Every Thursday afternoon, about a dozen men convene in a makeshift meditation hall at a correctional institution near Daytona Beach. Beneath too-bright fluorescent lights and separated only by sliding vinyl walls from chatting chapel clerks and Jehovah's Witnesses, the Buddhist inmates and I meditate for 20 or 30 minutes and discuss ways the dharma can help them cope with the realities of their lives.
During one session, a recovering drug addict doing time for offenses ranging from burglary to resisting arrest with violence asks me an interesting question. He has been practicing Buddhism for about five years; he is also in a recovery program that incorporates Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). He wonders: Can he incorporate REBT into his Buddhist practice? And could his Buddhist practice enhance his understanding of REBT?
The answer, I told him, is yes.
Albert Ellis, who introduced REBT in 1955, suggested therapists and their patients employ a simple but effective method, the "ABCs of REBT," to determine which cognitions create stress and suffering and then work to get rid of them. Similarly, the Buddha's concept of Right Effort encourages the practitioner to examine the mind and determine if there are harmful or helpful mental states present, and then to abandon the harmful ones and cultivate the helpful ones. The two approaches easily go hand-in-hand, and REBT can bring sometimes difficult Buddhist ideas down to earth.
I first became interested in the concept of Rational Buddhism more than 20 years ago when I noticed a profound congruence between REBT and Buddhism while practicing Vietnamese Zen and leading meetings of an REBT-based self-support program.
While working under the mentorship of a psychologist who had trained at the Institute for REBT in New York, I listened while a young woman who was struggling with an eating disorder and problematic drinking habits talked about her "self-esteem issues."
My mentor listened to her, and then answered compassionately, but directly: "Self-esteem is a sickness."
I had read about the Buddhist teaching of anatta-"not-self"-and more or less understood intellectually that what we see as "self" is really a changing set of processes conditional on other processes. This simple statement about the fallacy of self-esteem, however, hit me right in the gut. I realized that from this ever-changing, amorphous set of processes we create an illusion of "self," which we rate or "esteem," thus leading to very real suffering like eating disorders, alcohol dependency and other afflictions and difficulties. I felt as if someone had handed me the answer key to a book of Zen koans.
Ellis had also noticed similarities between REBT and Buddhism. When he died in 2007, he had been working on a book on the topic. He and his widow, Debbie Joffe Ellis, Ph.D., had given talks on the topic. Ellis felt therapy should aim to help people suffer less and enjoy life more, she told me, and he lauded the Buddha for recognizing that we can reduce suffering by learning better ways to use the mind.
"There were features of various schools (of Buddhism) that Al found very compatible with REBT," Joffe Ellis added. "For example, Vipassana and REBT both encourage skeptically and healthily evaluating one's thinking, and both encourage the use of reason to choose beliefs that are most life-enhancing."
Today, I encourage the inmates in my prison sangha, along with other dharma students, to try adding the ABCs of Rational Buddhism to their spiritual toolbox alongside traditional mindfulness and concentration practices. Often, they learn that rational analysis of their views and intentions helps them alleviate anger, depression, anxiety and other emotional and behavioral difficulties.
In the coming posts, I'll be looking at ways Ellis' ABCs can help Buddhist practitioners transcend their self-defeating mental processes. At the same time, I hope to share ideas about how the Buddhist Eightfold Path and its cultivation of wisdom, compassion and serenity can enhance the practice of rationality and lead to happier, more enlightened living.