Guest article from Online Therapist Carolin Müller
All our health problems are both physical and psychological. If our body hurts, because we have an injury for example, we may also feel sad, anxious or stressed. On the other hand, when we are stressed or depressed, those feelings affect our body, which means our physical health.
The Buddhist approach to health deals both with our physical and psychological health, and it does it in both cases by means of the mind mechanisms.
Taking control of our mind
Whether in modern psychology or in Buddhist psychology, our thoughts are often considered to be at the origin of our psychological distress. Thus, learning to be aware of our thoughts and to control them, can lead to better mental health. The practice of being aware of our thoughts is called “mindfulness,” that is also often presented as the ability to be totally focused on the present moment. The practice of meditation is related to the practice of mindfulness. Meditation is about training the mind to be single-focused. The goal behind such a practice is to develop a higher awareness of the wandering mind, and hence detect the thoughts that otherwise would have occurred in the background of our awareness.
The practice of meditation and mindfulness is obviously very helpful to prevent and heal psychological health problems such as depression, anxiety, stress, etc. Thus it also contributes to the prevention of physical illnesses that are directly related to stress and anxiety for example: cardiovascular problems, psychosomatic pain, etc.
In the case of physical health illnesses, that are originally, let us say, not related to psychological problems, the same method is also of great help. If we face health problems such as a bone fracture, flu, cancer, or even just a sunburn, there is often an additional layer of suffering that we inflict to ourselves just because of our negative thoughts and worries. So again, knowing how to be aware of those thoughts and control them can help us a lot in alleviating the suffering and even help the healing process.
Shifting our focus from the self to others
Developing selflessness is a central idea in Buddhist psychology. For example, if you have a problem, think about all those who have a much bigger problem than you. If you feel lonely, think about all the other people who are also lonely. If you are depressed, think about the fact that there are people who are at that same moment much more depressed than you.
Even in the case of serious physical conditions, when you enter the hospital, it is very useful to shift your focus from your own pain and fears, to the kindness of those who are there trying to help you, and also to all the other patients who are there and who could be in more distress than you, and more threatened than you.
Shifting the focus from oneself to others can immediately reduce suffering and facilitate the healing process.
Letting go of attachment through the understanding of impermanence
More generally, Buddhist psychology puts a strong emphasis on letting go of any kind of attachment, whether it is to material exterior objects, human beings, ideas, and even one’s own body and self. This letting go has to originate from the deep understanding that everything is fundamentally impermanent. Our body is constantly changing, our mind is constantly changing, our ideas, our material possessions, our relationships, and so on.
Understanding that everything arises and vanishes is something we have to remind ourselves of every day. This practice leads to a significant decrease in stress and anxiety in life. It also helps prevent a lot of unnecessary suffering. In other words, it is a preparation for the hard events of life that we all have to face one day or another: heartbreaks, betrayals, illness, aging, loss, death…
By practicing letting go, when those events come to us, we have already expected them, and it helps us to deal with the hard times in a much more resilient way, thus preserving our health from additional afflictions.