Written By: Rourke van Rossem, Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying), MACP
Anyone who is at all exposed to the broad field of psychotherapy knows that mindfulness takes center stage. You will be hard set to find a therapist that does not discuss the importance of mindfulness. Even if mindfulness is not explicitly stated, conducting a therapeutic session will inherently involve mindful practice. Most therapists take a non-judgmental, inquisitive approach to explore your thoughts and feelings in the present moment.
I find it interesting that psychotherapy, a discipline that originated from (and is oftentimes rightfully criticized for) its ideologically narrow western, white, patriarchal origins, has become so reliant on the teachings of Eastern collectivist religion. Why are the teachings of Judaism or Christianity, the primary religions of the founding “fathers” of psychotherapy (e.g., Freud, Jung, Adler) not as heavily relied upon in psychotherapy? What is it about Buddhism that has such success and finds its way into nearly every theoretical framework of counselling? I don’t have a fully flushed or researched-based answer to this, but I believe in part it’s due to the fact that a core and unique tenet in Buddhism is understanding the truth, source, recovery, and end of suffering.
When I was in my early 20s I came across a book called “The Art of Happiness” by the 14th Dalai Lama and Dr. Howard C. Cutler, a psychiatrist. This book depicted and summarized a series of interviews between Dr. Cutler and the Dalai Lama referencing specific questions and case analogies on how to find happiness within our westernized and individualist culture. It’s easy to overlook and discredit the lessons from the Dalai Lama when considering their application to modern westernized culture. The daily life of us Canadians living and working under a western capitalist individualist society has little to no resemblance to the daily life of a Buddhist monk. We wake up, maybe have breakfast, rush to the office or our laptops, work, eat, and maybe (if we’re lucky) spend some time enjoying a hobby or activity. The Buddhist monk wakes and spends their day meditating, chanting, praying, eating, and walking. How can the spiritual leader of these individuals, who have wholly different lives than us, know anything about navigating and coping with our regular stressors? I’ve come to learn my ignorance of Buddhist practice is to blame for these thoughts.
The term “engaged Buddhism” or “socially engaged Buddhism” refers to those who seek ways of applying traditional Buddhist teachings and wisdom to contemporary instances of suffering and injustice. In fact, Tibetan Monks are encouraged to stay engaged, reflective, and understanding of the differences between Eastern and Western cultures. If you’re a therapist, does this practice sound familiar? A socially engaged Buddhist is a culturally responsive individual, another trait most therapists are trained in. To be culturally responsive you must understand cultural differences and be aware of your biases, so you can look beyond these differences and effectively help anyone looking for guidance regardless of their culture or identity. Cultural responsiveness means putting your own values and beliefs aside in favour of centering the values and beliefs of others. This ensures that the support you're providing is in alignment with the receivers' lived experiences.
The Dalai Lama himself is the marking of an engaged Buddhist (or culturally responsive teacher). He straddles cultures, flying across the world to give lectures and share teachings with the sole purpose of encouraging happiness. He advocates for human values such as compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment, and self-discipline. He believes these values are secular from religion and ethics and can be universally applied. His dedication to cultural responsiveness backs these claims.
The next time your therapist mentions mindfulness, or you hear the term thrown out in a blog, podcast, or other media, please don’t shrug it off as irrelevant, trivial, or cliche. Mindfulness was derived from the goal to reduce suffering. Western culture only started attending to these teachings in the last 50 years, but the knowledge and practice precede that by thousands of years.
Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (n.d.). Principal Commitments. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. https://www.dalailama.com/the-dalai-lama/biography-and-daily-life/three-main-commitments
PBS. (n.d.). Buddhism: An Introduction. https://www.pbs.org/edens/thailand/buddhism.htm#:~:text=The%20Four%20Noble%20Truths%20comprise,to%20the%20end%20of%20suffering.
Sang, K. (2020, August 3). A Glimpse of Tibetan Monk's Life. Tibet Vista. https://www.tibettravel.org/tibetan-culture/tibetan-monk.html#:~:text=Daily%20Life%20of%20Tibetan%20Monks&text=Monks%20returned%20to%20their%20dorm%20after%20morning%20praying.&text=Morning%20praying%20lasts%20for%202,meal%20while%20chanting%20Buddhist%20mantra
Xiv, D. L., & Cutler, H. C. (1999). The art of happiness. Hodder Paperback.