obstacles for mental health and wellness professionals who understand the relationship between conscious self-control and happiness, who want to promote well-being, and who appreciate the importance of basing recommendations on evidence. Research investigating the relationship between individuals’ characteristics and the effectiveness of particular CSCT’s is needed to help such professionals promote well-being as effectively as possible. Such research would not be a simple endeavor. It may require greater psychometric verification and acceptance of extant well-being scales, the creation of new well-being scales, large sample sizes, international collaborations and result verifications, a great deal of funding and time, and complex research designs. Despite these difficulties, CSCT selection research would certainly be worth the effort. Assuming that the aforementioned convergence of evidence is generally correct in its conclusions, the development of evidence-based CSCT selection guidelines may provide a major breakthrough in promoting human well-being.
As Walsch (1995) points out, we all have the tools needed to eliminate pain, we simply fail to use them (p. 105). Unfortunately, Walsch doesn’t suggest why this is the case. An important reason for CSCT underutilization may be that individuals don’t know which tool to choose. As Wilber points out, selecting a "tool" is "a very real problem for the interested layperson as well as for the professional therapist. So many conflicting schools, all aimed at understanding the very same person" (Wilber, 2001, p. 11). If an individual chooses a CSCT that is not right for him/her and does not derive benefit from it, then the person may abandon the CSCT, may be less likely to explore other CSCT’s, or may abandon CSCT’s altogether. Tenacious individuals, on the other hand, may continue to practice a CSCT that is not effective for them. These individuals waste time that may otherwise be spent engaging in a well-suited CSCT. Research suggesting that a specific CSCT is likely to be valuable for an individual may also help motivate that individual to try the recommended CSCT. Evidence suggesting which CSCT is best-suited for a given individual may thus help to reduce "CSCT dropout," may assure that individuals engage in a CSCT that is maximally beneficial, and may help motivate people to engage in a CSCT. Such evidence has the potential to increase the use and effectiveness of tools that reduce suffering and promote well-being.
© Jordan Silberman (University of Pennsylvania, USA)
(1) Empirical research and spiritual philosophies supporting this claim are numerous. They include, but are certainly not limited to, the work of Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman, 1978; Brown & Ryan, 2003; Carlson, Speca, Patel, & Goodey, 2003; Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, pp. 1-22; Csikszentmihalyi, 1999; Gelderloos, Hermans, Ahlscrom, & Jacoby, 1990 ; Gunaratana, 2003, pp. 3-4; Hjelle, 1974; Kasser, 2002, pp. 45-47; Fehr, 1977; Myers, 1992, pp. 31-46 & 105-126; Ornish, 1996, pp. 111-112; Reibel, Greeson, Brainard, & Rosenzweig, 2001; Satchidananda, 1978, pp. 8-10; Silver, 1982; Solberg, Diener, & Robinson, 2004; Suh, Diener, & Fujita, 1996; Walsch,, 1995, p. 105.
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9.2. Buddhist Psychology: A Transcultural Bridge to Innovation and Reproduction
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