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Is Buddhism the Future of Psychology?

I first came across Buddhism through the work of C.G. Jung. I was in university in Turin, Italy, an avid reader of psychology, and didn’t know much about Eastern religion and philosophy back then.

It wasn’t until I came to London in my late twenties, though, that I started practising Buddhism. I had been reading about it for a few years by then, but my interest had remained purely intellectual.

As with most important encounters, it happened by chance.

It was summer and I had started playing tennis with a colleague in Bethnal Green (an area in the East End of London), not far from our workplace. I was walking back to the tube station after one of these matches when I stumbled upon a tall red-brick building with the words "London Buddhist Centre" written on it. I was intrigued and entered its bright red door.

Nearly ten years have passed since then. I have practised Buddhist meditation (mindfulness or, more correctly, vipassana) most days, in one form or another. I am not a Buddhist, and even less an advanced meditator, but Buddhism and meditation have played an important part in my life over the last decade.

In these ten years, I have seen mindfulness become more and more popular. Mindfulness-based techniques are now offered by the NHS as tools to fight depression and anxiety, mindfulness is taught in schools, and as a wellbeing activity in busy office environments. Perhaps more interestingly, psychology itself has started incorporating Buddhist techniques and insights in its practices, which brings me back to the twenty-year-old in Turin who discovered Buddhism in the pages of C.G. Jung.

So, is Buddhism the future of psychology?

This is a tricky question. It’s hard not to remember what Jung famously wrote in his foreword to D.T. Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen Buddhism, one of the texts that helped the penetration of Buddhism in the West. Jung was convinced that the “direct transplantation of Zen to our Western conditions is neither commendable nor possible”, just to add a paragraph later that "the psychotherapist who is seriously concerned with the question of the aim of his therapy cannot remain unmoved when he sees the end towards which this Eastern method of psychic healing – i.e., 'making whole' – is striving".

I think that this is a great way to frame the contradiction, the eternal insolvable riddle of the translation of Eastern thought into Western paradigms, and vice versa. It’s impossible to be “unmoved”, but it’s also impossible to simply replicate techniques that have roots in philosophical ideas that most of us will only understand superficially, no matter how hard we try.

Let’s take as an example Mark Epstein’s Psychotherapy Without a Self, published for the first time in 2007. The book is a fascinating read, both from the psychological/Western and the Buddhist/Eastern perspective, but it also poses a conundrum that cannot be easily solved, for the idea of the self seems to be at the very core of the Western psychological tradition. Get rid of the self, and you get rid of psychology as we know it.

This is the reason why Epstein’s work is powerful and influential. And even more influential is the work of another psychologist that not many know developed his theories when he was studying Buddhism, Daniel Goleman, who became immensely popular in the late 1990s with his ideas on emotional intelligence.

Goleman was one of the so-called 'JewBu', the American Jewish intellectuals who, in the 60s and 70s, travelled to India and came back bringing Buddhism to the States. Three of them, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg, founded the Insight Meditation Centre in 1975 in Barre, Massachusetts, one of the most important centres for the study of the Theravada tradition in the West.

Since then, the influence of Buddhism in Western psychology has increased at an exponential rate. The last incarnation is probably the recent diffusion of contemplative psychotherapy, an approach that promises to integrate "Eastern Buddhist philosophy and practice with the clinical traditions of modern Western psychology", and which "is rooted in the belief that all people are granted the internal wisdom necessary to heal from pain".

Interestingly, Buddhist practices and philosophical constructs have also been applied to neuroscience, the study of the brain and the connected field of philosophy of mind. An example of this is the recent research interest in contemplative neuroscience which is a field within neuroscience which uses tools like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) are used to observe changes in the brain as a result of mindfulness techniques like meditation (see for example the Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative developed by the University of Miami).

Shortly after starting to practise at the LBC, I went to a local library and borrowed Waking, Dreaming, Being by Evan Thompson, a book that helped me understand how mindfulness can be a great tool to investigate the central question of the philosophy of mind: how can the mind study itself?

If you think about it, it’s all quite straightforward. When practised correctly (i.e., not just as a tool — no matter how useful — for stress reduction), what mindfulness teaches you to do is become skilled in observing how your mind works. It gives you the ability, for longer and longer periods of time and with more stillness and more steadiness, to look at what your mind is, and what your mind does, moment after moment.

And what does "being skilful" in psychology mean, if not being able to observe the hidden workings of your own mind?

So, let's return to the question: is Buddhism the future of psychology?

My personal, tentative, humble answer: it’s not and never will be. Because there are too many differences, and too big, between the Western and Eastern ideas of the self and the mind for the two fields to be interchangeable at a deeper level. Because these traditions have their own peculiarities, strengths, and weaknesses, and it would be unwise, or as Jung put it "neither commendable nor possible" to mistake one for the other.

But, the integration of Buddhist techniques, some of which are thousands of years old, into modern Western psychology and neuroscience is an extremely interesting field that needs to be explored by both meditators, non-meditators, psychologists, patients, and whoever else has an interest in the strange miracle of the mind.

Because the traditions may be different, philosophies change over the years and across continents, but what we all have in common is this: the mind, its mystery, and our unending desire to understand it all.


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