Physical Therapy for the Mind

อาจารย์ กรุณาธัมโม

Physical Therapy for the Mind

(From a talk recorded in July 2013)
Recently I’ve made visits to a physical therapist because I have some ongoing muscle issues that have plagued me for the last twenty years. Often this type of situation originates with a small abnormality that causes pain, and many people will subconsciously allow the body to adjust to it or slump in a certain way to relieve that pain.

Although this gives temporary relief, it turns out that people have adjusted their posture in a way that ends up perpetuating the problem. Then they adjust a small amount more to relieve more pain when it returns and, not too long after, they find themselves misaligned. All of the small adjustments they’ve made while seeking temporary relief simply do not take care of the condition. They’re left with a posture that is unbalanced, and it places additional stress on the bones, muscles, and connective tissues that are responsible for good alignment.

The only way to correct the condition is to incorporate appropriate physical therapy and exercise to address all of the changes that have taken place over the years. The body is so accustomed to coping with the condition in a particular manner that they have to unlearn those coping strategies and go through some conscious discomfort to begin achieving the goal of long-term healing.

I thought about this in line with how the mind works, the way we usually buy into our moods, both the positive and the negative ones. We find ourselves swinging back and forth in a yo-yo-like manner, being drawn to and believing in the salvation of our positive moods and then, when they fade, reacting quite aversively to the negative ones. We can end up getting lost in the entire process.

Each time we respond by moving toward an enjoyable mood or away from a disagreeable one, we’re seeking a temporary solution to a long-term problem. The solution is having a sense of equanimity so that we are not constantly buying into and reacting to these different moods that pass through the mind.

This is similar to the way habits develop in the body. In the mind, an event happens. It triggers a perception—a habitual way of looking at an experience. That reminds us of something similar in the past, and we react in the same way through either aversion or attraction. Something can be unpleasant— a difficult situation that causes discomfort, unpleasantness, or aversion, and if we react to it automatically based on a past perception, it then reinforces the tendency to buy into old ways of reacting negatively.

On the other hand, if it’s something we are desirous of or excited about, that reinforces the tendency to go for it. Over time, we develop specific temporary coping strategies and react automatically in certain ways. We say, do, or think something, or we may internalize the experience with anger, blame, self-criticism, greed, fear, or confusion. Every time these coping strategies arise, they reinforce the original pattern that began the process in the first place. They seem to give some temporary relief for a period of time, but in the long run, they simply don’t do the trick to relieve us of long-term suffering and pain.

Before those automatic responses come into play, we can spend time at the level of perception and feeling, using mindfulness and clear comprehension to observe the response as it is occurring. We do this by allowing ourselves to experience the discomfort of an unskillful habit as we get to know and examine our reactions. This helps us refrain from automatically repeating the same old pattern. It also gives us time to respond with more wisdom and skillfulness based on having seen and understood the reaction clearly.

As with physical therapy for the body, we can unlearn habits that have caused long-term unwholesome reactions in the mind. We just need to be willing to pause and observe the space around our uncomfortable experiences.

This reflection by Ajahn Karunadhammo is from the book, Beginning Our Day, Volume One, (ABM pdf) pp. 67-69.