Buddhism and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (CBT)

Buddhism and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) are very different ways of understanding people. They were developed thousands of years apart, in different hemispheres. Yet they don’t conflict as much as you would think.

“In the words of the Buddha, … ’We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.’ It’s an idea that’s in line with current thinking in psychology. In fact, this simple philosophy – that changing the way we think can change the way we feel – underpins the practice of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), an approach widely used in clinical psychology and counseling, as well as stress management programs.” So writes Kathy Graham, in a thoughtful article on Buddhism and happiness.

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Meditation and mindfulness research

For several reasons, mindfulness and meditation have been the subject of more and more well executed scientific research over the past twenty years.  Much of this research has investigated the effect of meditation on mood and on the brain’s ability to regulate emotion. 

Other research has investigated the capacity for meditation to help people suffering from anxiety disorders such as panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.  It may be that the study of meditation’s ability to make us happy has gotten more publicity than the study of meditation’s capacity to reduce anxiety.  However for people with diagnosable anxiety disorders, the potential to be gained from meditation is perhaps greater than it is for everyone else.  Meditation can “quiet the mind,” and pave the way for certain types of anxiety (e.g., worry, panic attacks) to improve.

Meditation Brain Research Study

A study conducted by my former lab at Massachusetts General Hospital recently examined the effects of regular meditation practice on the structure of the brain.

The study showed that, among other results, the thickness of particular areas of the cerebral cortex was different for regular meditators than it was for an age-matched comparison group. Additionally, the study showed that this effect was more pronounced in the older meditators studied than it was in the young ones. This may be interpreted as suggesting meditation slows natural aging processes in certain parts of the brain. While more research is certainly needed to corroborate these findings, they are very intriguing. This study was led by Dr. Sara Lazar, and investigated a type of meditation called Insight meditation, a form of Buddhist spiritual practice that is practiced in Myanmar and Thailand. Mindfulness meditation is derived from this tradition.