Buddhism and Psychology

Buddhism and Psychology

This is what I offer to my students when I teach diversity courses. It is my personal understanding, which is based on my own readings, experiences, and insights, as well as my own intellectualizations, blind spots, and misunderstandings.

Thus… don’t take this as a comprehensive and scholarly review of the concepts, but rather an incomplete introduction to this way of thinking.

Why Are We Talking About Buddhism And Psychology?

dalailamaAt one level, Buddhism represents a cultural difference or worldview that most of us Westerners know little about. As the US population becomes more diverse, we mental health professionals will need to know more about diverse ideas and worldviews, as we will be working with those who hold them. Some might say… in the Western culture, the more spiritual and “inward facing” approach of Eastern spirituality and philosophy is something we’ve been looking for.

thichnhathahnShonin et al (2014) say 25% of British people report they meditate, while only 6.5% of American people say the same. As the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh have both won Nobel Peace Prizes, maybe people all over the world are interested in this too… and we in America are just a little behind the times.

At another level, there is neurological data showing that regular meditation results in positive brain changes and growth in gray matter. As a result, Buddhist practices could be seen as “health-maintaining behaviors” that are becoming more popular. Given that psychologists in the future will spend more time working collaboratively with other kinds of health care professionals, and more time addressing healthy functioning rather than just problems, we mental health professionals probably should learn more about these kinds of mind-body-spirit practices in order to be helpful to our clients.

At another level, Buddhist ideas offer a way to work with religion and spirituality more generally, a way that incorporates, or is at least friendly to, many worldviews, religions, and belief systems. As interest (both our own and our clients’) in working with spiritually sensitive and effective treatments increases, the way we mental health professionals understand the interaction between the psychological and spiritual realm will become more and more important.

Shonin et al (2014) refer to BDIBuddhist Derived Interventions, or mixing Buddhist philosophy with clinical interventions. They caution while there is some research to support doing this, the research is not conclusive for many reasons (small samples, uncertain adherence to treatment, reliance on self-report…). Further, there is also no model to guide psychologists in correctly integrating Buddhist concepts into treatment. As a result, some psychologists may be incorrectly incorporating Buddhist concepts into their work, and/or causing confusion and harm. Thus… before you incorporate these kinds of practices into your clinical work, do some reading and talk to some Buddhists… then do some more reading and talk some more to Buddhists….

So What Is Buddhism To A Psychologist?

(from Wallace et al, 2006)

The Buddhist tradition goes back 2500 years, and has always been focused on the meaning of our lives, the causes of suffering, and what we can do about suffering. Thus, it is compatible with psychology in a broad sense. Wallace et al (2006) offer several insights of Buddhism.

First, we all seek happiness in our lives. That happiness, however, will not come from external people, experiences, objects… which are all impermanent. In fact, looking there is likely to lead to an emotional roller coaster of sorts. We become happy when we get what we want, sad when it ends (which, inevitably, it must), worried about how we will find more of it, fearful our source of happiness will run out, angry when others seem to block our happiness, depressed when we think we won’t find it again….

This does not mean that Buddhists feel no happiness or sadness. Rather, it means that they view happiness and sadness as inevitable parts of life. Both are short-term, and we should not become attached to always finding happiness and to always avoiding unhappiness.

Wallace et al (2006) note that people who win the lottery are happier… for a short time, and then return to their prior levels of happiness, despite having access to more possessions and such. Some researchers divide people into “maximizers,” who are always looking for the maximum happiness, and “satisfieds,” who are content with what they have. Because the first focus on what they are missing, they are never really happy with what they have because they keep watching for something better. Because the second are satisfied with what they have, they enjoy it.

  • There is an old Chinese saying that he who knows enough is enough will always have enough.
  • If this seems odd, think about the friend who saves their money for months to buy something they really want, but they don’t buy it when they are able to afford it because it might go on sale somewhere (thus, they deprive themselves of the enjoyment they could have).
  • When it goes on sale, they finally buy it… then become upset because someone else has it on sale for less (thus, they fail to enjoy it when they have it).
  • Social psychologists sometimes call this “buyer’s remorse” because the buyer feels some regret as soon as they have bought something they wanted. If this seems hard to understand, think about the people who buy a new car and say, “You know, it starts losing value the moment you drive it off the lot…” or the people who buy a new home and say, “I bet we could have gotten a better deal if we have bargained harder…” They have a new car or home, but they focus on an imagined loss instead of their good fortune.

Writers seem to divide Buddhism into three main baskets – while there are many traditions that are mostly contained within one basket and many that seem to go in more than one of these baskets, this three large groupings can be helpful:

  • Theravada – this is based more on the “original word” of Buddha, and texts which (translated) tell stories of Buddha’s teachings with the words “the Buddha said…” rather than stories about the message the listeners took from Buddha’s teaching.
  • Mahayana – this is based more on the value of compassion and emptiness in life choices.
  • Vajrayana – this is based more on the nature of the mind, spiritual practices, and faith in a spiritual guru to guide.

Of note, the Dalai Lama seems to draw upon all three traditions.

How Mental Health Can Be Seen Within a Buddhist Framework

Mental balance as described by Wallace et al (2006) includes four areas.


This includes setting priorities and goals with intention and persistence, with motivation – theories of therapeutic change include that this is required for healthy growth… think about the difference between saying “I really need to go to the gym” … and getting a membership… and actually going to the gym, even when you are tired, carrying your gym stuff is a hassle, the weather is bad…


A healthy person or person in balance would be working toward their own and others’ well-being, which would require reflecting on their goals and considering what would happen (for them and for others) if they reached them. They would understand the impermanence of life, remained detached from external things to curb cravings and desires, and thus experience contentment

An unhealthy person or person out of balance might have little motivation or imagination, be apathetic, and despair…Or they might also be overly fixated on some things, driven to excess and to achieve no matter the cost, or addicted…


This includes focus on priorities and goals in daily life. Wallace et al (2006) use an old example of riding a horse:

  • Focus means intending to ride the horse and stay on the trail.
  • Attention or vigilance means noticing that you have started to wander. We tend to think of our mind as the horse in this case and “me” as the rider of the horse. Thus, attention is realizing we have wandered off the trail or starting thinking about other things. We like to say our mind wanders, but… our mind is not separate from us; really, we are the one doing the wandering.
  • After we wander off, we will ourselves to return to the trail. This is not trying to suppress or push away distracting thoughts (that would be putting energy and effort into them). Rather, we calmly and simply let go of the distractions.

Mindfulness … is not never wandering off, but rather having the focus to try to stay on the trail, the attention to see you are off it, and the will to return to it.

In the West, attention has sometimes been thought of as flow (by Csikszentmihalyi) or being “in the zone,” which is somewhat similar but not completely the same. This is what Wegela (2011) calls “brilliant sanity,” or moments of being completely and fully present there and then.

However, mindfulness is more than just attention. Two Western views of mindfulness are seen in the work of Hayes and Langer:

  • Hayes sees mindfulness as more like the shamatha Buddhist model of meditation. The highs and lows of life are normal and expected. The goal of mindfulness is to disentangle from them, quiet the mind, and find wisdom there. We notice our thoughts and emotions in a non-judgmental way and then let them go, so that we do not get too entangled in the world. In a sense, the point of meditation is to hold on to a sense of mindfulness so you can move through the world.
    • Shonin et al (2014) note this idea of being non-judgmental is confusing. While a Buddhist would not judge his or her thoughts and feelings, some judgment is required to examine actions and choices, as Buddhists do believe in ethical living. Judgment does not mean being attached to rigid rules of right and wrong; rather, judgment means considering the consequences of your actions.
    • I read a fiction story with a character named Bernard, a religious leader in a medieval place and time, who was noted to have “three passions: God, rules, and enforcing rules.” As the story develops, the reader realizes that Bernard is being deceived by the main character. However, Bernard does not consider this, and when the evidence becomes overwhelming… he thinks he is being tested, and so must hold fast to his conclusions no matter what the evidence seems to show. He is attached to his rules and truths about the world, he judges he would be nothing without them, and so he cannot change or see what is happening around him.
  • Langer sees mindfulness as more of the quieting of the mind, which allows you to then take in new information and perspectives in a non-judgmental way. After this quieting, you engage the world again, but in a more balanced and enlightened way. This is somewhat like the vipashyana Buddhist model of meditation, in which you question your thoughts and reflect on your actions to uproot sources of unhappiness (delusions) in your life. Afterward, you go back into the world to live and engage again. In a sense, the point of meditation is to hold on to a sense of mindfulness so you can share it with others.

This is an interesting concept… in part because it is what a Buddhist therapist would try to encourage and share with others, and in part because this is what the therapist (regardless of their theory) tries to do in therapy sessions. The therapist tries to be fully present in the moment with the client, and fully focused on the thoughts, feelings, experiences… that the client chooses to share with the therapist, and the way they make meaning of them.


A healthy person or person in balance would be able to direct their attention to the present moment, the people and events going on right in front of them. Sometimes they would simply enjoy the moment. At others times, they would catch themselves disengaging to worry, resent, judge… and prompt themselves to re-engage without such judgments and demands. They could then engage the world in a nonjudgmental way and share that calm with others.

An unhealthy person or person out of balance would struggle to be present in the moments of life. Their worries, fears, conflicts, past hurts… would be like distractions that constantly enticed them to leave the trail, wander away from what was happening right in front of them to an unhappy place. Thus, they would have mostly unhappy and distressing things to share with others.


This includes clear thinking and reasoning about ourselves and the world around us.

Westerners tend to see the “self” as a stable thing; while it does develop and change, it does so in understandable and predictable ways.

  • Shonin et al (2014) discuss the non-self or idea that what we Westerners think of as “the self” (what we mean when we say “I” and “me”) doesn’t really exist. We are one thing one minute, and another thing the next minute. We are one thing in one setting/system, and something different in another setting/system. We are impermanent.
  • One Buddhist idea is that the cause of suffering is making the impermanent permanent. A friend once explained this to me with a story. One day, her husband came home and was in a really grumpy mood. She thought, “What have I done? I’ve married a really grumpy man!” In that moment, he was a really grumpy man. In the next moment… who knows what he would be then? If she held on to the impermanent judgment “He is a really grumpy man” then she would be watching for him to be grumpy. Any “non-grumpy” behavior would go unnoticed, and any “slightly grumpy” behavior would be noticed and cataloged as evidence to support “He is a really grumpy man.” Thus, by making the impermanent moment a permanent one, she would script their interactions, regardless of what he actually felt or how he actually was trying to be when he interacted with her.

This is present even in the way Buddhists talk about these issues. “A healthy person” and “an unhealthy person” sound permanent, stable, continual. “A person in balance” and “a person out of balance” seem to imply that either could change. Being in balance takes work, and so is not something to take for granted. Being out of balance… well that requires work too, but the point is that this state can change too.

Another idea of Buddhists is that suffering comes from not accepting the world as it is but instead focusing on how we would have it. By doing this, we perceive the world in terms of how we expect it to work. When the world doesn’t behave as we expect… which it will do because it is an imperfect, impermanent, sometimes chaotic place… we get upset.

  • Narrative therapists liken this to having a map of the land around us, and using the map to guide us, rather than just looking at the land. If it is a very, very good map, we may be fine.
  • However, we will eventually come to something not on the map. We then can become upset that something is not on the map, instead of dealing with what is literally in front of us.

Shonin et al (2014) note this is a difficult concept. Are we stable, permanent, predictable beings (one extreme), or unstable, impermanent, unpredictable beings (the other extreme)? If you think about it, the first view means we should be able to reduce all human behavior and experience down to a mathematical formula, because we are easy to predict. The second though would mean we can’t predict what people will do, and so it is pointless to predict. We like to at least think of ourselves as being somewhere in the middle.

Interestingly, Buddha took what he called the middle way. He did not endorse asceticism and denying oneself of all worldly pleasures (as if believing that nothing is “real,” and so nothing in the world is worth wasting time and attention on). Buddha did not endorse hedonism and seeking pleasure (as if believing only our experience of the world is “real,” and so that should take up all our time and attention). Rather, he sought a middle course, a way to be in the world without being defined by it. We can experience impermanent things as being “real” and permanent, but we have to realize this is the natural mind asserting itself… and not what is really important.

  • There is a Daoist story about a man who had a dream he was a butterfly. In the dream, he flew around, contented and happy, with no idea he was a human with troubles. When he awoke, he remembered he was a human with troubles, and sadly missed being a contented butterfly. So… what is he? A man who dreamed he was a butterfly? A butterfly who fell asleep and is now dreaming he is a man?
  • Daoists would say the answer is… unimportant. Asking which one is real is asking an irrelevant question. How could either the man or the butterfly know he/it is “real” and the other is “illusion”? Neither can do this. Instead, the butterfly has to live as a butterfly. The man has to live as a man. Both focus on finding their place in the world (their dhama), regardless of whether someone judges their life as “real.”

This is also a way that Buddhist ideas can be brought into treatment of trauma victims. We say “I am traumatized” or “I am a victim” or “I am hurt”… “Am” is like = (an equal sign) in a mathematical equation. “I” is on one side of the equation, while their pain is on the other side. The equal sign means “I” and “trauma/victim/hurt” are the same thing.

This is why Wilson proposes that language causes suffering. When we send and receive messages like “You should be happy” or “Don’t say that” or “Stop being a baby” or “You never could do this”… we record these messages with language and replay them in our minds. This takes us away from the present moment, from whatever is really happening for that moment. These messages prompt us to focus our thoughts on some past or future moment… to continually judge our current behavior by some set of rules or expectations… or to struggle to permanently deny the impermanent is real for that moment.

A Buddhist would say that we do feel these things… and many, many other things too. Defining ourselves this way makes the impermanent permanent, and focuses us on the inherent wrong of the world rather than the goodness in us. This distracts us from thinking about finding a way to live in the world.

One way to describe what therapists do is to say we tell people that they are not what they think they are. They are not the pain or the trauma… they can feel these things, talk about these things, remember these things here and now… and yet they can still be something very different from that pain and trauma. The problem is… they have forgotten that, or forgotten who they really were before, during, and now after their trauma.

As Shonin et al (2014) note, this kind of thinking can be a very freeing concept, but delivered at the wrong time or in the wrong way can be a hurtful one. It can feel as though we are dismissing people’s experiences and pain.

However, we don’t tend to think of ourselves this way in the West. We express our feelings this way, send these messages this way, and see therapists who ask all about these feelings and messages… and in doing so, unwittingly reinforce these feelings and messages. Shonin at el (2014) go so far as to suggest we consider a new disorder – whereas hallucinations are perceiving things that are not real, his new disorder entails not perceiving what is real. As a result, most of the Western civilization would be diagnosed as mentally ill.

While I do not think they really mean to propose a new disorder, thinking about doing this highlights just how very, very different Eastern and Western views can be.


A healthy person or person in balance would be able to know the present moment without judging. If you prefer, it is seeing the person and the moment as they are, rather than classifying them and sorting them into boxes and categories.

An unhealthy person or person out of balance might go from moment to moment without being aware (which gives the word “absent-minded” a new meaning). They might be too caught up in their racing thoughts, obsessive worries, etc… or misperceive reality around them and become consumed with that… or constantly struggle with making sense of why the world is not what they believe it ought to be.


This includes a sense of calm and emotionally stability or regulation. This is achieved in part through detachment.

In the West, we think of attachment as a requirement for healthy development. The Buddhist model, however, sees attachment as investing energy in people, things, experiences, etc… that do not warrant this attention. An interaction with another person may bring you happiness, and you can enjoy that in the moment. However, you can’t expect all interactions with that person to bring you happiness, or that most of your happy interactions in life would be with that person. This would be putting too much energy into this relationship and becoming attached to something that will not last. Understanding emptiness and impermanence means we know others cannot be that for us.

  • When I teach couples therapy, I teach about Emotionally Focused Therapy, which is based in part on valuing attachments and repairing attachment injuries. I teach the theory with a song by Mary Chapin Carpenter. In it, she sings about how the “soul mate” we hope another person will be… is impossible for them to be, so it is “too much to expect” the other to be perfect. However, that desire is not unhealthy or neurotic; rather, it is quite normal, and so “it’s too much to expect, but it’s not too much to ask” that we both try our best and both be forgiving when we fail.

pemachodronPema Chodrin suggests that when you meditate, you can use the mantra “calm, peaceful, abiding” meaning you are focused on reminding yourself to be emotionally calm, peaceful rather than tense and in conflict, and “abiding” or accepting of the world and people in it for what they, are each moment. This, she says, leads to great patience.

Shonin et al (2014) offer this idea of equanimity is complex. By seeing the interconnections between people and the world, people no longer are really that important. When something (plants, animals, people) die, it decomposes and provides nutrients for other living things. When something is burned it is destroyed, but the destruction of one thing leaves room for the creation of another thing. It’s all part of a whole, so everything is part of the interconnected system. Thus, being kind to someone is being kind to yourself, and being angry with them is being angry with yourself.

  • Thinking this way can allow for great compassion or empathy for others’ suffering as part of the human condition, part of our own condition, and then offering caring for others without an expectation of a return for us. It allows for kindness that is selfless, and given to enemies and friends alike (since they are both really parts of the larger system, just like me).
  • It can also allow for great generosity or wishing them well-being (or acting to support their well-being) just as much as you would wish that for yourself.
  • If this seems odd, think about the saying, “Hating someone is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick” or “The people who really annoy you can teach you something about yourself.”


A healthy person or person in balance would be mindful as they move through daily life, would feel compassion and kindness toward others, act with equanimity, and try to cultivate emotional stability or detachment from the various ups and downs of life.

An unhealthy person or person out of balance would struggle with this. Feelings of stress and anxiety, judgments of failure and inadequacy, would lead them to feel like a boat in a storm, pulled and pushed one way and then another. This makes it hard to be compassionate and patient, and to accept the world and people in it the way they are.

In closing, I would offer that learning about the basic ideas, goals, and perspectives of Buddhism offers us a way to understand and help people from other cultures who might be very different from us. However, more than that, it gives us a better way to simply understand the human condition, and with that understanding help people.