Buddhist Psychology and Psychotherapy

I think of Buddhism as an ancient psychological theory that de-mystifies some of the mysteries of the human mind. I practice Buddhism because I'm personally drawn to its teachings about the mind, and I bring Buddhism's insights and methods into my work as a psychotherapist.

I was introduced to Buddhism on a trip to Southeast Asia in 1989, and was attracted to it in part because it doesn't ask me to take anything on faith. Instead Buddhism says "don't believe anything you haven't experienced". Buddhists learn about the mind (including its thoughts and feelings) by studying their own minds. For 2500 years, Buddhist scholars have woven a fabric out of countless threads of personal insights about the nature of the mind, and together these constitute a rich psychological tradition, as rich as Freudianism, behaviorism and the other "Western" psychologies.

The main psychological insights in Buddhist thought are embodied in the Four Noble Truths. Here's my own translation of and understanding of these truths, along with some thoughts about their application in psychotherapy.

The first Noble Truth is the "Truth of Pain": It says that as living beings, it is guaranteed that we will experience hurt. Feelings like disappointment, confusion, sadness, fear, pain of loss - these are not signs of our failings or of mental sickness, but are inherent in our humanness. Since pain is inevitable, what matters in Buddhism is not whether we hurt, but how we hurt.

The second Noble Truth is the "Truth of the Cause of Suffering": All suffering, according to Buddhism, has the same cause: All suffering is caused by our attachments. We're all attached, even addicted, to the idea that reality should conform to our beliefs and expectations about how things are supposed to be. "My relationship ended six months ago, I should be over it by now!" "That felt good, I want/need/deserve more of that in my life." "I'm not supposed to feel this way, I'm supposed to feel better/different."

This kind of thinking causes suffering. Although pain is inevitable, suffering is something we create by our attachments. So Buddhism distinguishes between (for example) the pain of injury and the suffering caused by things like anger ("why did this happen to me?!") and fear ("will I ever get better!?"). We suffer because we forget the First Noble Truth, the "Truth of Pain".

The third Noble Truth is the "Truth of the Release from Suffering": It's possible, according to this Truth, to get beyond suffering-about-pain. We can't avoid pain, and yet we also suffer because we forget. We think there's something wrong with us, that there's something wrong in the fact that we experience pain as part of life. By understanding the mind's tendency to demand what it likes and to reject what it doesn't like, we can learn to transcend suffering.

The fourth Noble Truth is the "Truth of the Path". Here Buddhism gives us a methodology. It says: Study your mind. Observe your thoughts and feelings deeply. Watch how you tend to stiffen, to turn away from, to turn against, certain experiences. Watch how you bristle when you don't get what you want, or when you're uncomfortable, bored, unsatisfied. Watch how you get attached to thinking you know what's good for you and what's bad for you, what's right and what's wrong, how things are supposed to be. Buddhism reminds us that Things Are As They Are, not as we wish them to be. The Path involves learning how the mind works when it encounters attachments and resistances, and how to encounter them more skillfully. The Path is promoted as the means to escape suffering: Our studies of the mind teach us how the mind creates suffering and then how to create peace instead.

Most Buddhists employ sitting meditation: To study the mind, one sits quietly and observes the mind when it has very little to do (often, only one simple instruction: to follow the breath as it flows in and out). Meditation is practice, literally practice at observing the mind.

In certain kinds of psychological, you practice observing the mind in relationship with another mind (the psychologist). With an experienced professional at your side, you can learn to observe your thoughts and feelings, including your pain and discomfort. You'll discover the choices you've been making, and the ones you have not been making. You'll learn about how to be with the pain, and about how to be in the world. And you'll learn to observe your mind with an attitude of light-hearted curiosity, of acceptance and compassion you'll learn that any judgments you make about your mind's workings are just another way to create suffering.

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