Morita Therapy and Japanese Psychology for Emotionally Sensitive and Intense individuals
Morita Therapy is both a practical and deeply spiritual approach to human wellbeing. It incorporates many principles in Japanese Psychology and Eastern philosophies, offering those of us in the West a refreshing and compelling perspective to issues such as anxiety, existential anxiety and depression.
In my work with sensitive people, the biggest complaint I hear is that traditional anxiety coping strategies do not work for them. It is not in their nature to rationalise away their emotions.
When faced with stressors, sensitive people quickly become paralysed with fear and hopelessness. They may over analyse, intellectualise, or self-criticise every aspect of their thoughts and actions. They rarely feel soothed by being told there is nothing to worry about. If anything, they are likely to stress more and feel more self-conscious about our inability to function as ‘normal’.
Commonly, their friends and families would say to them ‘You must get over your feelings’, ‘You must learn to chill out’. When they fail to do so, they get labelled as being the ‘drama queen’.
Many conventional Western psychotherapy approaches, including the most popularised Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), operates on the premises that:
1. Anxiety is a negative, non-productive emotion.
2. Fear needs to be replaced by rational thinking.
Intense and sensitive individuals have limited success with these approaches. Being told that their thoughts are ‘irrational’ enhances self-blame, and the instruction to banish inner thoughts and feelings creates more tension. Besides, an over-focus on self-introspection and individualism results in isolation, self- absorption, and ego entanglement.
This is where Morita Therapy comes in with an alternative perspective.
WHAT IS MORITA THERAPY?
Morita therapy was developed by Japanese psychiatrist Shoma Morita (1874 to 1938). It is developed for a vast myriad of anxiety-related problems including Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Panic Attacks and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. This therapy works specifically for people who have a trait known as ‘shinkeishitsu;‘ they tend to have the following characteristics (Ishiyama, 2011):
2. Introspective and introverted
4. Hypersensitive to discomfort
7. High achievement oriented
8. Desires success and social approval
9. Avoidance of embarrassment and disapproval
Being aware of one’s thoughts and behaviour is necessary for personal growth. But people with the ‘shinkeishitsu’ trait can be so preoccupied with self-scrutiny that it becomes debilitating. Highly sensitive people tend to be hypercritical of themselves, and when they are stressed, they have a feeling that everyone around them is watching or judging them. Their paranoia then causes them to avoid social situations and to develop dysfunctional strategies to try and control their anxiety.
For our untrained mind, a typical response to fear, sadness, and anxiety is to push them away, in the forms of denial, avoidance, suppression. Therapies that encourage us to deem certain emotions as ‘bad’ only enhance this tendency. In contrast, Morita therapy holds that all emotions have their values. It is recommended that we accept anxiety as a natural state of being and not be excessive in our conscious efforts to control it.
Anxiety is not ‘bad’; it as a reflection of our desire to have a meaningful life. For people who experience intense emotions frequently, this is an important reminder. Instead of rejecting parts of ourselves, we can learn to befriend and integrate them, to become fuller human beings.
Eastern philosophies remind us that in life, there are both ‘yin’ and ‘yang’; we cannot have one without the other, just like there can be no light without darkness, no spring without winter.
Morita Therapy also reminds us that we do not need to wait until we feel ‘okay’ to take productive actions. We are a part of this world community, and we have an obligation to take part and to contribute. Emotionally intense people have gifts of empathy and sensitivity. They are great friends, parents, counsellors, teachers and pastors. By turning their attention from endless navel-gazing to serving the world, they are also healed from gaining an expanded perspective. The action-focused component of Morita Therapy is potent medicine for us.
Being highly sensitive and perfectionistic are not in themselves negative. Perhaps there is a price to be paid for being intense and passionate. But anxiety is not a life sentence. We can certainly work to make fear works for us and not otherwise.
In essences, Morita therapy holds the following principles;
– Nervousness and Fear Reflect Desire for Better Life – Morita therapy recommends that we accept anxiety as a natural state of being and not be excessive in our efforts to control it. Stress is a reflection of our desire to have a meaningful life.
– Don’t Try to Control Natural Emotions – Morita therapy views experiential avoidance as what causes anxiety. The effort to manage or to be rid of fear becomes the problem, whilst acceptance (not complacency) is the solution. In Morita Therapy, there is no right or wrong emotion. Any effort to suppress, deny, or give emotions a negative connotation will bind us further in a loop. The goal of therapy is for us to learn to live in the moment – experience the feeling, instead of trying to resist it. By developing the capacity to recognise and live with our natural inner states, we are better equipped to respond to life’s challenges in a naturally healthy way.
– Take Productive Actions Regardless of How We Feel – Morita Therapy does not require us to ’embrace’ our feelings to proceed with our lives. The best way to manage anxiety is to engage in activities of interest or focus on accomplishing the tasks on hand. As we do this, our thoughts will shift from self-preoccupation to meaning-making. When we have an embodied experience of being productive day-after-day, task-after-task, despite the anxiety, we begin to realise that fear can coexist with action. This liberates us from the loop of frustration and helplessness.
Although Morita Therapy was initially applied to treat anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, it is currently administered to treat a wide variety of psychological conditions, such as the following (Ogawa, 2013)
– Chronic depression
– Borderline Personality Disorder
– Chronic pain
– Alcohol and drug addictions
– Low self-esteem
– Parent-child difficulties
MORITA IS A HOLISTIC AND SPIRITUAL APPROACH
Morita Therapy is also known as ‘natural therapy’, or ‘awakening therapy’ (Ogawa, 2013) because its premise is the restoration of our alignment with what is natural. It has particular implications for spiritual seekers. As a philosophical practice, it teaches us the art of surrender, the virtue of humility and balance, as well as train our ability to live in an imperfect and ever-changing universe.
All aspects of one’s wellbeing, from social relationship to physical wellbeing, as well as spirituality, are well addressed and respected in Morita Therapy. It holds that when the psyche and the soma are naturally rebalanced, natural healing will occur. The objective of the work is not just to be rid of our symptoms but to become a fuller human.
In many Eastern philosophies, including Taoism and Buddhism, human beings are seen as a part of nature. The cycles inherent in life is diligently observed and respected. As with Japanese spirituality, Morita Therapy holds that the goal of healing is to harmonise one’s energy in accordance with nature. When someone is afflicted with anxiety, they are not ‘sick’ n the sense of being flawed; they are merely off-balance and healing could be achieved by realising their interconnectedness with the rest of the world and becoming aligned with the natural Tao.
The primary objectives of Morita Therapy are Attentiveness, Balance, Acceptance, Spontaneity and Purposefulness. Living in balance means we transform from a constant need to control life and to be perfect to allow the imperfection and impermanence in life to penetrate our being (Moris, 2013).
With practice in Morita’s approach, we can mature spiritually. We learn to go from over intellectualising to having a direct, embodied experience of life. Rather than fixating on one narrow and rigid way of experiencing ourselves and the world, or defensively fighting against anxiety, we can become open to new experiences in each moment. Instead of dwelling in the self-defeating cycle of trying to control our anxiety and have it aggravates (known as toraware in Morita), we see that the fear will peak and naturally ease when we approach them in the right way. We regain the energy and life-force to engage in productive, meaningful activities. The ultimate goal is that we see life as it is and live accordingly (called arugamama). We become a better member of the world we live in as instead of being preoccupied with our selfish needs, we with following the laws of nature.
TRADITIONAL MORITA THERAPY VS MODERN APPLICATION
You may be interested in knowing more about the history of Morita Therapy, even it has evolved, and the original form is hardly practised today. Traditionally, Morita Therapy is practised only in an in-patient setting. The treatment could last a few weeks to several months, and is divided into four stages:
Step 1 – Isolation, minimal verbal communication, and rest:
Morita, who was a contemporary of Freud, was intrigued by the latter’s use of an inclined position of the patient in psychoanalysis. So, in the first stage, the client does not listen to music, read, or talk to other people. They must observe their innermost thoughts and feelings. At this stage, the therapist does not actively communicate with the client as he/she experiences the entire spectrum of emotions. The therapist’s main aim is to observe as the client processes emotions without the clutter of external stimuli.
Step 2 – Light repetitive work:
Morita was concerned that people with anxiety and other mental health issues were often kept in confined spaces. He recognised the importance of being in a natural environment for improving mental capabilities. Therefore, in the second stage, he recommended that clients be made to undertake light repetitive work in nature that is of interest to the client, such as gardening (planting, weeding, raking), bird watching, and woodcarving. Focusing on easy to perform tasks keeps clients productively engaged and has a calming effect.
Step 3 – Work and communal activities:
Morita believed that being engaged in repetitive, difficult labour is incompatible with feeling emotionally low. At this stage, the client is encouraged to converse with other people, but only about the task on hand. The client is also encouraged to record thoughts in a journal, which is reviewed by the therapist.
Step 4 – Interactions with the outside world:
By now, the client has a fresh perspective on dealing with the external environment and is more capable of functioning in day-to-day life. Over time, as the client continues to focus on productive behaviour, the occurrence of negative feelings diminishes.
Where conventional, residential-style Morita Therapy is not available, outpatient therapy can also achieve experiential learning (taitoku) through activities such as role-playing, deep reflection, guided experiential exercises such as visualisations and meditation during sessions (Ishiyama, 1990).
Morita therapy was developed in the early twentieth century, even though the ‘traditional’ Morita Therapy that requires a residential intensive is no longer practised, the principles of the therapy are relevant more than ever. Morita therapy is widely used in Japan for the treatment of anxiety and depression. Its influence is spreading aground the world.
MORITA THERAPY AND WESTERN PSYCHOTHERAPIES AND PHILOSOPHIES
Mental health therapies in the West tend to focus on past behaviours and self-introspection. It mainly holds that who we are today is the sum of our genetic inheritance and social learning from birth. So, if we want to change the future course of our lives, we must unlearn the acquired negative thinking patterns that have influenced the way we behave in the present.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT views negative thinking as the problem that leads to poor behavioural choices and suffering. Therefore, to get rid of the negative behaviours, we would have to change the illogical thinking and negative self-talk (the thoughts and words we say to ourselves). However, the process is often more complicated than it is on paper. We cannot always will our mind into a different way of being, especially when we have been traumatised in the past. Resistance sometimes reinforces our inner tension and the power of our inner critic.
In contrast, Morita therapy is based on the acceptance of our natural self. In accordance with most Eastern philosophies, Morita Therapy upholds collectivist more than individualistic values. Rather than digging into the habit hole of our negative thoughts and past behaviours, we ground ourselves in the here and now, and immerse in purposeful activities and service.
We cannot command our feelings, but that does not mean they can have power over us. Morita Therapy is not about continually trying to get rid of a potential mental threat.
Within what is known as the third-wave cognitive therapies, ACT, or the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy has a lot in common with Morita Therapy. Like Morita, ACT believes that acceptance of feelings and thoughts is crucial and that trying to change theses aspects about ourselves will only worsen the suffering. ACT and Morita both believe that a person can be productive and live a meaningful life despite the painful emotions.
Whilst Morita philosophy stands in stark contrast with a reductionist approach; it has a lot in common with ancient philosophies that have held their places in time. French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, shared a similar view with Morita.
According to Sartre, we must always choose, notwithstanding the ambiguity and uncertainty of the future. If we waited to be sure about what to do about the problems of everyday living, we would never act. Moreover, according to Sartre, there are no hard-and-fast standards that can save us from the inevitability of having to choose in the face of uncertainty. If we are stuck in ‘analysis- paralysis, we would have decided by indecision, and we give up our creative power as an intelligent human. The focus on actions makes Morita therapy a great adjunct to Existential philosophical counselling.
Morita Therapy also has much in common with Buddhism (especially Zen Buddhism, which stresses that there is no distinction between body and mind), Taoism (The more we try manipulate our thoughts and feelings, the more we magnify them).
Ultimately, Morita Therapy is a unique and powerful self- development tool. It offers a unique perspective to human wellbeing, and help us not just to eradicate symptoms of anxiety and depression, but also attain holistic health.