The Ecosystem of the Soul: Dr. Shoma Morita on How to Live With Discomfort
The 100-year-old Japanese School of Morita Therapy
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The Ecosystem of the Soul: Dr. Shoma Morita on How to Live With Discomfort
Give up on yourself. Begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect, or a procrastinator, or unhealthy, or lazy, or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself. Go ahead and be the best imperfect person you can be and get started on those things you want to accomplish before you die.
In the early part of the 20th century, when Freud was consciously coupling with the unconscious mind, and Jung was creating his archetypes, Dr. Masatake (also known as Shoma) Morita, the head of psychiatry at Jikei University School of Medicine in Tokyo, was developing his psychotherapeutic methods with roots in Zen.
Dr. Morita worked with people suffering from anxiety and mind-body disorders. The name in Japanese for those who suffer from anxiety disorders was shinkeishitsu (which, like the word “neurotic,” is now outdated). A dedicated practitioner, Dr. Morita developed his therapy to address these issues with those patients.
Dr. Morita understood that we live in a paradoxical existence. We want to feel emotionally comfortable and at ease while also wanting to enjoy successful careers, deep and meaningful love, and have families and nurturing friendships.
Achieving any of the latter requires sacrificing the former. One cannot go after one's dreams without pressing up against feelings of discomfort and vulnerable emotions.
And because these sensations are so wildly unpleasant, many of us suppress or avoid the things that give rise to uncomfortable truths. It’s this dysfunctional reaction to psychological suffering that keeps us stuck in place.
To truly know ourselves and others requires the emotional discomfort of facing our insecurities, inadequacies, fears, desires, doubts, and traumas.
Dr. Morita believed that our feelings occur inside of us, but we don’t create them, and because we don’t create them, we can’t control them, and because we can’t control them, we must learn to accept them, to co-exist alongside them.
In essence, we need to learn how to live in tandem with our discomfort—to live, as Rilke said so succinctly, with the questions.
When we try to change our feelings, we thwart the natural flow of emotions. We stunt our growth each time we try to avert an uncomfortable truth. To exist means to experience the ups and downs of daily life. When we find creative ways to avoid feeling overwhelming sensations, we create tension where it shouldn’t be, making existing harder.
The Western view of psychotherapy is feelings-focused. We treat our feelings like symptoms that must be immediately soothed, fixed, or managed.
This, in turn, creates a sense that feelings and emotions are dangerous. (This misguided assessment that emotions are dangerous is a core feature of anxiety.)
The more we experience feelings as something from which we need protection, the more afraid we are of our feelings. The more we focus on the self, the more attention we give to despair and anxiety. We allow our emotions to take their natural course when we focus on action.
When we ground our attention in reality instead of our internal turmoil, we take the necessary action to move forward.
Many people can get leveled by their emotions (SOMETIMES ME) and are literally sideswiped by the gallop in their chest at the realization that they feel or know something they don’t want to feel or know. They can become incapacitated by the strength of their emotions and take to their bed (ALSO SOMETIMES ME), losing entire days, missing important deadlines, and canceling plans based entirely on their overwhelm. (UGH, FINE, OKAY, YES, SOMETIMES ME!)
In the Japanese language, arugamama means “as it is.” Suffering arises in the chasm between accepting reality as it is and wishing for it to be different.
As many of the stoics believed, having expectations is grounds for unhappiness.
When we find creative ways to avoid feeling overwhelming sensations, we create tension where it shouldn’t be, making existing harder.
After all, everything is constantly in flux, and expectation is a fixed desire for things to match your specific hope. Wishing that things turn out a certain way is just another way we avoid accepting reality as it is. We are crushed when what happens doesn’t conform to our secret hope.
We believe things should be a certain way and work hard to make reality conform to those beliefs. When they don’t match, we work hard to fix it so it does match, believing that when our expectations are met, we will be happy.
trying to bend things to our will when we would save so much time—and be happier and better off—simply accepting reality.
It’s a very Western notion to believe that the emotions that hurt are destructive for us and that any discomfort must be eliminated if we are to function and thrive. Morita Therapy believes we have it backward.
When we avoid the truth because it feels terrible and live in the fantastical realm of expectation because we can’t face reality, we grow estranged from ourselves and the world. We create a model of existence that keeps us stuck and prevents us from growing.
Morita Therapy posits that our feelings and emotions are our soul’s ecosystem and natural state and that we must live in congruence with our nature and not try to outrun it. We don’t try to alter the sky so it won’t rain; we don’t try to empty the ocean so there are no vicious waves.
Therefore, we shouldn’t try to fix the thoughts and feelings that alert us to some internal discomfort. Our emotions are not the problem; the problem is how we behave and relate to our emotions.
There are three rules of Morita Therapy:
Accept your feelings. Let them live inside you without trying to change, fix, or avoid them.
Know your purpose. Instead of controlling your emotions, ask yourself, "What needs doing now?"
Do what needs doing. Co-exist with the emotion as you take the action, trusting that you’ll learn from doing.
The focus of much of Western therapy is on feeling better.
We emphasize the outcome, and when we feel better, we consider that an achievement—we call this growth.
In Morita Therapy, success is not measured by outcome but by the ability to co-exist with our suffering while doing what needs to be done in our lives.
In Somatic Therapy, people are taught to “observe but don’t become” their emotions, which I find incredibly helpful. In Morita Therapy, the idea is similar.
Feel the emotion, but do not take actions dictated by the emotion; rather, take actions dictated by what needs to be done in your life. Instead of crawling into bed and forsaking your evening plans because you are deeply sad–be deeply sad and keep your plans.
Don’t allow your emotions to deprive you of doing the things that fill your life with meaning.
We can’t cope with our feelings when they overtake us, and we can’t cope with our feelings when we avoid them.
We don’t need to eliminate or conquer our fear or anxiety to do what is necessary.
We don’t want to do our laundry, but we have no clean clothes, so we do our laundry.
We co-exist with the feeling of not wanting while taking the action that needs doing. Actions are controllable; emotions are not.
When we focus on taking the right actions, we can notice that the actions will often shift how we feel.
Original image of Dr. Morita drawn by Edwina White
Dr. Morita insisted that we accept the temporary comings and goings of emotional sensation and weight AND not avoid reality by trying to alleviate our suffering so that we can then go and face reality.
Reality is the experience of uncomfortable emotion; it is not the absence of it. After all, we can never live in a state of constant absence of feeling, so there is no point in trying to change what or how you feel. Instead, we should learn how to live with and alongside the pain while doing what needs to be done for our lives to move forward and have meaning.
A person should not be ruled by their emotional state.
Life should be purpose-driven, not emotion-driven, and the way to do that is by building character.
Dr. Morita defined character as one who is purpose-centered and not feeling-centered. Feeling-centered people often make decisions driven by their self-interested desire to feel better.
Human beings are forever feeling things, and knowing what you feel without changing it or pushing it away gives you the necessary information to take the necessary action.
Feelings should never be discounted but should not always influence a person's actions.
When one is busy coping with the symptoms of feeling bad, they put the constructive parts of their life on hold.
You don’t have to like something to accept it, but you cannot practice Morita Therapy without coming to peace with things as they are.
Did this resonate with you? You’ll find similar wisdom and insight in the Little Panic Workshop, which takes you deeper into what gives rise to anxiety.
What do you think of all this? I’m so curious to hear your thoughts. Let me know in the comments!
Until next week, I am…
I am not a therapist or a medical professional. I’m simply a fellow sufferer who has climbed her way out and wants to share everything that helped make that happen.
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