Home Balanced Achievement The Buddha: History’s Most Illustrious Psychologist

The Buddha: History’s Most Illustrious Psychologist

An image shows a statue of the Buddha with the sun directly behind his head as if it is giving him a bright halo This picture serves as the featured image of Balanced Achievements article examining The Buddha as a psychologist

Since the field of psychology was established as a legitimate scientific discipline in the late 1800s, the world has been awed by a plethora of theories and discoveries related to human behavior and the brain. The pioneering work of psychology’s founding fathers Wilhelm Wundt and William James, who opened the first psychology research lab and offered the first psychology class in a university respectively, led to the rise of a number of other truly iconic figures who’ve helped us understand why humans act the way they do and what role the inner workings of the mind plays.

Thanks to the likes of Carl Rogers, Erik Erikson, Sigmund Freud, and Jean Piaget, who’ve rightfully been lauded for their contributions to the field, we’ve seen major advancements in the treatment of a wide variety of mental, emotional, and physical health issues. While nothing should be taken away from these immortalized figures, or the field’s other unforgettable individuals, there was one man who fully grasped the greatest psychological theories some 2,500 years ago.

It was after being exposed to the realities of old age, sickness, and death, that Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, began vehemently studying the inner workings of his own mind. Ultimately, a piercing six-year journey of self-observation and analysis cumulated in a level of psychological understanding that historically can be rivaled by no one. Although he didn’t test his theories in a laboratory or conduct highly sophisticated experiments, his wisdom-laced words suggest that he had a far greater understanding of the brain and behavior than anyone ever to walk this planet. In fact, it was directly because of the Buddha’s supreme understanding that the previously mentioned William James, a man of great intellectual prowess himself, once offered his seat to a Buddhist monk, who had come to one of his lectures, and told him:

Take my chair. Yours is the psychology everyone will be studying 25 years from now.”

To fully illuminate the Buddha’s unparalleled knowledge of human behavior and the brain, we can now turn our attention to comparing some of history’s most important psychological ‘discoveries’ from the past 150 years, in chronological order, to the words and teachings of the Enlightened One. Programs now exist that bring upon the teachings, such as Balanced Emotions, which aim to help you understand your emotions and reconnect with your emotional self. These programs work – and have shown a tremendous positive impact on people. But, as you read on, it will become apparent to see why the Buddha will forever remain history’s most illustrious psychologist.

The Process of Emotional Reaction:

Although William James will forever be most celebrated for the work he did to legitimize the field of modern psychology, his career was also filled with a variety of impactful insights and theories about human behavior and the brain. Perhaps his most notable contribution in this regard came while working alongside Danish physician Carl Lange, in the form of the James-Lange Theory of Emotion. Simply stated, the theory tells us that the process of emotional reaction can be broken down into four chronological steps:

  1. An activating event leads to
  2. A bodily sensation that leads to
  3. An interpretation of the sensation that finally results in
  4. An emotional reaction

An image shows the four step process of emotional reaction Stimuli leads to Arousal which leads to Cognitive label which leads to an emotional reaction

Since James and Lange conceptualized their theory in the mid-1880s, a number of other prominent psychologists have developed their own emotional reaction models that closely resemble the duo’s original theory. While there are slight differences between the James-Lange Theory, the Canon-Bard Theory of Emotion, and the Two-Factor Theory of Emotion, each of them emphasizes the important role that bodily sensations play in the process of emotional reaction. Yet still, it was long before any Western medical professional had ever thought about the process of emotional reaction when the Buddha discovered how one’s own sensations influence their reactionary ways.

To illuminate the Buddha’s understanding of the role body sensations play in emotional reaction, we can turn our attention to the ancient meditation technique known as Vipassana. While there are a seemingly endless number of ways for spiritual seekers to meditate, the practice of Vipassana, which is believed by many to be the very technique taught by the Buddha himself, takes on a psychological approach and is primarily concerned with bodily feelings. Because the Buddha came to believe that our bodily sensations give rise to emotional reactions, and also because he realized that we develop cravings and aversions towards positive and negative sensations when we experience them repeatedly, he instructed individuals to develop equanimity towards both pleasurable and disturbing feelings. Although we may assume that external stimuli, such as people, circumstances, and things, cause us to react in emotionally charged ways, the Buddha discovered that our reactions are in fact in response to our own bodily feelings. For these reasons, and also because it’s not possible to live with only positive sensations, the Buddha developed the technique of Vipassana which instructs individuals to consciously monitor their sensations in a systematic way with the goal of developing indifference towards both their positive and negative feelings.

Human Conditioning:

An illustration shows a dog lightbulb and food bowl together This image represents Ivan Pavlov's story of learning about conditioning. Not long after William James and Carl Lange developed their infamous theory of emotional reaction, the now-immortalized psychologist Ivan Pavlov accidentally discovered how reappearing stimuli in the environment, even if it had no previously associated meaning, could result in conditioned biological responses. It was while studying the digestive systems of his pet dogs that Pavlov began noticing how the canines would salivate at the sight of a co-worker whom they had come to associate with being fed that ultimately led the Russian psychologist to discover the all-important psychological truth of conditioning. After first noticing the conditioned responses and switching the focus of his study, Pavlov was able to prove how dogs, and humans, respond to external stimuli in predictable ways by training his pets to link the sound of a bell to feeding time. For this discovery, Pavlov won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1904.

Some 30 years after Pavlov won the Nobel Prize, another iconic psychologist illuminated a second important type of human conditioning. It was in 1938, to be exact, when American behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner published his celebrated book The Behavior of Organisms which outlined the process of Operant Conditioning. Whereas Pavlovian Conditioning, or Classical Conditioning, shows how humans become conditioned to respond biologically to stimuli in the environment, Operant Conditioning shows how humans learn behaviors and develop conditioned habits based upon the rewards or consequences of particular actions. Today, it is widely assumed that each and every one of us learns a considerable amount about behavior through this process of operant conditioning.

Although Pavlov and Skinner discovered these two forms of conditioning in the first half of the 20th century, it is clear to see that the Buddha understood much about the conditioning process over 2,500 years ago. With hopes of giving spiritual seekers a path to end the suffering that’s a natural byproduct of life, the Buddha went to great lengths to show how the Three Poisons of conditioned attachment, aversion, and ignorance keep us locked into the cycle of suffering and ultimately prohibit us from attaining true liberation. Based upon his findings from six years of dissecting the inner workings of his own mind, the Enlightened One came to realize that our conditioned cravings for pleasurable experiences and aversions towards negative ones, both of which create the impermanent body sensations we just discussed, are what limits our well-being in the present moment. The Buddha told his followers:

All conditioned things are impermanent – when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.”

The Inner Workings of the Unconscious Mind:

A diagram shows an iceberg with 13rd of it above water and 23rd submerged On the image is written the conscious above the water and unconscious mind below the water Sigmund Freud came to believe the inner workings of the human mind operate partly conscious and partly unconscious A third important psychological theory that came about around the turn of the 20th century is credited to the man who may be history’s most widely recognized psychologist. Although the conceptual idea of an unconscious mind was previously discussed by German philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Eduard von Hartmann, as well as in ancient Hindu scriptures, Sigmund Freud is widely considered to be the discoverer of the unconscious. By looking within himself and analyzing his own mind, just as the Buddha did, Freud came to realize that numerous cognitive, emotional, and physical processes function outside of our conscious awareness. To help illuminate his discovery, Freud used the analogy of an iceberg and told us that while we may be aware of a variety of psychological processes above the surface level, there are many more taking place in the unconscious waters below.

While many of Sigmund Freud’s theories have been debunked by modern psychologists, his notion that there is an unconscious mind, where memories, cognitions, desires, and perceptions reside, still holds weight in psychology circles today. In fact, nearly every therapeutic treatment strategy that’s currently popular will to some extent revolve around the premise that thought patterns found in the unconscious mind affect individuals’ behaviors, conscious thoughts, perceptions and overall levels of subjective well-being.

Just as the Buddha deeply understood the psychological processes of emotional reaction and conditioning, he too had a keen insight into the inner workings of the unconscious mind. It is certain that through the practice of meditation, which the Enlightened One vehemently prescribed to anyone looking to progress spiritually, he came to observe how particular memories, thoughts, perceptions, and desires remained outside of his conscious awareness. Moreover, the Buddha’s understanding of the unconscious becomes crystal clear when considering the fact that Buddhist scriptures make direct reference to a storehouse consciousness, called alaya-vijnana, that is home to past memories and perceptions which play a role in determining one’s everyday thoughts, behaviors and emotions.

The Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Triangle:

A diagram shows the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Triangle which shows how humans feelings thoughts and emotions all affect one another In addition to having a vast understanding of older psychological theories such as the ones we have thus far discussed, the Buddha’s supreme knowledge of human behavior and the mind can also be recognized when comparing his teachings to modern theories and therapeutic treatment strategies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It was during the 1960s when a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania by the name of Aaron T. Beck, who was then treating depressed patients using psychoanalysis treatment techniques popularized by Freud, first conceptualized and devolved the philosophical framework of CBT. After conducting a number of experiments with hopes of verifying the effectiveness of psychoanalysis, Beck was shocked to discover that the treatment strategies weren’t positively impacting his patients at all.

Coming to this realization, the now-immortalized psychologist determined that he must improve his abilities to help his patients and ultimately began developing the foundational concepts of CBT. Today, the lauded therapeutic approach is considered by many to be the most effective at treating a wide variety of mental health disorders.

While there is a wide range of concepts and treatment activities that we could look at to illuminate the Buddha’s understanding of CBT, we’ll stick to examining what is widely considered to be one of the most important. The CBT Triangle shows us how an individual’s thoughts, behaviors and emotions influence one another on a continual basis. This means that when a person thinks negatively, their behaviors and emotions are subjected to negative consequences, and when a person behaves unethically, their thoughts and emotions face similarly adverse effects.

Even though Aaron T. Beck and other CBT pioneers are largely credited with conceptualizing this mind-body idea, there is little denying the fact that the Buddha clearly understood the interconnected nature of one’s thoughts, behaviors, and emotions.

The Buddha’s knowledge of the CBT Triangle becomes apparent to see when examining one of his most important teachings, the Noble Eightfold Path, which lays out a systematic route towards spiritual growth and ultimately nirvana. Because the Buddha understood the relationship between body and mind, or thoughts, behaviors, and emotions, he separated the Noble Eightfold Path into the three overarching focuses of right speech, right action, and right livelihood. Furthermore, just as CBT therapists aim to work with their patients starting at the level of thoughts, the Buddha understood the important role cognitions play in shaping individuals’ realities. He told us:

Mind perceives all phenomena. Mind matters most. Everything is mind made. If with an impure mind you speak or act, then suffering follows you as the cartwheel follows the foot of the draft animal. If with a pure mind you speak or act, then happiness follows you as a shadow that never departs.”

The Default Mode Network (DMN) & Mental Health:

A conceptual image of a man from side profile shows his brain and brain activity This image represents the idea that the brain's Default Mode Network causes it to think all the time. Although it may seem unreasonable to think that the Buddha had an equally insightful understanding of the most notable psychological discoveries of the 21st century, because of advancements in medicine and research, that simply isn’t the case. It wasn’t until 2001 when a team of researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, led by neurologist Marcus E. Raichle, coined the term Default Mode Network (DMN) to illuminate the brain’s consistently high levels of neural activity. Thanks to technologically sophisticated brain MRI imagining equipment, researchers have been able to show that the DMN, which is responsible for self-referential daydreaming and mind-wandering about past and future events, is continuously active when a person isn’t focused on an outside task or sleeping.

Since the work of Raichle and his team, prominent psychologists and neurologists have been able to link faults in the DMN to a wide variety of mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, ADHD, OCD, PTSD, Bipolar disorder, psychosis, and Alzheimer’s. Yet still, it must be pointed out that the mechanisms of the DMN are indispensable for the human species and help us with social functioning, creativity, and planning.

While the Buddha obviously didn’t have knowledge of what Brain MRI scans showed about the DMN, he did understand how a continuous flow of automatic thoughts and rumination could undermine the mental health of individuals. It is directly because of the brain’s natural tendency to wander, typically in negative ways, that the Buddha so adamantly promoted meditation as a way to slow down an unhealthy flow of thoughts and disassociate one’s self from negative cognitions. In fact, due to the immense benefits of the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, nearly every prominent university, hospital, and research institution has begun using ancient meditative practices to improve individuals’ mental and emotional well-being. Unquestionably, the Buddha knew the dangers that come with an overactive mind. This is why he told us:

A disciplined mind brings happiness.”

Increasing Our Subjective Well-Being with the Buddha’s Teachings:

An image shows a bronze Buddha statue with gold and yellow lights in the background This image represents the idea that the Buddha's psychological-based teachings can help move us towards higher levels of subjective well-being. It must be pointed out that nothing that’s been written in this article has been done so with the intention to take away from the work and discoveries of psychology’s truly immortal figures, rather it’s to shed light on the Buddha’s immense psychological understanding. Without question, the likes of William James, Ivan Pavlov, Sigmund Freud, and Aaron T. Beck deserve all the credit in the world for the contributions they’ve made to the study of the human brain and behavior, but it may be unwise of ourselves not to dive deeper into the Buddha’s teachings with hopes of improving our own levels of subjective well-being.

Fortunately, because the Buddha thought of himself only as an everyday individual who’d realized the ultimate truths about human nature, rather than some sort of God, he taught in a completely non-secular way. This means that regardless of our own religious beliefs, each and every one of us has the opportunity to immerse ourselves in his teachings on topics such as meditation, suffering, impermanence, loving-kindness, compassion, gratitude, equanimity, and liberation. Undeniably, for those that choose to do so, a wealth-spring of happiness, joy, and bliss awaits. Now is as good of a time as ever to heed the advice of history’s most illustrious psychologist. He tells us:

Though you might conquer in battle a thousand times a thousand men, You’re the greatest battle-winner if you conquer just one – yourself.”


Christine Parker-Cale June 21, 2017 - 11:16 pm

A really interesting and enjoyable article Thankyou. (You might want to change they’re to their in paragraph 2 of CBT part).

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