For several decades, psychologists in the western world have been turning eastward in an effort to better understand the psychological offerings of Buddhism. Buddhism, in short, contains a broad range of concepts, many of which have direct import for contemporary psychology. Indeed, often described as a “religion,” “spiritual practice” or simply as “a way of life,” Buddhism tends to escape simple classification, containing ideas that may be useful in therapy.
To begin, there are several major schools of Buddhism, most notably “Zen,” Tibetan,” and “Mahayana,” and it remains important to note that not all of these denominations practice the same things. That said, however, a myriad of common ideas do echo throughout Buddhism as a whole, ideas that can be applied to principles in western psychology, ideas such as “zazen.”
Zazen is a form of seated meditation. Like many concepts in Buddhism, meditation, too, remains elusive because there are many different variations, including walking meditation and yoga. Zazen, however, involves a way for practitioners to gain insight into reality. Practicing seated meditation—controlled breathing and the like—induces relaxation and contemplation. These outcomes have been demonstrated to reduce anxiety and may even improve one’s mood—goals often identified in traditional western therapy.
Another idea found all throughout the Buddhism spectrum that parallels concepts found in western psychology is mindfulness. Mindfulness, in general, enables individuals to become more aware of their lives and their surroundings. Mindfulness, like zazen, tends to transcend religious dogma, as it can remain useful for individuals who seek relief from anxiety and stress. Buddhists practice this concept in many contexts, including mindful walking, mindful eating, and mindful speech. Becoming more mindful not only enables better awareness but it also may lead to healthful thoughts and a better attitude in general.
One core Buddhist idea is “The Noble Eightfold Path.” Composed of eight moral precepts, The Noble Eightfold Path may have import for western psychology because of its emphasis on “right concentration” and “right view.” Western psychologist may recognize these concepts as “objective thinking.” In other words, western therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) emphasize the role of rational thinking in order to negate irrational thoughts, which may cause unpleasant feelings and emotions. The same may be said for the Buddhist’s Noble Eightfold Path. Its aim remains to liberate practitioners from unpleasant thoughts.
Another element of The Nobel Eightfold Path is “right action.” Perhaps this could be understood in western psychology as developing healthful behaviors. For instance, individuals who hope to lose weight or stop smoking may think of creating new, healthful habits as “right action.” Some schools of western psychology emphasize the important role of behaviors and behaviorism. And although not all agree on this point, it remains important to note that proper behavior may remain as important as proper thinking.
A final parallel between western psychology and The Noble Eightfold Path remains “right intention.” Right intention, similar to right view, involves developing healthful thinking habits. Depressed individuals, for instance, may get caught in something of a negative feedback loop, where a series of negative thoughts (e.g., “I’m not a decent person” or “I don’t like the way I look”) can develop in to depressed feelings.
The origins of Buddhism date back more than 2,500 years, but only now are westerners beginning to discover what this ancient spiritual practice has to offer. Buddhist concepts such as zazen, mindfulness and The Nobel Eightfold Path parallel concepts in western psychology. As this unlikely parallel continues, perhaps both the concepts of Buddhism and western psychology can benefit from each other. For example, new frontiers are opening as contemporary science begins to use technology to probe deeper in to the ancient Buddhist practices. Medical and science journals are littered with studies that largely confirm the validity and efficacy of certain eastern practices such as yoga and meditation. Finally, as this continues, perhaps the once-believed gap between western psychology and Buddhism may become narrower and narrower.