Morita Therapy And The Serenity Prayer
Did you know there is a whole school of psychology that basically takes the Serenity Prayer and expands upon it? The Morita School of Japanese Psychology (and no it’s not the Wax on, Wax off method espoused by Pat Morita, although that’s a good one), teaches one that it is better to take action to change feelings, as opposed to changing ones feelings to take action. In other words – if your afraid to ask someone out on a date or for a favor, don’t think about it and analyze why you are scared – just do it. And furthermore, like the serenity prayer just accept (powerlessness) that there are some things you can’t control and others that you can.
Morita Therapy was developed by Japanese psychiatrist Shoma Morita beginning in 1919, and was influenced by the principles of Zen Buddhism. His method was initially developed as an inpatient treatment for a type of anxiety neurosis called shinkeishitsu. In the latter part of this century the applications of Morita therapy have expanded, both in Japan and North America, for use in a wider variety of clinical and educational settings and to address a greater variety of human concerns.
The Naturalness of Feelings (Arugamama)
Morita Therapy observes that feelings, even extremely challenging feelings, are quite common in the human experience. Most people in their lifetime will encounter feelings of grief, depression, and anxiety. These feelings from a Morita Therapy perspective are not in and of themselves pathological. In some cases, however, our attention becomes fixated on trying to avoid or overcome unpleasant feeling states. Our focus and energy becomes diverted to trying to “deal with our feelings” and in the process we lose our focus on the actions necessary to maintain an effective and purposeful life. Morita considered anxiety as a problem of misdirected attention; that is that feeling anxious was normal but becoming so fixated on our feelings of anxiety that it interferes with doing what needs to be done was problematic.
Such feelings are natural responses to our life circumstances and we need not try to “fix” or “change” them. Arugamama (acceptance of reality as it is) involves accepting our feelings and thoughts without trying to change them or “work through” them.
This means that if we feel depressed, we accept our feelings of depression. If we feel anxious, we accept our feelings of anxiety. Rather than direct our attention and energy to our feeling state, we instead direct our efforts toward living our life well. We set goals and take steps to accomplish what is important even as we co-exist with unpleasant feelings from time to time.
Feelings are Uncontrollable; Actions are Controllable
Many western therapeutic methods focus on trying to successfully manage or modify our feeling states. The underlying assumption is that if our feelings can be altered or reduced we will be more able to live meaningful and effective lives; that it is our feelings that hold us back.
Morita Therapy challenges this assumption at many levels. First of all we might ask if any amount of therapy would alter or diminish the feelings of anger, fear, and sadness we would be likely to experience if someone we loved was diagnosed with cancer. If this were possible would it even be desirable? Certainly some people relate more effectively to these feelings as they arise. Some people are more able to live with these circumstances and function effectively, but is this really the result of altering the quality of their feelings?
Secondly, is it accurate to assume that we must “overcome” fear to jump off the high dive at the pool, or increase our confidence before we ask someone out for a date? If it was, most of us would still be waiting to do these things.Our life experience teaches us that it is not necessary to change our feelings in order to take action. In fact, our efforts to change our feelings often make us feel even worse.Finely, our feelings, though unpleasant at times, are useful. People who find ways to alter and control feeling states; to detach themselves from the normal emotional responses to circumstances do not achieve happiness and health. Perhaps the best example of this is addiction. Many people, who are using drugs to artificially control their feeling states, find that they become so obsessed with managing their emotions that they are unable to manage their lives. Drug use makes it possible to feel “OK” while you neglect your career, your family, and your health.
Once we learn to accept our feelings we find that we can take action without changing our feeling state. Often, the action-taking leads to a change in feelings. For example, it is common to develop confidence after one has repeatedly done something with some success.
Self-centeredness and Suffering
In Western psychotherapy there are a great many labels which purport to diagnose and describe a person’s psychological functioning – depressed, obsessive, compulsive, codependent. Many of us begin to label ourselves this way, rather than investigate our own experience. If we observe our experience, we find that we have a flow of awareness which changes from moment to moment. When we become overly preoccupied with ourselves, our attention no longer flows freely, but becomes trapped in an obsessive self-focus. The more we pay attention to our symptoms (our anxiety, for example) the more we fall into this trap. When our attention is absorbed by an activity we are engaged in, we are not anxious because our attention is focused on the details of the activity. But when we try to “understand” or “fix” or “work through” feelings and issues, our self-focus is heightened and exercised. This often leads to more suffering rather than relief. How can we be released from such self-focused attention?
Ultimately, the successful student of Morita therapy learns to accept the internal fluctuations of thoughts and feelings and ground his behavior in reality and the purpose of the moment. Cure is not defined by the alleviation of discomfort or the attainment of some ideal feeling state (which is impossible) but by taking constructive action in one’s life which helps one to live a full and meaningful existence and not be ruled by one’s emotional state.
The methods used by Morita therapists vary. In Japan, there is often a period of isolated bedrest before the patient is exposed to counseling, instruction and work therapy. In the U.S., inpatient Morita therapy is generally unavailable, and most practitioners favor a counseling or educational approach, the emphasis of which is on developing healthy living skills, learning to work with our attention, and taking steps to accomplish tasks and goals. For this reason, Morita therapy is sometimes referred to as the psychology of action.
Many people, who come to the Morita School Website, come in search of a solution to a problem like depression, anxiety, substance misuse, challenging children or relationships. However, it is very common that part of what makes these things a problem is a problem of perspective. The way we look at a problem, how we describe the problem, often limits the solutions that are available to us.
There is a story about a man who had been bitten hundreds of times by dogs. One day he went in search of a solution for his problem. He had tried unsuccessfully to solve this problem on his own, so he went to the wisest people in the village to help him unravel the mystery. He asked each person the same question, “Why do dogs hate me?” Every person he asked had a different theory. One thought it might be how he acted around dogs, another thought it might be the way he smelled, and a third believed that it might be his use of eye contact. They all tested their theories in a similar way, by introducing the man to a number of dogs in controlled settings where they could observe the interaction. No matter what dog they introduced to the man, they observed nothing unusual about the interaction. One by one every expert gave the man the same answer, “I don’t know why dogs hate you, I am sorry I cannot help”. Disappointed the man went to the local tavern. He took a seat at the bar next to the town drunk. The town drunk observing the man’s long face asked him what was wrong. The man explained his dilemma, and how he might be doomed to an existence of being bitten by dogs. The drunk, not really interested in solving the problem and hoping to change the subject, asked “What do you do for a living?” The man still consumed by his worry answered without thinking, “I’m a burglar and I break into houses for a living.”
Though ridiculous in many ways, this story illustrates a common blind-spot in the way we look at problems. We often explain our problems in terms that do not bring into question our own behavior. We would prefer to change our problems by changing other people or conditions in our lives rather than changing ourselves. This may seem to work until we encounter people and conditions that we have no power to change.
This powerlessness; this total lack of control is at the root of many of our most persistent problems. In a way, we can think of all problems as one problem. That problem is not getting our way. We want to be married and we are single, we want to be single and we are married, we want to be healthy and we are sick, we want to be wealthy and we are poor, we want to be happy and we are depressed, we want the conditions of our life to conform to our wishes and we are powerless to make that happen.
The alternative to this control agenda of making conditions conform to our wishes is acceptance. Acceptance is not approval. Neither is it lying down and giving up. Acceptance is surrendering to the truth of our situation. We adjust ourselves to the truth of our circumstances rather than trying to change a situation that we are powerless to change.
In many cases the circumstance that we have defined as a “problem” is really very natural, often universal in human experience. Most people, for example, experience some level of depression or anxiety in their life. We all get sick. Every parent struggles with “challenging children”. Some percentage of the population is genetically predisposed to developing addiction, heart problems, diabetes, cancer, or schizophrenia, even if they do “all the right things”, and none of us do all of those things. If we reflect on the truth of life we can readily see how striving to get our way is an agenda that is doomed to failure. We all strive in our lives to create something that is lasting and secure, while in the back of our minds we all know that things are impermanent. Everything with form will eventually crumble and pass from existence. Change is the only constant. However, we often settle for living in an illusion of permanence and security, which seems to bring us comfort until it is shattered by the truth of life that eventually asserts itself when we become depressed, or get cancer, or encounter problems with our children. Then this delusional perspective adds to our suffering. We may feel that we have somehow failed to control that which is uncontrollable.
Another problem with this perspective of competency and control is what it does to our relationships. Because the conditions and situations that please us are assuredly different than the conditions that would please someone else, our agenda to get our way also places us in conflict with others. We often struggle to maintain the upper hand, to negotiate our wishes without regard for how this affects the people surrounding us on which we are interdependent; the people who grow our food, and make our clothes, and maintain the mechanical and social infrastructure on which our lives depend; the friends, family, and coworkers who clean up after us and care for us despite our limitations. We are frequently oblivious to or even critical of the things they do for us, because we are focused only on those aspects that do not meet our expectations. It is little wonder that many relationships are filled with conflict and dissatisfaction.
From this perspective most problems become our inability to accept life as it is and the human tendency to get trapped in the self-centered, immature, delusion that people are supposed to serve our needs rather than looking for opportunities to serve others and contribute to life.
When we can make this shift in perspective about what the problem is, our solutions also change. If I am depressed, rather than trying to rid myself of my unpleasant experience, my challenge may become how I can coexist with this experience without losing the ability to parent effectively. If I have cancer, treating it becomes only one dimension of my challenge, I must also consider the questions of how I want to live with cancer, or if necessary, how do I want to die? From this perspective I am challenged to find solutions for the problem of living fully despite the natural difficulties of human existence, rather than focusing on the unrealistic task of how to eliminate those human experiences before I start to live.
Twelve Step programs, modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous, have universally adopted the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
The courage to change the things I can
And, the wisdom to know the difference.
The broad applicability and usefulness of this prayer is revealed by this change in perspective. The first step in all of these programs is an admission of powerlessness, a surrendering of the delusion that we can control a process that experience has demonstrated that we cannot successfully control, be it drinking, drug use, gambling, or trying to make our lives conform to some ideal image we have constructed.
If we look closely and honestly at our experience we will often discover that we have been struggling to achieve a particular outcome that experience has taught us again and again is not in our control. Our first step is often to surrender that outcome, and begin to look for how we can live a life of purpose accepting that conditions may remain exactly as they are.
People are sometimes so tied to the agenda of getting their way, that they cannot imagine happiness in a life where satisfying their desire is not possible. Some people are sure to feel that their spouse must become more loving, or their children more respectful, or their finances more abundant, or their jobs more befitting of their self-image. If these things do not change they simply cannot imagine a life worth living. It is necessary to outgrow this childish and self-centered perspective, and the temper tantrums that come with it. People often commit suicide not because they want to die, but because they are unwilling to accept the terms and conditions of living. There are abundant examples of people, both famous and ordinary, who despite poverty, lack of education, illness, disability, and unfavorable conditions of all sorts have made enormously meaningful contributions to the world, and the people around them. These people are proof that the quality or importance of our lives is not based on our circumstances, but how we act in those circumstances. Within any human experience there is a gift that can benefit others. Satisfaction comes when we discover this gift and a way to share it.
We can view these sorts of everyday problems as the natural condition of living. No matter how traumatic they might feel our essential problem remains the same. How do we live a life that has meaning while adapting ourselves to the conditions that exist? We have always done this. We have always lived with limitations of wealth, ability, opportunity, health, time, and experience. When these limitations suddenly and dramatically change it is natural to grieve our loss, yet our essential challenge in life has not really changed. It is possible given our new set of conditions to accept our limitations and use the experience gained to create a life of meaning and purpose.