Shoma Morita

Morita Therapy

Shoma Morita (1874 - 1938) was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud and the founder of Morita Therapy. He was chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Jikei University School of Medicine, Tokyo, Japan, and would have been influenced by the psychological principles of Zen Buddhism.

Morita Therapy was originally developed for people with a type of anxiety neurosis called shinkeishitsu. Such people were characterized by their tendencies towards perfectionism, shyness, hypochondria and a general preoccupation with their feelings and thoughts. Many traditional approaches to anxiety advocate 'working on' your thoughts - trying to change or even stop them. But Morita’s approach was based on the strategy of accepting them and shifting one’s attention to something constructive or purposeful. Rather than fixing on our mental ruminations, we work on doing the things that help us live a fulfilled and meaningful life. We take our anxiety with us as we strive to live well and do what’s important. How empowering this is! Our anxiety no longer prevents us from taking action. 

According to Morita, how a person feels is important as a sensation and as an indicator for the present moment, but is uncontrollable: we don't create feelings, feelings happen to us. Since feelings do not cause our behaviour, we can coexist with unpleasant feelings while still taking purposeful living action (accepting your emotions as they are and doing what needs to be done).

We are responsible for what we do no matter how we feel at the time. Feelings don't control our behaviour. Blaming our feelings for our behaviour simply excuses unkind or irresponsible habits. Discarding such excuses, we create more space for healthy living habits.

The essence of Morita's method maybe summarized in three rules: Accept all your feelings, know your purpose(s), and do what needs to be done. When once asked what shy people should do, Morita replied, "Sweat". This approach, of course, overturns aspects of conventionally accepted wisdom.

1. Accept your feelings
Accepting feelings is not ignoring them or avoiding them, but welcoming them; Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh (Tik · N'yat · Hawn) recommends we say, "Hello Loneliness, how are you today? Come, sit by me and I will take care of you". Morita's advice: "In feelings, it is best to be wealthy and generous" - that is, have many and let them fly as they wish.

If we find out that we have just won the lottery, we may be excited and happy. But if we find out about the death of a loved one, we may feel sadness and grief. Such feelings are natural responses to our life circumstances and we need not try to “fix” or “change” them. Acceptance of reality as it is involves accepting our feelings and thoughts without trying to change them or “work through” them. Feelings are uncontrollable directly by the will. Don't overvalue feelings or see them as the centrepiece of daily life.

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.

There is an assumption behind Western therapeutic methods that it is necessary to change or modify our feeling state before we can take action. We assume that we must “overcome” fear to dive into a pool, or develop confidence so we can make a public presentation. But in actuality, it is not necessary to change our feelings in order to take action. In fact, it is our efforts to change our feelings that often makes us feel even worse. Feelings must be recognized and accepted as they are. Rather than suppress, repress, transform, fix or work through feelings it is wisest to simply feel what we are feeling.

Every feeling, however unpleasant, has its uses: anxiety may remind us to prepare for an exam, confusion may help us to investigate choices more thoroughly, depression may suggest that important changes need to be made.
Feelings fade in time unless they are re-stimulated. That which you pay attention to grows. Psychological suffering is generally associated with a heightened degree of self-focused attention. When you wish to shift your attention, lead with the body, not the mind

Feelings can be indirectly influenced by behaviour. Doing something repeatedly may give us confidence. Constant complaining may stimulate feelings of resentment. Our actions often precede, rather than follow, feelings.

My way of doing things is simple. It's not necessary to make impossible efforts when troubled. Put simply, when you are vexed just be vexed and say, 'Yes, and what shall I do?' Just be in suspense about the outcome and move forward a little at a time. - Shoma Morita, M.D.

Trying to control the emotional self wilfully by manipulative attempts is like trying to choose a number on a thrown die or to push back the water of the Kamo River upstream. Certainly, they end up aggravating their agony and feeling unbearable pain because of their failure in manipulating the emotions. - Shoma Morita, M.D.

2. Know your purpose(s)
Implicit in Morita's method, and the traditional Buddhist psychological principles which he adapted, is an independence of thought and action, something a little alien to the Western ideal to "follow our whims and moods". Morita held that we can no more control our thoughts than we can control the weather, as both are phenomena of most amazingly complex natural systems. And if we have no hope of controlling our emotions, we can hardly be held responsible any more than we can be held responsible for feeling hot or cold. We do, however, have complete dominion over our behaviour, and for Morita, that is a sacred responsibility. "What needs doing now?" is like a mantra in his methods.

Be authentic; transcend your cultural conditioning; discover your vocation in life, your calling, fate or destiny; transcend the trifling problems and grapple with the serious problems in life: injustice, of pain, suffering, and death; be a good chooser and know your purpose.

3. Do what needs doing
One can feel crushed and alone or hurt and homicidal while pulling up the weeds in your garden, but one wouldn't be doing it at all if one hadn't intended to raise flowers. 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.
We are responsible for what we do no matter how we feel at the time. Feelings don't control our behaviour. Blaming our feelings for our behaviour simply excuses unkind or irresponsible habits. Discarding such excuses, we create more space for healthy living habits.

Many people believe that they should be more self-disciplined. And one simple definition of self-discipline is 'doing what you know you need to do'. For example, when you get up feeling tired, lethargic, heavy, sluggish. Take those feelings with you as you get up and walk to the bathroom. Morita therapy teaches us - to take our unpleasant feelings with us as we do what is important to do. Rather than allow our lives to be directed by our feelings, we are guided by the important purposes that present themselves as we move forward. Feelings don’t get discarded, but neither do they run the show.

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. - Shoma Morita, MD

How do you discover meaningful purposes for your life and once discovered, how do you live purposefully so you can accomplish them? Many Western mental health approaches focus primarily on symptom reduction - how can we help this person to feel better? But preoccupation with feeling better often distracts us from accomplishing the important purposes of our life. Morita therapy helps us move forward and take action, even in the face of fear or uncertainty. Living purposefully means staying focused on what’s important and not being distracted by television, shopping malls, Internet. Distraction is one obstacle to a purposeful life. The other is a desire for comfort or pleasant feelings. Both lead us away from a life which offers fulfilment and meaning - a life we can look back on without regrets.

You may have heard a song which says, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It’s a wonderful song but it’s a very difficult thing to do. It’s extremely difficult to stop worrying about something just because you tell yourself to do so. And it’s also difficult to make yourself feel happy through the sheer force of your will. The stronger we desire something, the more we want to succeed, and the greater our anxiety about failure. Our worries and fears are reminders of the strength of our positive desires. Our anxieties are indispensable in spite of the discomfort that accompanies them. To try to do away with them would be foolish.

Accordingly, I doubt the efficacy of the spate of 'happiness' conferences such as the “Happiness and its causes” one that was held in Sydney (5-6 May 2010) and which poses the question: “Can we learn to be happy?”

The new science of positive psychology is at the forefront of research into how we can use our own minds to create happier lives. Meanwhile, neuroscience is reporting on the connection between training the mind to be more positive and actual changes in the structure of the brain. Both of these fields hold the tantalising prospect that happiness can be enhanced by mental training.

These conferences are huge events with countless speakers from around the globe. There are certainly a number of well-respected speakers there, and, to be fair, I don't think I can really judge the value of such a conference without attending.

Yet embedded is the conference's promise that if you attend you will learn how to be happy. Can that be so? It's my view that these events have the capacity (or is that the possibility?) to momentarily spark a feeling of joy and happiness. (My experience of conferences is that they are all drudges, even the recent two-day teaching by HH the Dalai Lama could not keep the audience awake.)

The answer lies in practicing and mastering an attitude of being in touch with the outside world. This is called a reality-oriented attitude, which means, in short, liberation from self-centeredness. - Takahisa Kora, M.D. 

Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose. - Helen Keller

The average human being thinks that happiness lies in stability, in tying up all the loose ends and having things under control. But actually, happiness lies in being able to relax with our true condition, which is basically fleeting,dynamic, and fluid, not in any way solid, not in any way permanent. It’s transient by nature. - Pema Chodron 

People's actions are increasingly driven by the pursuit of pleasure, comfort and happiness. We are increasingly tempted by the 'carrot' of good feelings, if only we will buy this car, drink this beer, or wear these clothes. Drugs (including alcohol and mood elevating medications) offer a similar, though quicker and more reliable, fix for our feelings. The transcendent value, reinforced by mass media, appears to be 'the importance of feeling good' or, alternatively stated, the need to avoid feeling anxious, fearful, depressed, angry, upset. There are serious cracks in a life foundation built with 'feel good/avoid feeling bad' materials.

It is not possible to capture and maintain a state of pleasant feelings - unpleasant feelings are as natural and necessary as rainy days. They come and go despite our wishes. Anxiety is as uncontrollable as a rainstorm - fear as uncontrollable as lightning. Rather than try to control such natural occurrences, which drain our energy and attention, it is better to accept these temporary internal weather patterns and learn to live well even when we are not feeling well. A life foundation built from purposeful action is much stronger than one that constantly shifts with changing feelings. To live with unpleasant feelings is a skill.

The shift away from a feeling-driven lifestyle can be replaced by one that is purposeful and realistic. What is my purpose? What needs to be done in this situation? Ideally, we want the demands of the situation to dictate our response, not just our emotions.

Depression plays tricks on you. It tells you things are hopeless, when there's hope. It tells you life is only suffering, when there is joy and love to be discovered. It tells you that you can't do this or that, when you can take action in spite of your feelings It tells you there's no way out, when there is a way out. Our natural response to feeling depressed is to try to find a way to feel better. This sounds reasonable but it sets us off on an endless loop of focusing on our feelings and trying to fix them directly with our mind. Generally, this doesn't work - what you pay attention to grows. Our feelings fluctuate - all feelings, including depression. We notice this process. We accept whatever feelings arise. We stop fighting with the feelings we don't like and take them with us as we go about our work in the world. As we learn to coexist with our depression, the depression loses its power over us. We conquer depression through acceptance, activity and purpose.

A man's concern, even his despair over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress, but by no means a mental disease. It may well be interpreting the first in terms of the latter motivates a doctor to bury his patient's existential despair under a heap of tranquillizing drugs. It is his task, rather, to pilot the patient through his existential crisis of growth and development. - Viktor Frankl, M.D. (psychiatrist and survivor of Auschwitz concentration camp)

From the experience with the fickleness of feelings and the unpredictability of their onset and departure, I was able to say to myself, 'This will pass'. It is knowing that the feelings of depression will pass, and will probably visit me again, that makes living with very uncomfortable feelings a very doable thing. - Julie Phillips

Coping with Illness
A serious illness challenges and reminds us how much we wish to live. So we set out on a path to overcome our illness, and often it's a confusing path that presents us with complicated choices for which we are not prepared. Coping with a serious illness stretches and pushes us to the edge of our capacity and then further. But this journey through illness can be an awakening - a deepening of our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to all life. We are challenging to learn how to cope with pain. We are challenged to stay in the present moment. We are challenged to be clear about what's important in life and not to be distracted. Your journey may be unique but you are not alone. Many patients report that their quality of life is actually better since their diagnosis. May you meet your challenges with wisdom and courage.

You may have been told, 'Get your affairs in order, you have a short time to live' or a favourite of the medical community, 'Your illness is terminal.' Don't believe it. Refuse to give in to that despair. Only God knows how long a person has to live. So decide to live! Embrace hope. Hope heals. It is a decision that always leads to better days and perhaps more of them as well. - Greg Anderson

And a woman spoke, saying "Tell us of Pain." And he said, "Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses understanding. - Kahlil Gibran

Fred van Amelsvoort
8 March 2010