Saturday, November 24, 2012

Preaching the Gospel

As noted in the Why Brahmavihara? section of the blog, my primary aim is to explore ways of using Buddhist ideas beyond mindfulness practice in therapy. Were I to have come across a blog with this purpose in my pre-Buddhism days, I’m fairly sure I would’ve been nonplussed—and perhaps more than a little disturbed. I would have viewed the idea of incorporating Buddhist ideas into therapy practice as appropriating other cultures’ beliefs and then attempting to impose them on unsuspecting clients. I think cultural appropriation is a valid concern, and I’ll have more to say about that in a future post. Here I want to focus on the issue of imposing values.

I should start by noting that I personally experience Buddhism as a philosophy of life and mind rather than as a system of religious beliefs. While Buddhist texts certainly include cosmological elements, and Buddhist practice in various traditions is carried out through a wide range of rituals, I do not see anything mystical or otherworldly in the core teachings of impermanence, the unsatisfactoriness of attachment to that which is impermanent, and the path to equanimity and non-attachment. In fact, the Buddha admonished his followers not to accept his teachings on faith, but rather to experience the truth of his words for themselves. (One key element of the teachings that does seem to contain a metaphysical component is the cycle of rebirth and the law of karma. I am uncertain about this area myself, and I want to raise some questions about it in a future post. For now I’ll just note that I don’t see belief in reincarnation as essential to Buddhist practice or the application of specific Buddhist principles to everyday life.)

Obviously, the fact that I view Buddhism through a philosophical rather than a religious lens has no bearing on how clients, other therapists, or other Buddhist practitioners view Buddhism. I raised the point because I want to clarify at the outset that my intent is not to inject religious dogma into secular therapeutic practice. As Western psychology has already done with mindfulness, what I aim to do is offer ideas and techniques that clients might choose to employ if they find the suggestions to be of benefit to them. As with any therapeutic intervention, there are value judgments implicit in these Buddhism-derived ideas and techniques, and therapists must be cognizant of the values they are conveying and their congruence with the client’s own set of values. A key difference between mindfulness-based techniques and the tools I want to explore is that the latter have not received empirical study and validation. Thus, such tools would need to be used with the same caution and disclosure required of the myriad other tools used in therapy that have not been studied sufficiently to garner empirical support.

Thus far, I have approached this post from the perspective of the mental health professional. From the perspective of the Buddhist practitioner, one might object to borrowing concepts or techniques piecemeal, not just because of the cultural imperialism inherent in such borrowing, but because the teachings have much greater power when viewed in their totality. As a therapist, I don’t see any way around this limitation, unless the client is explicitly interested in participating in Buddhist psychotherapy.

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