“Meditation amounts to putting yourself into an
inconceivable situation in which the analytical mind
doesn’t function anymore. So I would say that the
disciplines of the Buddhist teachings are
largely a way of freeing oneself from the analytical mind.”
– Chögyam Trungpa
Study is divided into three parts:
1. Research methods of Buddhist psychology (meditation)
2. Theory of Mind in Buddhist psychology
3. Techniques for Buddhist psychology practitioners & everyday life.
Through sitting or walking meditation, we meet weekly to learn meditation, Buddhist psychology of mind, and application to your life. Each session lasts one hour and consists of mediation, teaching, & discussion.
What is Buddhist Psychology?
I believe that Buddhist psychology is the quintessential Western, if not American manifestation of the Buddhist tradition. Buddhism is a very slippery term. It has been my experience that what Buddhism is depends greatly on the person who is practicing Buddhist teachings. For some people Buddhism is a religious practice. For others Buddhism is a spiritual practice. For Buddhist psychology, Buddhism is a life philosophy, a secular practice for a prosperous, spontaneous, and mindful way of being.
I began studying Buddhist psychology at The New School for Social Research, in the early 2000s. My introduction to Buddhist psychology came through a Jungian lens. Later, I studied in the Shambhala tradition with a teacher who studied with Chogyam Trüngpa, founder of that school of Buddhism. Trüngpa was the founder of Naropa University, the first university offering study in Buddhist psychology. Most of my study now is centered on Zen Buddhism, which is a combination of Buddhism & Taoism.
One of the main difficulties for many who wish to study the Buddhist tradition is the many languages & terms that are used in Buddhism. I typically use an English word rather than a term that might be more often used in a specific Buddhist tradition.
It has been my experience that Buddhist psychology shares considerable similarities with the Western traditions of humanistic psychology, psychodynamic psychology, as well as existential-phenomenological psychology. There are some distinct differences though.
We can understand this process as Meditation, Insight, & Application.
The main research method of Buddhist psychology is meditation. This can be thought of as introspection in the Western psychological tradition. Buddhist meditation has many styles and methods, depending on the school of Buddhist tradition. For our purposes we can identify four types of meditation:
1. concentrative meditation
2. generative meditation
3. receptive meditation
4. reflective meditation
Concentrative meditation develops the ability to focus consciousness on immediate sensation. It is a practice that eliminates future thinking (the cause of anxiety) & past thinking (the cause of depression).
Generative meditation is a practice that cultivates compassion for the self and others.
Receptive meditation is a meditation that cultivates an openness to the here & now of everyday experience.
Reflective meditation is a meditative practice that is most like contemplation. It is focused practice of thinking on a topic for deeper insight. I often consider this type of meditation to be most like Western thought experiments and phenomenological psychology.
In our study of meditation, we learn traditional techniques in meditation taken from many different schools of Buddhism. Meditation serves as our primary research method in gaining insights into ourselves & others.
Buddhist Theory of Mind
If I could identify one, distinct difference between Eastern & Western psychology, it would be in the goal of psychotherapy or psychoanalysis. Whereas most of Western psychological tradition focuses on knowing oneself (one’s self), Eastern psychology seeks to understand the concept of self. Ego (the Latin word for me/I) is understood in Buddhist psychology as self-consciousness. This is distinctly different from consciousness, which is awareness of sensations through the ears, tongue, nose, skin, & eyes -before we begin applying words to them. This can be a difficult idea for those raised in the Western tradition of understanding reality. What we come to realize is that reality is the experience of the senses, and not the words (written or spoken) that we use to represent those sensations. We accomplish this way of experiencing reality through meditation.
Most of the theoretical concepts of Buddhist psychology are found in one text, the Abhidharma. Fortunately, there have been many books written by Western thinkers that help us to understand the theory of mind presented in the Abhidharma. Many of these commentaries come from humanistic psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, as well as psychodynamic psychologists including C.G. Jung, and Erich Fromm.
When we speak of Buddhist psychology, Buddhist theory of mind, or Buddhist Psychology, we are speaking of a holistic conglomerate of ethics, meditative practice, & wisdom. This is known as the Threefold Path in Buddhism. Unlike much of Western psychology, Eastern psychology does not view ethics, practice, & thinking as separate things. It is impossible for us to understand practice & thinking as something independent form ethics. This is why those coming from a Western, Enlightenment tradition often experience Eastern tradition as spiritual. By spiritual we mean holistic. In Buddhist psychology we are interested in enlightenment, not The Enlightenment.
Some of the basic concepts of Buddhist psychology include:
Meditation as a research method
Meditation as mind training
Meditation for manifesting change
The Threefold Path
The Four Noble Truths
The Eightfold Path
The Concept of Karma
The use of lucid dreaming (Tibetan Book of The Dead)
The traditional use of entheogen sacraments for insight (Tibetan Buddhism)
The teachings from the Abhidharma including:
How the ego is formed (self-consciousness)
Ways of Knowing
The Six Realms of Existence
The Five Buddha families (style of perception, personality, & emotions)
Application to everyday life (practice of Buddhist psychology)
The final third of a study session combines the insights of meditation with the teaching of a Buddhist psychology principle, to the application of the knowledge into one’s own life. This is called wisdom. Wisdom comes from incorporating a concept into one’s own life, making the theoretical relevant to the reality of our experience.
There have been many teachers who explore how to apply Buddhist psychology to our lives, and how to use it to help others. I draw significantly on texts by Alan Watts, Erich Fromm, Abraham Maslow, Wayne Dyer, Chogyam Trüngpa, Thich Nhat Hanh, C.G. Jung, and Mark Epstein. These commentaries of Buddhist psychology offer practical ways to apply theory to psychotherapy, teaching, counseling, & everyday life.