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Buddhist Psychology

Buddhism is a path of liberation for the world. In the Buddhist analysis, peace in the world and peace in the hearts of people are simply different aspects of the same thing. Whether we intervene at the social level or in individual lives, the goal is the same. We seek to cultivate a more compassionately engaged way of life that is both happier and more constructive. Buddhist psychology is not, therefore, based upon the idea of advantage to an individual being in conflict with advantage to the community. It is precisely the same kinds of delusions that create neurosis as create an oppressive world and neurosis and oppression can be seen as closely related phenomena. If we would make a better world, we must also work on ourselves. If we would work on ourselves, we must find some concern for our world.

In Buddhist psychology we say that the mind is "object related". The objects that we relate to condition the present moment and also stay with us, especially when they have evoked strong reactions (vedana). We feel that we "know" (veda) the things that have "made an impact" upon us. Some of this knowledge is helpful - as when we are inspired by a good example. Some of it is pernicious - as when we are corrupted or abused.

Past knowing shapes present perception. The self is a function of the way we relate to the things in our world. People are almost all of the time in some degree of trance (samjna) or delusion (avidya), past perceptions superimposing upon present ones. This leads to lives being driven and compulsive, driven by fear and desire in a way that is out of touch with immediate reality because still obsessed with anachronistic perceptions. Much of the above is common ground between Western and Buddhist psychology. Buddhist psychology, however, goes on to regard the whole self structure as a defence, and therefore as something to be abandoned rather than reinforced. Where western psychology aims for enhanced self-esteem, the transformation of negative esteem into positive esteem, Buddhist psychology regards the whole pursuit of any kind of self-esteem as a trap. The fully functioning person is not self-focussed. They are world focussed. The influence of psychology in the West in the second half of the twentieth century was consistently toward a more narcissistic approach to life. This is in line with the consumerist social philosophy that also held sway, and with the fact that this psychology was a product of the most affluent part of the world that was seeking justification for its self-indulgence.

Buddhism is a liberation psychology. It does not lead us to enhance our sense of entitlement to an unhealthy level of selfishness. It rather shows us how to once again engage with the real world in a way that is respectful and kind, realistic and satisfying. This more objective approach to psychology is in accord with a social perspective that sees us as having important work to do to spread a more compassionate spirit on this planet. The purpose of psychotherapy is not to teach us how to accumulate pleasant feelings - it is to help us to learn how to live more creative and wholesome lives. 

An important principle of Buddhist psychology is karma. Karma means action. In Buddhist usage, the term karma refers to the fact that a person is what they do. Actions are not a function of feelings - it is the other way round. Those who believe that they cannot be effective in life until they begin to “feel right” first, are putting the cart before the horse. A healthy life grows out of good things done. Buddhism teaches us a range of methods for maintaining calm in the midst of the confusions of life in order that we may be able to act effectively, since it is from such actions that a good life is made, and it is from such lives that a good society is created.