From Buddha’s lips to Freud’s ears: A historical and theoretical analysis of Buddhism’s impact on western psychotherapy

Pabian, Bruce
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University of Delaware
This paper is written for students of Western Psychology who wish to gain a better understanding of the psychological aspects of Buddhism and how these aspects have impacted, and continue to impact, Western psychotherapy. As the prominent Buddhist psychoanalyst Dr. Mark Epstein put it, "In order for Buddhism to be understood by our culture, it must be reinterpreted in the psychological language of our time". This statement perfectly summarizes my objective for writing this paper. I want to introduce Buddhism to students of Western psychology who are unfamiliar with its insights and techniques in a language that is familiar and understandable to them. The underlying theme I want to convey throughout this paper is that despite the fact many consider Buddhism to be an Eastern religion or philosophy; I believe it should be most appropriately classified within the context of Western thought as psychotherapy. Even though it clearly has aspects of both a religion and a philosophy, the focus in Buddhism, just as it is in the field of psychotherapy, is to study and analyze the human mind in order to better understand it and to alleviate its suffering. Furthermore, both Buddhism and psychotherapy have the same basic assumption concerning human potential: the belief that human beings have the ability to make positive psychological and behavioral changes that will improve the quality of their experiences. Some examples of the changes human beings have the capability of making are: enhancing self-]awareness, developing better habits/coping skills, learning to control emotional responses, and constructing more accurate perceptions of reality. There are many students who are not fully aware of how various aspects of Buddhism not only resemble but have also inspired many theories found in Western psychology. Moving forward, the more Western psychologists embrace the insights and techniques found in Buddhist thought and practice, the more it will benefit the field of psychotherapy. I am clearly not the first person to attempt to apply Buddhist literature in the context of modern psychological research. Over the years there has been an increasing acknowledgment by psychologists, counselors, psychiatrists, and neuroscientists of the positive impact Buddhism can have on our contemporary understanding of human nature and human behavior. My hope is for these students of psychology to take a new, and less ethnocentric, look at the insights and techniques found in Buddhism. In short, I have three main goals I wish to accomplish in this paper. My three goals include: (1) Enable students of Western psychology to appreciate Buddhism's rich history and its contributions to the study of the mind. (2) Introduce the basic psychological principles of Buddhism in an understandable way to those who are unfamiliar with Buddha's teachings. (3) Allow those in the fields of mental health and/or behavioral sciences to benefit from Buddhism within their own work by explaining its insights and techniques using the psychological language of our time.