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  • Written by  Miles Neale
  • // Saturday, 04 February 2012 20:50
Miles Neale

What Buddhist Psychotherapy Really Is: Part 1 Objectives & Goal

Buddhist psychotherapy, which has been adopted in the last several decades, is a novel approach to the clinical practice of mental health. It combines aspects of conventional psychotherapy with traditional Buddhist psychological theory and practice.  Because there are several sub-schools of psychotherapy and Buddhism from which to integrate, there currently is no single formalized clinical approach to its practice. Therefore, Buddhist psychotherapy differs widely in its presentation among diverse practitioners.

For example, a contemplative psychotherapist trained at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, employs a method stemming from the teachings of the Tibetan Buddhist Kagyu-Nyingma master Chogyam Trungpa. This may differ from the approach taught at Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science in New York City, developed by American Buddhist Gelugpa scholar and psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Loizzo. However, practitioners of both approaches may call themselves Buddhist psychotherapists. Although still a relatively new conception, Buddhist psychotherapy continues to grow in popularity within Euro-American mainstream culture. In response, greater coherence and standardization are needed to ensure its long-term viability.

While it may take years to develop theoretical and methodological consistence, there are some common elements that distinguish the Buddhist approach from the more conventional psychotherapies of cognitive–behavioral therapy and psychoanalysis.

Following are some general characteristics that define Buddhist psychotherapy according to the professional training program of the Nalanda Institute developed by Dr. Joseph Loizzo (2012).

Diagnosis and Etiology in Buddhist Psychotherapy

Buddhist psychotherapy views our usual state of mind as significantly underdeveloped, dysfunctional, and outside of our conscious control. In short, we are all delusional from this perspective. Our state of dysfunction goes unrecognized because it is so common that it is considered ordinary. There are a number of defense mechanisms within a person’s mind that conceal the level of dysfunction from oneself and others, thus perpetuating it. The entire range of psychological suffering—from mere dissatisfaction to severe psychopathology—is a function of this untrained mind, which has been adversely habituated away from its natural state of balance and health. 

The dysfunctional mental tendencies of unconsciousness, inaccurate perception, unrealistic cognitions, disturbing emotions, and reactive actions are all rooted in a single, deeply ingrained misknowledge (avidya) known as the evolutionary self-habit (atmagraha). Our state of dysfunction and its resulting suffering are created from a causal cycle of psychological processes originating from this self-habit, which is captured succinctly in verse 2.3 of the Yoga Sutras of master Patanjali: avidyā-asmitā-rāga-dveṣa-abhiniveśaḥ kleśāḥ. The self is mistakenly reified (assigned ontological realness), then erroneously experienced as a separate entity, becoming preoccupied with its own security and identified with its own traumatic narrative. It then grasps at external experiences and objects due to fear-based attachment, rages at externalized threats because of entitled defensiveness, and clings unrelentingly to its autonomy in the face of inevitable change and death.

As will be discussed later, the Buddhist method attempts to break the chains of this causal cycle, counteracting each stage in the process with antidotes that work on the principal of reciprocal inhibition. An ethical lifestyle counters reactive actions, the development of positive attitudes such as love and compassion counter grasping and aversion, and the wisdom of relativity counters the root misperception of separate autonomy.

Conventional therapies have their own classification of mental obscurations. Cognitive–behavioral therapy (CBT) identifies mental schemas such as personalization, overgeneralization, and catastrophizing. These represent patterns of distorted thinking that inhibit appropriate action. CBT is designed to promote awareness of these distortions and positively reinforce adaptive behaviors based on rational thought processes.  In classical psychoanalysis, unconscious defense mechanisms such as denial, splitting, and projection are identified as preventing psychic equilibrium and the genuine expression of self.  In this method, defenses are made conscious, rendering them superfluous, and health is achieved when one develops new, more appropriate ways of accessing validation, love, and connection.

In sum, all therapies recognize a set of psychological obscurations that prevent mental health. What defines Buddhist psychotherapy is its recognition of the self-reification habit that underlies an unconscious process of identification with a traumatic narrative, considered the root cause for all other disturbances of the mind.


Objectives and Goal in Buddhist Psychotherapy

Those that see the objective of Buddhist psychotherapy as just being mindful of  one’s momentary experience without judgment have failed to understand the crucial role that wisdom (prajna) and action (karma) play in the process of healing and change.  What if your mindfulness practice reveals just how terribly depressed or anxious you really are?  Surly that’s not the aim? The goal of Buddhist psychotherapy is to retrain dysfunctional processes of perception, cognition, emotion, and behavior so as to achieve a psychological state, and eventually a trait, of happiness.  This is done so by targeting the root cause of self-reification and identification with traumatized self-images, thereby cutting the resulting emotional, behavioral, and bio-chemical reinforcement contingencies.

The mind that eliminates the root cause eventually achieves freedom (nirvana) from negative emotions (klesha) and compulsive actions (karma), and arrives at a state of awakening (buddha).  The awakened mind completely reverses the causal cycle of suffering and therefore perceives the relative nature of self and reality clearly, feels completely contented, loving and interconnected with all of life, and consciously acts skillfully for the welfare of all.

To achieve this goal, Buddhist psychotherapy tends to assume a relatively stable personality in patients and concerns itself with optimal health, peak potential, and advanced stages of human development along the continuum from adulthood to enlightenment. In contrast, conventional therapies have tended to focus on psychopathology, dysfunction, and arrest in the development of personality. Some theorists (Wilber 1993) argue that combining the developmental models from both Buddhist and Western traditions offers a more comprehensive view of human development that spans childhood to enlightenment. Other theorists suggest that these developmental lines are merely theoretical constructs, and that in practice both Eastern and Western traditions offer their own full-spectrum models (Loizzo 2000, Rubin 1996). 

Whether addressing psychopathology or encouraging psychological flourishing,

Buddhist psychotherapy maintains that the purpose of a human life is to achieve its highest evolutionary potential and experience sustainable happiness and complete freedom from suffering. As lofty a goal as this might seem, it is important to consider that Buddhist psychotherapy originates within an infinite life paradigm, which assumes a continuity and evolution of consciousness that spans multiple lifetimes. In a similar way that modern science observes how genetic coding passes and evolves transgenerationally, and how modern physics discerns the conservation of energy, the goal of Buddhist therapy is to voluntarily intervene and direct the evolution of one’s consciousness beyond its identification with a physical body or static personality in a single lifetime.