It has been noted that there are over 450 schools of psychotherapy. I learned this over 20 years ago. My guess, is at least a hundred more have developed since then and more are sure to come. As we learn more about the mind, body and mind/body through science, e.g. attachment theory, neuroscience, interpersonal biology, more “schools” of psychotherapy will develop. But are they really distinct “schools”? Separate bases of theory and inquiry into healing the mind with unique scientific and empirical foundations explicated through practice? Not in my opinion.
In my opinion, Siddhartha Gautama was the original cognitive (thoughts and thinking) behavioral theorist. The Buddha was the original psychotherapist. He developed mindfulness, the first school of psychotherapy 2,500 years ago. It is one of the elements of the “Noble Eight Fold Path”, a core tenet of Buddhism. However, in the hyper-competitive contemporary material age in which we live, mindfulness meditation has become touted as a revolutionary new tool for healing the “mind” (Time Magazine, August, 2016). Present day clinicians have extracted this jewel of a teaching from Buddhist philosophy. I often remark that this simple and profound Buddhist practice of purposeful attention has become so commodified that you can now order some to go and pick it up at Whole Foods with your quinoa and kale. Don’t forget the beet juice!
I kid. However, I do believe psychology has always had a need to be taken seriously as a science, e.g. biology, chemistry, physics. You know “real” and “hard” science, not soft social science. This is not an original thought. Yet, there is a paradox in that the more we come to “know” (“how” we know is another matter), the more that is revealed through science and the less we understand. I remember a talk by Candace Pert, Ph.D. called the “Neuropeptides of Emotion.” In it, she challenged the viewer to try to locate mind, positing that if “mind” existed at all, it was to be found at a cellular level, synergistically integrated with trillions of other cells throughout the systems of our bodies. There was no distinction between the body and the mind. Pert (she died 2013) was a pioneer in the field of psychoneuroimmunology in the 1980’s.
What does all this have to do with mindfulness and psychotherapy? In many ways, the “revolutionary new discovery” of mindfulness is just recovering what the Buddha realized 2,500 years ago. We are not our thoughts. A mindful state of consciousness means an awareness turned inward toward present felt experience – to simply be aware of what is, as opposed to attempting to do or confirm anything. “Don’t just DO something, sit there.” It is much harder than it sounds. Mindfulness is an expression of non-doing where one self-consciously suspends judgment and common understanding. A mindful state of consciousness may also manifest essential qualities such as compassion and acceptance (qualities serious lacking in our world and our politics!)
The word “psychotherapy” comes from the root word “psyche” meaning the mind or elements of the mind and “therapy” commonly taken to mean healing. In the Buddhist tradition, it is taught that meditation cultivates the capacity to hear when we listen, see when we look, and taste when we eat. The Buddha emphasized the capacity available to every human of immersing oneself fully in one’s everyday life rather than looking for idealized or escapist solutions. “Be Here Now” is the title of a cornerstone book from the 1970’s on healing and Eastern spirituality. The Buddha taught that we humans are at once empty, unique, and in intimate relation with all in the world. Psychotherapy is an expression of compassion, joy, equanimity, and kindness.
In many ways the “quest” for happiness, peace, nirvana, and freedom is an external one, something that is “out there” to be discovered. It is a particularly Western and uniquely American idea. That once we find happiness, peace, nirvana, etc. we will be free. However, the Buddha taught that bare attention, e.g. paying attention on purpose, without judgment – no matter what arises – is within us and a gift available to all. He sought to heal the mind and offered a psychotherapy so that we may have compassion, love and respect for ourselves, no matter the suffering we are experiencing. Call it psychodynamics, cognitive behaviorism, existentialism, acceptance and commitment, all offer potential insights into the suffering as a part of our collective humanism the Buddha first realized over 2,500 years ago.
Psychotherapy as practiced today emanates from this 2,500-year-old tradition, which tries to change the brain, shape our behavior for the better, and offer insight about how to live life more fully. Mindfulness is now widely applicable to many varieties of human suffering, from depression, anxiety and some of the deeper issues of self and personality. As we awake and grow, research is ongoing. Yet, despite the evidence of the transformed lives of millions acquainted with the “miracle of mindfulness” over the last 2,500 years, organized psychology holds that the Buddha’s teaching is only “probably efficacious.”
As a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist, and an enthusiastic student of Buddhism, I believe that mindfulness meditation will become a crucial ingredient in the therapy relationship for many of us engaged in practice or in seeking healing. It will also become a core aspect that unifies and links together in an integral way many of the multitude of different schools of psychotherapy.
The Buddha gave us a teaching for a form of psychotherapy that may feel mysterious and obscure, but it is the simplest yet most profound of teachings: pay attention on purpose and follow your breath. This draws theory, research, and practice together, just as it did for Siddhartha Gautama under the Bodhi tree over 2,500 years ago.
Dr. Geysen is a Clinical and Forensic Psychologist is private practice in Glastonbury, Connecticut. Learn more about Dr. Geysen at www.drgeysen.com.