Buddhism and the Blues

Here is a recent article from http://www.psychologytoday.com/ on Buddhism …. as with most ‘pop’ articles it is not terribly in depth or that accurate in some of the comments. Nonetheless it is indicative of the popularity of Buddhism as it creeps into the mainstream awareness of Western society. What do you think:

Buddhism and the Blues

Buddhist psychology’s core techniques of meditation and awareness may have much to offer ordinary Westerners.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on October 01, 2003 – last reviewed on January 03, 2011

To most people Buddhism is an ancient Eastern religion, although a very special one. It has no god, it has no central creed or dogma and its primary goal is the expansion of consciousness, or awareness.

But to the Dalai Lama, it’s a highly refined tradition, perfected over the course of 2,500 years, of analyzing and investigating the inner world of the mind in order to transform mental states and promote happiness. “Whether you are a believer or not in the faith,” the Dalai Lama told a conference of Buddhists and scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, you can use its time-honored techniques to voluntarily control your emotional state.

Yes, the Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of over 300 million Buddhists worldwide. Yes, he is the head of the Tibetan government in exile. But in the spirit of Buddhism, the Dalai Lama has an inquiring mind and wishes to expand human knowledge to improve lives. At its core, Buddhism is a system of inquiry into the nature of what is.

He believes that psychology and neuroscience have gone about as far as they can go in understanding the mind and brain by measuring external reality. Now that inner reality—the nature of consciousness—is the pressing subject du jour, the sciences need to borrow from the knowledge base that Buddhism has long cultivated.

A comprehensive science of the mind requires a science of consciousness. Buddhism offers what MIT geneticist Eric Lander, Ph.D., called a “highly refined technology” of introspective practices that provide systematic access to subjective experience. Yet Buddhist psychology offers more than a method of investigation. Its core techniques of meditation and awareness may have much to offer ordinary Westerners, whose material comforts have not wiped out rampant emotional distress.

The Buddhist view of how the mind works is somewhat different from the traditional Western view. Western psychology pretty much holds to the belief that things like attention and emotion are fixed and immutable. Buddhism sees the components of the mind more as skills that can be trained. This view has increasing support from modern neuroscience, which is almost daily providing new evidence of the brain’s capacity for change and growth.

Buddhism uses intelligence to control the emotions. Through meditative practices, awareness can be trained and focused on the contents of the mind to observe ongoing experience. Such techniques are of growing interest to Western psychologists, who increasingly see depression as a disorder of emotional mismanagement. In this view, attention is hijacked by negative events and then sets off a kind of chain reaction of negative feeling, thinking and behavior that has its own rapidity and inevitability.

Techniques of awareness permit the cultivation of self-control. They allow people to break the negative emotional chain reaction and head off the hopelessness and despair it leads to. By focusing attention, it is possible to monitor your environment, recognize a negative stimulus and act on it the instant it registers on awareness. While attention as traditional psychologists know it can be an exhausting mental activity, as Buddhists practice it it actually becomes a relaxing and effortless enterprise.

One way of meditation is to use breathing techniques in which you focus on the breathing and let any negative stimulus just go by—instead of bringing it into your working memory, where you are likely to sit and ruminate about it and thus amplify its negativity. It’s a way of unlearning the self-defeating ways you somehow acquired of responding catastrophically to negative experiences.

Evidence increasingly suggests that meditation techniques are highly effective at helping people recover from a bout of depression and especially useful in preventing recurrences. Medication may be needed during the depths of an acute episode to jump-start brain systems, but at best “antidepressants are a halfway house,” says Alan Wallace, Ph.D., head of the Santa Barbara Institute for the Study of Consciousness. But meditation retrains the mind to allow ongoing control over the content of thoughts and feelings.

4 replies on “Buddhism and the Blues”

  1. I particularly appreciate: “At its core, Buddhism is a system of inquiry into the nature of what is.” For me, this is the beauty to be discovered… thank you for a wonderful post, I look forward to reading more!

  2. Once again the newspapers are telling us again this week what psychologists have known for decades: that “spiritual” people or people with “faith” are happier and live longer (see http://www.examiner.com/health-news-in-national/friendship-and-well-being-from-church-to-your-genes and http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1358421/The-tantalising-proof-belief-God-makes-happier-healthier.html etc). But I wonder how far that applies to Buddhists – especially agnostic Buddhists? Are we spiritual? Does faith in nibbana count? In any case, it seems that “friends in religious congregations provide a sense of belonging which consequently gives a feeling of acceptance and happiness.” From what I’ve read in a couple of articles, it seems that just attending Little Bangkok Sangha events will result in a longer life. 🙂 But I guess the Buddha knew this, when he stressed the importance of kalayanamitr.

  3. I particularly found the statement “Western psychology pretty much holds to the belief that things like attention and emotion are fixed and immutable” interesting, …a very mechanistic view of consciousness….reading about A.I.(artificial intelligence), Marvin Minsky emphasizes that the most difficult human skills to reverse engineer are those that are unconscious. “In general, we’re least aware of what our minds do best,” he writes, and adds “we’re more aware of simple processes that don’t work well than of complex ones that work flawlessly.” So, why think when no thought is required ? Answer: habit. Dukka/suffering= habitual thinking.

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