A Buddhist approach to psychotherapy

Story by Kathy Vozella Photo by Michelle Wilson, Macqurie University (Australia), Email the researcher: bkhong@psy.mq.edu.au, Oct 26, 2004

Sydney, Australia -- Incorporating Buddhist ideas and philosophy into psychotherapy is not new - meditation has been used for some time as a form of relaxation and a way of helping an individual understand the workings of the mind.

However, according to one Macquarie University researcher, meditation can be used for personal growth beyond therapy if it is understood against the backdrop of the Buddha's teachings and integrated holistically with psychotherapy.

Dr Belinda Siew Luan Khong, lecturer in the Department of Psychology, is quick to point out that she is not a Buddhist, but she is informed by the Buddha's teachings. Her PhD thesis titled A Comparative Analysis of the Concept of Responsibility in Daseinsanalysis and Buddhist Psychology received a Vice-Chancellor?s Commendation and won her the Sidney M Jourard Memorial Student Award for outstanding research from the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1999.

Since graduating with her PhD in 1999, Khong has been teaching part-time at Macquarie University, operating her own counselling practice and travelling the world presenting papers and conducting workshops on the integration of Buddhist psychology and philosophy in psychotherapy. She recently returned from the APA Annual Convention in Hawaii where she presented a paper on Personal growth in and beyond therapy.

?I believe that the Buddha teaches an attitude rather than an affiliation,? Khong writes in a chapter of Encountering Buddhism: Western psychology and Buddhist teachings. ?This state of mind can be acquired by any individual irrespective of his or her race, culture or religious orientation.?Khong remains one of the few psychotherapists worldwide to integrate Buddhist teachings whenever appropriate into the counselling process and beyond. The ?beyond therapy? aspect is something she emphasises, as many of her clients say that when they finish their counselling with her they take away a general philosophy for life, a way of responding appropriately which they can apply to various situations as they arise.?Buddhist ideas and practices have been integrated in therapy for some time,? she says. ?However the main focus has been on the use of meditation and mindfulness as an adjunct to therapy. In my clinical work I have found these practices to be more helpful and effective when they are understood holistically in the context of the Buddha?s teachings.?Khong explains that the Buddha promotes an attitude of acceptance and letting go developed through personal effort and taking personal responsibility rather than through relying on an external source or orientation.

?The human qualities and emotions that the Buddha encourages such as love, charity, compassion, tolerance and patience are not sectarian as they are neither Christian, Buddhist, Hindu nor Muslim. They come from developing the right attitude, not the right affiliation,? she says.The Buddha encourages insight and understanding based on direct experience, and this is emphasised in his teaching of the eightfold path:

Morality Mental culture Wisdom Right speech Right effort Right understanding Right action Right mindfulness Right thought Right livelihood Right concentration

Khong explains that in this teaching, the Buddha is describing a set of practices rather than a set of beliefs that the individual can use to overcome his or her own emotional suffering.
?For example the Buddha recommends that each of us take the responsibility to cultivate an attitude (right understanding, right thought) of seeing what is an appropriate response (right action, right speech, right livelihood) in each situation,? she says. ?Most of us are familiar with the power of speech to hurt or soothe.

There will be times when friendly and meaningful advice are helpful and other times when keeping ?noble silence? is appropriate.?Two types of meditation are commonly practised today. The first type, known as concentration or tranquillity meditation, encourages the individual to let go of negative thoughts that impinge by concentrating on one neutral object to the exclusion of all others. This is a popular tool used in psychotherapy to help the individual to quieten down the mind and to relax. The second type, known as insight meditation or mindfulness practice, is unique to Buddhism and is often used to complement concentration meditation.

Dr Belinda Khong Khong explains that once you calm down the mind you still need to deal with the feelings and emotions that come up. Mindfulness practice encourages the person to be mindful of whatever enters the mind.

?Mindfulness helps us to look at all the feelings and emotions as they arise, to name them, to see anger as anger and sadness as sadness without judging them or repressing them or carrying on an internal dialogue (?Why do I feel like this?, or ?I shouldn?t feel so angry?). The practice of mindfulness teaches the art of acceptance and letting go, the key elements in the attitude that the Buddha encourages,? Khong says. ?Through mindfulness you can see what is really triggering off your own feelings and emotions without allowing them to spiral.?When you are not mindful you react. When you are mindful, you respond.

This kind of attitude is the most powerful tool my clients take away from counselling because it gives them choice ? when you are mindful you can choose when you want to be angry or depressed because it gives you the emotional distance from the problem before you become reactive,? she says.The distinction between responsibility and what Khong refers to as ?respond-ability? is an important one.

Responsibility is usually associated with roles and positions, and is commonly perceived in terms of duties, obligations and accountability. Respond-ability, she explains, refers to our internal ability to respond appropriately and skilfully to what is required in each unique situation. It involves the capacity to be mindful and to see and understand things as they really are.?The idea of learning to respond appropriately lies at the heart of the Buddhist approach to responsibility,? she says.Having experienced the powerful transformation of many clients by using a combination of counselling and mindfulness practice to various psychological concerns including the prevention of the relapse of depression, managing stress, interpersonal relationships and personal growth,
Khong is keen to integrate eastern philosophies into more areas of western psychology.
In June next year, she will present a paper on Complementing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with Buddhist Psychology at the IX World Congress on Constructivism in Sweden, where his Holiness, the Dalai Lama and Professor Aaron T Beck, the originator of cognitive behavioural therapy, will be keynote speakers.

One of her current research interests involves extending the work of colleagues and researchers in the US, the UK and The Netherlands who are studying the emotional and brain functioning (via functional MRI imaging) of people using mindfulness practice. Khong is looking at possible counselling applications and at ways of helping individuals improve their general sense of well-being.

?When mindfulness is practiced alongside other complementary therapeutic approaches, the result is an incisive and powerful tool for empowering clients to understand and deal with their problems with less reliance on the therapist,? Khong says.

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