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What is Buddhist Psychology? How does the ancient philosophical tradition of Buddhism relate to contemporary psychology and psychotherapy?

I am often asked these questions by colleagues and clients alike. Here, I’d like to offer a glimpse into the intersection of Eastern philosophy and Western Psychology and my own experience in both.

My own studies in Buddhism began as an undergraduate student at Florida State University. It did not take long for me to discover that, much to my surprise, Buddhism was not so much a religion as it was a philosophy. The Buddhist perspective on life and the conditions which are a part of every human life resonated with me even at age 18. After I completed my Master’s Degree in Holistic Studies, my alma mater, John F. Kennedy University offered its first Certificate in Buddhist Psychology. This was a year-long series of courses about how Buddhist philosophy both relates and applies to psychotherapeutic endeavors. It was an exciting time, as JFKU was only the second university in the US to offer a certificate program on Buddhist Psychology.

 

The central tenets of Buddhism are known as The 4 Noble Truths:

1. Life means suffering – To be embodied as a human being involves both physical and emotional suffering

2. The origin of suffering is attachment – Everything is constantly in flux, constantly changing

3. The cessation of suffering is attainable – Through cultivating non-attachment we can stop the cycle of suffering

4. The path to the cessation of suffering – Suffering can be mitigated or altogether eliminated through following the Eightfold Path, which includes instructions for living ethically, developing one’s mind, and attaining wisdom

 

This basic framework is analogous to the way in which we Westerners view mental disorders, as it includes:

1. The identification of symptoms

2. The etiology of those symptoms

3. A prognosis

4. Treatment prescription

(Germer, Christopher K., Ronald D. Siegel, and Paul R. Fulton. Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. New York: Guilford, 2005. Print).

Both mindfulness meditation practice and psychotherapy were developed to alleviate human suffering.

The way in which I have found that having a Buddhist perspective affects my private psychotherapy practice is two-fold. Coming to the therapeutic endeavor with an understanding about the roots and causes of suffering has enabled me to cultivate compassion in my own life and has also allowed me to approach this work with great empathy for my clients and an awareness of the human condition as we all experience it.

Additionally, having developed my own mindfulness practice (which is #7 on the Eightfold Path) I am able to teach these skills to my clients such that they can begin to gain a deeper understanding of themselves. By beginning to observe their own minds and practice introspection, clients can expand their experience of themselves. This ability to look inside and discuss one’s thoughts and feelings have always been a cornerstone of the psychotherapeutic process. By turning inward in mindfulness meditation, we are able to notice the tendencies of our minds which enables us to see our own patterns or ways of being in the world, and ultimately, it frees us up to make new choices.

Are you conscious of the choices you are making?