Karuna has been a student of Buddhist psychology and philosophy for over 30 years. A long time student of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, he worked for the lamas at Kopan Monastery from 1975-1988. During that time he created and taught the secular studies program for the resident Tibetan and Nepali monks. He also assisted in running the Buddhist programs for foreign visitors and was the co-founder and director of the city center in Kathmandu, Himalayan Yogic Institute. He has been on the FPMT Board of Directors since 1988.
After returning to the US in 1988 he received his MA in Clinical Psychology from JFK University in 1992. He has worked at the Children's Health Council at Stanford University and trained interns in Narrative Therapy at Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto.
Presently, he is the director of The Karuna Group, a coaching and counseling project. The Karuna Group works with individuals, couples and families as well as assists business leaders in transforming their organizations into preeminent enterprises based upon the Buddhist principles of Wisdom, Compassion, and Ethics. Karuna also teaches workshops and classes in the integration of western and Buddhist psychology.
Q and A with Karuna Cayton about his book The Misleading Mind
Q: The ideas in The Misleading Mind are rooted in Buddhism. In order to reap their benefits, do your readers need to become practicing Buddhists? Will those with no real understanding of Buddhism be able to adopt your techniques?
A: The whole mission of this book, one could say my own life mission, is to be able to communicate the profound and useful ideas of Buddhist thought for any person in any walk of life. This mission is rooted in the idea that Buddhism is a system of thought and ideas rather than a religion or dogma. Albeit, religions and dogmas have been created from Buddhist ideas but I think Buddhism is more science and philosophy than religion. So, do people have to become “practicing Buddhists” to benefit from the ideas in this book? The answer is “yes and no”. They do not have to become “Buddhists” to benefit from these ideas but they do need to practice training their mind if they want to experience a positive difference in their mental health.
Q: What are the similarities between modern psychology and Buddhism? What are the differences?
A: Well, this is a very big question. Simply, the similarities are with the intent of both seek to understand the mind and how it functions. Both propose a model of pathology or mental dis-ease. But they differ in their deeper explanation of the mind and they differ in their approach to long-term mental health. In handling short term mental and relationship issues they also differ since Buddhism, in some ways, has less concern on the short term, crisis management approach. Finally, in modern day psychology the primary mode of therapy has been talk therapy. This is presently evolving but Buddhist therapy is less concerned with talking and more concerned with training the mind primarily, but not exclusively through contemplative techniques.
I think it is useful to point out that modern psychology is much more suited to handling severe mental disorders such as psychotic disorders, severe substance abuse disorders, and most disorders where a person’s actual mental functioning is impaired. Lama Yeshe once commented to me, when advising that a particular student needed a psychiatric intervention, that Buddhism was for “healthy people”. I do not think he meant merely the “worried well” but he did indicate that one needs a certain degree of ego strength and grounding.
Also, it is striking to me that while both Buddhist and modern psychology will talk about mental disorder and disease, I have found any clear explanation of mental health extremely vague in modern psychology. Additionally, you do not find any agreed upon definition of the mind amongst modern theorists. How can you be a psychologist if you don’t know what the mind, the “psyche”, is? That’s seems kind of absurd, albeit shameful.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Buddhist therapy and psychology has been tested for over 2500 years with thousands, millions perhaps, of success stories. It was created and developed by highly accomplished practitioners. It is not the latest craze. I’m sorry to say that modern psychology is hardly even formulated, it is not a uniform system of thought, and it is in its infancy. We are doing something very, very serious here by playing with people’s minds, people’s lives. So we should approach both Buddhist and modern psychology with caution.
Q: You say that your book creates a gradual process of becoming happier, but isn’t everyone looking for a quick fix?
A: Yep. That’s the problem. This is another indication that we are in the nature of suffering. If our condition were not so intolerable, why would we need a quick fix? Quick fixes lead to quick breakdowns. They are not enduring. I understand that we need some quick relief sometimes. If we have a brain tumor we may need to take painkillers in order to just endure. But everyone would be aware that painkillers are not going to get rid of the tumor. I have to admit that I’m taking kind of the brutal approach of focusing on long-term solutions. As a result, short-term remedies like comfort and Band-Aids might not get much attention. The short-term problem just fades away anyway. But many of the techniques presented in the book can work on the short-term solution as well as the long term.
Baba Ram Dass’ (Richard Albert, one of the pioneers of LSD with Timothy Leary) said that God manifested as a pill, LSD, for the western people because they would only relate to God if he came in a quick fix.
Q: You say that it is important for us to befriend our problems. What does that mean and what does that look like?
I was quite sensitive and concerned when presenting that idea. Really, I would say that we need to befriend ourselves. Perhaps a clearer statement would be that we need to be in relationship with our problems. It’s like this: let’s say you have an unruly teenager living in your home. In fact, he is your own child. He is family. This is often similar to the problems that arise from our disturbing emotions such as anxiety, fear, irritation, and disappointment. In counseling teenagers and families I have found that the problem that exists between them is impossible to resolve if they don’t have some kind of relationship where they can talk and dialogue about the situation. So, first is to be able to build or rebuild this rapport between the parties. Then, communication begins and I have found when all the parties can begin to understand the other person’s experience and reality they can begin to create shared solutions. It works. Then, what can and does happen is the parties become “friends” or “allies” working against the problem together. This not some kind of wishful thinking. It happens.
And, likewise, we need to develop a kind of relationship with our afflictive emotions, engage with them, and learn from them. When we open up to our mind and all of its functions as a curious student, we become better and healthier. In that way, the mind helps us and it is as if we are friends.
One final point to this question. I think, in general, we are not friends with ourselves. When we notice a flaw or aspect of ourselves we do not like we often generate a kind of self-hate or self-dislike. I do not believe we should necessarily “love” our faults but we must rein in the kind of “emotional violence” we may inflict upon ourselves when our best qualities are not coming out.
Q: What impression or thought do you want to leave with people? What do you hope to change?
We can be happier than we presently are. And the key to this happiness is only within you. We have to become our own coach or therapist and that the long term solution must include an understanding of how our mind exists and how it functions. This means understanding reality: How do I exist and how does the world exist? This not just a head trip. It sounds sort of intellectual but, in fact, it is spirituality in the purest sense. At least in my opinion. That is because spirituality, for me, means accessing and opening our potential. And our inner potential is limitless. What we see and know of the world and ourselves, reality, is so limited and erroneous that it leads to a level of happiness that is extremely basic and, ultimately, not satisfying in any way. So, it is not really happiness at all. We deserve better. But it does not just fall upon us from the sky, from God, from a therapist, from Buddha or a guru. It comes from us.
Q: You say that life means suffering. How so?
Well, we have to get very clear on our terms. I don’t really think the word “suffering” is particularly an accurate synonym for what the Buddha taught. Of course, he did not teach in English. The idea of suffering has a few different levels of understanding but the easiest way to understand what is meant by the term is that we are never satisfied. We are always on a kind of seesaw of up and down. We are not in control of our own destiny. A simple example is that you may decide, “I am going to be happy today no matter what,” and yet, we don’t really have control over whether or not we can make it through a whole day being happy. Anything can happen, will happen, and we will lose our balance and joy. I doubt that most of us can make it even through a whole day. What does that say about our life? That we cannot just decide and will our way to a whole day or two of happiness, security, being problem-free, let alone a whole lifetime. This is what is meant by suffering – having no real control over our destiny, our mood, our wellbeing. However, we do have the potential to have control. We just haven’t figured out how to access this potential. Anyway, this idea of suffering is huge and I can go on and on.
Q: What is the primary cause of suffering in our lives and what can we do about it?
The primary cause of suffering is confusion. That’s all. From confusion all problems arise. What are we confused about? The way things really exist. That includes the nature of our own personal identity and the nature of how things themselves exist. Why does this matter? Well, it is like in a dream. If you are being chased by a group of thugs who want to harm you if you knew it was just a dream you would not be afraid. Or maybe a better example is the work of an illusionist like David Copperfield or David Blaine. When you know it’s just a trick you don’t worry that the actual Statute of Liberty has disappeared! So, things happen as problems because we see things existing differently than they are and then, due to habit, we respond.
What we can do about this situation is slowly train the mind to see things as they are. Then our habitual reactions will slowly cease and we will respond in an authentic manner that will be uncharged with all the emotional garbage we engage in at the present time. We’ll be quite relaxed and satisfied.
Q: What would you say the most important tool in training the untrained mind is?
The correct use of contemplation. But also good study and logic, analysis or critical thinking, are essential. We cannot get far on faith alone. Also, there is much being taught as meditation and contemplation these days but how do you know whether or not the technique is useful or not? It could be harmful. That’s why we need to be critical without being cynical.
Q: You say that enthusiasm is one of the most important positive emotions to cultivate in our lives. Why?
Without enthusiasm we get so heavy, too serious and too self-conscious. The opposite of enthusiasm is probably boredom. As modern people with a conditioning of stimulation we are very prone to being entertained and thus, when not entertained we become bored. Enthusiasm seems to arise from a vision, a mission. In business when the vision wanes or is not communicated well to the rest of the people then work becomes mundane. Training our mind, while at times of course can be a bit mundane, should not be mundane or boring the majority of the time. By having a vision of our own mental health and how we can positively impact others then we will maintain an enthusiasm that is infectious to others. That alone can change the world and, enthusiasm is a positive state of mind, a positive emotion. So it is healthy.
Q: What advice would you offer to individuals who are dealing with challenging emotions like anger and rage?
You have a choice. First you really need to see that anger is destructive of everything you want from the anger in the first place. It’s toxic and poisons your own wellbeing and those around you. So, the first thing is to see that. The second thing is to know you have a choice. While it is not easy to make a choice when we see that being under the control of the destructive emotions is like being a prisoner of our own mind then it is just a logical thing to make a stand against anger, against loss of control, and begin, slowly, to make a change. In the beginning we have to maybe just shut our mouths, go outside, get away from the situation. As we become better we begin to actively just watch the mind, the anger itself arise, abide and subside. Eventually, we can even harness the anger and turn it into energy to do something constructive or even generate warmth and affection. Anger is just energy that we hook on to in a particular way. Taking the hook out allows us to just reform, reshape, transform it. I’m not very good at it myself but I’ve done it once or twice and I’m encouraged.
Q: You say that pleasure and happiness are not synonymous? Please explain.
Pleasure is a sensation, happiness is a state of mind. Pleasure is experienced through the five senses and also in the mind through thought and fantasy. We experience pleasure when we see an exquisite sunset, have a piece of chocolate, smell a jasmine flower in bloom, hear a song we love, get a Swedish massage, reflect on a warm memory or when we get high from alcohol or drugs. Pleasure, though, is extremely fleeting. Happiness, on the other hand is purely a mental state, though of course it is interdependent upon our senses. However, the way we experience happiness is still impermanent and changes just like pleasure but we can, if we practice, self induce happiness. It is not dependent upon the pleasure of the senses. Pleasure really never produces contentment in any lasting sense. Happiness is the state of contentment, satisfaction and fulfillment. People will say, “I’m satisfied after I have a pleasurable meal”. However, if we analyze that “satisfaction” it doesn’t last more than a few minutes. There is nothing wrong with pleasure as long as we don’t seek it as if it were happiness. If we don’t try and cling to the pleasure and try and extend it and possess it then pleasure really can be an enhancer of happiness.
What do you feel is the most critical factor in people adopting the tools and ideas you offer in The Misleading Mind?
Be open-minded and be willing to look at yourself. Be willing to be challenged, to learn and see happiness in a different way. At the same time, take from the book what is useful and leave the rest behind, at least for now.