A Perspective on Morita Therapy

Robert J. Caffrey, M.A., J.D.
Copyright 2009

“This” and “that”. Control. Dominance. Separateness. So much of our western thought is based on a belief in duality and our ability to control what happens in our world. We strive to control what we think, how we feel, and what happens to us. To accomplish this task, our western culture instructs us to focus our attention outward to understand the “parts” of the world we see. To the extent we can separate things and see them as opposites, we are often led to believe that we will then, and only then, find understanding and meaning. If we understand the parts, we can control the whole, or so we think.

In our culture, thinking is so often given primacy. As Descartes postulated, we think and, therefore, we are. But what if Descartes was in error? What if thinking is not the same as understanding? What if understanding the process of integration of a whole is as important as understanding the elements that constitute the whole? What if what is real is what we focus on? And, what if the only true way to understand our world and ourselves is to notice what we attend to and then what we do when we are paying attention to each moment?

Trained as a historian, sociologist and lawyer, I’ve spent the last 30 years steeped in a tradition that enshrines the benefits of rational, cognitive, analytical, western thought. For 28 of those 30 years, however, I’ve also studied the martial arts. That martial discipline summons for the development of a different type of awareness. In the martial arts, an exquisite awareness and understanding of what is being experienced in the “here and now” takes precedence over what one “thinks” about a given situation. A punch or a kick must be dealt with in the immediacy of the moment. There is little time for thinking. Acting is the priority.

As I began my graduate studies in psychology, I sought to find a bridge between the benefits I had gained from my western “brain-training”, and the wisdom offered by my studies of Asian philosophies and their focus on developing a more attuned “eastern mind”. My studies in Gestalt and Bioenergetic therapies also helped re-enforce my belief in focusing on the wisdom of the body. Learning to focus on the “felt” experience in any situation helped me to access the “knowing” of my body.

Recently, I began to study Morita therapy and discovered it relies upon many of the same precepts, as do the martial arts. Focusing on the present moment, attending to what needs to be done, living with a sense of purpose and gratitude, understanding the ways in which we are all connected; all of these elements of the martial arts discipline can be found in Morita therapy.

At the same time, recent developments in neuroscience appear to provide an explanation for, and support of, some of the long held beliefs that lay at the core of this therapy and the tenets underpinning its philosophy of the factors that promote mental well being. The impact that an individual’s attention has on the structural development of their brain; the impact of mindfulness mediation and its ability to literally “rewire” neural networks, the impact that actions have on the development of the brain and neural plasticity, all are providing greater insight as to how principles of Morita therapy can literally restructure the brain.

As a means of promoting mental health and well being, Morita therapy approaches healing from a decidedly eastern perspective. Allowing ourselves to consider this alternative paradigm, however, opens opportunities to help others heal that may not be available using traditional western psychotherapeutic interventions. It also affords us an opportunity to open our own awareness and critically assess our own beliefs.

Morita Therapy

“…(E)ach time we step into the dojo, it is the same. We have only this time to make ourselves better than we were. Yesterday’s efforts do not matter. Tomorrows are a concern for tomorrow. What matters is right now. Ichigo; ichi-e…one encounter; one chance.”

Dave Lowry Clouds in the West

The Japanese psychiatrist Shoma Morita developed a psychotherapy method he originally called “personal experience therapy,” but which his followers later named after him (Tseng, Chang, & Nishizono, 2005). Steeped in Buddhist philosophy, the method bases it’s understanding of human suffering and its treatment on the egocentric attachment to the self and others, and the focus of the client’s attention on things over which they have no control, such as thoughts and feelings. (Reynolds, 1984) Thus, in Morita therapy the goal becomes one of helping the client to understand the reality of the human condition and the intervening with methods that enable the client to direct their attention, understand their purpose in life and, then, to act in accordance with that purpose irrespective of transient thoughts and feelings.

The Way of Understanding

Morita theorized that the flow of awareness in a person suffering from neurosis was blocked and turned inward, away from the circumstances in which the individual actually found themselves (Morita, 1988). Thus the person’s “attention” was focused on internal events (thoughts and feelings) rather than external reality. (Reynolds, 1987).

An individual’s judging mind attaches to certain emotions, thoughts and feeling states as “good” and rejects or resists others as “bad”. It is this attachment or resistance as examined in both Buddhist philosophy and Morita therapy, as opposed to non-attachment and co-existence, that creates suffering (Reynolds, 1984). Ultimately, our suffering results from our mental distortions and the actions influenced by them ( Wallace, 1993).

The focus of attention on a feeling or thought serves to strengthen it and increase its intensity (Reynolds, 1984). Likewise, it will draw a person’s focus away from the reality of the present moment and habituate the person to this resistance and expansion cycle as they try to control their feelings and thoughts, trying to hold onto those they favor and banish those they disfavor (Morita, 1998).

For Moritists, feelings are simply a “given” of our human experience, always changing, always fluctuating (Reynolds, 1984). This reality makes the act of attaching to some and rejecting others merely an invitation to create and perpetuate suffering in our lives. We seek to control the uncontrollable, and thereby become lost in our attempts to create pleasure and avoid pain.

Moritists judge feelings and thoughts as neither good nor bad, but simply as experiences whose intensity and existence pass with the lapse of time (Reynolds, 1984). As thoughts simply come and go of their own volition, a person isn’t responsible for them and should strive to be aware of them without judgment (Tsing, Chang & Nishizono, 2005). No matter the focus, feelings and thoughts cannot be “controlled” (Morita, 19989). As Morita stated, “(W)hen emotion is left to flower naturally, it assumes a parabolic course. It flares up, reaches a climax, then lessens and disappears” (Morita, 1998, p. 31). When reactivated repeatedly, however, emotions will be intensified when “the stimulus is incessantly given and when attention is focused on the emotion or stimulus” (Morita, 1998, p. 33).

As opposed to Freud’s theory which emphasized deep consideration of the causing and meaning of “feeling states”, Morita was concerned that untoward focus on thoughts or feelings only served to place a client in a continuous loop of evaluation and re-experiencing of trauma (Tseng, Chang & Nishozono, 2005). Also, it served to re-enforce the Cartesian dualistic concept of the separation of the body and the mind (Morita, 1998). For Morita, healing took place with the neutral acceptance of emotions, thoughts and feelings, and the focus of the client’s attention on the one area where control is possible; the realm of physical action.

Way of Intervening

The simply reality of life is that while thoughts and feelings cannot be controlled, actions can (Reynolds, 1984). Given this fact, Morita believed that therapeutic intervention can, and must, be focused not only in the areas of non-attachment to thoughts and feeling states, but also in actions that induce positive life changing behaviors.

Simply put, positive life-reinforcing behaviors can be undertaken irrespective of a person’s thinking or feeling state. Feelings and thoughts, although potentially powerful influences if not brought into conscious awareness, do not control our behaviors (Reynolds, 1984). Additionally, behavior can indirectly influence feelings. As Moritists put it, “behavior wags the tail of feelings” (Reynolds, 1984, p. 100). Given this awareness, Morita therapy is focused on “helping the client enter into the natural flow, so he can act appropriately to meet the needs of the present situation” (Reynolds, 1984).

The actions undertaken by the client are not meant to distract him but are, rather, always purposeful in nature (Reynolds, 1984). Reduced to its essence, Morita therapy supports the client in doing what is required in a given moment, with an understanding that one’s feelings or thoughts might be at odds with the needs of the moment. Thus, a person becomes self-referencing in terms of their own “purpose” in life, and what needs to be done in the here and now, moment by moment, to accomplish that purpose. As expressed by David Reynolds, an American authority on Morita therapy, “(C)hange begins with action” (Reynolds, 1984, p. 16).

The Morita therapist, through the process of psychoeducation and modeling, constantly identifies the tension between “tarawara” (the endless internal loop of thoughts and feelings) and “arugamama” (non-attachment and the acceptance of things as they are). Anxiety is recognized as resulting from “misdirected attention” (Morita, 1984).

The difference between traditional western psychotherapeutic practice and Morita therapy are fairly stark. In Western therapy, the focus is often on an analysis and “work” with a client’s emotions and feelings during the “golden hour” of therapy. (Reynolds, 1984) From a Morita perspective the “work” is about the work and life activities that take place between sessions.

Irrespective of the client’s feelings, what is known is that they will change over time. In the face of that reality, a Moritist, through an action plan or other strategy, seeks to help a client focus on what needs to be accomplished in the present moment to accomplish the client’s life purpose. The client is assisted on gaining greater clarity on where their attention is focused and non-attachment to their ever-changing feeling states. In this way, Morita therapy appears to turn the Western therapeutic paradigm on its head.

Morita Therapy and Neuroscience

The Impact of the Focus of our Attention

“What we focus on expands.”

The Law of Attraction

“To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish.”

Yiddish proverb

Although these axioms ring true in terms of our human experience, recent advances in neuroscience seem to support the Moritist principle that mindful attention defines our experienced reality. In fact, mindful attention may explain the very neural structures of the brain.

Recent studies have demonstrated that brain function is, in many ways, governed by willful attentionality (Schwartz & Begley, 2002). The brain possesses limited processing resources, thus causing multiple objects that present at the same time in the visual field to compete for neural representation (Schwartz & Begley, 2002). When this occurs, it is the selective focusing of attention on a target that significantly “enhances neuronal responses to them” (Schwartz & Begley, 2002, p. 328). Functional MRI studies have established that this focusing of attention on a target causes those neurons to fire more strongly than the neurons, which respond to distraction (Schwartz & Begley, 2002). Thus, the act of “paying attention” serves to both physically counteract the suppressive influences of nearby distractions, it also strengthens neural processing in the visual cortex, as well as activating the regions of the brain that passively process the stimulus of the sensed world – “colors, movements, shapes, faces, feelings” (Schwartz & Begley, 2002, p. 330-333).

As identified in the studies, attention ” can sculpt brain activity by turning up or down the rate at which particular sets of synapses fire…firing a set of synapses again and again makes [them] grow stronger…attention is an important ingredient for neuroplasticity (Schwartz & Begley, 2002, p. 334). Thus, experience combined with attention leads to actually physical changes in the brain’s structure and the future firing of the nervous system (Schwartz & Begley, 2002). In this respect systemic mental focusing, direction one’s attention, on a functional behavior can keep brain activity channeled (Schwartz & Begley, 2002). As recognized through the results of MRI scans:

“This willful directing of attention can act on the brain to alter its subsequent patters of activity, for refocusing on useful behaviors activates the brain circuitry need to perform them. In this way, brain circuitry is shaped by attention mechanisms. …mindfully directed attention is the indispensable factor that brings about the observed brain changes.” (Schwartz & Begley, 2002, pp. 259-360)

Recent studies also suggest that focused attention, also known as mindfulness, serves to reconfigure the neural trait of attention to what is transpiring in the “present moment” (Siegel, 2007). Mindfulness or attention training serves to stimulate the middle prefrontal regions of the brain (Siegel, 2007). This area is profoundly integrative of the areas of the brain where information about the body, sensations, emotions, danger, rational cognitive thought, and intuition are processed (Siegel, 2007). Attention awareness and mindfulness practices help to promote the growth, stimulation, and integration of these middle prefrontal fibers, thereby allowing an individual to develop “the trait of effortless mindful loving (Siegel, 2007, p. 120).

Morita therapy’s focus on both the awareness of conscious direction of one’s attention, appears to be supported by recent neuroscientific studies as a key element in promoting mental well being and healing. It also is consistent with the intuitive wisdom most of us possess about our experience of the world. Whether found in a Yiddish proverb, or in an exegesis on the neuroplasticity of the brain we cannot escape the reality that, “(W)e do not see the worlds as it is, we see the world as we are”. Anais Nin (1903-1977).

Re-experiencing of emotions & trauma & the re-enforcement of neural patterns

One of the unique aspects of Morita Therapy is that sessions are not directed at having the client focus their attention on their emotional response or memories of trauma. As previously stated, Morita’s view was that emotions & feelings possess a natural cycle of initiation and completion. If left undisturbed, Morita therapy suggests that emotions and feelings will pass with time. In fact, Moritists express concern that focusing on feelings and emotions may serve to further strengthen a client’s attentional focus on these negative experiences.

Neuroscientific studies once again suggest that these beliefs may be strongly supported by results recently obtained from MRI scans. It has become an axiom of neurobiology that neurons that “fire together, wire together” (Siegel, 2007). Thus, neural patterns created in the brain in response to stimulus will tend to reappear if the stimulus is presented again, thereby re-enforcing the responses (Fralich, 2007). Repeated experience to the stimulus, without intervention, can create “structural changes in the brain” (Siegel, 2007, p. 31).

By changing the focus of attention, however, evidence suggests that the very connections within the integrated circuits of the brain can be changed (Siegel, 2007). This is due to the brain’s capacity for neural connections to change in response to experience, known as “neuroplasticity” (Siegel, 2007, p. 30). Attention and mindful awareness is a form of experience that seems to promote neural plasticity. Thus, the act of paying mindful attention will stimulate neural firing in specific areas, activating and changing connections within the integrated circuits of the brain (Siegel, 2007).

One of the areas that this may have the most significant impact upon is the activation of a patient’s trauma response due to explicit or implicit memories (Cozolino, 2002). It has been recognized that memories are stored in an explicit format, which allows for their conscious retrieval, and implicit, which causes the activation of a neural firing pattern but the individual is unaware that they are consciously accessing a memory (Fralich, 2007). Especially in the context of implicit memory, which is stored in the body as an unconscious felt sense or body response, activation can result in the triggering of an individual’s “fight, flight or freeze” survival response (Siegel, 2007).

As implicit memories are stored during a child’s pre-verbal stage of development, a narrative explanation of the body response resulting from an implicit memory is often impossible for the client (Cozilino, 2002). At the same time, the habituation of this activation process, if it is continuously repeated through therapy, re-enforces the likelihood that the client’s neural network and response will be re-enforced by the therapeutic experience. (Lewis, Amini, & Lannon, 2000).

Areas of future inquiry

Although Morita therapy possesses many salient characteristics supported by recent neuroscientific research, there are areas of disagreement in terms of its philosophy.

Initially, the research of implicit memory and the body stored sense of memory suggests that healing most often occurs when the client is able to develop a narrative tale which provides them with a sense of coherence about their experience (Cozilino, 2002). As such, “talking therapy” and the client articulating their feelings and emotional experience are necessary for integration and, ultimately, healing (Siegel, 2007).

Likewise, the presence of an emotionally supportive and empathetic listener may be a pre-requisite to enable healing to occur in those whose attachment to their primary care givers lacked sufficient emotional content (Fralich, 2007). The concept of “limbic resonance” has been recognized as establishing that a child’s first emotional experience is derivative; gaining an understanding and ability to process emotions through the strengths and weaknesses of their parent in this area (Lewis, Amini, & Lannon, 2000). In this respect, new attachments and more efficacious limbic resonance appears to take place only in relationship, slowly, over time (Lewis, Amini, & Lannon, 2000).

Finally, studies suggest that emotions play a key role in our ability to understand cognitively and play a key role in the development and application of human reason (Damesio, 2005). As discovered by Antonio Damesio in the course of his research into the neuroscientific studies analyzing human decision-making, “certain aspects of the process of emotion and feelings are indispensable for rationality…Both ‘high-level’ and ‘low-level’ brain regions, from the prefrontal cortices to the hypothalamus and the brain stem, cooperate in the making of reason” (Damasio, 2005, p. xvii). Or, as suggested by Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D. & Sharon Begley, “(D)ecision making, then, clearly has not just a rational but also an emotional component” (Schwartz & Begley, 2003, p. 66-67).

Many neuroscientists consider emotional regulation a key element in an individual’s self-organization and, thus, healthy personal development (Siegel, 1999). In fact, the view is proposed by some that “human emotions constitute the fundamental value system the brain uses to help organize its functioning” (Siegel, 1999, p.278). Thus, these scientists maintain that emotional misattunement that occurs in a child’s development with their primary care giver creates long standing psychological challenges (Siegel, 1999). It is only through the process of working directly with these misattunements, and providing new, more positive emotional attachments, that these theorists believe healing will ultimately occur (Lewis, Amini, & Lannon, 2000; Siegel, 1999; Cozolino, 2002; Fralich, 2007).


Morita therapy provides an action oriented therapeutic modality that is in many ways supported by modern neuroscientific studies. At the same time, contrary data exists suggesting that working with an individual’s emotions and body sense memories may also be critical in achieving healing for a client. What Morita does provide is an integrative model, which suggests that it is individuals’ actions, focus of attention and purpose that will ultimately determine the quality of their life. In the end, it is the invitation to integrate, act and attend to that, in my mind, gives Morita therapy its great strength.


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