Four Noble Truths
In his book ‘To Have or To Be’ Erich Fromm proposes a variation on the four noble truths taught by the Buddha. We will list them below and then discuss their relevance to the counseling process.
1. We are suffering and are aware that we are.
2. We recognize the origin of our ill-being.
3. We recognize that there is a way of overcoming our ill-being.
4. We accept that in order to overcome our ill-being we must follow certain norms for living and change our present practice of life.
(Erich Fromm, To Have or To Be, pg. 137)
These truths are a road map for effective counseling and a meaningful life. We will discuss how they fit into psychological concepts. As we have talked about in many contexts, moving from sensation to awareness is essential for any course of therapy to be effective. Awareness is the ‘aha!’ moment that clients and therapists love. What the Buddha realized, and most mental health professionals come to realize as well, is that the majority of us are not consciously aware that we are suffering. The Buddha was surrounded by opulence. He was given everything he could possibly want to satisfy his physical needs but felt a nagging sense that something was missing. He did not consciously recognize he was suffering yet his existential crisis constantly flitted at the corner of his eye.
His situation was not so different from what we experience here in the West in the 21st century. The majority of us have a higher standard of living than royalty from hundreds of years ago could have possibly imagined. All of our physical necessities are taken care of. We are provided with countless diversions to wile away our days. Many of us are blind to the aspects of our existence that make life painful. Chief among these is the looming specter of death and the existential anxiety it creates.
Most people these days go about life unaware that they are suffering. Honestly confronting their existential situations would help them live fuller, more meaningful, more connected lives. Some are clearly aware that they are suffering though. A crisis is usually what drives us to seek professional help. This fact leads us to Fromm’s second noble truth.
Freud’s greatest discovery and most lasting contribution to psychology is the existence of the unconscious. We are driven by passions, desires, drives, and motivations that we are not consciously aware of or unwilling to face. The front we present to the world is not always who we really are, and often our true motivations are much different than what we or those close to us suppose. This is why recognizing the origin of your ill-being is equally as important as recognizing that you are suffering. There is no way to treat a malady unless you know its source.
A journey of self-discovery in therapy means confronting your existential situation head on rather than only attempting to fix your symptoms. Usually, the presenting issue at a first session no longer feels relevant to a person after a few weeks or months of therapy. As the unconscious becomes conscious that which once appeared to be a driving force becomes an obvious symptom of deeper issues. You recognize the true origins of your ill-being.
This brings us to Fromm’s third truth. Recognition that we can overcome our ill-being is another way of saying hope. It is the faith that with increased awareness and knowledge about yourself a more fulfilling path can open up for you. Many feel hopeless. But countless people who have gone through the process of self-discovery and made a better life for themselves are proof that life can improve.
Fromm’s fourth noble truth, that we must accept certain norms for living and change our present practice of life, is a happy detour from classic psychoanalytic thought. Even today many therapists believe that increased awareness alone is enough to provoke change. However, we only need look at our own lives to see the fallacy in this thinking. Most of us are completely aware of areas where change would be a good thing. We know we should exercise more, eat healthier, stop smoking, leave an abusive relationship, or find a new career. Yet we do nothing. Counseling helps answer the question of why you do nothing, but it’s not enough to know why. In order to improve your life you have to change the way you live it.