Buddhism and psychotherapy – notes from Glenn Roberts’ talk

Thinking about: Buddhist practice and psychotherapy

With many different Buddhist traditions and more than x300 named Psychotherapies most generalisations will fail us … but we can broadly consider relationships, differences and difficulties.

Origins: Western awareness of both has grown rapidly since the 1960’s but both grew out of explorations and innovations which started 100 years earlier. Both also look back to ancient origins – in the buddha’s life and teaching and the dream temples and physician priests of ancient Greece. Both are also looking to recover lost perspectives. Secular Buddhism seeks the clarity of unadorned early texts and psychotherapy a wholistic and existential perspective on human life and living.

What do we mean by Buddhist practice and psychotherapy?

Stephen Batchelor emphasises that Buddhist practice is more than mindfulness meditation. His secular approach to dharma practice is based on the fourfold task as an ethical, contemplative, philosophical and therapeutic way of life, a path that leads to fulfilment and human flourishing i.e. the art of living

Psychotherapy principally arose as a treatment in health care contexts. Therapists initially were doctors and therapy based on confiding relationship, specific methods, meaning seeking and symptom relief.


Focus on relief of suffering … emotional and psychological … but also existential.

Based on learning and teaching about human predicament … buddha dharma and universal dharma.

Overlaps: Buddha as doctor, Temples / monasteries as hospitals, psychotherapist as priest.

Based on evolutionary models of man in trouble with modern living, fractured and disconnected.

Differences in emphasis between Buddhist practice and psychotherapy

The focus of suffering: diagnosis vs human condition (old age, sickness and death).

Method: Treatment c.f. study and support for personal practice, although both based on learning.

Goal: getting better from symptoms c.f. human flourishing … but then there’s ‘Recovery’.

Past experience: embracing present suffering and letting go of conditioned reactivity c.f. investigating the past to understand the present and reauthor the stories we are living in.

Core relationships: Buddhism based on sangha / friendship vs psychotherapy based on a contract or payment for professional, responsible and accountable care.

Some relationships and interactions between Buddhist practice and psychotherapy

Mindfulness as a treatment for illness e.g. for depression, anxiety, chronic pain … Jon Kabat-Zinn stress reduction in context for persistent or incurable illness – changing your relationship to experience.

Some psychotherapies are explicitly derived from Buddhist teachings … in particular: mindfulness meditation, MBSR, MBCT, CFT, others include elements of mindfulness e.g. DBT.

Some therapists come from an explicit Buddhist background but function as professional therapists.

Concerns, tensions and risks

That both tend to privatise pain as an individual and internal matter, but people are social animals, living in contexts and much of their life experience is mediated by connection and disconnection … primarily relationships and social roles and responsibilities.

Both are caught up in a kind of crisis of identity, and their value and integrity questioned as they have both become commodified, simplified and marketed with many claims and dubious benefits.

Outcomes reported for 8-week mindfulness courses, or 20 session therapies, may seriously underestimate the process and passage of time needed in finding health, which may take years.

Both have complex relationships with experts and problems of dependency … value whatever enables self-direction and enabling avoid over dependency on experts / gurus.

What to do and where to go if you are unwell or struggling with your mental health?

Experts on mental health problems in our society are largely in the NHS and private practice … but these are not the same as ‘experts on mental health’ i.e. prevention, resilience and flourishing.

If struggling and seeking help … do you need to be well enough for Buddhist practice to be useful?

The same may apply to psychotherapy … but there are applications at the extremes of both.

To benefit from either you need to be able to participate, concentrate, learn and take responsibility for putting that learning into practice in your life.

The journey to Recovery is in discovering what works for you.