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Apr 10, 2013

Eastern Healing: Buddhist Psychology and Mindfulness

A few days ago I returned from a retreat at Guang Jue Temple, a Chinese Pure Land Buddhist Temple located a few hours away from where I live in Shanghai. I had decided to go on this retreat for the simple reason of clearing my head, slowing down, and disconnecting from my busy schedule for a while. The temple website had described it as a “place for the weary or searching traveler,” and when I reflected on my busy life in a city of 20 million people where I’m often working or running around for more than 12 hours a day, it sounded like a good place to rest, recharge and reflect.

The retreat program consisted of meditation practice, Dharma talks (teaching sessions on Buddhist philosophy and psychology) and sessions of both Qi Gong and Tai Chi, two forms of ancient Chinese exercise for balancing the mind and body. It was essentially a sampler of a number of different Chinese Pure Land Buddhist practices, which I thought would be a great introduction to a philosophy that I’ve long been curious about.

Chinese Pure Land Buddhism is a school of Buddhism popular in, you guessed it, China. The history of the development of this school goes beyond the scope of this blogpost, but to me learning something about it seemed like a wonderful addition to my experience of living in China. So I boarded the bus for the trek out to Lin’an, a journey made significantly longer by all of the traffic for the Chinese holiday of Qingming. But my efforts were rewarded by the wonderful experience I had at the temple.

During the Dharma Talks, I was naturally running a lot of what I was hearing about Buddhist philosophy through my mental counseling filter. And I was not disappointed by what I heard. From the counseling perspective, so much of what Zhe Sheng Shi, the Australian monk who was running the retreat, said made sense. For example, when we have a lot of worried or anxious thoughts running through our heads, working on detaching from these thoughts and just noticing them rather than getting involved with them could be extremely useful. Chanting of the mantras also has a very calming effect in the sense that it uses positive, reflective thoughts to replace the negative treadmill of thoughts that many of us, and our clients, constantly running. It does this without arguing with the other thoughts, without trying to shut them down, but instead by simply detaching from them and watching them go by, or regarding them as simply noise, like a radio playing in the background.

Many of us may already be familiar with some of these mindfulness techniques and a lot of what I described in the previous paragraph may sound familiar to those who practice Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). In fact, there’s been a great deal of research done on mindfulness meditation and the positive impacts that it can have on people in general and specifically those with mental illnesses.

Unsurprisingly, and as many of us may already be aware, correlations have been found between learning and practicing mindfulness meditation and a number of positive outcomes. Research reviewed by the National Institute of Health included the favorable outcomes of: improved academic performance, concentration, perceptual sensitivity, reaction time, memory, self control, empathy, and self esteem. And this was just regarding one study: there have been numerous others, demonstrating findings of reduced stress, depression, and anxiety. Some research has even found positive results for physical health. With all of these empirical findings it seems that the question we should be asking ourselves isn’t “Why use meditation as an adjunct to psychotherapy?” but instead, “Why wouldn’t we use it?”

However I have to admit that for myself personally, I hadn’t really clicked with meditation  and mindfulness until when I was on the retreat when practicing it in the context of Buddhism. For me having at least a basic understanding of the philosophies and rationale behind it gave me a much greater sense of meaning when engaging in it. Maybe it was partly in having the experience of meditating in a group but somehow I felt a sense of connection with the people who had trod the path before me and with those who seek it currently. Or maybe I’m just much more convinced now as to its efficacy.

It seems that the main source of resistance to Buddhism in the US and the reason that many people would be reluctant to engage in its practices is the misconception that it is a religion. People believe that they would have to “convert” from the religion that they already belong to and for many this is unthinkable. However as Zhe Sheng Shi emphasized, Buddhism is very much an education for life, rather than a religion. It is, in fact compatible with major world religions. According to him, Buddhists do not worship the Buddha, who was a mortal teacher rather than a god. When they bow to the Buddha, they are saying “I agree with your teachings.”

I’m certainly not saying that I would recommend to all of my clients that they try a temple stay or Buddhist retreat of the sort that I did. For one, many would find that the rustic conditions do not come close to meeting their requirements for a weekend away. For another, not all of them would be interested in or find the Buddhist philosophies useful. However, it seems that for those who are seeking to deepen their spiritual lives or sense of connection to a great universe, it could be one possible method. And for those who just want to reduce their stress and anxiety, making even a few minutes of teaching about meditation a part of the session could be an important tool in moving them along on their journey.
Christine Forte is a counselor to the international population in Shanghai, China. You can learn more about her work here:

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