Psychology and Mindfulness

4 Dec

There have been several attempts to integrate psychology theory with the Buddha’s teachings. For example, the collaboration of Erich Fromm, Zen Buddhist teacher and author D. T. Suzuki and Richard De Martino led to the publication of Zen and Psychoanalysis in 1960. This work represents one of the first serious attempts to effectively blend Buddhist teachings with Psychoanalytic thought. Alan Watts (1961) was also a key figure in some of the more popular efforts at mixing Western forms of psychology and psychotherapy with Buddhist and Daoist approaches. For some contemporary Psychoanalysts, Zen Buddhist meditation remains an acceptable way to explore the unconscious and to bring hitherto unknown or unacknowledged (repressed) desires and material into consciousness awareness (Cooper 2004). Also, clinicians and writers such as Carl Jung, Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Fritz Perls and Mark Epstein have attempted to bridge and integrate psychology and Buddhism.

With the recent rise of influence of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in psychology, there has been a fruitful yet limited integration between certain aspects of ‘Buddhist psychology’ and certain parallel areas of psychology. For example, for the control of unwanted, intrusive cognitions, which particularly hinder one’s meditative efforts and can therefore be a major problem, several strategies are recommended; to reflect on an object which is associated with thoughts which are the opposite of the unwanted thought; ponder on harmful consequences or the perils and disadvantages of the thought; one strives not to ignore and distract the unwanted cognition; to reflect on the removal or stopping of the causes of the target thought. Interventions similar to these meditation strategies and techniques are also used for related problems in cognitive-behavior therapy. Thought-stopping, thought-switching, distraction and covert sensitization are all foreshadowed in the meditation techniques.

Another aspect of Buddhist psychology for modern therapeutic purposes lies in the area of prophylaxis. Several Buddhist techniques can have a role to play in the prevention of certain kinds of psychological disorders. For example, training in meditation, leading to greater ability to achieve calmness and tranquility, can help enhance one’s tolerance of the numerous inevitable stresses in modern life. With meditation one can achieve a degree of

immunity against the psychological effects of stress and frustration. The facility and skill in self-monitoring one can acquire with the aid of mindfulness meditation can provide a valuable means of self-control. The role of self-monitoring is well-documented in the self-regulation of behavior. The overall self-development that Buddhism encourages and recommends also has something to offer for prevention purposes. Some of the meditation exercises and other personal development behaviors found in

Buddhism can potentially enable a person to develop a positive outlook on life and patterns of response, which, in turn, will help cope with the problem of living; by enabling greater calmness and assurance, and with reduced vulnerability to common psychological disorders. A positive modern wellness program can easily incorporate many of the practices of the Eightfold Path.

Recently, another Buddhist meditation practice called Mindfulness has grown in usage and popularity in both the medical and psychological fields. Now there are many programs offering Mindfulness training to the general public with assertions that Mindfulness can help reduce negative thinking and habits and increase positive experiences and thinking – to name a few. Mindfulness has become a treatment for depression, anxiety and reducing stress and relapses (Williams, Teasdale, Segal, Kabat-Zinn 2007). However, these adaptations of mindfulness are being used to reduce our stress, to make us less depressed, more fulfilled and happy but are rarely requiring us to make the necessary life changes that the accompanying practices of the Eightfold Path require. Remember in Buddhism meditation is not a standalone practice but is closely intertwined with the wisdom and ethical practices. As a consequence, Buddhism has mistakenly become part of a secular quest for happiness even though the Buddha‘s understanding of happiness was radically different. The Buddha’s teachings addressed suffering and cessation of suffering. He consistently taught that the pursuit of happiness based upon our erroneous and pre-awakened understanding of the world with our craving for sensory delights and distractions was at the heart of our problems. The Buddha taught that in the eyes of the awakened the very things we consider to be the sources of our happiness are actually the very sources of our misery. Not surprisingly the aspects of Buddhism which appear to be most popular in the West have little or nothing to do with renunciation and more to do with ‘enhancing’ life and seeking personal fulfillment. As a consequence the Buddha’s teachings become ignored by our sense of entitlement to happiness often irrespective of our moral conduct.

Indeed, examples of this entitlement to happiness are easily found on Mindfulness websites by psychotherapists and psychologists on the application of mindfulness to psychotherapy: “The practice of meditation and mindfulness will clear away the dullness of being on autopilot and free you to live more fully than you ever have before.”; “LIBERATE your true Self and discover inner balance, wellbeing and happiness as well as RESPOND to life and relationships with greater intelligence, creativity, intuition and compassion.” and “The more we increase mindfulness, the more we increase happiness.” Also we are often reminded that mindfulness was originated by the Buddha, -“Mindfulness meditation, as it is called, is rooted in the teachings of a fifth-century B.C. Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, later known as the Buddha” – and all cite meditation ( ‘non-judgmental awareness of the now’) as the sole technique to be used. Quite different from the Buddha’s original teachings, these psychotherapeutic/wellness adaptations of mindfulness are usually presented independent of any ethical/moral requirements and instead emphasize an amoral immediacy of being. While, in fact, Buddhist meditation is supported by the factors of ethical training as taught in the Noble Eightfold Path. The eight factors complement each other and are an integrated practice. Therefore, if psychotherapists and researchers want to clearly apply the use of meditation as in Buddhist practice, with its accompanying positive results, they need to look at how all factors of the Eightfold Path are involved and how this complete package would have a positive effect on wider diagnostic categories of clients of psychotherapy being now treated with the intervention of mindfulness.

Mindfulness in popular western psychology has now only become yet another coping mechanism for dealing with the stresses of modern life. While the central teachings of the Buddha and the original purpose of cultivating mindfulness was to reach full and complete awakening; to completely overcome ignorance, hatred and craving and to put an end to suffering. While, as in the similarity of meditative techniques and other cognitive-behavioral techniques, there is a complementary aspect which can enhance each other, another problem with the current popular psychologizing of mindfulness is the name of the meditation that the Buddha originated is being converted and misrepresented into something very different. This is harmful as the Buddha’s message of Awakening is lost as it becomes represented as the rush for happiness and self-fulfillment.

The Buddha was not a psychologist and there is a real risk that the psychologizing of the Buddha’s teachings does a great disservice to, and distorts, the original purpose of them and, specifically, reduces the practice of mindfulness to a self-centered pursuit more concerned with allowing us to have more productive and intense experiences than the original purpose which was for us to reach awakening, to overcome ignorance, hatred and craving and to put an end to our suffering and re-birth. Psychologizing the Buddha’s teachings can twist and subvert them into a mental health gimmick, and thereby prevent them from introducing the sharply alternative vision of life they are capable of bringing us. In fact, beyond some positive interaction and influence that Buddhist psychology can have on modern psychology, as mentioned above, it is neither feasible or desirable to assume that the two systems in their entirety can ever be integrated because the highest goal of psychology/psychotherapy is limited to various forms of psychological adjustment, higher functioning or promoting self-actualization and individual fulfillment and these are simply not what the Buddha wanted us to understand. In fact, those goals are merely band aids for the deeper problem which is our suffering due to the ignorance of our pre-enlightened existence.

3 Responses to “Psychology and Mindfulness”

  1. Internalbasis December 4, 2015 at 1:14 pm #

    Brilliant post, I am really interested in this topic.

    • Rodger Ricketts December 4, 2015 at 2:15 pm #

      Hello, thank you, I’m happy you liked my post. Anytime you might have some thoughts to share, let me know.
      Ciao

  2. Internalbasis December 4, 2015 at 1:14 pm #

    Brilliant post, thanks for sharing. I am really interested in this topic.

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