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A Buddhist Perspective on Pastrol Care

Amaranatho's picture

Tags Associated with article
Do not associate with evil companions;
do not seek the fellowship of the vile.
Associate with the good friends;
seek the fellowship of noble people. 1

I’m not sure how many 13-19 year olds would know the term ‘pastoral care’ or its meaning. So for those of you who don’t, it is a Christian term meaning ‘offering spiritual guidance’. Usually we only ask for help when we are in trouble or somebody we care for is in trouble. Many years ago when I was at university and not religious, I got a phone call one evening to say that a friend had taken a ‘whanger’. That was a slang term in the rock climbing scene I was involved with, to say he had taken a fall. The fall proved fatal because he died in hospital some days later. My immediate reaction was to go down to the chapel at the university to ask someone there to do a prayer for him, because I did not do that kind of thing. The point for me about pastoral care is, who do we turn to when we are in trouble? Who do we ask advice from? Who is our role model? Who do we look up to?

The Buddha placed a big emphasis on friendship among monastics, saying we should live together like milk and honey. In fact when asked, he said that having a decent friend was vital to understanding the teachings he was sharing2. In Buddhism we use the Pali word Kalayanamitta which means ‘admirable friendship’. So how do we recognise what is of value in a friendship?

Buddhism is based on discernment with wisdom, which means learning how to choose things, based on our intuitive wisdom. In a way, the golden rule of not wanting to harm anybody is a good starting place. We can test it out by asking, ‘Does this action by body, speech or mind make me feel more peaceful and more calm? Does it direct me towards wholeness and nourishment?’ If it doesn't, it's probably not a good action. That also means it's probably not a good idea to do this to somebody else.

Understanding why
Buddhism says everything starts with the mind, with a thought. So we have a thought to do something, we give it some energy (an intention), and then we get a result. The result depends on our intention. For example we might want to help somebody but our intention is actually a selfish one. This maybe so hidden from us, or our unconscious, that we actually hurt our friends. The essence of this is not believing in who we think we are, nor is it that thinking is bad or wrong. What matters is understanding why those thoughts arose. So to understand our thinking, and why thoughts arise, we need to understand our conditioning.

Our conditioning and motivation
We are conditioned by many things: politics, environment, parents, culture and society. They all have an effect on us. Conditioning may be based on very early thoughts and feelings we had as a baby, child, or even during conception and pregnancy. So sometimes we are less able to understand our feelings because they are pre-verbal (they were felt before we understood or spoke any language) and so our thoughts about these feelings get confused.

As we naturally unfold as human beings if our psycho/sexual development is stopped there can be consequences. For example if we are asked to act in an adult way when still very young, then we may act very childishly or when we become an adult feel a sense of lacking. So although your spiritual mentor may be very spiritually developed, his psycho/sexual development may be very immature and he, or she, might try to abuse you. The same can go for somebody who has not understood the spiritual realms. This could mean that they continually try and fix you, as can happen in some forms of psychotherapy. Dr Carl Jung, who did a lot of self-investigation, suggested that all priests should undergo therapy before engaging with people so that they are clear about their own motivations and hidden assumptions. 3 I totally agree with this.

Finding the balance
Friendship, whether that of a mate, a mentor, or a spiritual counsellor, is sometimes not enough to understand the complexities with which our minds get caught up, especially in areas like sexual or physical abuse or addiction. That is when we may need professional help. This is an important area in pastoral care, because if people don't have some appreciation of mental health or psycho/sexual development, it is quite easy for the wrong advice to be given.

And from the other way round if you just focus on fixing the mind and making it perfect you will, from a Buddhist perspective, miss finding peace and freedom which is not based on conditioning. So this is a balance and as I have mentioned before I am very influenced by the integrated model of Ken Wilber 4. This approach is based on looking at how we work internally, with others and with the outside world. Out of all the practises and therapies I have done, it is the practise of meditation which has been the most beneficial because, from my experience, it can observe everything from extreme fear to ecstatic happiness.

As we develop in meditation and learn to observe, listen, accept and forgive ourselves, we can start to do this with others. At the bottom of all is this is loving ourselves unconditionally. This is an attitude of acceptance we can take towards life. It's not that we have to agree when horrible things happen to us. It's just that we accept what has happened, so we can move on, rather than get stuck there. From acceptance, we can allow ourselves time to reflect on why we choose certain friends and where we can go to get good advice. So what friends do you choose and why?

1 Dhammapada 78
2 Upaddha Sutta -
3 Jung's Autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections
4 Ken Wilber