Morita Therapy

Developed by Japanese psychiatrist Shoma Morita in the early part of the twentieth century, Morita Therapy was conditioned by the psychological propositions of Zen Buddhism. His technique at first came into existence as a treatment for a type of anxiety neurosis called ‘shinkeishitsu’. After a while the postulates of his approach have been accommodated to outpatient settings and expanded to address not only emotional well-being but to enhance the function in many aspects of day to day life. Morita Therapy, is for common mental health problems, in sharp variation to established western psycho-therapeutic approaches in teaching that undesired symptoms are natural traits of human emotion rather than something to control or get rid of.

Morita put forward that human motivating force was influenced by two oppugnant drives; a desire to live fully (self-actualize), and a desire to maintain security and contentment. He took note of these two drives being in contrast. Morita observed that the more people strive to avoid or stifle feelings of insecurity the more it disrupts their ability to function. Moreover, their attention becomes increasingly fixated on wrong efforts to escape unwanted feelings, resulting in the contradictory effect of enhancing the frequency and intensity of the very experiences they are trying to desist from.

The grail of Morita Therapy is arugamama (acceptance of life as it is). On numerous occasions, humans experience discontentment with life as it is in comparison to life as they can imagine it should be. We fall short of our own expectations, or feel exasperated with people who are not as patient, kind, or helpful as we believe they could be. The natural outcome is that we try hard to make life more like our ideal life. This might appear as a perfectly rational formula for improvement. There are however, some serious faults to this approach. One problem is that as soon as we attain a closer approximation to our ideas of perfection our mind is able to imagine how life could even be better. When we attain that, the mind sets a new aim. The result is that we live in a kind of persistent dissatisfaction with the present moment, comforted by the belief that once we fix what is wrong we will be content. However when that “future” arrives it is just one more disquieting present moment. In this way we live as if the present moment is a hindrance to where we would rather be living. Another problem is that our mind is capable of envisioning and wishing for things that have nothing to do with how life is.

It is a common presumption that the problem at the core of emotional distress is the presence of certain thoughts and feelings. Morita observed that even very unpleasant or unreasonable thoughts and feelings are quite common. He suggested that people naturally go through distressing feelings like anxiety, depression, and inadequacy. He suggested that unpleasant feelings or irrational thoughts were not the trademark of abnormal psychology. Rather it was people’s attempt to suppress or avoid such experiences which lead to problematic behavior. It is an individual’s response and relationship to thoughts and feelings that is at the interior of the problem, not the thoughts and feelings.

The techniques used by Morita therapists differ. In the traditional inpatient approach there is a period of solitary bed rest before the patient is exposed to counseling, instruction and occupational therapy. Increasingly, Morita principles are put in application in outpatient settings.

Naikan is a Japanese term which means “inside looking” or “introspection”. It is a structured method of self-reflection that helps us to look at ourselves, our relationships, and our actions from a new frame of mind. Reflecting on our lives through the lens of Naikan often reshapes long held but inaccurate beliefs about our lives. In turn this point of view will often give rise to feelings of gratitude, indebtedness, and responsibility.

Naikan is easy to learn. It is founded on three basic questions:

  • WHAT HAVE I RECEIVED?
  • WHAT HAVE I GIVEN?
  • WHAT TROUBLES AND DIFFICULTIES HAVE I CAUSED?

Used creatively these questions can shed light on the unseen aspects of our relationship to all things; on the fundamental nature of how we view our life. Ultimately Naikan is a devotion to the truth. Not the self-serving construction of what we think about ourselves, but a search for the actual events of our lives as they might be encountered by those around us. This truth, though every once in a while daunting, is also liberating.