Information Services Office   19.1.2012


Through continuous practice, anyone can focus mental energy to observe or be conscious of the source of all psychological phenomena
Newsletter No. 391 > In Plain View > Mindful Steps to Mental Health

Mindful Steps to Mental Health


Buddhist Wisdom and Modern Psychology

In 528 BC, Prince Siddhattha of Sakya in Northern India came to Bodhgaya—currently in the suburbs of Gaya in India’s North-eastern state Bihar, where he sat in meditation under a pipal tree to seek the truth about life. He had been living an ascetic lifestyle for many years, trying to contemplate ways of finding release from his sufferings. Siddhattha spent 48 days under the tree practising introspection trying to understand the nature of his mind and reality. At dawn on the 49th day, he was enlightened. Siddhatta is the founder of Buddhism, Sakyamuni.

‘Sakyamuni may be the first psychologist in human history,’ remarked Prof. Freedom Y.K. Leung of the Department of Psychology. ‘Psychology is, in short, the “science of how the mind operates”.’ Religion aside, the basic tenets of Buddhism has many commonalities with modern psychology. Some 2,500 years ago, Sakyamuni sat in meditation and used his mind to raise awareness of and observe the inner workings of his mind and through that to understand the source of his suffering. Introspection corresponds to mindfulness therapy which is popular in Western psychotherapy today.’

Professor Leung explained that in Sanskrit, the root of the word ‘Buddha’ is budh. In psychology, it means ‘conscious awareness’ is necessary for ‘Buddha’ to materialize, in other words, to become someone with such capabilities or ‘dha’. This means that through continuous practice, anyone can focus mental energy to observe or be conscious of the source of all psychological phenomena, and eventually become ‘an enlightened one’.

‘Buddhism emphasizes how positive emotions such as desire (greed), negative emotions (such as anger or rage, fear and misery), and lack of or mistaken knowledge (ignorance) distort the clarity of people’s minds causing them to perceive illusions and not the truth (True Suchness). Similarly, modern psychopathology stresses how negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, anger, sadness; and positive ones such as desire twist our minds. This ties in with Buddhist theories. From the physical appearances of the Chinese characters for these words, one can almost visualize how emotions can twist the mind.

A specialist in psychopathology, Professor Leung’s recent research interests are emotional disorders and personality disorders, in particular, the mental features of borderline personality disorder. Sufferers of the said condition are assailed by tumultuous emotions and have very unstable interpersonal relationships and subsequently a fluctuating self-image. One of the symptoms they exhibit is non-suicidal self-mutilation. Studies have shown that 2% of the common population has borderline personality disorder, most of them women. Clinical studies reveal that many patients have undergone sustained sexual, or mental and/or physical abuse in childhood. The earlier the abuse took place, the more serious the condition. A possible reason is that long-term mental and physical pressure brought about by sustained abuse inflicts widespread damage on the brain, wreaking havoc on the emotional control mechanisms in the patient’s not yet fully developed brain. Painful childhood experiences leave a permanent mark. Worse still, the impact of these experiences tricks the brain into thinking they are important signals, so it keeps bringing up these memories automatically. It tortures the sufferers who, having to cope with the frequent appearance of these painful experiences, may, among other things, inflict physical pain on themselves to distract themselves. The most commonly seen self-mutilating behaviour is the slashing of the arms until blood runs.

Dialectic behaviour therapy is used to treat borderline personality disorder. It uses emotional adjustment methods in mindfulness therapy to guide the patient towards acceptance, raise their distress tolerance levels, and enable them to learn different ways of controlling their emotions. It has a lot in common with the Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism. Professor Leung explained that the first three ‘right view, right intention, right speech’ refer to the correction of wrong perception, erroneous thoughts and labelling of concepts. ‘Right action, right livelihood’ refer to changes in one’s work and lifestyle habits. The last ‘right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration’ refer to the practice and guidance of one’s thoughts, and focus on one’s heart and mind. ‘If Buddhism was the earliest psychology in the history of human civilization, then the Noble Eightfold Path is the earliest cognitive behaviour therapy,’ observed Professor Leung.

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