The Dialogue Between Buddhism, Psychotherapy and the Mind Sciences


A presentation given at a conference Mindfulness and Well-Being from Spirituality to Neuroscience at  the University of East London, November 2009.

My title is The Dialogue Between Buddhism Psychotherapy and the Mind Sciences and I want to take a wider look at the interplay that has taken place between these discourses, both in the past and the present, and the implications for the future.  Before starting this brief attempt, the equivalent of writing three novels on one postcard, perhaps I should start be saying a few words about how I myself took this journey.

I studied academic Buddhist studies SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London and a professional psychotherapy training with Buddhist inspired Core Process Psychotherapy and brought these two discources together for my doctorate, writing about Buddhism as inspiration for contemporary psychotherapy.  I was interested not only in practices of awareness that were usually the link between these subject areas, but also the underlying philosophical stance of Buddhist thought, its understanding of impermanence, interdependence and emptiness that I believed was fundamentally helpful to our attempts to come to terms with identity and wellbeing at the end of 20th century.

Conferences at Dartington Hall 1996, 1999 introduced me to the field of neurosciences in the work of Francisco Varela.  He was one of the founders of the Mind and Life Institute that for over 20 years has supported conferences between HH Dalai Lama and leading Western scientists.    Several ongoing research programmes and several books in USA have arisen from these discussions.

Buddhist First Psychology:

Turning to the earliest discipline in this dialogue, I would first like to note that in actuality there are many ‘Buddhisms’ within which we can find a central core of teachings common to all. Buddhism unlike other religions propounds no god and no credo.  Moreover the Buddha was not concerned with what exists, but with what we experience, what is present to consciousness - with


We are what we think

All that we are arises with our thoughts.

With our thoughts we make the world

Speak or act with an impure mind

And trouble will follow you

As the wheel follows the ox that draws the car.

Study and analysis of mind starts with experience: firstly the experience of Sakyamuni Buddha himself, then other practitioners throughout the years.  Buddhist philosophy began with the Buddha’s experience. From the foundation of this experience arose the teachings and practices that were taught to help others to the same experiences: the Four Truths; of suffering or unsatisfactoriness that is to be fully known; of its cause, our ignorance or delusion about impermanence and the ways things truly are, that gives rise to desires and aversions that are to be abandoned; the potential for liberation from such delusion that is to be sought through a Path of right living that is to be cultivated. It could almost be seen as an medical model of diagnosis, prognosis and prescription. Thus Buddhist first psychology heals many of the divisions we find in Western discourse, such as Theory and Practice, Body and Mind.  Indeed Buddhism speaks constantly in terms of Body, Speech and Mind, which today I find maps onto contemporary ideas of embodiment, emotion and environment.   The practices of body, speech and mind; awareness practices of embodiment, communication and consciousness, form a precious resource for those interested in mental and physical well being.

Beyond these practices, and much of the dialogue between Buddhism and psychology has travelled no further than this, there is an overall philosophy that itself is, I believe, helpful

At the very heart of this is process.  All the models and theories of Buddhism are based on awareness of process. The central tenet of Buddhism as I described, the 4 Truths states that suffering exists, and arises because of our inability to understand that all phenomena are impermanent, contingent and constructed. This cognitive error is compounded by the emotional error of grasping and desire.  Freedom is liberation from these errors through a path of understanding, morality and mind training.  Also by ethicizing the Brahmanic doctrine of karma, translating it from action into intention, the Buddha taught that each of us is responsible for themselves, a major theme of psychotherapy.

The first deconstructionist was perhaps the Buddha, though his deconstruction is always seen in context that provides for reconstruction in process, as individual elements are recognised as impermanent and inessential then reconstructed as elements of interdependent process. . In these teachings a logic of contradiction is replaced by a logic of complementarity.  This today has made Buddhist thought seem surprisingly contemporary – in tune with postmodern attitudes. One of the major deconstructions is that of self - Essence, soul, element and concrete identity are replaced in Buddhist thought by processual models - of interaction and interdependence, which can be of enormous importance in the context of Psychotherapy.  There is also in much of Buddhist thought a belief in Mind or Buddha Nature as being healthy and self-healing, if only it can be touched in its pristine, uncontaminated state.  This takes work, but is there as universal potential.  This framework may be very helpful in the healing profession, may offer a paradigm for health and a way of not pathologising all experience. Clear awareness itself may be healing.


Basic to the history and formation of psychotherapy is an early split from Psychology.  Early in the twentieth century, academic psychology, despite the psyche in its name, outlawed consciousness from its researches.  What could not be seen or measured was declared outside the realm of legitimate research.  Only beyond the latter half of the twentieth century did consciousness return as an acceptable subject of research or discourse. In the meantime, psychotherapists had been going on with the practical task of trying to help those with troubled minds and lives.  Thus much psychotherapy has lacked a strong scientific or even philosophical basis.  Many attempts have been made to redress this lack.  Psychoanalysis tried hard to be scientific, and was well critiqued by science for its lack of hard evidence.  Existential psychology tried to ally psychoanalysis to the philosophic foundation of existential philosophy. Other psychotherapies have taken more practical foundations.  Today most psychotherapy in practice, I would suggest is pretty integrative.  No psychotherapist would be without knowledge of Freud or Jung, no analyst would be completely untouched by the different outlook of Humanistic Psychology.  Increasingly more of popular and easily available psychotherapy is Cognitive Behavioural, which while founded in academic psychology has learned ways of being with clients from its predecessors.

Perhaps the greatest area to have been explored and emphasised by Psychology and psychotherapy is an awareness of development.  Certainly this is the main area that the West brings to the meeting of Buddhism and Western psychotherapies. 

The dialogue between Buddhism and psychology is a long one. As I have said it arises naturally from the very psychological slant of Buddhist teachings themselves and interestingly is nearly as long as the discipline of psychotherapies themselves.  As a result of the first World Conference of Religions in 1897, some years later a disciple of the Japanese Zen Buddhist representative at the conference was sent to Boston.  This was D.T. Suzuki whose introduction to, and exposition of, Zen has been so influential in the West.  Suzuki worked as secretary to Paul Carus a friend of William James.  Thus, his work and translation were imbued with a psychological bias.

In the 1930s Carl Jung wrote psychological commentaries to accompany German translations of two major Tibetan Buddhist texts, and also wrote an introduction to Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen Buddhism.  Although Jung was extremely wary of the dangers of Eastern texts and practices for Westerners, he was impressed by them writing that the psychotherapist who is seriously concerned with the question of the aim of therapy cannot be unmoved when looking at them, saying that “methods and philosophical doctrines have been developed which simply put all Western attempts along those lines into the shade.”

In 1960s the dialogue broadened after the Tibetan Diaspora.  Tibetan teachers such as Trungpa and Tarthang Tulku gave teachings with a psychological slant, addressing therapists; many Buddhist perhaps followed right livelihood in becoming therapists.  In 1960 Allan Watts one of the early popularisers of the conversation, claimed to have read everything in the field of the dialogue; Today this would hardly be possible, not a week passes without some volume, from scholarly comparisons with Western scientific research to so-called Buddhist tips on dating.

How is a Buddhist-influenced psychotherapy different?  The Buddhist contribution I have spoken of earlier; generally it has been in the area of awareness practice; the underlying belief that awareness itself is healing, though I do want to reiterate what I see of the value of some of its philosophical and ethical foundations; process thinking, a foundational belief in the potential of health and an understanding of our interdependence.   Process thinking involves a questioning of identity; rather than seeing a specific identity as unhelpful, to be replaced by a more wholesome or realistic one, Buddhist influenced psychotherapy understands that all identities are to be held lightly not grasped tightly and identified with in an essentialist manner.  To let go of a conception of a permanent unchanging self in favour of understanding the flexible constructed nature of becoming leads to freedom.  Seeing self’s reliance upon its context, and its history let’s us see how our self image arises, and understanding its contingency and constructed nature, lets us hold it more lightly, freeing ourselves from the grasp of solid identification:  Seeing identity as a substantial entity is a cognitive error which is strengthened by our subsequent emotional attachment to it.  Seeing the constructed nature of self and the ‘emptiness’ of the self image frees us from its domination, makes space for choice, allowing us to expand the range of who we may be, how we may more fully respond to world and others with free awareness.   As one writer has beautifully put it:  “Ego self is this attempt of awareness to objectify itself – by grasping itself –“  Freed from this attempt at objectification, awareness freed from thrall to ego, is healing. Working with attention is a means of clarifying ego. Mental health is free attention, attention available for what occurs rather than attention working in subject/object fashion, not rooted in ego.

So awareness practices from the long tradition of Buddhist thought are, of course, central.  Specific practices also provide resource: A practitioner of Humanistic Psychology has written of the difficulty of arousing unconditional positive regard as promoted by Carl Rogers.  Buddhism has practices for the arousing of compassion, but before looking swiftly at awareness practices in the field of psychotherapy I would just like to say that there are however, differences.  There is not the time nor is this the occasion to go deeply into this, but I feel it would be remiss not to mention this. While both seek liberation the aims of Buddhist project are other than those of psychotherapy, the quality and extent of liberation different and indeed a relatively sound mind is a prerequisite for serious Buddhist practice. This is necessary to acknowledge, whilst also acknowledging that Buddhist ideas and practices provide an enormous resource for psychotherapy.  In the field of awareness practices I would point to:

1.Meditation or mindfulness for the therapist.  This is an enormous resource both as a way of getting to know one’s own mind.  Surely the hardest and most important part of the training of any therapist in whatever modality, is to get to know their own process; to know where the areas of difficulty are; to acknowledge and deeply know this, that when presented with clients they may not muddy the waters of the client’s process with their own turbulence.  Meditation may also be a great resource for therapists as providing a larger space of awareness within which they can let go of the contents of their work thus evading the emotional burnout.

2.Mindfulness for the client.  I actually don’t feel happy with therapist being a formal meditation teacher for any client, feeling that such overlap of roles may confuse issues of transference.  However basic mindfulness, breath work, can only help clients become evermore aware of their own processes and is obviously of vast value.

3.A meditative state of doing therapy.  This is really the ‘evenly hovering attention’ that Freud supported.  A more body-oriented, calmer, quieter, more wide-focussed and non-judgemental awareness is one in which, with the chatter of story and content stilled, a deeper awareness and understanding may arise.  Indeed, as I will note later, there is scientific evidence arising that such a way of being may override our normal ‘default’ manner of experience and involve different neuronal circuits that are beneficial.

So the meeting of Buddhist thought and practice and Western psychotherapy has proven to be of great benefit.  There are several trainings in various countries.  Contemplative psychotherapy in Naropa University, Boulder, Colorado started by Chogyam Trungpa; in UK Core Process Psychology, Training offered by Samye Ling Buddhist Centre, there are others in Australia.  There is also the ever-growing and valuable field of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.

Mind sciences:

Where do the Mind sciences enter this picture?  In the last 3 decades, there has been an exponential rise in our understanding of how the brain actually works.  Technological advances such as fMRI and PET scans have enormously aided this project.  There is still far to go, and indeed no agreed definition of mind, (I am using ‘brain’ as physical substrate.‘mind’ as entire process, contents, influences that are embodied, felt and extra-organism i.e. environmental.) Yet discoveries are being made daily that are of vital importance for psychotherapy and for the practical pursuit of understanding and healing the troubled mind.  They can and should provide the foundations that psychotherapy has lacked.  They are also fascinatingly resonant with Buddhism’s first psychology.

Here an admission: I am no scientist.  My sources are secondary, my understanding that of a laywoman, and my context that of relevance to therapy and resonance with Buddhist teachings.

In this dialogue I want to emphasise two themes: nonconsciousness and neuroplasticity and 3 headings: embodiment, emotion and environment,

Nonconscious:  Mind processes are largely unconscious.  By this I do not refer to the Freudian unconscious, a repository of repressed desires, nor to the Jungian collective unconscious, home of archetypes, rather to the fact that most of the processes of our body/mind are non-conscious.  Conscious processes are merely the tip of the iceberg of processes that are carefully and minutely continuing without our aware knowledge of them.

Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of the mind to programme and reprogramme itself, the ability of neurons and neuronal linking to respond to experience.  This facility continues throughout life. It is never to late to learn – something at least.  Neurons that fire together, wire together. (Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb)  We become literally ‘creatures of habit” thus it behoves us to choose our habits with care.  The early Buddhist distinction between healthy and unhealthy mind states suddenly seems relevant here – as do the awareness practices that strengthen attention.  Attention it now seems is central to the strengthening of connections.  Our brains learn from what flows through experience with attention like a spotlight, illuminating what streams into our minds, which sculpts our brains.

In the words of a philosopher and cognitive scientist Alva Noe: “A habit is like a trail laid down by our repetitive actions.”  This echoes the words of the Dhammapada that I quoted earlier reiterating the message that we are creatures of habit, and thus we should chose our habits carefully.

Speak or act with an impure mind

And trouble will follow you

As the wheel follows the ox that draws the car.

These two themes, of non-consciousness and neuroplasticity weave through the areas of embodiment, emotion and environment.  Mind science has emphasised the importance of our embodiment.  Much of the process of mind is, as I have said, unconscious and embodied.  I think we can agree that practically and philosophically especially, discourse in the west has privileged the mind at the expense of body ever since the separation of the two in Cartesian philosophy.  Science shows this to be an erroneous split, that mind and body, processes of mind and body, cannot be so-divided. Mind is embodied – in brain, nervous system, immune system, chemical and neurological processes that unite body and mind.  The dialogue and influence between them can and does go two ways. 

Similarly emotion, considered inferior to reason or thought, is discovered to be inseparable from cognition. I haven’t the time or space to elucidate this in detail but would point to the work of Candace Pert (Molecules of Emotion) and Antonio Damasio which illustrate how emotion is integral to cognition.  It is the emotional or value-sensing push/pull that leads our attention. Emotional intelligence and education is thus shown to be vastly important, something that has often been ignored in our education, which has concentrated on the accumulation of knowledge, of facts.

Both of these come together under the heading of environment, where science is showing that context is an essential consideration of any analysis.  This is related to context in physical terms such as ecology, but also the cultural and social context of any process.

Bringing together all these three points, together, anthropologist Clifford Geertz has written;”

Our brains are not in a vat; but in our bodies.  Our minds are not in our bodies, but in the world.  And as for the world, it is not in our brains, our bodies or our minds: they are, along with gods, verbs, rock and politics, in it.”

All this has important implications for psychotherapy. To mention just a few: Buddhist concepts of the compounded process self now have scientific foundation; the “I” is seen to be compounded by the processes of many neural subsystems. It has no fixed centre; it is a process of selfing, not an entity.

For the first time, the developmental models, for example those of John Bowlby can be reinterpreted in neurobiological and chemical terms.  And this knowledge of normal development also has obvious implications for repair and what we might even call the latter reparenting of psychotherapy.  Alan Schore, who has also written fascinatingly on why and how psychotherapy works is the leading name in this field, and Daniel Segal who has made his work better known.

We can now see the physical implications of mental experience; for example, Cortisol the substance that the body produces when under stress.  The effects of cortisol on the brain development of small babies and adults can now be tracked. 

For good and ill we can see the physical instantiation in the brain of experience; for example the neurological development in areas of the brain related to the fingers of the left hand is greater in the brains of violinists; the brains of babies who lacked early care are devoid of the development expected in normal babies.  The good news is that, to some extent at least, neuroplasticity means that repair is possible. Study of the brains of experienced contemplatives have shown positive results; Studies have shown that attention to breath results in strengthening of the insula that deals with internal body sensing, strengthening of the anterior cingulated cortex that helps coordinate thoughts and feelings), producing more serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with positive states and heightened activity in L prefrontal cortex, the brain area associated with feelings of wellbeing.   I am sure some of you will remember seeing pictures of monk Matthieu Ricard with a helmet of wires issuing from his head with headlines such as “Happiest Man in the World” following the publication of Richard Davidson’s research in Madison, Wisconsin.  In his new book Rick Hanson has given neurological translation of the traditional Buddhist 5 Hindrances.)

If to some extend this sounds like reductive materialism, as if we are but the substance and result of our brains, YET it transcends this, as it is process of experience that affects this physical process.  These experiences are embodied throughout the entire body not just the brain, they are thoroughly emotional and they are affected by our environment. Perhaps we could call it an imminent transcendence, singularity transcended by interdependence.

So attention to attention and awareness becomes profoundly important.  Earlier I spoke of free attention as opposed to attention in service of self-representation or ego. Neuroscientific studies have shown a dual mode theory of self-representative, narrative mode, also called medial mode from its area of action in the brain and experiential or lateral mode. Rick Hanson mentioned this yesterday.  It would seem that narrative mode, the mode that Loy would see as the attempt of the ego to objectify itself has become our default mode overruling the more immediate, sense based panoramic and non-judgemental lateral mode. Mindfulness opposes this co-option, disengages from default, and allows for choice and elective movement between modes, which is beneficial to wellbeing. As the authors of a research article state “… the capacity to disengage temporally extended narrative and engage more momentary neural modes of self-focus has important implications for mood and anxiety disorders, with the narrative focus having been shown to increase illness vulnerability.”

The cultivation of practices of awareness that can foster wellbeing is not traditional to our Western culture.  As the philosopher and psychologist William James wrote back in 1890

The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgement, character and will.  No one is compos sui if her have it not.  An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. (James 1981 p.401

Here the long experience of Buddhist awareness practices may provide a resource, just as western scientific understanding can show us how these function and psychotherapy may present this knowledge in practice to relieve suffering.  I hope the future will bring these three traditions evermore into a continuing dialogue.


C.G. Jung l958 Collected Works, Vol 11. Para 905

D. Loy, 1988 NonDuality of Life and Death, Yale University Press.  p.58)

Reggie Pawle 2000 “The Ego in the Psychology of Zen “ in Self and No-Self Mathers, Miler & Ando.  London: Routledge.

A. Noe 2009. Out of Our Heads. New York: Hill & Wang p.126.

Geertz. 2000. Available Light. Princeton University Press. p.205

  Sue Gerhart. 2004 Why Love Matters. Brunner Routledge.

(Holzel et al. 2008.) “Investigation of mindfulness meditation practitioners with voxel-based morphometry.” In Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience. Vol.3. No.1. pp. 55-67.

(Lazar et al. 2005 “Meditation experience  is associated with increased cortical thickness” in NeuroReport  Vol.16. No.17. pp.1893-97

(Farb, Segal, Mayberg et al. “Attending to the Present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference.” In SCAN (2007) 2, 313-322.