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​​The Pointer of the Road

Many admirers of the Buddha, because of his understanding of human nature, have compared him to a physician who diagnoses and prescribes; a biologist, who studies, organizes and discerns genetics; an anthropologist, who anticipates the evolution of life; a psychologist, who delves into the recesses of the mind, or a psychotherapist, who brings to light emotional problems.

Although there are interpretations of the teachings of the Sage that would partially validate such similarities, there is a good dose of generous exaggeration in them. It makes more sense to raise a different issue: Are the teachings some sort of psychotherapy? A cautious answer is the affirmative. Anxiety and stress -the suffering the Buddha aims to eliminate- are dysfunctions that have existed since long before the words 'psychology' or 'psychotherapy' were coined.

The treatment the Buddha recommended for the eradication of anxiety and stress parallelizes the standard sequence in the solution of any health complication: 1) Symptoms: There is a malady that shows as anxiety and stress. (2) Diagnosis: Such evil originates in cravings and aversions. (3) Prognosis: The disease is curable. (4) Prescription: There is a procedure - a road - to eliminate the causes of the condition, which is the application of eight common sense practices, out of which mindfulness, the seventh one, is the most relevant.

Among the many streams of psychotherapy (psychoanalysis, Gestalt, hypnotherapy, group therapy ...), cognitive therapy is the closest to mindfulness. Cognitive therapy suggests that changing harmful thoughts -the cause of depression and anxiety- corrects harmful emotions and behaviors. The emphasis, however, does not focus on individual thoughts but in their patterns -the negative distortions (generalizations, disqualifications, all-or-nothing thinking...) - that are the actual cause of harmful mental states.

Mindfulness, in turn, demands the impartial and permanent monitoring of sensations and mental states, with no consideration of its nature, cause or effect. For example, the observer, without making any judgment, becomes aware of how sensations feel (pleasant, unpleasant or neutral), or whether they are subtle (almost unnoticeable) or clear. Likewise, for mental states, monitoring is exercised on the presence or absence of greed, fear or mental biases, or on whether the mind is concentrated or distracted.

Mindfulness, as a permanent  habit, and meditation, as an exercise aimed at strengthening the faculty to awareness, have such a remarkable popularity in modern life that even the severe  'Scientific American' has covered the subject from the physiological and psychological perspectives. With the American magazine’s characteristic caution, it writes in a recent issue: "Meditation has made its way into the secular world as a means of promoting calmness and overall well-being." Emphasizing the need to submit research studies to the rigors of the scientific method, the magazine acknowledges that the various practices developed by the Buda "provide new insights into methods of mind training that have the potential to enhance human health and well-being"

How do the exercise of psychotherapy and the practice of mindfulness differ? Psychotherapists themselves are an integral part of the therapy process (sometimes up to the undesirable extreme of generating patient-counselor dependency); therapists not only direct every session but they share the responsibility for results. In contrast, the outcome of mindfulness as a continued practice is the sole responsibility of the practitioner. The Buddha is categorical on this point.

On a certain occasion a disciple asked the Sage the reasons why some followers of the teachings succeeded to eliminate suffering while many others failed in their purpose. "The directions to reach the end of the path to the cessation of suffering are precise,” he replies. “Some follow them properly and complete the journey, other misinterpret them and get lost. If the map is accurate, is it the Buddha’s fault that many misread it and fail to reach the destination?" "No way", replies the disciple. "The instructions are correct and the responsibility to follow them is the traveler’s", reaffirms the Master. Then he adds to close the dialogue: "The Buddha has nothing to do if someone goes astray; the Buddha is only the pointer of the road."

Gustavo Estrada

Atalnta. April 10, 2015