Jumping out of his car in front of the monastery, a Thai man in a white doctor’s coat shouted frantically, “Jao Wat u tee ny!” (Where is the abbot?) He was panting in distress, and to me it looked like he was having a panic attack. “Duen mak!” (It’s urgent!) I immediately led him to the abbot, Ajahn Anan, a renowned meditation master, psychic and healer.
In Thailand, I was a Western woman living in the monastery and training in meditation. In Berkeley, California, I am a social psychologist in private practice. Those seeking counsel in Thailand are the same as those in Berkeley: rich and poor, young and old, male and female. The same issues prevail: relationships, illness, financial insecurities. But in monastic-style therapy there are no fees, private offices, appointments, confidentiality agreements or possibilities of litigation. There’s not even a comfortable chair or couch to sit on.
To most Thais, the word psychologist has no meaning. And psychiatrists are only for kon ba (crazy people). While Westerners generally seek help from “ordinary beings” still in the grip of greed, hatred and delusion, Thais typically turn to “Noble Beings” who are either fully enlightened (arahants) or well on their way. Wisdom and compassion—and one’s ability to transmit them—are measured according to the Four Stages of Enlightenment, not by academic degrees or years of counseling experience.
The agitated doctor bowed three times to Ajahn Anan and spoke with his hands in anjali, a gesture of respect. “Me seang dang gong you kangnai.” (There are voices screaming inside me.) “They don’t stop.” I had been in Thailand long enough to know that my Western assessment of the man’s plight—a psychotic episode—was irrelevant in this context. Ajahn Anan casually offered his diagnosis and treatment: “Kilesas. Lai man ork pai.” (Defilements. Kick them out.) “Meditate,” he told the man. “Do morning and evening chanting every day, listen to Dhamma, retake the precepts, and make offerings to the Sangha. I will send you metta.”
A week later, the doctor returned to the monastery. I asked how he was doing. “Dee mak, mai me banha!” (Very good, no problems!) Ajahn Anan’s prescription seemed to be working. Each time I saw the man after that, he looked happy and at ease.
Unlike Western treatment plans such as separating from parents or learning assertiveness skills, the remedies suggested by the Thai masters focused on active commitment to generosity and virtue. Over the eighteen months I lived in Thai monasteries, witnessing many transformations such as the doctor’s, my initial skepticism vanished and my faith soared. I could see that seeking advice from meditation masters required courage. You had to be prepared to hear their diagnosis and then engage in active treatment straight away.
A socially prominent woman, adept at meditation, was practicing at Ajahn Anan’s monastery. According to the ajahn, this woman’s haughty and arrogant manner was interfering with her progress. His prescription? “Lang puen.” (Wash the floor.) And she did. Every afternoon, she got down on her hands and knees and mopped, scrubbed and wiped. The teacher told her, “The higher you want to go, the more humble you must be.”
In the West, people with narcissistic tendencies are a challenge to help. They tend to be particularly sensitive and to dislike confrontation. It’s hard to imagine many, if any, therapists taking Ajahn Anan’s approach for fear of losing the client’s trust—or being sued for malpractice. After all, washing floors is not exactly a standard or research-based treatment plan. Yet in Thailand the wisdom of the masters is so respected that it isn’t challenged.
Other than Twelve-Step programs, treatment plans in the West rarely focus on engaging in wholesome and humble actions such as washing floors or taking the precepts. More often, Western approaches focus on exploring one’s personal history. Westerners may feel overpowered and victimized by their families or by childhood traumas, whereas Thais rarely complain of perceived injustices, seeing their suffering more in terms of the law of karma. Telling and retelling one’s personal story just doesn’t happen. Samsara, the cycle of existence, is an unsatisfying realm, so why review the past details of one’s own version?
Instead, future happiness or suffering depends on one’s current actions, which means that taking personal responsibility is a given. Advice always centers on ways to lift oneself out of the cycle of suffering. Ajahn Anan’s prescription for the doctor was typical: meditate, chant, make offerings, keep the precepts and cultivate wholesomeness. If you do this, your problems will diminish and eventually disappear.
Another renowned bodhisattva, Luang Por Ophat, chewed on betel nut, spat into the nearby spittoon, and looked directly at my husband, Peter. “Your mind is scattered. You need to focus more,” he said. Peter hadn’t even asked for advice. An uninitiated prescription from a master might be welcomed by most Thais, but to Westerners it might feel intrusive. To the contrary, my husband later recalled:
This was an event in my life. Luang Por Ophat provided an agenda for me to work on, which I took very seriously. Since then, I practice up to an hour and a half per day. Thinking back, I have less respect now for the therapists who have tried to help me accept who I am in this world. Luang Por Ophat was trying to help me change to be fit for a better world.
A woman in her late seventies drove her motorbike directly to Ajahn Anan’s kuti (cabin). I recognized her as one of the many devoted lay disciples who rely on the ajahn for his boundless wisdom and kindness. Her helmet at her side, she explained that her son was a gambler and a ladies’ man. Having loaned all of her savings to him, she was broke. “Will I ever get it back?” she asked. “Bloywang” (Let go), advised Ajahn Anan. “He’s your son. You love him. Maybe he’ll come around, but for now, let go.”
The woman looked devastated. Her eyes were wet, and her hands were shaking. Sensing her fear, Ajahn Anan asked, “Do you have enough food and medicine? Can you still live in your house?” She nodded that she did and could. “If you need anything, I will help you.”
As a social psychologist, I couldn’t imagine making such a blanket offer to anyone. Professional boundary issues aside, I am not equipped on any level to offer those services carte blanche, nor is anyone else I know. Yet I was deeply touched by Ajahn Anan’s offer. There was no doubt in my mind that he would take care of that woman until the day she died.
A destitute “codependent” senior citizen in the West (after going through bureaucratic nightmares) could probably also receive assistance. But when my elderly mother needed institutional help, I remember the heartless financial documentation required before she could receive any type of “care” at all. In addition to the offer of material help, it was clearly Ajahn Anan’s lovingkindness that helped heal his disciple’s broken heart.
In Thailand, there is a strong belief among the faithful that it’s not just Noble Beings who offer spiritual support and spread metta. Celestial beings such as devas (angels) who delight in virtue are also there to help. And Thais readily acknowledge the presence of jowcomenywin (beings we’ve hurt or harmed in this life or past lives). Thai people understand the importance of sharing merit with these beings and asking and then offering forgiveness. Otherwise, jowcomenywin can interfere with spiritual progress; experiences like bad dreams are often interpreted as the handiwork of jowcomenywin. Personally, sharing merit with these beings has helped put my life and problems in a larger context that includes invisible relationships.
My training in psychotherapy monastic-style has changed me from the inside out. I now see my work in Berkeley with clients and meditation students as very straightforward. I’m less involved with personal stories and more focused on the liberating insights that can only happen in the here and now. I am blessed to be able to bring what I learned in the East to my work in the West. Yet it seems that certain perspectives on solving life’s problems are universal. An arahant, responding to my own despair, encouraged me tenderly, “Keep going. It’s worth it.”