Therapy and Contemplative Spiritual Practice

The twin pillars of my internal life have been Buddhism and various encounters with psychotherapy, both as therapee and therapist.  This parallels the frequent intersection of, particularly, Buddhist spirituality and psychotherapy in the wider world (e.g. Welwood, Epstein, Kornfield, Siegel in USA and Barzaghi, Dawson and others here in Australia). So questions as to similarities and differences between these two modes of internal development and exploration often arise and this blog is an attempt to provide a very particular perspective. Let me emphasise that while I am a trained  psychotherapist, I am not a spiritual teacher in any tradition, simply an experienced and inquisitive lay practitioner of a very secular take on Buddhism.

A large difference between the two worlds is that many therapies, and certainly all psychodynamic therapies, are based on a developmental model of some level of specificity.  That is, some theory which describes our progress as beings with/of a subjective affective and cognitive world from the relative simplicity of infancy to the complexity of adulthood. Many models regard adulthood itself as a unitary state, others at least imply a continuum of development which can span our adult lives. The more recent examples of these models emphasise the critical interplay of subjective-intersubjective experience in that development.  In contrast, to my knowledge, Buddhism does not deal at all with our transition from infancy to adulthood but concentrates on a description of  phenomenology of adult experience.  As an aside, that sentence gives away my own very secular understanding of Buddhism which is definitely not the mainstream view of Buddhism; reader beware[1].  Buddhism does recognise stages on the path to awakening but these seem to be specific to the path rather than part of a general developmental trajectory.

Another difference is the implication common to psychotherapies that we are seeking to overcome dysfunction of some sort where in Buddhism we are dealing with the shared nature of human (and possibly the sentient) minds and the illusions (cognitive, affective and experiential) to which they are prone. Both speak of relieving suffering[2]; therapy sees the relief of suffering as resulting from the righting of painful dysfunction where Buddhism sees the relief of suffering arising from a clarification or transformation of our view of and relation to the pain inherent in existence.

Ethical behaviour is critical and intrinsic to the Buddhist path of transformation whereas explicit valorisation of ethical behaviour, or even a demarcation between the ethical and the unethical, is rarely advised as a component of therapy. Therapists themselves are subject to strict ethical guidelines but ethical analysis is not a prominent part of most therapies. There are exceptions of course: existential therapy encourages taking responsibility for our actions and their effects and couples therapy usually has clear guidelines about the inappropriateness of, for example, violence and psychological abuse in a relationship.

The final difference I’ll touch on here is the difference of focus on mental experience. In psychotherapy, even very body centred therapies like Hakomi or Focusing, we explore what the experience is about for the client.  What is its meaning to/for/within the client’s life? To some extent we are interested in the content of experience.  In Buddhist meditation (let’s stick to pure vipassana) we are looking more impersonally at the characteristics of the experience and its participation in the three marks of existence: transience, unsatisfactoriness and not-mine.  We are invited to see that the experience begins and ends or comes and goes. We may look at the experience as arising from a particular set of conditions but we won’t necessarily be interested in exploring those conditions. The important lessons are that it is not permanent; that without the conditions the experience wouldn’t happen; and as a direct result of these two aspects of the experience it cannot really be said to be mine or an essential part of me.  In therapy we will be trying to bring the experience and our appreciation of how it arises in a particular life into conscious awareness.  Note that the Buddhist process is dependent on the experience being available to conscious awareness from the start.

Perhaps a summary of differences could be that psychotherapy helps us integrate disowned and troublesome aspects of our personal history where the Buddhist path helps us integrate and reach a deep, felt understanding of our shared circumstances as sentient, subjective beings-together-in-the-world. Perhaps one outcome of this is that it helps us become more humble: this is a lifetime process and, though we have the navigation beacon of the Buddha’s awakening, there is no “end-goal” towards which we strive in secular Buddhism.

I’m sure that other therapists and practitioners will have their own take on the similarities and differences in the two ways of looking at human growth or development.  These are offered simply as part of the view from this body…today.



[1] To expand a little: I see Buddhist spirituality as a collection of practices and a framework for life (the 8-Fold Path) by which we transform our experience of, and relation to our experience, and thereby transform our relations to self, others and the world.

[2] The difference between “pain” and “suffering” is one which I’ll expand in the future.

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