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Buddhist psychology-informed psychotherapy coaching is formed from the principles of Buddhism. It combines aspects of conventional psychotherapy, coaching with traditional Buddhist philosophy.
Buddhist psychology helps us to refrain from ways of thinking and behaving that create unnecessary suffering. The wisdom and philosophy of Buddhism offer antidotes to many of the human problems we all share. Buddhist psychotherapy is not pessimistic as some may suggest. It is aspirational and humanistic, based on the understanding that the purpose of being a human is to achieve our highest evolutionary potential.
Buddhism: A Religion or a Philosophy?
Buddhism is both a religion and a philosophy. In many ways, the name or category does not matter; what matters is how we can honour and utilise it for the benefit of ourselves and the world around us. Buddhism itself is not just a religion, but also a spiritual system and a path to self-actualisation. The principles and main concepts inherent within Buddhism can be used and indeed have been applied in a non-religious, and non-dogmatic way.
Since the mid-20th century, Buddhist teachings have attracted the attention of modern psychologists and scientists. Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, for example, brought Buddhism to the West by developing the Mindfulness Stress Reduction program, an eight-week evidence-based program that offers secular, intensive mindfulness training to assist people with stress, anxiety, depression and pain. Subsequently, the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) program, which integrates cognitive therapy and mindfulness, was founded by Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale. Many other empirically supported contemporary psychotherapies such as Dialectical Behaviour Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy incorporate various Buddhist practices and ideas into their treatment modalities. In particular, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy was developed to treat individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), and many empirical studies now support its efficacy (Linehan et al., 2008).
Contemporary Western Buddhist teachers such as Mark Epstein, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, Robert Thurman, Tara Brach, Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein (the list goes on) have all been bridge-workers who bring the Dharma eloquently to us in a digestible, usable form.
Buddhism can be used as a self- development tool and an avenue for spiritual awareness. We can heal ourselves and expand our consciousness through the teachings of the Buddha, without calling ourselves ‘a Buddhist’.
“Imagine a culture in which everything is geared toward helping all individuals become the best human beings they can be; in which individuals are driven to devoting their lives to becoming enlightened by the natural flood of compassion for others that arises from their wisdom.”
Buddhist Psychotherapy and Coaching Principles
Since Freud’s time, Buddhist principles such as mindful empathy and the maintenance of an ‘evenly hovering attention’ have been widely adopted by therapists around the world, but Buddhist psychotherapy and coaching is a unique approach. It helps individuals reduce their suffering through the transmission of wisdom, and trains the human mind to attain a state of serenity, joy, and liberation. In this approach, mental suffering is believed to begin in the distortions and faulty thinking patterns in our minds, such as attachments, assuming permanence to things that are impermanent, and distortions surrounding notions of the self.
Here are some of the values and principles that form the philosophical backbone of Buddhist Psychotherapy and Coaching:
The principle of impermanence teaches us that everything in life is transient. Everything changes − just like the waves crash onto the shore and day becomes night. The physical universe consists of energy, and all energy is subject to the natural laws of impermanence and alchemical transformation. Nothing lasts, change is bound, and anything the ego clings onto will cause suffering. Because nothing lasts and we wish them to, life is continuously ‘unsatisfactory’. Buddhism holds that becoming aware of this ‘unsatisfactory condition’ of impermanence helps to be liberated from suffering.
Everything has a cyclic and non-eternal nature and essence to it. With life comes death, and this is equally applied to relationships, opportunities, events, and realities within this one lifetime. Situations die, life cycles end, and people we may have once thought would be in our world forever leave and go their own way. Although the situation can bring sadness and grief, there is nothing inherently ‘bad’ about it. When we start to see the inherent loss and separation within existence, we can truly begin to come to terms with our inner darkness and despair.
In a way, we all have an intuitive understanding of the idea that all things end, including our own lives and those of our loved ones. But dialogues and exercises in Buddhist counselling help us to bring forth an embodied knowledge of this, as we translate our intellectual knowledge to real equanimity.
‘Life is Suffering’
Life ultimately involves suffering. Just as light spirals into darkness and day cycles into the night, there is a natural duality present within all of life. And this duality involves joy, laughter, love, connection and bliss, as well as pain, suffering and despair. In Buddhism, acknowledgement and acceptance of a fundamental facet of life — suffering — is a part of the path to freedom and awakening.
In life, there are painful events that we have no choice but to cope with. This includes events like sickness, old age, and death. These are the ‘first arrows’ that cause us pain. What we have a propensity to do, however, is to add a ‘second arrow’ to the situation. We fight, defend, and try to wiggle our way out of the pain, which often makes things worse. We can avoid adding the second arrow by learning to reinterpret painful situations (the first arrows) in a more constructive way or developing a deeper understanding of it.
Through the cultivation of mindfulness, we can find the courage to deal with the day-to-day currents of life. We no longer spend excessive energy in denying, repressing or suppressing. Instead of trying to fight things that we deem as ‘negative’, we begin to learn to live in accord with nature. Paradoxically, we free ourselves from further suffering.
Interconnectedness/ The Law of Dependent Origination
Interconnectedness is the realisation that all living organisms are one in the web of life. When the Buddha gained enlightenment, he reached the understanding that interconnectedness is the true nature of all beings. By recognising our interconnection, how there is a spiritual-energetic invisible cord connecting us all — although we may not see the energetic cord connecting us (actually, some of us can) — we can develop empathy, compassion, loving-kindness, and understanding.
The Law of Dependent Origination is related to the concept of ’emptiness’, which can be a confusing translation from the Sanskrit word ‘Śūnyatā’. According to this law, everything arises and is dependent on something else to exist, thus nothing in life is essentially ‘substantial’ or fixed (thus, ’empty). Existence is an interrelated flux of events, nothing has a real, permanent, independent existence of their own. Events – including our thoughts, habits, fixations – happen in a series, one interrelating group of events producing another. When certain conditions are present, they give rise to subsequent conditions, which then give rise to other conditions. Phenomena such as our desires, attachment and distress- are sustained only so long as their sustaining conditions are there. Understanding the relationships between the phenomena that sustain suffering is said to lead to complete freedom from our mental loops. In Buddhist psychotherapy and coaching, you may be guided to understand this truth deeply and internalise its wisdom.
To bring the Dharma home, this quote from Robert Thurman captures how this idea can be applied to our lives: “How do you release yourself? Through the analytic knowledge of facts. How can you stay angry if you are aware of yourself as a constantly changing process? The continuity of your anger gets broken. How can you stay depressed? The continuity of your sadness gets broken. It transforms. You associate with the not-mad and not-sad. You take responsibility for your mad and sad. You stop being stuck in those same old thought patterns. “(
Our True (Buddha) Nature
Buddhism is in many ways aspirational. It holds that we all have the potential, right here and now, for full awakening to our highest potential, and to freedom of our mind. The Buddha himself said that ‘Buddha-nature’ lies within each of us and its nature is pure, clean, and clear. In other words, the fundamental nature of our consciousness is pure and remains untethered, it is only polluted by our many misguided mental concepts. Through a process of introspection and discovery, we can work towards reclaiming this purity of mind.
Beyond our physical existence, our souls are eternal, infinite and timeless — they exist beyond this one life and this 3-dimensional reality. Once we understand that there are more than the five physical senses and more than a pure carbon reality, we begin to experience our true selves or higher self. This is the space where the spirit meets physicality, and we connect to our intuition and inner guidance, aligned with a divine or higher perspective reality and truth, to live life from a heightened space of awareness and empathic understanding. Being connected to our spiritual self helps us deal with our day-to-day mental chaos or confusion.
Compassion is not about denying, repressing or overlooking the inherent darkness in an event or the shadow self. It is seeing both the light and the dark of a person or an event and remaining steadfast in holding a compassionate stance.
Buddhism teaches Metta (loving-kindness) and Karuna (compassion). In practice, Metta Meditation or Loving-Kindness Meditation is widely used in Buddhist Psychotherapy and Coaching. These are practices designed to enhance feelings of kindness and compassion for self and others. We practice cultivating it first within ourselves, and on ourselves, then we can extend it to those we struggle to forgive.
Research on compassion-focused therapy suggests that it may be a very effective method for the treatment of depression, anxiety, shame, low self-esteem, and self-hate. In fact, neuroimaging studies suggest that loving-kindness meditation and compassion meditation activate brain areas that are involved in emotional processing and empathy.
Cultivating Mindfulness and Equanimity in Buddhist Psychotherapy and Coaching
Equanimity offers the gift of freedom from the constant pull of emotions.
Equanimity is a deep-seated sense of spacious stillness and openness that is undisturbed by the emotional ups and downs that go on on the surface. This is not to be confused with the suppression of feelings, apathy or detachment. Equanimity is not about disconnection, in fact, it does quite the opposite- equanimity gives us the stability and strength that deepen our presence, patience, and connection with the world around us.
One way of cultivating equanimity is through mindfulness in Buddhist psychotherapy, coaching or mindfulness training. In the tradition of insight meditation (Vipassana tradition), the student is taught to notice the ever-changing sensations, feelings and thoughts, whilst cultivating a sense of healthy detachment with whatever is happening. Being in equanimity allows you to see the ever-changing and unfolding processes in life without getting caught up in reactivity or over-identification. Eventually, you will learn to ‘ride the waves’ of life’s ups and downs. As Jon Kabat Zin says, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf!” . Or, quoting Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
The goal of this practise is to find a way of living that is free of our compulsive need to hold onto the good and to push away the bad. In the Buddhist tradition, equanimity provides us with protection from the “eight worldly winds”: praise and blame, success and failure, pleasure and pain, fame and disrepute. With equanimity, we can feel pleasure without clinging to it or worrying about its ceasing, and we can feel pain without perpetuating it.
Ultimately, you can feel more and more free by expanding the range of life experiences you welcome into your world. Instead of expending endless energy in resisting reality, welcome whatever arises, and allow them to change you.
“The great gift of a spiritual path is coming to trust that you can find a way to true refuge. You realize that you can start right where you are, in the midst of your life, and find peace in any circumstance. Even at those moments when the ground shakes terribly beneath you—when there’s a loss that will alter your life forever—you can still trust that you will find your way home. This is possible because you’ve touched the timeless love and awareness that are intrinsic to who you are.”
– Tara Brach
Practising Mindfulness In Buddhist Psychotherapy and Coaching
‘I can’t sit still. Can I meditate?’
We hear this a lot when introducing the concept of mindfulness to others.
In contrary to the urban myth, mindfulness is not about sitting on an uncomfortable cushion for hours or chanting “omm”. It is about being ‘more awake’ in your daily life, tasting fully the wide palate of human emotions – without getting stuck in them.
There seems to be a misconception that people you see sitting on a mat has all reached a state of serenity, and that idea may be so far from your own experience that it has made you decided ‘I cannot meditate’, or that you are ‘bad at meditating’.
If you ask anyone who practises mindfulness regularly, you will know that complete serenity is a far cry from what actually happens.
Mindfulness teachers sometimes describe our mind as ‘monkey minds’ – It is constantly busy thinking, planning, reminiscing, and judging… this is completely natural. Our goal in practising mindfulness is not to get rid of all thoughts and feelings, but to create a space for them to come and go, so that we no longer feel trapped in them.
Despite the usual misconception, mindfulness can be practised inside or outside of formal meditation. It can take a variety of forms, from ‘formal’ practices such as sitting breathing exercises, to other practices that aims at cultivating a continuity of awareness in your daily living. In the mindfulness group I go to, for instance, we regularly practice walking slowly together, eating in silence as a group, we even joke about using the toilet mindfully.
In other words, mindfulness is cultivated as ‘a way of being’.
It can be learned and practised by anyone, whatever their background. Although the philosophy finds its origin in Buddhism, mindfulness informed therapeutic approaches are secular in nature.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
By delivering intensive experiential training in mindfulness, we guide clients to access resources that they can use in daily lives (e.g. breathing techniques, self- compassion, mindful eating) in order to respond more effectively to stress, pain and illness.
Evidence-based research shows the MBSR Program (8-week) to be effective in helping chronic pain and fatigue, depression, anxiety, life stress, psoriasis, cancer and in supporting self-care.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
As an adaptation inspired by the MBSR, MBCT is specially developed for the treatment of depression.
MBCT offers a different way of relating to experience and helps prevent rumination— the negative patterns of thinking and feeling that may escalate towards depressive relapse.
MBCT is now recommended in the guidelines of the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) as a treatment of choice for people who have suffered three or more episodes of depression.
Other Buddhist Psychotherapy and Coaching Techniques
In Buddhist psychotherapy and coaching, I have a commitment to empower you to become aware of your patterns of thinking and beliefs. Insight, meditation, mindfulness, breathwork, and positive affirmations can all be used.
When speaking about the techniques of Buddhist psychotherapy, we tend to think of mindfulness techniques only. However, there are other techniques that are specific to this approach:
Insight Oriented Dialogues
Similar to what we may see in traditional Western psychotherapy and even cognitive therapies, in the Buddhist approach we work together to identify thinking and emotional patterns that are causing suffering. These patterns may be caused by past trauma or social conditioning, and you have become increasingly unconscious to them. In Buddhist coaching, Buddhist principles and precepts may be employed to help you out of a certain stuck point, or mental predicament. In this process, healing insights may be discovered and realized. While the therapeutic dialogue draws out what needs to be changed, meditation and specific homework may be used to integrate these changes in your day-to-day lives.
Conscious Breathwork can be used alongside meditation to ground our mind. Breathwork is used as a form of concentrative meditation (shaman), it enhances self-awareness and enables you to slow down and go within. Breathwork works on a physiological level by filling you with what is known as ‘chi’ or ‘prana’. Chi is channelled and connected to by many Kung Fu masters and martial arts experts. Prana is similar as it is another name for the breath and is a life-giving force. Breathwork also helps you to balance yin and yang, the dual and opposing, yet complementary, energetic forces of the universe that are intrinsic to creation and life themselves. Conscious breathwork may be used alongside a variety of contemplation exercises, such as visualisation, to help you become open about your true feelings, desires, fears, worries and emotions or beliefs.
Buddhist meditation offers antidotes to counteract many afflictions and redirect the mind towards wisdom. Different forms of meditations have different qualities and offerings. For example, concentration meditation cultivates focus and helps us to clarify our mind. Contemplative meditations on virtues such as loving-kindness, compassion, and joy help broaden our mind and become less self-absorbed. Mindfulness meditation (Vipassana) allows us to see our unconscious bias and penetrate the wisdom of impermanence. Amongst these, Vipassana/Mindfulness (VM) meditation is the most commonly incorporated in Western psychotherapy.
Mindfulness is used by therapists as a personal tool, theoretical framework for practice, or as a skill to teach clients. (Germer, 2005)
Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as a moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness by paying attention. By cultivating mindfulness, we can make a space in our mind to become aware and conscious of our thoughts, emotional patterns and responses, behaviours and physical bodily sensations. Mindfulness allows us to start responding instead of reacting. It helps us to explore our internal currents as a clam observer and becoming free from judgement or harsh projections.
Numerous research has proven the therapeutic effects of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy, for example, incorporates meditation as a healing modality. It is now strongly recommended by mental health authorities as a treatment for unipolar depression and anxiety. (Marchand, 2012)
Mantras, prayer and affirmations are unique to particular schools of Buddhism. They are not for everyone, but some therapists have found them to be exceptionally powerful as a therapeutic tool. Mantras are very similar to affirmations, as both use a combination of words, phrases and specific intentions to achieve intended results. Phrases are spoken, hummed or thought silently during meditation, or can even be sung. The main principle to be aware of when using both affirmations and mantras is that sounds, mental projections/intentions and thoughts have a direct influence and effect on neurons in the brain. The neurological activity can be powerfully shaped, restructured and influenced through specific patterns and sound waves of thinking, and speaking or silently (subtly) intending.
In using mantras for self-discovery, self-analysis and self-healing, faulty thought processes or distortions in patterns of behaviour that arise from negative thinking, chaotic emotions or self-harming beliefs and mental tendencies can be softened.
Examples of mantras or affirmations used in Buddhist Buddhist psychotherapy and coaching may include the following:-
- “I recognise the interconnected nature of all life and seek to achieve peace within.”
- “I practice non- judgement and acceptance- acceptance of myself and of the world around.”
- “Non-attachment allows me to feel happy, content and self- reliant so I can live my ultimate life and achieve my goals & dreams.”
- “I deserve to be joyous, blissful and free from mental suffering. Contentment is my birthright.”
- “With daily meditation, breathwork and mindfulness, I can start to lead my best life and let go of all that no longer serves.”
“When you meditate on enlightened insights into the true nature of reality and the boundlessness of the self, you develop new habits of thinking. You free yourself from the constraints of your habitual mind.”
Imi Lo is a consultant and published author with extensive and international experience in mental health and psychotherapy. Her books Emotional Sensitivity and Intensity and The Gift of Intensity are available worldwide and in multiple languages. Imi has two Master’s degrees; one in Mental Health and one in Buddhist Studies. She works holistically, combining psychological insights with Eastern and Western philosophies such as Buddhism and Stoicism.