The increasingly widespread incidence of people who are lonely, estranged, and isolated from others is one of the most unhealthy social phenomena that now characterize modern Japanese society. Shifts toward nuclear families, having fewer children, and more frequent divorce are contributing to the ongoing dissolution of traditional Japanese ties among families and local communities. Problems at work or with other interpersonal relationships are forcing many people into a state of spiritual isolation and more of them are suffering from depression.
The Kosei Counseling Institute was established in 1972 mainly to nurture counselors who base their work on the spirit of Buddhism, and to offer training courses designed to assist the dissemination activities of Rissho Kosei-kai. Its first counseling facility was set up in Tokyo in 1975, and this opened a door to a wide range of people in the region seeking advice. Counseling centers were also set up to serve the troubled in Osaka, Chiba, Kanagawa, and Saitama prefectures. The services are free of charge, and on principle all counselors are volunteers.
The total number of people receiving counseling in 2008 included 850 who visited counseling facilities, 4,905 who sought advice by telephone, and 55 who requested advice by letter. Naturally, each case was unique, but people seeking advice on problems of isolation accounted for about 10 percent of the phone calls received. However, because isolation often accompanies other problems, such as psychological ailments like depression and dysfunctional interpersonal relationships, I think that in reality isolation accounts for a greater proportion of people's problems.
The actual substance of the situations for which advice was sought by isolated clients was of course particular to the individual and included a wide range of issues, but one thing common to all was a lack of skill in relating to others: The gist of most people's problems was that they were unable to interact with others. As counselors, our work starts with listening carefully to what the clients have to say, and empathizing with their state of mind.
As they work with a counselor, clients gradually regain their ability to interact with other people. They also learn to see themselves from a fresh point of view, and recognize strengths they always possessed but had never noticed in themselves. Rather than seeing themselves negatively as without human ties, they come to see reality for what it is, and accept themselves as they are. In this way, little by little, they regain their spiritual balance, and emerge from their shells of isolation.
We consider the acceptance of oneself "as is" to be the real start of the counseling process. This is also the foundation for the truth of "the Reality of All Existence" as taught in the Lotus Sutra. We all experience various emotions and thoughts every day as we go through life. When we become too wrapped up in our own emotions and thoughts, however, we become unable to see things as they truly are. Those people who have fallen into the trap of isolation are powerfully ruled by emotions that arise from the conviction that nobody cares about them or understands them, and they lose the ability to see things objectively.
When they can accept themselves as they are with the help of counseling, however, they gain the ability to see for themselves the existence of people around them who are supporting them and relating to them. This results in a change that allows them to bring their interpersonal relationships back to life.
The American psychologist who established the client-centered therapy we use mainly for visitors to our centers, Dr. Carl Rogers (1902-87), is recognized as the specialist who has had the most influence on counseling in Japan. The "empathic listening" that forms the basis for this type of therapy corresponds well with the way problems are solved and suffering overcome through Buddhism.
Dr. Rogers held that it is human nature to strive for personal growth and realization of one's potential, and that when people are able to accept themselves as they are, change and growth will take place as a natural consequence. In terms of the Buddhist theory of dependent origination, when a client accepts himself or herself as a result of a counselor's empathic listening, this might be considered the "condition" or "secondary cause" enabling the person to achieve growth through his or her own effort.
As human relationships weaken in our complex society, the only thing that can keep the evils of loneliness and estrangement away from people who are falling deeper and deeper into isolation is, after all, those individuals themselves: Their success will also depend on the presence of others who can listen to them with empathy and help them restore and deepen their relationships with a variety of other people. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that the scale on which such growth and change can be effected will have a significant influence on the future of Japanese society.
Kimiko Shinozaki is the director of the Kosei Counseling Institute, which is affiliated with Rissho Kosei-kai in Tokyo.
This article was originally published in the January-March 2010 issue of Dharma World.
back to this issue's table of contents