Buddhist Psychology: The Cognitive Behavioral Therapy of the East

By Dr. Barbara Winter

When I read books, listen to podcasts, Ted Talks, and even when I’m sitting with my patients, I am stimulated. It is in those moments when I take in, that my mind expands and constructs new ideas or expands on old ones.

I often sit with someone and help them ‘turn away’ from their negative thought patterns. This is particularly salient when working with a concrete exercise like the Three Circles Plan, a concept drawn from addiction treatment. It involves drawing three circles, kind of like an archery board, with the intent to change some destructive behavior patterns.

The methodology behind it is simple yet powerful – if our triggers, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in the innermost circle can lead us down a negative self-destructive path, then wouldn’t we be better off heading into a healthy direction (the outermost circle) instead. In fact, in the exercise, the inner circle is the smallest and the outer circle is the largest, indicating that with the largest surface area we need to procure and maintain a myriad of healthy choices. It is only those with chronic mental health issues who resort to the same destructive coping skills over and over (inner circle behaviors) and, on the flip side, healthier individuals have and utilize many options – because we all need a place to turn to when we are in pain.

In the middle circle, there exist those behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that lead us into the center circle. They might be things like loneliness, feelings of abandonment, thoughts of worthlessness, or images of a distressing fantasy. They might also be behaviors like being online, albeit with something benign. It is the intangible, the thoughts and feelings that are more difficult to stop as they slyly slip into our consciousness. It is with these I offer two solutions: the top-down work (management strategies to curtail the acting on them), and bottom-up work (the dive into the pain points that drive them).

With the top-down work, we identify, label, and attempt to not act. However, one thing that many don’t realize is that we can’t stop these thoughts and feelings. Yet while we are unable to stop our thoughts and our feelings from entering our conscious awareness, we can turn away from them, weaken them, not feed the dragon.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in the West has taught us thought-stopping and switching, which is to become consciously aware and turn away to something more pleasant or helpful. Western behavior and CBT, in the like of Beck, Meichenbaum, and Ellis, teaches us to gain awareness and consciously change our inner dialogue, a technique that can be useful for some forms of psychiatric symptomology like anxiety, panic, phobias, and addictions.

Buddhist psychology, emanating from the East, goes deeper. It offers us more than purely rational replacement of inaccurate thought patterns. It is behaviorism with a heart.

According to Jack Kornfield, Ph.D., a Buddhist Psychologist, in his 2008 book, The Wise Heart, it is not simply a process of thought stopping and switching. Instead, with the use of Buddhist principles and paradigms, we seek to transform our thoughts as a loving protection of ourselves and others. What we repeatedly think shapes our world and, out of compassion, we can substitute healthy thoughts for unhealthy ones.

Kornfield says, “The Buddhist perspective takes the process further. We can learn to see that a distorted thought based on self-hatred, aggression, revenge, and greed is not in our genuine interest. We can see that these thoughts do not have our well-being in mind.”

That said, as mentioned earlier, We cannot stop our thoughts. The Dalai Lama says, “Greed, anger, hatred, worry are not an integral part of our mind which cannot be changed.”

Tibetan Lama Khyentse Rinpoche says, “Mind creates both samsara and nirvana. Yet there is not much to it, it is just thoughts. Once we recognize that thoughts are empty, the mind will no longer have the power to deceive us.”

Buddhist psychology utilizes mindfulness, meditation, visualization, and the practice of loving kindness. And when the thoughts are bigger and more powerful, Buddhist psychology resorts to a practice of being silent and still as a way to feel, notice, and practice these things.

In the end, we cannot stop our thoughts. We can only weaken them. When we turn away and don’t feed the dragon, they weaken, and we see we no longer need them.

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Dr. Barbara Winter is a licensed Psychologist, Sexologist, and Certified Sex Addiction, Group, and EMDR therapist trained in Hypnosis, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), Parenting Coordination/Mediation, and Discernment Counseling. She has been a leading provider in Boca Raton since 1988, where she specializes in working with teens and adults with sexual issues, behavioral addictions, infidelity, trauma, divorce, and couples counseling. She has been quoted extensively in various media outlets and has written for other major blog sites. You can visit her website, www.drbarbarawinter.com, and you can find her on FacebookTwitter (@DrBarbaraWinter), and LinkedIn, posting resources and support that can help others with their relationships, in and out of the bedroom. Check out her regular blog, Sex, Love & Light, here.