MoritaTherapy was developed by Japanese psychiatrist Shoma Morita beginning in 1919, and was influenced by the principles of Zen Buddhism. His method was initially developed as an inpatient treatment for a type of anxiety neurosis called shinkeishitsu. In the latter part of this century the applications of Morita therapy have expanded, both in Japan and North America, for use in a wider variety of clinical and educational settings and to address a greater variety of human concerns.
A recent trend towards more empirically supported therapeutic approaches has given rise to what has been referred to as third wave, acceptance-based, or mindfulness-based behavioral approaches. Approaches like Dialectic Behavioral Therapy, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy are now the vanguard of “evidence-based” psychological interventions. There are striking similarities between these approaches, especially Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Morita Therapy. This empirical work has begun to provide strong evidence in support of the basic assumptions of Morita Therapy.
The Naturalness of Feelings (Arugamama)
Morita Therapy observes that feelings, even extremely challenging feelings, are quite common in the human experience. Most people in their lifetime will encounter feelings of grief, depression, and anxiety. These feelings from a Morita Therapy perspective are not in and of themselves pathological. In some cases, however, our attention becomes fixated on trying to avoid or overcome unpleasant feeling states. Our focus and energy becomes diverted to trying to “deal with our feelings” and in the process we lose our focus on the actions necessary to maintain an effective and purposeful life. Morita considered anxiety as a problem of misdirected attention; that is that feeling anxious was normal but becoming so fixated on our feelings of anxiety that it interferes with doing what needs to be done was problematic.
If I am giving a public speech, or getting married, it would not be unusual for me to feel anxious. This is not pathological. If, however, in my attempt to avoid my anxiety I do not write the speech or do not show up for my wedding, these actions have consequences. Such attempts to “manage my feelings” do not in the end result in improved mental health. In fact avoiding my feelings is simply practice. The next time similar feelings arise I am more likely to respond in the same maladaptive way.
Such feelings are natural responses to our life circumstances and we need not try to "fix" or "change" them. Arugamama (acceptance of reality as it is) involves accepting our feelings and thoughts without trying to change them or "work through" them.
This means that if we feel depressed, we accept our feelings of depression. If we feel anxious, we accept our feelings of anxiety. Rather than direct our attention and energy to our feeling state, we instead direct our efforts toward living our life well. We set goals and take steps to accomplish what is important even as we co-exist with unpleasant feelings from time to time.
Feelings are Uncontrollable; Actions are Controllable
Many western therapeutic methods focus on trying to successfully manage or modify our feeling states. The underlying assumption is that if our feelings can be altered or reduced we will be more able to live meaningful and effective lives; that it is our feelings that hold us back.
Morita Therapy challenges this assumption at many levels. First of all we might ask if any amount of therapy would alter or diminish the feelings of anger, fear, and sadness we would be likely to experience if someone we loved was diagnosed with cancer. If this were possible would it even be desirable? Certainly some people relate more effectively to these feelings as they arise. Some people aremore able to live with these circumstances and function effectively, but is this really the result of altering the quality of their feelings?
Secondly, is it accurate to assume that we must "overcome" fear to jump off the high dive at the pool, or increase our confidence before we ask someone out for a date? If it was, most of us would still be waiting to do these things. Our life experience teaches us that it is not necessary to change our feelings in order to take action. In fact, our efforts to change our feelings often make us feel even worse.
Finely, our feelings, though unpleasant at times, are useful. People who find ways to alter and control feeling states; to detach themselves from the normal emotional responses to circumstances do not achieve happiness and health. Perhaps the best example of this is addiction. Many people, who are using drugs to artificially control their feeling states, find that they become so obsessed with managing their emotions that they are unable to manage their lives. Drug use makes it possible to feel “OK” while you neglect your career, your family, and your health.
Once we learn to accept our feelings we find that we can take action without changing our feeling state. Often, the action-taking leads to a change in feelings. For example, it is common to develop confidence after one has repeatedly done something with some success.
Self-centeredness and Suffering
In Western psychotherapy there are a great many labels which purport to diagnose and describe a person's psychological functioning - depressed, obsessive, compulsive, codependent. Many of us begin to label ourselves this way, rather than investigate our own experience. If we observe our experience, we find that we have a flow of awareness which changes from moment to moment. When we become overly preoccupied with ourselves, our attention no longer flows freely, but becomes trapped in an obsessive self-focus. The more we pay attention to our symptoms (our anxiety, for example) the more we fall into this trap. When our attention is absorbed by an activity we are engaged in, we are not anxious because our attention is focused on the details of the activity. But when we try to "understand" or "fix" or "work through" feelings and issues, our self-focus is heightened and exercised. This often leads to more suffering rather than relief. How can we be released from such self-focused attention?
Ultimately, the successful student of Morita therapy learns to accept the internal fluctuations of thoughts and feelings and ground his behavior in reality and the purpose of the moment. Cure is not defined by the alleviation of discomfort or the attainment of some ideal feeling state (which is impossible) but by taking constructive action in one's life which helps one to live a full and meaningful existence and not be ruled by one's emotional state.
The methods used by Morita therapists vary. In Japan, there is often a period of isolated bedrest before the patient is exposed to counseling, instruction and work therapy. In the U.S., inpatient Morita therapy is generally unavailable, and most practitioners favor a counseling or educational approach, the emphasis of which is on developing healthy living skills, learning to work with our attention, and taking steps to accomplish tasks and goals. For this reason, Morita therapy is sometimes referred to as the psychology of action.