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Psychiatry and Meditation
Dr. Dhananjay Chavan

In the world today, there is much confusion, ignorance and controversy about psychiatry, meditation and the relationship between the two. Health professionals and mental health professionals are not even clear about the scope of their own field of expertise. Neither do they have a clear understanding of exactly what meditation is. It is little wonder, then, that the common man is puzzled.

Both the words "psychiatry" and "meditation" carry mystical auras. In fact, psychiatry is a very young science, barely a century old, while many meditation techniques derive from the ancient past. Nevertheless, sometimes the claim is made that meditation is not scientific. Actually, meditation is a science, a methodology practised and perfected centuries ago by the scientists of mind and matter, by the Rishis, Munis, and Buddhas. After all, what is science? Science is objective observation and analysis of data, and their application. Science seeks to know the truth. We will see later in this article how, even by modem criteria, Vipassana meditation is a perfect science.

People think of psychiatry as a science dealing with abnormal minds. But it would be more accurate if the word "behaviour" were substituted for "minds" in this definition, for, indeed, this is what psychiatry is' It is the study of abnormal behaviour. Now, to define normality is a difficult task. Normality generally means "average." Behaviour refers to vocal or physical actions, i.e., vocal or physical behaviour. In psychiatry and psychology, mental behaviour is studied only by inference after it manifests in vocal and physical actions. The aim of these sciences is to bring the behaviour of an individual closer to normal (which most of the time means average).

We might use a more modern definition of psychiatry: an application of neuroscience to the problems of particular groups of patients. Initially the scope of psychiatry was not well defined. As a result, psychiatrists were dealing mostly with minor illnesses. During the 1960s and 1970s, many psychiatrists in the West were practising psychoanalysis. Their subjects were often people with minor psychiatric problems; very rarely were they psychotic. During this period an impression was created in some quarters that psychiatry can deal with all the problems of humanity. But the reality was that psychiatry was not contributing to peace in the general society in any significant way, except for helping a small number of patients.

Reasonable psychiatrists gradually realized that the boundaries of psychiatry are not coextensive with those of all human mental activity. This realization is of immense significance, since it helps both the psychiatrist and the common man to define the scope of psychiatry. Failure on the part of the ordinary person to understand the scope of psychiatry has led to various problems. For example, at times a psychiatrist is called upon to help when the problem is not actually psychiatric, stemming from the unreasonable faith and expectation that the psychiatrist knows everything about the mind. In contrast to this LWeption of the psychiatrist's omniscience, there is the other side of the coin: a lack of M. in the whole specialty, even on the part of some health professionals, with the result that psychiatric help is not sought even when it is appropriate and beneficial.

In recent times psychiatry has emerged as a branch of medicine with more focus on major psychiatric illnesses. This has redefined the role of psychiatry as a biological science, and pychiatrists are now playing the more appropriate role of specialists treating biological disorders which are accompanied by behavioural disturbances. This certainly does not mean that the psychiatrist’s role is limited to prescribing medicine; he or she uses various other modalities of therapy as well. But more and more, psychiatrists have started restricting themselves to their proper domain: the treatment of major psychiatric disorders. These conditions are ones which psychiatrists

are better equipped and better qualified to treat. Psychiatrists are trained to deal with "abnormal" behaviour. In cases which are closer to normal (or average) behaviour, the difference in effectiveness between psychiatric treatment and other treatment modalities rapidly decreases.

The World Health Organization is constantly trying to improve its diagnostic criteria for psychiatric disorders. The new International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) is an Important step in that direction. Many efforts are currently being taken to systematically demarcate the field of psychiatry. This is to help psychiatrists concentrate on a specific sub-population, to assist researchers in seeking to find remedies for various disorders, and to protect people from improperly being labelled as psychiatric patients. However, the boundaries remain fuzzy. Even a competent psychiatrist at times finds it difficult to decide whether to try treat a particular individual, or to conclude that the person is not in need of psychiatric treatment.

Everyone suffers from various kinds of misery. When confronted with problems in business, one person might become angry very easily, while another person is inclined to sadness. In such instances, the individual may well not have a psychiatric disorder. He or she might benefit as much from the advice and support of a friend or relative as from psychiatric intervention. Even so, everyone's life is bound to have challenges, and suffering occurs again and again.

What does any person do when faced with life's problems? Every individual encounters the suffering that results when unwanted things happen, when wanted things do not happen; when one gets what one does not like, or loses what he likes. Where should one look for the solution?

Mind is the principal factor. We have to study it-probe it to its depths in order to master it-in order to solve our problems. This is precisely what the science of meditation is all about. Meditation is the science of exploring the entire phenomenon of mind and matter. Psychiatry studies mind only indirectly and only to the extent that it renders itself observable by its manifestation in vocal and physical actions. In the science of meditation, the mind is studied directly. This science has been extensively practised in India since ancient times.

It is true that all actions have their origin in the mind. But not everything that arises in the mind manifests as a vocal or physical action. Physical actions which appear to be similar might originate from quite different mental volitions. For example, a person who freezes when he sees a snake might have two entirely different reasons for this action. He may be extremely frightened; or he may be very calm and is staying immobile so as not to frighten the snake, or so as to observe the snake. Similarly, a person who gives a coin to a beggar may be giving it out of compassion; just to get rid of a nuisance; or because others are watching him and he does not want to appear to be a stingy person.

So the first problem with the psychiatric approach is that it is very difficult to derive conclusions about the mind from vocal and physical behaviour. The mind must be studied directly. Another problem results from what is known as "Cartesian dualism," the arbitrary separation of mind and matter. For a long time the specialized medical profession studied the body but excluded study of the mind. And when psychiatrists started studying the mind, in whatever manner, they ignored the body. Today the importance of a holistic approach is widely accepted. But there is neither a satisfactory method of enquiry, nor proper understanding of the interaction of mind and matter, with the result that there are many theories, but few facts. The mind-matter phenomenon is not being properly studied.

These problems are solved through the proper understanding of meditation. The term "meditation" has a variety of meanings. In English, the term is loosely used to refer to thinking about something. Dictionaries define it as "contemplation": to exercise the mind in contemplation, to focus on a subject of contemplation; to ponder, muse, or ruminate. When we refer to meditation here, we are not using the term in this pedestrian sense.

The Enlightened One, Gotama Buddha, used the word bhavana to describe practices of mental development. This word can be translated roughly as meditation. It refers to specific mental exercises, precise techniques for focusing and purifying the mind. When we use the word "meditation" here, we use it in this technical sense. Almost all Indian languages have specific words for different meditation practices because India has a rich tradition of these disciplines. Such words as dhyana, japa, traa.taka, saadhandaa, vipassanaa, (vidarshanaa), bhaavanaa, etc., refer to different kinds of mental practices. Broadly speaking, meditation is an exercise in the concentration

of mind on various objects. Since concentration of mind is the prerequisite for any task, it is a very important factor in the exploration of the mind-matter phenomenon. There are many possible objects of concentration: visual, auditory, imaginations, verbalizations, etc.

The Enlightened One gave us a wonderful object of concentration, our own natural respiration. Unlike other objects which are either external or do not have any direct relation to our mind and body, this is an object which has many advantages. It is internal, and constantly present from birth to death. It is a tangible reality, even if a gross one. It is both conscious and unconscious, intentional and unintentional. Its rhythm is so intimately connected with the mental state that any defilement arising in mind, even the slightest agitation, disturbs the rhythm of the respiration. We cannot find any other object of concentration which is so intimately connected with the mind-matter phenomenon and yet renders itself so easily to observation.

But concentration is not the goal of meditation; it is only a tool. A tool for what?

Here we encounter the third problem of the modern scientific approach, that of defining the problem itself. The four Noble Truths of suffering are very simple, logical and universal: suffering exists; it has a cause; this cause can be eradicated; there is a Path to its eradication. Yet these universal truths are not appreciated by many modern psychiatrists because psychiatry focuses more on the "why" than on the "how." This attitude of searching for meaning while ignoring fundamental mechanisms of reality serves to obscure, rather than enhance, the study of the problems of the human mind.

The Enlightened One was a true scientist, the greatest scientist of mind and matter. He not only explored the mind and matter phenomenon himself in its entirety, but he showed the way to do it so that other people could come out of their misery. He taught a method to observe how the mind works, how mind and matter interact. He taught Vipassana.


Vipassana means to see, to see in a special way, to observe inside. It is objective observation of the internal reality. It is development of insight into one's own nature. It involves no assumptions; rather, mere observation. It is a practical way of understanding our problem of suffering and solving it. In the same way as the problem is universal, the remedy also is universal. In Vipassana we learn to observe our sensations objectively. Sensations are the meeting point of the intimate mind-matter interaction. Though sensations arise in the body, they are felt by the mind. While observing the sensations, we start understanding how the mind works. Each of us becomes a scientist of mind and matter. We get direct knowledge. The Enlightened One described four fundamental processes of mind: consciousness, perception, sensations, and conditionings. No one need accept these processes intellectually; they become clear once we start experiencing the truth within.

As we learn to observe the sensations inside, it becomes experientially clear that it is towards these very sensations that we keep continuously reacting. The sensations are the basis on which the old conditionings, the patterns of reaction-craving and aversion-develop. This profound discovery was the kingpin upon which the liberation of the Enlightened One rested. It is our conditioning which makes us suffer again and again, and this conditioning can be eradicated by the practice of objective observation of the sensations. By practising Vipassana we learn not to develop new conditionings of craving and aversion towards the sensations; and as a consequence, we start to eradicate the old conditionings. The practice is a process of gradual eradication of mental defilements. Hence, it is a process of eradication of misery.

This non-sectarian scientific technique is useful in enabling one and all to live better lives, happy lives, peaceful lives. For many who undergo a ten-day Vipassana course under the supervision of a competent instructor, the course is a life-transforming experience.

The practice of exploring mind and matter at the deepest level is not easy. It requires a certain mental and physical stability. A sincere seeker who wishes to undergo the training in Vipassana meditation needs to have a minimum mental and physical health. Generally all but those with severe psychiatric problems are fit to undertake a course. (It is advisable to contact the management of the Vipassana course in advance if an applicant's mental suitability is in question.)

Vipassana is the universal remedy to the universal malady of misery. But this does not mean that psychiatry has no role to play in helping the suffering humanity. For those who are so deranged as to be incapable of taking up the delicate task of Vipassana meditation, psychiatrists have an important role to play. Psychiatrists can help in alleviating suffering of people with mental illness. Except from the small section of the population with severe psychiatric disorders, Vipassana is useful to one and all.

The scope of psychiatry is limited to a small population. Vipassana meditation is universal in scope because it encompasses all aspects of human mental activity. Psychology purports to study the entirety of human mental activity, but as we have already discussed, it is the "science of behaviour," and therefore, limited. Behaviour in this context is defined as anything a person does that can be observed in some way. The contention is that behaviour, unlike mind, thoughts or feelings, can be observed and studied. The catch here is that the observer is always an outsider, another person. Modem psychologists believe that behaviour is the only avenue through which internal mental events can be studied.

Any person who takes a ten-day course in Vipassana can easily see the fallacy in this approach of modem psychology. He knows from his own experience that internal mental events can be observed directly. Every Vipassana meditator becomes a true psychologist unto himself. And through this pure science of self-observation, he starts coming out of misery.

May more and more people walk on the Path shown by the Enlightened One. May more and more people learn to observe the reality within. May all beings be happy, may all beings be peaceful.

Sincere thanks to Phramaha Witoon Thacha for  retyping this article.


Updated: 3-6-2000

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