Until the summer of 1997, I wasn’t particularly open-minded on the subject of psychotherapy. I would meet people who were seeing a therapist and think to myself, “This isn’t for me. They’re spending too much time dwelling on the past rather than changing their karma and making causes for the future.”
Having practiced Nichiren Buddhism in the SGI, a worldwide lay Buddhist organization, together with my wife since 1969, I realized Buddhism expounds the law of cause and effect that operates in life, ranging over past, present and future existences. This causality underlies the doctrine of karma. From this viewpoint, causes formed in the past are manifested as effects in the present. Causes formed in the present will be manifested as effects in the future. Buddhism emphasizes the causes one creates and accumulates in the present because these will determine one’s future. Unfortunately, I believed that seeking the services of a therapist would be a sign of weakness rather than a meaningful cause for my future. I was also concerned about how others might react. If I were to see a therapist, I thought I would be in essence admitting to myself that Buddhism didn’t have the power to change my life or that my faith was too weak.
My many years of a consistent daily spiritual practice had enabled me to gain a large degree of control over my negative thoughts and I was much happier with myself. I had learned that if I chanted a lot, I could make my mind quiet down enough for me to function in daily life. I was also able to make and carry out strong determinations, have a warm, loving family, and build a very successful business career. Still, though I had overcome much of my unhappiness and insecurity through chanting, I was never entirely without the underlying sadness and frustration that had tugged at me since my childhood.
What I began to realize was that, through my Buddhist practice, I had finally opened up enough to begin to explore some very painful aspects of my life. In his letter “The Strategy of the Lotus Sutra,” Nichiren said, “Employ the strategy of the Lotus Sutra before any other.”
In this letter, Nichiren explained the importance of putting our faith first when facing a serious challenge. However, he didn’t say we shouldn’t seek out the appropriate medicine and guidance to heal ourselves but that we should base these activities on the enlightened inner wisdom derived from our Buddhist practice. This realization helped change my attitude about therapy. At this point, all I needed was a powerful catalyst, an event that would compel me to seek help. Soon, two traumatic occurrences pushed me right over the edge and into therapy.
Spirituality and Therapy
The first was the suicide of my good friend, Gordon, in the mid-nineties. He had been my business mentor and a source of inspiration for most of the seventies and had recently retired. His family and friends thought they knew him very well. He was always cheerful and full of great advice. It frightened me that he could be harboring such overwhelming anguish that he saw no way to continue living. Obviously, he hadn’t dealt with many of the issues in his life. I wondered if I was in danger of making the same mistake.
A few years later, my wife, Trude, lost all feeling below the waist and was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). No longer able to function as a full-time elementary school teacher was very difficult for her. Still, for the first six months, we both focused on finding the benefit of her illness including her learning how to walk again. We gained a deeper appreciation for our practice, friends and each other as well as a stronger sense of purpose. We looked at the gain but had yet to face the loss in our lives. One evening in 1998, Trude discovered me lying down almost comatose, unable to move. I had fallen into an extremely depressed state, the kind of loneliness and helplessness I had experienced as a child and teenager. I was clearly in need of help.
There have been numerous leaders in our Buddhist community over the years who have greatly encouraged and inspired me in my practice. However, it was through the additional help of a therapist, Jeanne, that I was finally able to begin the painful but rewarding process of healing myself from the effects of my childhood so that I could truly devote myself to the present. So, in the same way, Trude went to a neurologist for her illness, I went to a psychotherapist for mine.
Jeanne also had studied Buddhist philosophy and meditation for many years and so was readily able to relate to my practice. Starting with my tremendous fear of losing Trude, I began to explore other aspects of my life that I had previously been too afraid to face. This was not an easy process. I had to push myself through many tears and painful memories. I discovered that the messages I had assimilated as an abused child from an angry father and a disinterested mother had greatly influenced my opinion of myself. As an adult, many of my actions continued to reflect these childhood impressions. The behaviors that protected me as a child were no longer necessary or desirable but were still present in my life.
When I was a child, my family moved every few years to a new city. As the perpetual new student, I learned how to hide behind a wall of humor and sarcasm. This was my way of avoiding the inevitable hurt of separation. During this time I also became very depressed—a dark inner atmosphere that would haunt me for many years. We had little discourse in our family. We usually ate our frozen dinners on metal trays while watching television. My early memories of the late 50s and early 60s center on scenes on our old television of news events, Ed Sullivan and Disney’s The Wonderful World of Color. Most of my intellectual and spiritual upbringing came from books. I spent hundreds of hours reading biographies and wishing that I could just close my eyes and become someone else; someone in control of his life, able to really function in society.
This yearning and frustration stayed with me throughout my teen years as I experimented with drugs and ran away from home with my future wife. Eventually, my sadness motivated me to begin practicing Nichiren Buddhism in 1969.
What I Learned
I’ve learned that every child wants a million dollars of effective parenting from their mother and father. Unfortunately, not too many parents have that much to give. Mine could barely manage a few thousand! Eventually, Buddhism and therapy became about learning how to parent my inner self. As I romanced the Buddha in my life, I started to learn how to forgive adolescent me and rely more on enlightened me.
Over the course of several years of therapy, I came to realize that psychotherapy was an answer to my Buddhist prayers. Perhaps Nichiren could be considered a therapist! Understanding that human beings are often deluded, he often emphasized that a person must, “become the master of your mind rather than let your mind master you.”
The same lessons I was learning from Nichiren’s letters from a spiritual perspective were consistent with the realizations I was having on a more personal level through psychotherapy. Some of these were: understanding the difference between feeling obligated to do something and choosing to do something; allowing myself to enjoy life without feeling guilty about it; accepting that none of my attachments to people or things in this life will last forever; and acknowledging that it isn’t necessary to be busy, or worried or like someone else to be deserving of respect. For many years, Trude and I have chanted side by side. We like to think this has contributed to the strong love and unity in our family. We decided to chant even more to make significant progress in every aspect of our lives including extracting the most possible benefit from my therapy.
The ever-present heaviness that had plagued me has now diminished significantly, especially after recently completing two years of EMDR cognitive therapy for my childhood PTSD. There is no way to describe how wonderful this makes me feel. I continue to learn how to allow myself to feel joy without guilt and to experience pain without panic. The essence of this is being able to live in the moment—something we are taught as Buddhists but that can be very elusive.
I don’t feel that psychotherapy has in any way diminished my faith in Nichiren Buddhism. Rather, it has enhanced my practice. I am able to sit quietly and concentrate on my prayers where before I had a difficult time focusing for more than a few minutes at a time. Accepting that the emotions I’m feeling do not always reflect the truth, and that they won’t last forever, has helped me develop a more stable spiritual foundation. I am also learning new habits, new ways of thinking. My chanting has accelerated and strengthened this process. I have made significant progress in overcoming my addiction to drama and constant turmoil, an obsession with being busy, and a belief that I have to be funny for people to like me.
With my Buddhist practice as the prime point of my personal development, therapy has played an important supportive role, much as my wife challenges her illness with chanting and the help of medical professionals. I now have a much more profound appreciation and respect for anyone who takes constructive steps toward increased self-awareness and self-improvement. I also believe these actions are consistent with a Buddhist practice. The key isn’t whether something has a socially acceptable label but whether it rings true. And each of us must judge that for ourselves.
Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in the author’s book, Romancing the Buddha (3rd edition available on amazon.com).