In this article, you will learn the basic difference between Mindfulness or Psychotherapy? and we’ll also discuss, the many parallels between Western psychotherapies and the traditions from which many mindfulness practices come. But they diverge in the understanding of the self—the ultimate goal that there are many parallels between Western psychotherapies and the traditions from which many mindfulness practices come. But they diverge in the understanding of the self—the ultimate goal.
However, the practical differences may not be so profound, because traditional students of mindfulness may have full enlightenment of their ultimate goal. But that ultimate goal is rarely attained. Instead, in ways that would be quite recognizable to Western health professionals, students of mindfulness become more mature and balanced.
Table of Contents
I. Mindfulness or Psychotherapy? – The Eightfold Path
Many mindfulness practices that are used in Western psychotherapy come from Buddhist psychology. One reason is that Buddhist psychology has much in common with Western psychotherapy. Like modern scientific psychology, Buddhist psychology is nontheistic. It doesn’t discuss God or gods in any way.
Rather, it has a fundamental principle—the Pali term for which is ehipassiko, which translates roughly as “come and see for yourself.” The way we understand mindfulness practices is by doing them and making them real in our own experience and discovering what we discover. It is not based on doctrine. It’s also a systemic approach, and it uses empirical methodology and questions authority.
Mindfulness supports open-mindedness by helping us to take our thoughts more lightly. In this regard, it’s very similar to the scientific posture that we see in Western psychology and psychotherapy. Also like Western psychotherapy, the goal of mindfulness is the alleviation of suffering. And it has a system similar to Western medical practices that include the identification of symptoms, etiology, prognosis, and treatment.
The symptom is the un-satisfactoriness of all experience—the fact that the mind creates suffering no matter what’s happening. The etiology is seen as our distorted views, our misunderstandings about reality. And the prognosis is surprisingly good. As we’ve taken up these practices in Western psychological circles, we’ve primarily focused on concentration, or focused attention; open monitoring, or mindfulness; and acceptance practices, such as loving-kindness meditation.
These were part of a much larger treatment plan in Buddhist traditions called the Eightfold Path, which is about “right” concentration, mindfulness, effort, livelihood, action, speech, intentions, and view. The word “right” doesn’t mean “right” in a moral sense as opposed to wrong. It means optimal, wholesome, or that which is most likely to alleviate suffering.
We’ve already discussed concentration and mindfulness. The right effort involves having the right degree of control versus letting go. Right livelihood, in the modern context, means doing work in the world in which we’re not causing more harm than good.
Right action is about thinking about everything we do in terms of whether it is going to be helpful to others or hurtful to others. The right speech also involves honesty, but it also involves not speaking in ways that create divisions or derision and not being abusive or hurtful in our speech. Right intentions are about orienting ourselves always toward our sanity and alleviation of suffering. Finally, the right view is about seeing the world.
II. Similarities between Mindfulness Practices and Psychotherapies
There are many overlaps and parallels among different psychotherapies and between mindfulness practices and psychotherapies. They’re certainly all designed to move us in a similar direction, toward greater well-being. Recently, many mental health professionals have come to believe that mindfulness might be a central curative element in most other forms of psychotherapy because it accomplishes several nearly universal therapeutic goals.
Mindfulness, like many forms of therapy, loosens the repression barrier. When we start practicing mindfulness, the previously unnoticed thoughts and feelings—the things we’ve pushed out of our awareness—start to become evident. We become more sensitized to what’s happening in the mind and less distracted by our constant activity. Also, our impulses become clearer. Finally, our defensive strategies become apparent, which ultimately allows us to reintegrate these contents.
The second way that mindfulness helps to accomplish a task that’s pretty universal in psychotherapy is that it treats the thinking disease. The basic idea of cognitive behavior therapy is to develop metacognitive awareness, which means to notice what thoughts are arising and passing in the mind. And it focuses, in particular, on identifying rational thoughts and differentiating them from irrational thoughts.
Note: Mindfulness practices are designed to move you toward greater well-being.
Dynamic psychotherapy, which is the vast array of psychotherapies that have come out of psychoanalysis, is more interested in understanding the origins of our narrative. How did we come to believe we are who we are? How did we construct our world? The idea is to loosen the identification with the story. And we also look to see how it plays out in relationships, and the idea of this is to create a new personal narrative.
In Buddhist psychology, the idea is that distorted beliefs lead to suffering. This is not unlike what we’re seeing in the other traditions, but in Buddhist psychology, the problem is not embracing reality in a very radical sense; instead, the problem is seen as not realizing that everything is always changing. We can hold on to nothing, not realizing that the mind creates distress, regardless of external circumstances, and that our conventional sense of self is illusory.
Buddhist psychology is very skeptical of thought generally. This is, in part, because it sees thought as supporting essentialism, meaning that it is our thoughts about things that make things real. And thought also creates the self. Descartes commented on this when he said, “I think; therefore, I am.”
First, in mindfulness practice, unlike psychotherapies, there’s no need to replace one thought with another. Rather, we start to see thoughts as just mental objects, like any other, including an itch or an ache. If we notice an itch while engaging in mindfulness practice, turn our attention to the itch and watch it dissipate.
In the same way, in mindfulness practice, we start to simply watch thoughts coming and going. As a result, they become less serious to us, which means that we don’t need to suppress or repress them so much. Nothing is unthinkable, and our identifications with roles start to loosen. When we take this attitude, we develop a kind of freedom.
The third way that mindfulness practice performs something that psychotherapies also are designed to do is by being a form of exposure treatment. Exposure is perhaps the most universal element in all of our diverse psychotherapies. It’s simply facing our fears, longings, or aggressive impulses. One way we could understand mindfulness practice is its exposure to everything.
Finally, both mindfulness practice and psychotherapy provide a holding, which is a term that was introduced by pediatrician and psychotherapist D. W. Winnicott, who discovered that simply holding a baby provides so much comfort to the child. One way in which mindfulness practices and psychotherapy provide holding is simply the relationship with the therapist—having another human being who is accepting and non-judgmental and keeps confidentiality.
With both mindfulness practice and psychotherapy, it tends to get worse before it gets better. In psychotherapy, usually, people notice that they have so many difficult thoughts and feelings and might start to think that they are crazy. In behavioral treatment, there’s often self-monitoring, and people notice that they’re having irrational thoughts all the time. And in mindfulness practice, we see just how unruly the mind is.
III. Differences between Mindfulness Practices and Psychotherapies:
There are also ways in which mindfulness practices and psychotherapies are different—where mindfulness practice veers off from conventional treatments. In behavior therapy, as well as psychodynamic treatment, we’re typically seeking normalcy.
Mindfulness traditions have a much more radical goal. They’re looking for insight leading to complete psychological, emotional, moral, and spiritual emancipation—what’s been called enlightenment. Traditionally, the starting point is common unhappiness or normalcy. It’s only recently, as mental health professionals are adopting it, that we start also seeing that we can use mindfulness practice to move us from states of particular distress to normal unhappiness.
Another important difference is a different view of the self. In the Western view, there’s this emphasis on separateness rather than connection to family, tribe, or nature. Our models of healthy Western development have included being well individuated, being aware of boundaries, knowing one’s needs, having a clear identity and sense of self, and having good self-esteem. Buddhist psychology says that we suffer when we don’t know who we are, and it’s the attempt to buttress the self that’s the central cause of our suffering.
One of the goals of Western psychotherapy—to improve self-esteem and have a cohesive sense of self—is seen as a form of pathology from the Buddhist perspective. One way we could conceptualize the goal of Buddhist psychology is to shift our universe from a world that is mostly about “me” to a world that is mostly not about “me.” It’s a subtle shift, and it occurs over time.
Buddhist psychology has a very radical psychological goal as well. We erect defenses against pain, ways in which we shut down, pull back and turn off to others. And we think that they’re going to keep us safe, but they leave us very isolated in a kind of anxiety of the separate self. The alternative is to try to develop a kind of spacious tender awareness—to stay with whatever is and not to leave these feelings to feel better.
In psychotherapeutic circles, we talk about having adaptive and healthy defenses, not being radically open and aware. The Buddhist psychological approach is not a path to perfection, but it’s a path to wholeness. It’s about transforming our view to be able to allow everything in and to not judge them as better and worse.
IV. Things to Consider:
- In what ways are the goals of Buddhist psychology and conventional Western psychotherapies similar and different?
- How is the self conventionally viewed in Western cultures, and how does this compare to how it is viewed in Buddhist psychology?
(Also Read: Who Am I? The Perils of Self, And Who Am I? Quiz)