‘Our life is shaped by our mind’

Lee Clarke on how and why Psychology and Buddhism have become firm friends.

Psychology began, as we well know, with philosophy. The earliest psychological insights within the Western tradition came, like many other things, from Classical Greece. To the Greek philosophers, the concepts of ‘soul’ and ‘mind’ were one. Indeed, the word ‘psychology’ derives from the Greek word ‘Psyche’ meaning ‘life’ or spirit’. The concept was very important to Plato and Aristotle, with the latter writing an influential work on the subject called ‘On the soul’. 

The meaning and view of what the mind really was changed as philosophy developed. Both the Persian polymath Ibn Sina (980-1037) and French Rationalist Rene Descartes (1596-1650) independently arrived at similar ideas of the mind being separate to the body. This ‘dualism’ cemented the idea of the mind being a distinct thing that could be studied. Then, 19thcentury thinkers such as William James (1842-1910) and Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) made Psychology a separate academic field from philosophy, defining it as a modern science. The divorce between philosophy and psychology was not a messy one; the two remain linked, but they are considered different subjects to this day. 

Though this distinction remains true in the West, there are other parts of the world and traditions where this is not the case. Buddhism is the most notable example of this. 

From under the tree

According to tradition, Siddhartha Gautama reached enlightenment, becoming the Buddha (The Awakened One), through a profound inner study of the mind and its workings during meditation under the Bodhi tree. He famously concluded ‘Our life is shaped by our mind: we become what we think’.

In the centuries after the Buddha’s death, the Buddhist philosophers of India created a rich intellectual tradition that combined philosophy, religion and psychology. The line between the three was by no means clearly defined. This tradition spawned hundreds of different schools of thought that later spread to China and then the whole of Asia. Buddhism properly came to the West in the second half of the 20th century and psychologists have since realised – and proven – the extent to which modern psychology chimes in with traditional Buddhist views of the mind and how it works. 

One of the Buddhist schools of thought that was especially psychological in its outlook and thinking was known as Yogacara or the ‘Mind only’ school. Some have called it ‘the most complex and sophisticated philosophy developed by Indian Buddhism’ (Keown et al., 2004, p.341). Yogacara, like modern psychology, taught that everything we experience is mediated by our minds. According to Williams and Tribe (2000, pp.152-160), it said that there were three aspects of mind. The first was the ‘constructed aspect’, which said that the duality of subject-object that our minds impose upon the world is an error because of the second aspect, ‘the dependent aspect’, which states that what is polarised into subject and object is a continuum of cognitive experiences. 

Barbara O’Brien (2019) further expands on this by explaining the word ‘vijnana’, which means awareness or consciousness. In one context, vijnana is the thing that connects an organ and outside object to create a mental experience, e.g. it connects the eye and an object to create the experience of ‘seeing’. If we really analyse the issue, we will see that the objects of the world and we who confront them are nothing more than a series of experiences mediated by vijnana, in our minds. In order to realise the third aspect of Yogacara, ‘the perfected aspect’, we must realise that this flow of experiences that our mind wrongly separates into subjects and objects is all reality is, and the only reality we can know. 

O’Brien also writes that Yogacara added two more ‘consciousnesses’, really meaning sensory organs, to the six already taught by early Buddhism, with the second being ‘alayavijnana’, known as ‘storehouse consciousnesses’. This is where the ‘seeds’ of our past karmic actions are stored, to later come to the surface either in this life or another. She says there is some similarity between this Yogacara doctrine and Sigmund Freud’s later psychoanalytic idea of the unconscious mind which stores our experiences, ideas or memories that are too powerful or painful to consciously process but will affect us until we face them head on. Others (e.g. Collin et al., 2011, pp.92-99; Tola & Dragonetti, 2005, p.460) seem to confirm this, writing about the ‘seeds’ in the alayavijnana: ‘These subliminal representations, etc., are psychological or mental facts or processes that are registered in the subconscious without the intervention of consciousness’. 

Meditation and mindfulness

Moving into our own era, there have been countless psychological articles and studies on aspects of Buddhist practices and how they affect the mind. One of the main areas of discourse, unsurprisingly, is Buddhist meditation. Monks, nuns, psychologists and neuroscientists have combined their expertise together in many fruitful ways. Tapas Kumar Aich (2013) writes how Buddhist philosophy and meditation can be used in conjunction with psychological theories and therapies as varied as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, stress reduction and psychoanalysis. A study by Gauri Verma and Ricardo Araya (2010) on Buddhist monks and nuns found that participants who had meditated for many years suffered less from psychological distress. The Atlantic records a conversation between a Neuroscientist and French Buddhist Monk, Matthieu Ricard (2017), about meditation. Nagesh Adluru and colleagues (2020) present a longitudinal case study of a MRI scan on Tibetan Monk Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, suggesting that years of meditation had slowed his brain’s ageing process. 

Another aspect of Buddhist meditation that has been at the forefront of recent psychological research is mindfulness. Many psychologists and scholars have shown and proven the benefits of Buddhism-based mindfulness in a number of ways. For example, there’s a psychological model derived from Buddhist tradition to explain how mindfulness results in positive psychological results (Grabovac et al., 2011). 

Other psychologists acknowledge the benefits of mindfulness practice but have cautioned that we must make sure that its original Buddhist context is not distorted in the process. For example, Grossman (2008) points out some issues involved in importing Buddhist ideas to Western psychology, such as lack of semantic understanding of Buddhist concepts. He says research should continue but we must be careful: ‘Haste toward an understanding of mindfulness may limit a genuine opportunity to expand perspectives beyond the familiar.’ Similarly, Murphy (2016) writes ‘the enormous benefit of mindfulness practice offered by MBSR and MBCT teachers for a primarily non-Buddhist population cannot be underestimated’. But she warns that mindfulness should not be reduced to a mere intellectual tool within our own cultural context. 

The self

Another extremely interesting idea on which Buddhism and Psychology converge is the idea of the self, or rather the lack of an unchanging self, that thing we call ‘I’ or ‘me’. Unlike other religious traditions, Buddhism postulates the doctrine of ‘anatta’ meaning ‘no self’ (see Ambalu, 2013, pp.148-151). In Buddhist discourse, a person is not a fixed individual and we do not have an unchanging self, essence or something that is truly a permanent ‘me’ inside of us. In place of this, we are made up of five interdependent things known as ‘skandhas’. These are our physical body, our sensory information, our perception, our ideas and intentions, and lastly our consciousness that encompasses such things as our ideas, thoughts and emotions. All of these things are not fixed but are in constant flux and movement. It is these five things together that create the illusory idea of a fixed self, when in reality the ‘me’ is a constantly shifting phenomena. 

Although this concept may seem alien to our thinking, modern psychology and neuroscience has sat up and taken notice. David Fontana (1987) wrote on how an understanding of Anatta can assist people with psychological issues relating to personal development. Goldhill (2015) quotes Evan Thompson of the University of British Columbia as saying ‘from a neuroscience perspective, the brain and body is constantly in flux. There’s nothing that corresponds to the sense that there’s an unchanging self.’ Karen Kissel Wegela (2009), in an article for Psychology Today on anatta, writes ‘What is unchanging in us? When we look carefully, what do we find?... Is it a thought? No, thoughts keep coming and going. A feeling? Well, those keep changing, too. A sensation in the body? Even those are changing.’ 

Building a bridge

What could this engagement of Western psychology with Buddhism do? To put it in a better way, what should it do? 

Firstly, and most importantly, a respectful engagement between Buddhist philosophy and psychology and Western psychology can serve to build a bridge between the traditions of the East and West in a world that seems more divided just as it becomes increasingly interconnected. A combination of the merits of each could do a lot of good for people around the world in terms of new discoveries about the mind and therapies, as well as fostering friendly cross-cultural relations and links between the Western and Buddhist worlds. 

For psychology, a study of Buddhism could allow psychology to return somewhat to its philosophical (and religious) roots that it has lost in the process of converting itself into a pure science. This is not to say that psychology should not remain a distinct discipline, or that it should stop being scientific. But remembering its roots in philosophy will allow the two disciplines to develop fruitful co-operation. Science and religion do not always have to be enemies. A scientific, evidence-based discipline only a few centuries old can work well with, and learn from, a religious and philosophical tradition that goes back almost 2,500 years… and, of course, vice versa. 

To conclude, we turn to a quote from Christian Coseru (2017): ‘Perhaps no other classical philosophical tradition, East or West, offers a more complex and counter-intuitive account of mind and mental phenomena than Buddhism.’ 

-       Lee Clarke is a PhD student in Philosophy at Nottingham Trent University.

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