As a psychologist, one of the forms of therapy that I’ve found very interesting, and surprisingly effective, is narrative therapy, in which one helps the client discover alternative inner-narratives that may be more functional and richer in meaning. The first step with this form of therapy is to externalize the client’s problem by giving it a name. The therapists shifts the conversation from being about why the client is depressed or anxious, to being curious about when it is that the depression or anxiety shows up, what leads up to it showing up, and how is it experienced when it’s there. The idea is to help the client stop identifying with the problem. As long as one is identified with the depression or anxiety, it is very difficult to shift things. It is amazing what a difference this change in perspective can make.
Since first learning about the practice of externalizing in narrative therapy, it occurred to me that this is also what we do in Buddhist practice, particularly insight meditation. The Buddhist scriptures are filled with lists of different factors. For example, there are the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, intentional formations, and consciousness, and there are the seven factors of enlightenment of mindfulness, investigation of states, energy, rapture, serenity, concentration, and equanimity – just to name two of many such lists. When I first started reading the early Buddhist texts, I found all these lists of factors rather dry and boring, but I’ve come to respect them as a very skilful support for externalizing experience in one’s practice on the path. The practitioner is learning to give all these things names, and then learning to know when they are there and when they are not. In the process, one learns to not identify a self with any of this.
When it comes to the externalizing of problems, probably the most relevant list is the five hindrances. Traditionally, these are sensual desire, ill-will, sloth or torpor, worry and remorse, and doubt. These represent the main factors that impede one’s practice, and I believe that externalizing them is the key to working through them, and freeing oneself from them. When we are meditating, and difficulties like sleepiness, or monkey-mind show up, we will be stuck as long as we are identified with them – as long as we perceive ourselves as being sleepy or scattered. When we are identified with a problem, we become completely caught up in it. Instead, it is possible to see sleepiness, or scatteredness, or aversion, as simply being something that is experienced in the present moment.
To expand on this a bit, when the mind is scattered, there is of course, a scattered quality of mind that is present, but there is also a part of the mind that knows that the scatteredness is there. When we experience sleepiness, in addition to the feeling of sleepiness, there is that which knows that there is sleepiness, and which is not itself part of the sleepiness. It is this knowing quality of present moment awareness that we need to align ourselves with. When we can do that, we no longer have the experience of being at the mercy of the hindrance. The hindrance will not necessarily disappear immediately. It may still be unpleasant, but it becomes lighter and is no longer experienced as a problem.
We are all capable of doing this as we all have this knowing quality. It is part of being human. We just need to continue our practice to become more familiar with the knowingness and with the possibility of relinquishing our identification with experience. Of course, there is really no internal or external. This is all just a skilful means – a way to see that experience is not-self, and to see the reduction in suffering that comes from knowing this.