Dharma and Psychotherapy. A Shared Vision and Significant Differences
Ten Prominent Schools of Western Psychotherapy
Dharma (the umbrella concept in the Buddhist tradition) and Psychotherapy/Psychology share to a degree a common voice, namely the exploration of the mind to develop clarity and insights to reduce or dissolve suffering.
Countless numbers, East and West, have benefitted from the different lineages/traditions of the Dharma and schools of Therapy to show the way out of problematic issues in the personality, whether a weeklong residential and ongoing communication or 60 minute session.
Out of earshot of others. My two seats for 1-1 meetings during two consecutive 7- day residential retreats in the Thai monastery in Sarnath, India. Annual teachings given in the monastery between 2000-2020.
In the past 50 years of teaching, I have had the opportunity to listen to many psychologists, psychotherapists and others engaged in the reduction of the suffering in their own lives, as well as in the lives of others. I have shared dialogues with them on retreats, workshops, public events and over coffee in a coffee shop.
Both East and West Dharma teachers/therapists have much to offer clients/patients/practitioners in terms of listening, empathy and understanding. This makes a real difference to the lives of those who face significant personal challenges.
Occasionally, a psychologist/psychotherapist has said to me (mostly in a non- judgemental way): “Christopher, you are not a trained psychologist, nor a therapist.”
Even when they speak kindly, I notice it is a mild step on my toes (metaphorically speaking) since I find such a view a little irritating.
“I am a Buddhist psychologist and Buddhist psychotherapist. I had my training 24/7 in my six years as a Buddhist monk in Thailand and India.”
I also tease those who comment on my ‘qualifications.' I remind the person I have a deep connection with the Buddhist tradition going back 2600 years – the best of which engages in a profound exploration of the human experience, secular, spiritual and religious. The tradition has a big picture of the diversity and wealth of the human experience, as well as attention to specific problematic issues.
With a smile, I tell them “You belong to a 100-year-old tradition. Frankly, Western psychologists/psychotherapists are the new kids on the block.” To their credit, the Western therapists take my wry comment with good humour.
(A German psychiatrist Johann Christian Reil (born 1759) coined the word ‘psychotherapy’ in 1808. Reil became a pioneer in psychiatry and a prominent advocate for humane treatment of anyone with mental illnesses. He advocated talk therapy. A century later talk therapy got underway in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and eventually worldwide).
As a Buddhist psychologist, I practice/explore/study/apply four noble truths, hindrances/mental corruptions/problematic emotions/ unresolved karma/dependent arising/depths of meditation and awakening to liberation.. I provide teachings, spoken and written, to support Dharma teachers/mindfulness/insight meditation teachers with the wide range of ways to understanding the causes/conditions for suffering and the way to the resolution of suffering.
A Dharma teacher may well support practitioners for decades since the priority is service rather than payment for service. Donations (dana) from practitioners contribute to a long connections with practitioners.
As a psychotherapist, I listen, raise questions, give advice, provide practices and as much understanding as I can. The practitioner receives tools to apply to daily life. I address personal/existential issues that individuals and groups face - on residential retreats, online meetings and 1-1 in my hometown (Totnes, UK)
There are supportive voices in the communities of Dharma practitioners and clients of psychotherapists. Certain meditators benefit from psychotherapy. They come to insights and understanding which did not arise on retreats or in daily life. Clients in psychotherapy benefit from attending residential retreats or online courses. They also come to insights and understanding that did not arise through talking therapy. It is not always easy for clients to know what kind of Buddhist course to attend. Do they choose Vipassana (Insight Meditation), Mindfulness, Theravada, Mahayana, Zen and all the branches within these major traditions?
The same concern applies to meditators who feel it would be beneficial for their development to meet regularly with a psychotherapist.
Psychotherapy offers personal 1-1 meetings with their client, often on a weekly basis. This is an immensely supportive service for clients, assuming they can afford it or have the necessary insurance. The client can open their heart to the therapist knowing there is complete confidentiality in all of their sessions.
I can see in the years ahead the expansion of mindfulness teachers in every city, town and rural environment. They will offer weekly 1-1 Dharma therapy employing mindfulness/meditation and the wealth of tools/resources available in this long tradition.
Mindfulness and Ethics
MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) courses have become the best-known of the mindfulness programmes in the West with many thousands testifying to the benefits of these six-week courses. This school and others have reduced significantly the suffering of people - emotionally, mentally and physically through the practices. I hear and read every week appreciations and gratitude from people applying mindfulness practices to their daily life.
MBSR and other schools of mindfulness has adopted a strictly secular approach - often employing the language of psychology, science-based evidence and neuroscience to expand its appeal to the Western mindset. Science-based evidence often refers to a relative short time period, perhaps months or a few years. Buddhist tradition give priority to experience-based evidence. Deeply beneficial experiences last throughout life. Furthermore, fruits of mindfulness training may arise weeks, months, years, decades later. This situation is not easy to fit into the science of statistics.
I get the impression of little directly spoken reference to violations of ethics in Western psychology/therapy with clients/patients. Violation of ethics include support/engagement with wars, corporate corruption of values, consumerism, harmful lifestyles and environmental harm.
Therapy gives overwhelming priority to individual needs. Some of the highest levels of stress and suffering arise through the disregard for an ethical and human lifestyle or subject to violence/abuse from others resulting in post traumatic stress disorder and trauma.
The Buddhist tradition begins the teachings with the Five Ethical Principles:
I undertake the training to refrain from killing and to support non-harm of beings.
I undertake the training not to engage in taking what has not been given (from profiteering at expense of others, tax evasion and more).
I undertake the training not to engage in sensual or sexual abuse (desire to put pursuit of pleasure, regardless of cost, above ethical considerations for people, creatures and the natural world.
I undertake the training not to engage in false, deceptive speech or hide truth to harm another. Lies and distorted speech generates stress and sometimes immense suffering for the one who communicates falsehoods and those who on the receiving end.
I undertake the training not to engage in abuse of alcohol or drugs that obstruct calm, clarity and a wise responses to situations.
This training develops empathy and concern for all expressions of life, develops peace of mind for practitioners. Those who disregard one or more of these five areas of training live with stress, fear and unexamined corrupt states of mind and the causes and conditions for them.
People experiencing stress, whether high or low levels of mental suffering, may need to develop one of more of the five ethical trainings to reduce suffering.
There are many levels and depths regarding the lifelong daily ethical training for application to daily life. Sadly, mindfulness teachers may never mention these trainings to become a fully caring and humane being ,whether the teacher speaks to an individual, a small group or large group, such as politicians, corporations, public talks or via the media.
It takes a skill in communication to explore ethics with a client or group in such a way another can listen and respond. Self-righteousness and moralising puts listeners on the defensive, a form of withdrawal.
The world would be utterly different if human beings showed respect for ethics, values and virtuous behaviour. That requires a training for most people. Ethics needs to be part of the public conversation rather than avoidance in fear of being misunderstood as a morality missionary.
A short or long training in a tradition/school from the East or West cannot guarantee a wise and compassionate approach to those in need. Those who claim to keep the five trainings have a superficial interpretation of each one of them.
We could describe the best of the traditions of Dharma as MBSD (Mindfulness-Based Stress Destruction) or, more precisely, DBSD (Dharma-based Stress Destruction). This includes a deep exploration, personal, existential, of what it means to be human and fulfilling our capacity to know a truly enlightened way of living.
A common Dharma word for the cessation of suffering is Nirvana.
TEN PROMINENT SCHOOLS OF WESTERN PSYCHOTHERAPY
I have listed below 10 well known schools of psychotherapy, which I know about as a layperson, not as an authority. The summaries have been copied and pasted from AI (Artificial Intelligence). I entered AI the name of the therapy and requested 100 words with some tweaking - to give readers a general sense of some of the priorities of popular schools.
A person seeking therapy may find one of the schools seems particularly relevant. It is important to remember a therapy is only as beneficial as the wisdom of the therapist.
Sometimes, the client experiences an immediate chemistry with the therapist. But not always. Stress, nerves, anxiety or even dashing to the clinic to be on time may get in the way of feeling the chemistry in the first meeting or two.
A similar principle applies with Dharma/meditation teachers. Do not be quick to judge. Listen and learn. Recognise the benefits and recognise where the therapist or teacher reveals their limits.
(In Alphabetical Order)
1. Analytical Psychotherapy
This was developed by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, who explored the deep connections between the conscious and unconscious aspects of the mind. This approach emphasises the exploration of the unconscious—a reservoir of symbols and archetypes. Analytical Psychology seeks to understand the individual's unique psychological makeup, incorporating elements like dreams, myths, and personal experiences. Unlike traditional psychoanalysis, Jungian therapy focuses on achieving individuation, a process of integrating conflicting aspects of the psyche to attain wholeness. Archetypes, representing fundamental human experiences, play a pivotal role in Jungian theory, guiding personal growth and transformation. The therapeutic relationship involves a collaborative exploration of the unconscious, aiming to uncover hidden patterns and promote self-awareness. Analytical Psychology has influenced various fields, including psychology, art, literature, and spirituality, offering a holistic perspective on the human psyche and its quest for meaning and fulfilment.
2. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a goal-oriented therapeutic approach that addresses the interplay between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. It emphasizes identifying and challenging negative thought patterns to modify emotional responses and behaviours. Developed on the premise that distorted thinking contributes to emotional distress, CBT aims to replace harmful cognitions with more realistic and adaptive ones. Therapists collaborate with clients to explore and reframe thought processes, fostering healthier coping mechanisms. Widely used for various mental health issues, CBT is a time-limited, evidence-based method that empowers individuals to develop practical skills for managing challenges and promoting positive psychological well-being.
3. Dynamic Group Psychotherapy
Dynamic Group Psychotherapy is a therapeutic approach where a trained therapist leads a group of individuals in exploring and addressing psychological issues. Emphasizing interpersonal dynamics and communication within the group, it aims to foster self-awareness, emotional expression, and mutual support. Participants share their experiences, providing diverse perspectives and creating a microcosm of social interactions. The therapist guides the process, encouraging insight, empathy, and constructive feedback. This dynamic setting promotes personal growth, interpersonal skills, and a sense of belonging. Dynamic Group Psychotherapy can be effective for various mental health concerns and is particularly suited to addressing relational and social aspects of individuals' lives.
4. Existential Analysis
Existential Analysis Psychotherapy, rooted in existential philosophy, explores the depths of human existence and individual meaning. Developed by Viktor Frankl, it focuses on the search for purpose, freedom, and responsibility, acknowledging the inherent challenges of existence. This therapeutic approach emphasizes self-awareness, choice, and personal responsibility, aiming to help individuals confront existential dilemmas like mortality, meaninglessness, and isolation. Existential Analysis Psychotherapy encourages clients to explore their unique values and beliefs, fostering a deeper understanding of their authentic selves. By confronting existential anxieties, individuals can discover meaning, leading to personal growth, resilience, and a more fulfilling life aligned with their truest aspirations.
5. Gestalt Therapy
Gestalt Therapy is an experiential and holistic psychotherapeutic approach that emphasizes the present moment, personal responsibility, and awareness of thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. Developed by Fritz Perls, it views individuals as integrated wholes, exploring their mind-body connection. This therapy aims to enhance self-awareness by focusing on the ‘here and now,’ fostering clients' understanding of their present experiences and how unresolved issues impact their lives. Techniques include role-playing, dialogue, and creative exercises to promote self-discovery. Gestalt Therapy encourages individuals to take responsibility for their actions, leading to greater self-acceptance, improved relationships, and holistic personal growth.
Hypnotherapy is a therapeutic approach that utilizes hypnosis to induce a trance-like state, fostering heightened focus and suggestibility in individuals. This altered state of consciousness allows a trained therapist to access the subconscious mind and address various psychological or behavioural issues. During hypnotherapy, practitioners guide clients through relaxation techniques, leading them into a trance where they are more receptive to positive suggestions, imagery, or cognitive restructuring. This process aims to help individuals overcome phobias, manage stress, alleviate pain, and modify undesirable habits. Hypnotherapy is a complementary practice often integrated with traditional psychotherapy to enhance overall mental well-being and facilitate positive behavioural change.
7. Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy
Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy integrates mindfulness and meditation principles, plus methods and techniques as a form of therapy to reduce suffering. Rooted in Buddhist mindfulness practices, it cultivates ethics, non-judgmental thinking and spiritual realisations. Therapists guide clients in developing mindfulness skills to develop clarity, equanimity and a wise approach to challenges. By focusing on the issue, without attachment or aversion, individuals learn to navigate challenges more effectively. Mindfulness practices aim to enhance inner/outer listening, trust and seeing emptiness of egotism.
8. Psychoanalysis Psychotherapy.
Psychoanalysis is a therapeutic approach developed by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) that explores unconscious thoughts and emotions to understand and treat mental disorders. It delves into early life experiences, dreams, and free associations to unveil repressed feelings. Psychotherapy focuses on fostering self-awareness and behavioural changes to address emotional challenges. Both psychoanalysis and psychotherapy aim to enhance mental health by exploring, understanding, and addressing the complexities of the human mind.
Psychodrama is a therapeutic approach that combines elements of drama and psychotherapy to explore and address emotional and interpersonal issues. Developed by Jacob L. Moreno, it involves individuals enacting scenes from their lives, dreams, or fantasies in a group setting, guided by a trained therapist known as the director. Participants take on roles, expressing feelings and gaining insights through spontaneous, interactive role-playing. This experiential method aims to facilitate self-discovery, enhance emotional expression, and foster empathy within the group. Psychodrama can be a powerful tool for personal growth, communication skill development, and the resolution of unresolved psychological conflicts.
10. Transactional Analysis Psychotherapy
Transactional Analysis (TA) psychotherapy, developed by Eric Berne, is a psychological approach that examines interpersonal interactions and communication patterns. It views individuals as having three ego states—Parent, Adult, and Child—each influencing behaviour. TA explores how people engage in transactions, or social exchanges, and aims to enhance self-awareness and improve relationships. The therapy seeks to identify and modify unproductive patterns rooted in past experiences, fostering personal growth and effective communication. TA is widely used for individual and group therapy, emphasizing empowerment and understanding to facilitate positive change in thoughts, emotions, and behaviours.
May all beings be free from suffering
May all beings live with wisdom
May all beings know a liberated way of life.
Christopher Titmuss - The Buddha Wallah is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.