Zen for everyday life: cognitive psychology and Buddhism

“The mind has its own place, and in itself can make a hell out of heaven, a hell out of heaven.” (Paradise Lost, Volume 1, 247).

“Whatever an enemy may do to an enemy, or an enemy to an enemy, the misguided mind can make you even worse.” (Pali canon, Udāna 4.33).

“It’s wonderful to train the mind, moving so quickly, grabbing whatever it wants. It’s good to have a well-trained mind, for a well-trained mind brings happiness. (Pali Canon, Dhammapada 3.35).

The delta variant of COVID-19 is of concern. Recently, Austin Public Health announced that we are returning to Step 3 of the COVID-19 risk-based guidelines. Our larger environment has an impact on our thoughts, emotions, behaviors and relationships. The stress associated with the pandemic reflects societal concerns of economic and cultural tensions. Now, more than ever, it is important to slow down, monitor and understand our mind so that we can bring more compassion and healing to our society.

It is important to recognize that a lot of good things are happening in our society. When the night is darkest, it is also when we can see the stars most clearly. And, we never want to downplay the tensions and challenges that exist in our society. Sometimes we can feel quite divided and we don’t want to exacerbate those divisions. By facing these divisions honestly and directly, we can transform them and come together as a society.

Likewise, the critical areas of religion and mental health can also feel divided if left unchecked; which, like our society at large, is something we need to take care of. Religion and psychology have a lot in common and can help each other, which is also emblematic of how other divisions of our society can work together for the betterment of our society.

MORE ZEN FOR EVERYDAY LIFE: Exploring the Intersections of Psychology, Spirituality and Religion

In my previous column, I discussed professional mental health guidelines related to the integration of religion, spirituality, and psychological interventions. In this column and in future ones, I will dig deeper and be more specific, exploring the commonalities and possible intersections between these seminal disciplines (focusing on Zen) so that we can work together to help alleviate suffering and to cultivate well-being. While we find common ground between these seemingly disparate areas, we can also find common ground in other seemingly disparate areas.

One of the leading schools of psychology is known as Cognitive Psychology, and as the name suggests, it focuses primarily on working and understanding how we think. A contemporary and definitive explanation of cognitive therapy is “Cognitive Behavior Therapy: The Basics and Beyond” by Judith Beck, a text that describes many fundamental approaches to this often used treatment modality. Beck sums up much of the cognitive approach when she says: “Realistic assessment and modification of thinking produces improved mood and behavior. Lasting improvement results from changing the patient’s underlying dysfunctional beliefs ”(p. 1).

Cognitive therapy is often accomplished through Socratic-style questioning, a process Beck describes as “collaborative empiricism” and “guided discovery.” Cognitive therapy works on a theory of mind focusing on three interrelated cognitive processes: automatic thoughts, intermediate beliefs, and core beliefs. Automatic thoughts are often unrecognized by the client and occur thousands of times every day. They are quick and subtle, but can have a strong influence on how we see and experience the world. Automatic thoughts have a powerful impact on a client’s emotional state. Intermediate beliefs are made up of rules, attitudes and assumptions held by the client; they often involve our interpersonal relationships, the way we interact with others. Fundamental beliefs, or patterns, are the central ideas that a person has about himself and the world. Our core beliefs are the deep gravitational ocean currents of our mind. They are difficult to see but can drive all other levels of cognitive functioning.

David Zuniga

We have a whole range of thoughts, some positive, some negative or neutral. Sometimes they are useful, sometimes they are not. Sometimes they’re true, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes whether or not a thought is useful depends on the context. Our way of thinking is the result of many interrelated factors: our genetics, our culture, our life experiences, etc.

MORE FROM ZEN EVERY DAY: Psychology, Zen and meditation

For much of their life, a person can function under the influence of positive and healthy thought patterns. When stressors and life circumstances become overwhelming (such as a pandemic or cultural upheaval), negative core beliefs come into play. There are many therapeutic methods for developing more adaptive and useful ways of thinking, including Zen meditation techniques, such as mindfulness. Mindfulness, derived from Buddhism, is an awareness of the things that influence us and make us who we are, such as our body and physical sensations, our emotions, thoughts and how we interact with our environment. Mindfulness is a practice of slowing down and paying attention to the way we think and live. It is a research-backed way to facilitate psychological change and growth. Mindfulness is a very practical way to learn more about our way of thinking, helping us to see reality more directly. It is also a clever bridge between religion and psychology. One thing to think about is this: What helps you understand your thinking more clearly, so that you can use your thinking to help you bring peace to your life and to the world at large?

Dr David Zuniga is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Austin, and he is also an ordained Zen Buddhist priest; its website is a free source of interdisciplinary support: drdavidzuniga.com.