Morita Therapy

“Realistic Action is Self-development”

Morita psychotherapy was developed by Japanese psychiatrist Shoma Morita in the early part of the twentieth century. He was chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Jikei University School of Medicine and was influenced by the psychological principles of Zen Buddhism. His method was initially developed as a treatment for a type of anxiety neurosis called shinkeishitsu. In the latter part of this century the applications of Morita therapy have broadened, both in Japan and North America.

The Naturalness of Feelings (Arugamama)

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. 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

There is an assumption behind many 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.

“Trying to control the emotional self willfully 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.

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 by an unhealthy self-focus. The more we pay attention to our symptoms (our anxiety, for example) the more we fall into this trap. When we are absorbed by what we are doing, we are not anxious because our attention is engaged by 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?

“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.

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.

“In general, 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. Morita therapy is not really a psychotherapeutic method for getting rid of “symptoms”. It is more an educational method for outgrowing our self-imposed limitations. Through Moritist methods we learn to accept the naturalness of ourselves.” -- David Reynolds, Ph.D.

Explore Morita Therapy Further

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A Natural Approach to Mental Wellness
If you are looking for wise and practical guidance about living well,
you won’t find a finer resource than A Natural Approach to Mental Wellness.

Constructive Living
A proprietary "lifeway" based, in large part, on Morita's principles

Meaningful Life Therapy
A program for cancer patients in Japan built on some of the principles of Morita therapy

Morita therapy articles
Read articles related to action and attention in the ToDo’s Internet Library of Japanese Psychology.