Buddhist Approaches to Mental Health

By Robert Common, Managing Partner, The Beekeeper

Buddhism teaches its followers to learn to look within themselves for truth and meaning. It also teaches that to successfully address issues in our lives, we need to focus on ourselves rather than external factors. In many ways, this concept can apply to the way we talk and think about mental health and mental health issues.

Core Beliefs of Buddhism
Before discussing the applications of Buddhism for mental health, it’s important to first understand the core beliefs of Buddhism [1]. These beliefs are composed of the Three Universal Truths and the Four Noble Truths:

Three Universal Truths

  1. Everything in life is impermanent and always changing.
  2. Because nothing is permanent, a life based on possessing things or persons doesn’t make you happy.
  3. There is no eternal, unchanging soul and “self” is just a collection of changing characteristics or attributes.

Four Noble Truths

  1. Human life has a lot of suffering.
  2. The cause of suffering is greed.
  3. There is an end to suffering.
  4. The way to end suffering is to follow the Middle Path (not leading a life of luxury and indulgence, nor living a life with too much hardship).

These core beliefs are the foundation of Buddhism Psychology.

Buddhism Psychology
Buddhism Psychology focuses on the idea that the primary cause of human problems comes from the human mind, not from our environment. Therefore, analyzing the nature of our own behaviors, and how our behaviors contribute to issues present in our lives, is necessary to relieve suffering [2-4]. An important aspect of Buddhism Psychology relevant for mental health is Buddhism mindfulness.

Buddhism Mindfulness
Buddhism mindfulness involves taking in moments as they come, and thinking about them deeply, without interfering with your processing of them. It is considered necessary for all aspects of the perception of self and self-awareness, taking personal responsibility, and ultimately, for our ability to make good choices [2-4]. Buddhism mindfulness is the basis for therapeutic treatments for mental health that bridge Buddhism practices, such as mindful meditation, with traditional Western therapies.

Buddhist Mindful Meditation
Buddhist meditation asks us to focus on the self rather than extend energy on outside sources of issues by using mindfulness to develop central values of Buddhism. There are four core foundations of Buddhism mindful meditation [4,5]:

  1. Mindfulness in the body: what is being perceived by senses in this moment?
  2. Mindfulness of our feelings: how do we feel about what we are perceiving?
  3. Mindfulness of our minds: what emotional reactions are we experiencing based on what is being perceived?
  4. Mindfulness of phenomena: what is the nature of our perception?

Buddhist mindful meditation requires that those who practice it are motivated to develop the skills needed to relieve suffering from themselves and from others.

Therapeutic Practices Based on Buddhist Principles

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) utilizes Buddhism mindful meditation to rewire our mind and change the way we think about ourselves by combining this Buddhist practice with cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT) [6].

MBCT practices require us to think deeply about how our behaviors, choices, and thought processes are causing our problems, and how we can change our behavior to better our lives. A main goal of MBCT is to learn not to attach ourselves to thoughts or feelings that arise in response to a negative situation, nor to react to said situation, but rather to accept it and reflect on it without judgement.

Through this practice one can gain self-awareness regarding what triggers negative emotions and take control of their actions to better respond to negative events [7].

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)
Similar to MBCT, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) uses mindfulness training to assist people with stress and mental health issues such as anxiety and depression [7].

MBSR is typically an 8-week intensive course that uses a combination of techniques such as mindfulness meditation, body scanning, yoga, and exploration of our own patterns of thinking and behaving to increase wellbeing and reduce personal suffering [8]. The goal of MBSR is to increase the development of skills, such as emotional regulation, and to reduce behaviors that cause rumination or anxiety.

In clinical studies, MBSR has shown beneficial effects for adults and children with psychiatric conditions, sleep disorders, and chronic pain [7-10].

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
Acceptance and commitment therapy is another therapeutic practice that brings together CBT and various aspects of Buddhism Psychology, including mindfulness meditation [11].

There are six core processes of ACT:

  1. Acceptance: which involves the active embrace of feelings caused by negative events without trying to change your response. For example, allowing yourself to feel pain in its form as a means of letting it go.
  2. Cognitive Defusion: which involves changing the way you interact with your thoughts rather than trying to alter their form or frequency. For example, watching a negative thought passively rather than trying to prevent it from happening.
  3. Being Present: which encourages being present in your environment in a non-judgmental manner. For example, exerting control over your behavior by using language to describe an event, rather than trying to predict or judge events.
  4. Self as Context: which focuses on being aware of your experiences without being attached to them.
  5. Values: which means choosing qualities in the moment without assigning them to external factors, such as social rules.
  6. Committed Action: which is committing to the development of positive characteristics through various methods, such as setting concrete goals.

ACT has been shown through clinical research to be a useful treatment option for many mental illnesses, such as anxiety disorders, mood disorders, substance use disorders, and schizophrenia [12,13].

Through the success of these therapeutic practices, we can see that applying Buddhist beliefs and practices to how we think about emotions, suffering, and mental health have many beneficial effects for wellbeing. Core practices such as mindfulness, being present, and focusing on the self can allow us to find inner peace, ultimately leading to a higher state of wellbeing.

[1] https://www.buncombeschools.org/common/pages/UserFile.aspx?fileId=4539835
[2] https://www.lamayeshe.com/article/chapter/chapter-two-buddhist-approach-mental-illness
[3] https://fpmt.org/mandala/archives/older/mandala-issues-for-1999/may/a-buddhist-approach-to-mental-illness/
[4] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01752/full
[5] https://mindworks.org/blog/what-is-buddhist-meditation/
[6] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22340145/

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