Buddhist meditation and Psychotherapy

June 8, 2006 at 2:20 pm 8 comments

Comments would be appreciated.

This essay shall explore the multi-layered relationship between Buddhist meditation and Western psychotherapy. This is performed to investigate the notion that Buddhist meditation may replace psychotherapy. While I concede that Buddhist meditation has performed the role of western psychotherapy and shares many similarities, it is not in fact the same, and should not act to replace psychotherapy. Rather, the two disciplines in actual fact share an enriching dialogue in their prime concern, the alleviation of suffering. This shall be demonstrated through a review of the positive and negative results and aspects of Buddhist meditation and ‘mindful’ meditation.

Buddhist meditation techniques have been divided into two different, but often interrelated practices; that of ‘insight’, ‘mindfulness’ or traditionally, Vipassana and concentration meditation. Studies on the efficacious nature of meditation and in therapeutic practice have been primarily focused on mindful or Vipassana meditation. Mindful meditation involves the focus on one’s attention on the present experiences on a moment to moment basis: both cognitive and physical occurrences are noted in a strict attitude of non-judgement. The aim of this practice is to recognise the distinction between the thinker and the thought. One aims to identify non-judgementally different thought processes, emotions and actions, with the goal that one will realise that suffering is the result of attachment to impermanent aspects of all human experience.

The study of the effects of mindful meditation on Buddhist practitioners has demonstrated it to be a tool for positive psychological change by Western standards. T. Emavardhana and C. Tori performed a study on participants in a week long Vipassana retreat. The retreat involved an eighteen hour day that consisted of extensive periods of meditation, dharma sermons and morning and evening prayer. Emavarda and Tori found that the meditator’s, in contrast to a control group, displayed post-retreat changes of higher self concepts, self-representation and self-esteem. Furthermore, the meditator’s also displayed decreased displacement, projection and regression tendencies. The meditators also reported to be less distracted by external stimuli, and have more control over reckless pleasure seeking behaviour. Similar, although not identical results were found by Douglas MacPhillany in his five year study of Zen monastism in the United State of America.

Due to the findings of studies such as these, there has been an integration of mindfulness practices into clinical therapeutic settings. However, it must be noted that many of the applications of mindfulness have removed these practices from its Buddhist framework. Mindfulness techniques have been utilised in cognitive behaviour therapy, psychoanalysis and forms a central component of dialectic behaviour therapy. It has been found effective in the treatment of stress, depression, anxiety, drug use and eating disorders.

The most basic use of mindfulness in a clinical setting has been as a form of relaxation. Meditation has been found to be more successful than other forms of relaxation in reducing chronic tension, “neuroticism”, introversion and drug use. In more complex applications, the use of mindfulness has been found to be a powerful tool in promoting clients to recognise their cognitive and behavioural processes, whilst also accepting their past and themselves.

A prime example of the use of mindfulness in therapy can be found in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), as utilised by John Teasdale. Teasdale utilised mindfulness techniques in the prevention of depressive relapses. The basis of Teasdale studies works on the notion that depressive relapse is caused when the individual enters into a dysphoric state which reactivates a return to depressive thinking pattens of the previous episode, thus causing a new episode. Mindfulness techniques are used to help the individual recognise thoughts and “just thoughts” and the distinction between self, thought and event. This process, used in conjunction with cognitive therapy has been found to be highly effective in reducing depressive relapse in patients with three previous episodes from 78% to 36%. Teasdale’s study also found that MBCT modifies the autobiographical memory of depressives: producing fewer generalised memories in exchange for more specific and less value laden memories.

The effectiveness of the above techniques has resulted in some therapists recommending the use of mindfulness meditation in general therapeutic practice. This is due to both its efficacious nature, and the fact that it can be utilised by the client outside of clinical settings: providing a continuous source of self-therapy and remaining relatively cost-effective. However, despite the positive picture outlined above, the relation between Buddhist meditation and psychotherapy is in fact problematic. In lieu of the glowing statement provided Jung above, Jung also noted that the use of Eastern ideas by Westerners is inherently problematic. Indeed, the transcendence of the self which is central to enlightenment for Buddhism can be seen to be inherently at odds with the central Western concepts of acquisition, individualism and self-fulfilment. This tension between Western and East concepts of the self is also central to the relationship between Buddhism and Western psychotherapy.

As noted above, both Buddhism and psychotherapy have many similarities. One central similarity is the concentration on the ‘self’. However, the approach towards the self of these two disciplines can be said to be, “diametrically opposed.” Within Buddhism, the achievement of enlightenment is the transcendence of the self. Essentially, enlightenment is related to the recognition of ‘no-self’, that the self is an illusory concept. The notion of a permanent self instead of the acknowledgement of that the non-self is impermanent and in constant flux is the source of much suffering. In stark contrast, from the very beginning of modern psychology with Freud, the construction of an integrated and whole self is the centre point of psychotherapeutic practice. This can involve, for example, the integration of past experiences within the current self or the regulation reflections on the self. Indeed, as Jack Engler notes, a fragmented or lack of sense of self is considered the basis for some of the most severe psychological disorders. This severe dichotomy is indeed problematic, and causes considerable tension between the two disciplines. Rasco however, believes the tension to be based on a semantic misunderstanding. Rasco maintains that the extinction of the self would be more accurately understood as a detachment from the self, which involves the development of a “healthy ego” as the relinquishment of destructive defences to arrive at the underlying conflict. While Rasco’s point that both disciplines aim to destroy defence mechanisms to arrive at and resolve the underlying conflicts, her statement may also be criticised. The notion that Buddhism aims to develop a, “healthy ego” is at odds with the Buddhist notion of an impermanent, fluctuating no-self. Furthermore, as I shall demonstrate, the practice of transcending self can be deeply problematic.

Buddhist and secularised mindful meditation can clearly elicit positive psychological responses. However, both are not necessarily always effective. Jeffrey Rubin has provided a considerable critique of the effective nature of Buddhist meditation as a psychological tool. Rubin focuses on traits of Buddhist beliefs and meditative, similar to those above. For Rubin, the explanation as to why Buddhist meditation doesn’t always produce psychological growth lies largely in its, “aversive relationship to emotional life.” Indeed, in Buddhist thought, meditation is essential on the path to enlightenment due to its power to purify the mind of its various defilements. This exact attitude is considered by Rubin to be inherently problematic. To transcend, or disregard such ‘negative’ emotions and thoughts as guilt, shame and anger may for some be beneficial. However, as Rubin notes, this acts to prevent the individual from perceiving the true contours of her emotions and events, and fail to learn from them.

Rubin asserts that the practice of “letting go” in meditation can have similar charges lain against it. While I believe Rubin rightly notes that at times, a continuing, perhaps even obsessional cognitive event should in fact be investigate and solved at the root of the problem rather than “let go of.” To illustrate, Rubin uses an example of a meditator and non-meditator driving a car to a weekend meditation retreat. Halfway through the trip, a “knocking sound” begins emanating from the engine. The non-meditator begins to show concern, electing reassurance from the meditator to “let go” of her concern, that the noises are impermanent and are meaningless. However, asserts Rubin, the noises may in fact represent a serious problem within the engine of the car, that could result in serious injury for the driver and others. While this may be semantic, perhaps Rubin’s example is too exaggerated. Its exaggeration, and its attempt to show the non-sensical nature of beliefs is reminiscent of the Eurocentric story of the determinist Muslim who watched his donkey die in the desert, due to his belief that it was pre-determined. That being said, Rubin’s assertion that the Buddhist aversion to the emotional life is the cause of its sometime ineffectiveness is perhaps the best available approach.

Beyond the problem of varying degrees of effect, mindful meditation is associated with more negative phenomenon. As Roger Walsh and Shauna Shapiro have noted, “anything that it powerful enough to heal, is also powerful enough to harm.” In the most severe instances, mindful meditation has been associated with psychosis and mania. This has been associated with both individuals with previous history of psychosis and schizotypal disorders and in individuals without any such histories. However, these are rare, and lack empiric evidence. In more moderate cases, meditative practices have resulted in depersonalisation, anxiety, altered reality testing the at times uncontrollable emergence of negative memories, and a post-meditation increase in negative thought. This is associated with both Buddhist and secular applications of mindfulness, however, T. Emavardhana has stated that severe anxiety, the emergence of negative memories and experiences and exacerbation of previous psychological problems is specifically related to the attempt to transcend the self. These problems clearly make the relationship between Buddhist and secularised meditation to psychotherapy problematic. Indeed, one may have to seriously consider the range of possible effects of meditation before recommending it as a failsafe tool for psychotherapeutic health.

This essay has considered the relationship between Buddhist meditation and psychotherapy. This relationship is in fact multi-faceted. Thus, one must consider that Buddhist meditation for some has and will continue to be used in lieu of Western psychotherapy. That Buddhist meditation is an appropriate tool for psychological change is demonstrated in both its long history, and through Western psychological studies. However, as demonstrated by Rubin, Buddhist meditation isn’t definite in achieving mental health, largely due to its derogatory relationship to emotional life. Furthermore, it can also have severe adverse effects. As I have covered, another aspect in the relationship between Buddhist meditation and psychotherapy can be seen in the use of secularised mindful techniques in the therapeutic process. While these avoid the problems of Buddhist meditation as outlined by Rubin, they are also connected with the same adverse effects that are associated with Buddhist meditation. In conclusion, this relationship has had a course of continuing fluidity between both disciplines. It is clear that both disciplines in their practice of mindfulness are problematic, however, a continuing fluid dialogue may produce further more promising results.


Entry filed under: Buddhism, Meditation, Mindfulness, Psychotherapy.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Marcello Spinella  |  September 23, 2006 at 2:04 am

    Hello Ariel,

    I am a psychologist and I study Buddhism. I have to disagree with Rubin’s assessment of Buddhist meditation. It appears that he has misconceptions about what it is. In no way does Buddhism have derogatory attitudes toward emotion. The purpose of it is not to eliminate emotion, but rather develop a more adaptive way of managing emotion.

    The Buddhist approach is nearly identical to the approach of cognitive psychotherapy: to improve emotional condition by altering the thought process. Mindfulness meditation is one of many techniques Buddhism uses to accomplish this The purpose is not to eliminate all emotion, but rather to experience a healthy degree of emotion since extreme emotions distort cognition, effective coping, and impair insight. Albert Ellis, one of the originators of cognitive psychotherapy, explicitly cites the Buddha and Roman stoic philosophers originators of the ideas that he adapted for psychotherapy.

    If Rubin’s assessment was correct, then it would have been impossible for Teasdale to achieve the results that he has. Furthermore, mindfulness meditation techniques have been demonstrated effective in many empirical studies for treatment of stress, anxiety, depression, addiction, and other conditions.

    I liked your essay by the way. It was a good summary of the topic.

  • 2. Ronald Cowen  |  October 12, 2006 at 11:47 pm

    Dear Arielsexegesis

    You imply that both meditation and modern psychotherapy focus on the “self.” There is great merit in this but, in my view, it is not the direction of future development in meditation and psychotherapy. Focus on the self has reached a plateau in both fields. In 1979, Trevarthen discovered “primary intersubjectivity,” the fact that infants accurately estimate the subjectivity of their mothers. This discovery is to psychology as the Michelson-Morley experiment was to physics because it presents facts that cannot be explained by modern psychology. And traditional meditation theory has been silent about the nature and development of the intersubjective even though Vajrayana Buddhism and Tantric Hinduism make extensive reference to it. The new focus, I predict, will be on the intersubjective or interpersonal. On my blog, myinsights.typepad.com, I have entered a post named “Meditation” that provides a summary of my point of view. I have also written a book called Interpersonal Enlightenment: A Path to Love and Friendship that develops my insights in depth.

    I look forward to your feedback,
    Ronald Cowen

  • 3. Dhammasiri  |  April 19, 2007 at 6:42 am

    i have been making meditation but i am yet unable to understand the natuer of meditation, when i am meditating i feel lot of sexual feeling as well my mind asks my girl friend, how can i cortroal my mind please help me

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  • 6. Maximus  |  December 20, 2007 at 12:57 pm

    I would like to see a continuation of the topic

  • 7. Liza  |  April 22, 2009 at 6:57 am

    After reading through this article, I just feel that I need more info. Can you suggest some resources please?

  • 8. Bethesda Psychotherapy  |  November 17, 2009 at 3:38 pm

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