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Is meditation the best medicine?

By Murray Hunter - posted Friday, 3 January 2014


Millions of people in 'the developed world' visit therapists for all sorts of emotional and psychological problems they find difficulty in coping with by themselves. People who visit psychiatrists are usually very quickly diagnosed with some form of psychosis and treated with a mixture of cognitive therapies and antipsychotic medications. Various health insurance schemes around the world have greatly encouraged this growing practice.

One major question that should be asked is whether the enormous growth in psychology based therapies is just a case of supply to meet a demand? And more importantly, should anxiety and alienation always be treated with psychiatric intervention, without looking at alternatives where individuals take on more self-responsibility for coping with their own emotions.

Meanwhile over the new year break, hundreds of thousands of mainly women took time to attend prayer and meditation retreats in Buddhist temples across Thailand. In a prayer hall one could hear the anticipatory silence while waiting for the monk to take his place in front of the congregation. This air of serenity would occasionally be interrupted by the ring of a mobile phone which would prompt a lady to dash out of the hall and answer a call.

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Many women in Thailand find the time off to go to a temple and live in Spartan conditions for a period of a few days to a few weeks. They hope that this will relieve the stress they build up during everyday life, so they can go return home 'fresh and recharged'. Thai women serve their children, husband, parents and parents in-law, and often pursue a career at the same time. Many find some time in the temple for prayer and meditation very beneficial.

Buddhism is the first philosophy to recognize the arising of psychosis in people. Buddhism is not a conventional religion, but rather a philosophy based on the four Noble truths and Eight-Fold Path.

The Four Noble Truths are: 1. Our delusions of self cause our suffering, 2. Suffering is a fact of life resulting from our attachment to what we desire, 3. If we extinguish our attachment, we reduce our suffering, and 4. By following the Eightfold Path and developing wisdom, we can alleviate our suffering.

The Eightfold path consists of right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, mindfulness and right concentration.

Within Buddhist philosophy, consciousness and metaphysics are combined in the concept of Pratîtyasamutpada or dependent origination. This is where reality is seen as an interdependent timeless universe of interrelated cause and effect. A human's existence is interwoven with the existence of everything else and the existence of everything else is interwoven with the human's existence in a mutually interdependent way. Because this concept is past, present and future, everything in the universe is only transient and has no real individual existence.

This is a very important concept because it is only our ability to free ourselves from attachment and delusion about our sense of self and values unconsciously placed on others, will we be able to see the world as it really is, rather than what we wish it to be. In fact our view of self and existence is created through our clinging and craving which blinds us to the reality of dependent origination, a concept describing interrelatedness. Buddhism is about transcending these delusions, and the patterns and pathways we are locked into, so human perception is clear and unbiased. According to the philosopher Alan Watts, this makes Buddhism an ethical philosophy of life, rather than a religion in strict terms.

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Suffering, which comprises desire, craving, greed, and attachment can be considered symptoms of psychosis which the retreats are focused upon eradicating.

Practice of the Eightfold Path may assist in raising consciousness to a completely non-dualistic view of subject and object and assist a person avoid further suffering.

The Abhidhamma Pitaka, the last of three parts to the Pali Cannon (the scriptures of Theravãda Buddhism) describes the structure of the human mind and perception with amazing accuracy to the accepted views of modern neuro-science today, some 2,300 years before the invention of PET and MRI, which has allowed neuroscientists to map the human mind. Siddhartha Gautama, more commonly known as the Buddha practiced modern psychology techniques more than 2,000 years before psychology as a discipline was invented.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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