What Can Be Learned from Buddhist Approaches for Mental Health

By Robert Common, Managing Partner, The Beekeeper

Buddhist approaches to mental health, which include Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), include the use of mindfulness and mindful meditation, the importance of always being present, and a focus on “self” rather than our environment alone [1-3].

All three of these approaches have shown success in clinical and scientific studies for being an effective therapeutic treatment option for various psychiatric conditions, including anxiety, depression, and chronic pain [2,4-8]. Given the success of these approaches, there are many lessons we can gain regarding how different beliefs and practices of Buddhism can contribute to making our lives better.

Core Concepts of Buddhist Approaches for Mental Health
Understanding the listed core concepts is important for being able to fully understand the contributions Buddhist practices have for mental health treatment [9-12].

  • Mindfulness: mindfulness focuses on thinking deeply about events or moments in our lives as they are occurring, without taking any action to alter our perception of them. Mindfulness is an important component of Buddhist practices that is relevant for all lessons covered in this piece.
  • Being present: being present is to allow yourself to be in a moment as it is occurring. This may sound simple, but it is common for many of us to spend time ruminating on the past or worrying about how our actions may affect our future. A main goal in all Buddhist approaches to mental health is allowing yourself to be present and process a given moment as you are experiencing it.
  • Focus on adapting our own behavior: Rather than worry about how your environment or other external factors are causing issues in your life, a main concept of Buddhism Psychology and therapeutic practices based on Buddhist principles is to focus on how your own behaviors, actions, and thought processes are contributing to your suffering.

These core concepts form the basis of various major lessons that the application of Buddhism to mental health can teach us.

Lesson 1: Focusing on The Perception of Self
The way in which we perceive ourselves is very impactful on our mental health [9-11]. In Buddhism psychology, introspection and self-observation are vital for identifying any behaviors that are causing issues in our lives, and then adapting those behavior.

Analyzing and understanding the nature of ourselves is necessary for being able to identify how our own behaviors and mental states are causing our suffering. For example, by being overly attached to how our experiences affect us emotionally, or by immediately having a negative reaction to an event. Without self-perception, we are unable to take personal responsibility, and ultimately, we will be unable to improve upon ourselves.

Through the power of perceiving which behaviors are influencing our suffering, we also gain the ability to change our perception of and reactions to our environment, and thus the ability to change any circumstances in our lives.

Lesson 2: The Importance of Taking Personal Responsibility for Our Actions
As the core concepts suggest, we are in charge of our own actions, which means we are also in charge of how our actions impact our mental health.

In essence, we choose the actions that we take, and we have control over our thought processes and how we respond to events; taking personal responsibility for our actions is an important step that, when combined with improved perception of self, can lead to changes in our behavior and thinking processes that will contribute to better mental health [9-11].

According to Buddhism Psychology, in order to improve our wellbeing, we first need to take personal responsibility for how we are causing our own suffering.

Lesson 3: The Value of Self-Development and Constantly Working to Be Better
Two of the Universal Truths in Buddhism state: “everything in life is impermanent and changing” and “there is no eternal, unchanging soul and “self” is just a collection of changing characteristics or attributes” [13]. One of the ways these truths can be interpreted is that our “self” is always changing. Or, in other words, that we are constantly going through stages of self-development.

Focusing on the development of ourselves is key to achieving inner peace and happiness [9-11]. The success of Buddhist mental health approaches is reliant on our motivation and willingness to adapt to our circumstances, change our mindset and behavioral patterns, and to always be working on bettering ourselves. These practices teach us that the end of suffering comes from self-development.

Lesson 4: Finding Inner Peace and Utilizing That for Healing
A final lesson we can learn from Buddhist approaches to mental health is that true happiness and wellbeing come from finding and sustaining inner peace [14-16]. Inner peace comes from understanding and accepting your true nature (that is, accepting who you are, as you are) [16], and from achieving a state of mental calmness [14-15].

The main way to achieve this mental state is through meditation practices, such as mindful meditation [9-12,15]. Meditation can be performed in many different ways, for example, through deep breathing exercises, body scanning exercises, yoga, and more. Buddhist mindful meditation can help us develop the skills we need to relieve suffering from both ourselves and from others. Over time, with repeated use, meditative practices have the ability to guide us into a better state of being.

Overall Contributions of Buddhism Approaches to Mental Health
Buddhism Psychology and Buddhism-influenced therapeutic treatments for mental health provide a fresh take on how we think and talk about mental health, as well as on how our own behaviors and thought processes contribute to our mental health states.

Rather than focusing on suffering itself, Buddhism provides an alternative viewpoint – one that shows we are fully in control of our own wellbeing. We don’t need to focus all of our attention and energy on outside sources of issues in order to find inner peace; we can relieve suffering by changing behaviors that cause suffering and through changing the way we think about ourselves.

These approaches teach us that without digging deep to change negative characteristics or attributes that we possess, changing external factors such as our environment will only be a temporary solution for our suffering.

[1] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22340145/
[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2848393/
[3] https://contextualscience.org/the_six_core_processes_of_act
[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3336928/
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5368208/
[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6557693/
[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5830477/
[8] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25547522/
[9] https://www.lamayeshe.com/article/chapter/chapter-two-buddhist-approach-mental-illness
[10] https://fpmt.org/mandala/archives/older/mandala-issues-for-1999/may/a-buddhist-approach-to-mental-illness/
[11] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01752/full
[12] https://mindworks.org/blog/what-is-buddhist-meditation/
[13] https://www.buncombeschools.org/common/pages/UserFile.aspx?fileId=4539835
[14] https://studybuddhism.com/en/essentials/universal-values/finding-inner-peace-and-fulfillment
[15] https://www.nepjol.info/index.php/joia/article/view/29089
[16] https://www.lamayeshe.com/article/chapter/chapter-three-everything-comes-mind

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