Although Buddhist philosophy itself is not an evidence-based therapeutic modality, many of its themes have been utilized in therapy. Practical tools - like meditation and mindfulness techniques - have been adapted by therapists to help people experiencing mental health challenges.
Learn about how the principles of Buddhist philosophy have been successfully incorporated into western therapeutic approaches.
What is Buddhist philosophy?
Originally an Eastern tradition, Buddhism is a philosophy or ‘way of life’ based on the teachings of the Buddha, an important spiritual figure.
Central to Buddhist philosophy are four noble truths, which are that:
1. Life is full of suffering
2. The cause of this suffering is attachment (or, desire, clinging, craving, avoidance, or ignorance)
3. It is possible to stop suffering; it is within our control
4. There is a way to extinguish suffering. Briefly, the path to extinguishing suffering involves:
- Right views: Understanding the four noble truths
- Right resolve: Having the determination to be free from the causes of suffering
- Right speech: Being open and honest; not lying or engaging in hurtful speech
- Right action: No violence, stealing, or sexual impropriety
- Right livelihood: Honestly making a living
- Right effort: Forming good mental habits; disengaging from negative thoughts when they arise
- Right mindfulness: Mindfully accepting thoughts, emotions, and events without attachment
- Right concentration: Using meditation to reach enlightenment (sometimes called Nirvana) and end suffering
Buddhist philosophy and psychology
Some Buddhist concepts and techniques that you might come across in therapy include:
- Meditation and mindfulness: There are myriad meditation techniques and what works best for each person can differ. The aim of meditation is to find inner peace by learning to attach our attention on something, rather than being distracted by our thoughts. Mindfulness is about being in the present moment, non-judgmentally, and not caught up in the past or future. Research shows that meditation helps change our attention and emotions, alters our brain activity, and can help people experiencing anxiety and depression.
- We have the ability to change our experience: Pain is an inevitable part of life, but people create additional suffering around the pain. It follows then that we are not helpless victims to painful emotions; it is within our power to change our experience. The idea that changing the way we think helps change our emotions will be familiar to anyone who has participated in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Buddhist philosophy advocates changing how we respond to thoughts through mindfulness techniques like meditation.
- Impermanence: The idea that nothing is permanent - including painful thoughts, difficult emotions, cravings, aversions, and challenging events. In therapy, building awareness of the concept of impermanence helps us to tolerate and reduce distress, and build hope. We learn to react differently when we know that everything is always changing. Several therapy types draw on this concept, including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).
- Loving-kindness: Being kind and compassionate to others gives rise to positive emotions like joy and happiness. Buddhists might practice loving-kindness meditation, for example, to facilitate this.
Buddhist philosophy and therapy
While Buddhism is not itself an evidence-based therapeutic modality, its philosophy has influenced and been incorporated into many therapeutic modalities, such as:
- Mindfulness Practices: Mindfulness and meditation practices promote attention and help us to be aware of the present moment rather than being caught up in our thoughts. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) are two examples of therapeutic modalities that teach mindfulness to reduce suffering.
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT involves components of mindfulness and other strategies with parallels to Buddhist philosophy. ACT helps clients take an acceptance approach, change how they respond, and encourages values-guided action.
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): DBT is a skills-based therapy, developed to help people with Borderline Personality Disorder. It incorporates Buddhist philosophy in its mindfulness and meditation practices, and its focus on reducing suffering. Self-acceptance and change are encouraged.
- Contemplative Psychotherapy: This therapeutic modality is built on the foundation of Buddhist philosophy. Central to the approach is the belief that all people are inherently good and have the natural ability to heal from pain. The goal of therapy then is to help people uncover this wisdom.
Aside from the therapy type used, a therapist’s own Buddhist practice might also influence their style of therapy. Many therapists will include this kind of information in their online profile so that you can easily identify who they are. See below for more tips on choosing a therapist.
What can Buddhist philosophy help with?
Keeping in mind that Buddhist philosophy is not a stand-alone evidence-based therapeutic modality, its concepts have been successfully incorporated into evidence-based approaches. Such therapy types have been used to treat many mental health challenges, including:
What to look for in a therapist
There are several factors to keep in mind when selecting a therapist for Buddhism-informed therapies, including:
Specialization: If a therapist has an interest in Buddhist philosophy, they are likely to include this information in their online bios; they may be meditators themselves, practice Buddhism, or focus on mindfulness as a core part of their treatment approach. Look for a therapist who has experience and specialized training in your particular concerns or one of the evidence-based therapy modalities described above. Therapists often include this information in their biography on their website or online profile.
Qualifications: With so many different provider types available, it can be difficult to decide which type of mental health professional to see. The most important thing is to look for a currently licensed therapist.
Personal fit: The trusting relationship between you and your therapist, known as the “therapeutic alliance” can have a huge impact on the efficacy of therapy. It’s important to work with someone you trust and feel understood by, particularly as the spiritual element of working in a Buddhist-informed framework can feel uncomfortable and challenging for some.
The best way to judge how you might feel about a therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. This also allows you to ask about their experience, how they incorporate Buddhist philosophy into their practice, and what therapy will be like. Explore how the therapist brings their own practice of Buddhism to influence therapy, and try to speak to a few different therapists before deciding.
- ABC Health & Wellbeing, “Buddhism and Happiness”. Accessed online January 2020 at https://www.abc.net.au/health/features/stories/2007/10/11/2054844.htm
- National Alliance on Mental Illness, “How Buddhism Benefits Mental Health”. Accessed online January 2020 at https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/October-2016/How-Buddhism-Benefits-Mental-Health
- Tapas Kumar Aich, 2013, “Budda Philosophy and Western Psychology”, Indian Journal of Psychiatry. Accessed online January 2020 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3705677/