The Middle Way: Aligning research between Zen Buddhism and social psychology

Now that the boys and their coach have been rescued from the cave in northern Thailand, we can all breathe a sigh of relief and begin to ask some of the questions that have been confounding us throughout the ordeal. The one that had me wondering the most: How did they remain calm for nine dark days and nights without food, warmth, light, or hope of being found? They couldn’t have known there was an international rescue team searching through the twisting caverns. They would have lost track of time, which would have stretched and elongated in the damp cold as hunger gnawed. How could they have filled up such a yawning space of time? It didn’t surprise me to learn that the coach, who had lived for many years in a monastery, taught the boys to meditate in order to keep them calm and preserve their energy.

Having lived and worked in Asia over several years, I’ve often drawn on what I learned about Buddhist practices in dealing with my own interest in personal psychology. It seems only logical —and yet, Western researchers tend to relegate the benefits of Buddhism to the idea of religious belief, something that better fits Western categories of knowledge and faith.

Because Buddhism is wide in scope and doesn’t lend itself to narrow empirical research, it’s difficult to know how and why such practices benefit patients. By contrast, the field of psychology is built on empirical research, such that the wider view is often lost. However, the transformative power of both Buddhist spiritual practices and psychotherapy to work in a coordinated way to advance the psychological and spiritual development of an individual makes it important to find mechanisms by which to align these two different approaches. One way is to limit the investigation to one stream of Buddhism. Zen Buddhism offers specific testable assertions about human behavior and therefore can be aligned with the scientific methods adopted by the West. By selecting a Western model of personality that offers a more comprehensive view of the human experience, such as Erik Erikson’s life-span theory of growth and development, it’s possible to create a framework that allows for coordinated research to yield insights that benefit psychologists in clinical practice.

Buddhism originated 2500 years ago in northern India as a spiritual practice emphasizing transcendence and enlightenment. The study of modern psychology developed in Europe in the nineteenth century as a scientific area of inquiry aimed at understanding and treating the human psyche. At first glance, they might seem to have little in common but, according to van Waning (2002), this is less a matter of substance than of approach. While Western approaches to personality are deeply empirical, only small areas of human behavior can be assessed and illuminated at any one time. Like the old fable in which blind men are asked to touch an elephant and then describe it, there isn’t uniform agreement. In contrast, Eastern theories of personality are non-dualistic, more holistic, and more comprehensive. However, because they tend to apprehend the ‘entirety of the elephant’, the focus is generally too wide to conduct rigorous empirical research, which makes cross-cultural comparative analysis difficult. However, the transformative power of both Buddhist spiritual practice and psychotherapy to work in a coordinated way to advance the psychological and spiritual development of an individual makes it important to find mechanisms by which to align these two different approaches to the human experience. One way is to limit the investigation to one stream of Buddhism. Zen Buddhism offers specific testable assertions about human behavior and therefore can be aligned with the scientific methods adopted by the West. 

On the other side, while many Western psychologists have shown an interest in Eastern spiritual practices and many aspects of their theories lend themselves to further comparison with Eastern approaches to personality, much of the work focuses on infant and child development at the expense of adult stages of life. By contrast, Erik Erikson’s life-span theory of personality offers a more comprehensive view of human development. Therefore, by examining principles of Zen Buddhism and comparing them to the model of human personality proposed by Erikson, it’s possible to more easily discover the common ground required to yield insights that may benefit psychologists in clinical practice.

Erikson, working and writing in the 1950s, was one of the first psychologists to chart human physical and psychological development in stages over the entire life span. Additionally, Erikson saw adult development as occurring in response to the larger social environment. His major concern is not just self-identity, but also an individual’s engagement with others and the legacy left behind. Erikson proposes eight stages of human development, of which the first five are closely aligned with Freud, and the last three are concerned with experiences in adult life. In short, the stages are:

Table 1: Erikson’s psychosocial stages

According to Erikson, these stages correspond with a crisis or turning point during which “the ego…assists the individual in obtaining a balance between two opposing personality traits that represent progress and regression or integration and degeneration”.

Erikson also viewed personality as epigenetic, by which he meant that all stages are dependent upon one another and unfold in a prescribed order. Further, he coined the term ego integrity, which is defined as an acceptance of one’s past choices. According to Erikson, each stage built upon the previous stages to the final Stage 8, in which the crisis is Integrity versus Despair. If this final stage is unresolved, the individual will face a fear of death; upon successful resolution, however, the individual develops the ego quality of wisdom.

In later writings, Erikson extended his theoretical ideas to include the concept of the deeply religious person. He noticed that some people are better adapted to resolve the Integrity versus Despair stage, attaining wisdom much earlier than predicted by the rigid stages of development he originally posited.  Working with his wife and colleague, Joan Erikson, he advanced his life span theory to include a ninth stage, which addressed the idea of gerotranscendence. This ninth stage incorporates the previous eight and further delineates the ego quality of wisdom but is less tied to lineal progression. Erikson thought of it as part of the aging process in which certain individuals may break through boundaries to transcend previous crises. This extension of Erikson’s theory is of particular interest when looking at how Eastern and Western theories of human experience align.

According to doctrine, Buddhism has two concerns: suffering and its cessation. The doctrine of suffering and its cessation is formulated as The Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering; the truth of suffering’s cause; the truth of extinguishing suffering’s cause; and the path that leads to extinguishing suffering’s cause. The ultimate goal of Buddhism is nirvana or the deliverance of the mind and the cessation of all suffering. This is known as enlightenment, the condition in which one possesses not only the highest wisdom, but also vitality, self-confidence, a love for others, and a strong sense of purpose.

Because the Buddhist tradition is sweeping, taking on, leaving off, and accumulating different practices in different geographical regions, the discussion that follows will focus on Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhism is a mixture of Mahayana Buddhism from India and Taoism from China. Like Erikson’s model, it’s concerned with intrapsychic and interpsychic  aspects of the human experience at the same time. Zen Buddhism emphasizes the practice of meditation as a way to ease suffering and achieve nirvana. 

Buddhist doctrine outlines the path to nirvana lies in the ‘Middle Way’, a position between extremes that is represented by the principle of dependent origination. The basis of this idea is that all of life — and one’s experience of it — is interdependent. In other words, it’s based on a set of relations that occur and cease to occur because of the factors that condition them. If all phenomena in the world are relative, conditioned states, then mental and behavioral states are also relative, conditioned states. As such, Zen Buddhism purports, they do not occur independently of the conditions that support them. The principle of dependent origination identifies 12 mutually interlinked members as shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Chain of dependent origination

There has been extensive scholarly discussion about the nature of these conditions of human experience as well as when they occur in time; while fascinating, these questions are beyond the scope of this paper. What’s of interest here is that, like many Western psychologists including Erikson, there has been an attempt to examine human development in terms of progressive stages. While the 12 interlinked members of dependent origination are overtly concerned with what happens within the individual, the nature of the interdependence of cause and effect links the individual to the social and physical worlds; therefore, this chain is not unlike Erikson’s psychosocial stages. While the chain of dependent origination isn’t explicitly set out as a series of conflicts or crises to be resolved as with Erikson, the fact that a governing principle of Zen Buddhism is to find the ‘Middle Way’ implies a similar kind of resolution. 

One issue in aligning Eastern and Western approaches is the linear manner in which Erikson’s model, as well as those of most other Western psychologists, attempt to outline the human experience. In contrast, the principle of dependent origination is often depicted as the wheel of life, with no stage set as the beginning but in which all links are connected to each other. Erikson adapted Freud’s model to include the full human life-span. It is similarly useful to extend Erikson’s model in such a way that the strict time frames — particularly as they relate to the final three stages — are relaxed, something that Erikson tended towards in his later writings with the idea of gerotranscendence. If Erikson’s model is less bound to a linear progression, then it becomes more aligned with the Zen Buddhist concept of dependent origination.

There is a further way of reconciling some of the differences between Eastern and Western views regarding human growth and development in a way that also accommodates Erikson’s later work on gerotranscendence. Rather than limiting the model to psycho-social components, some psychologists have expanded the concept of human growth and development to include bio-psycho-social-spiritual components. The crises experienced in Erikson’s stages overlap with the Zen concepts of yin and yang — as polar extremes on a continuum. The holistic Zen way of thinking emphasizes the complementary nature of elements within the whole as an essential part of the transformative process.

The problem lies in the West taking a dualistic approach. What Erikson and other life-span development writers create in their dualistic conceptions of the dynamics in each stage is a focus on one element being positive (identity) and one creating problems (role confusion)”. This then leads to the thinking that if only therapists can focus on the reduction of problem element, then the positive element will be resolved. Zen Buddhism, on the other hand, does not find the tension between the ‘two sides’ to be oppositional; rather, that each is essential to and interconnected in the process of growth.

While it’s been useful for Freud, Piaget, and Erikson to break down human experience into small parts in their search for adequate explanations, at times their models prove inadequate, falling short of scope as well as limiting possibilities for true understanding. Reframing Western ideas to include non-linear and holistic views can enhance not only what we know about human growth and development but also how we treat individuals seeking clinical help.

Over the past 20 years, the influence of Buddhist thought and practice on Western psychotherapy has been growing. There’s an increasing interest in mindfulness training as a way to overcome psychological and emotional problems, with meditation seen as a means of self-regulation.  Research has not kept pace with inclusion of these techniques in clinical practice. Now, however, advances in modern scientific equipment allows researchers to objectively measure and record the positive benefits of Zen Buddhist meditation. Studies have shown that meditation is beneficial for stress reduction, increased immune system performance, increased brain wave synchrony, and enhanced use of the areas of the brain associated with compassion. Meditation also helps to decrease anxiety, aggression, addiction, depression, suicidality, pain, and insomnia.

In conclusion, from the number of studies undertaken in recent years, as well as anecdotal reports from clinicians, it’s clear that Eastern spiritual practices can and do contribute to Western clinical settings, benefitting individuals seeking treatment. However, there’s still a lot of work to be done to discover the science behind practices like Zen Buddhism and just how they might align with Western theories of human behaviour and development. Western theorists can benefit by drawing on the long tradition of Eastern approaches by starting with Eastern practices that lend themselves to empirical inquiry.  Just as only so much can be discovered about a subject by taking a wide view, there are significant limitations to looking at human development and behavior in a narrow piecemeal fashion as demanded by the scientific method.  Fortunately, we aren’t forced to chose either approach at the expense of the other, rather see the endeavor as one of viewing the same ‘animal’ through very different lenses.

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