When Eastern Practices Meet Western Psychology
Some of the most impactful ways we currently treat mental health aren’t innovative: they have been around for thousands of years.
May 27, 2022
Western culture often views psychological symptoms as problems to be solved. Eastern practices tend to focus on taking a deeper look into a person’s life circumstances.
“Most people are too caught up trying to survive from day to day,” explains social worker Charlie Patterson. “We are always trying to secure ourselves—emotionally, financially, or whatever. In our quest to make everything secure, all we find is difficulty.”
Patterson discovered mindfulness and meditation in the 1980s when he was finally able to end his struggle with alcohol. Patterson wanted to explore what caused his alcoholism and figure out what helped him stop drinking.
He returned to college, where he studied philosophy, anthropology, and psychology, and was particularly influenced by a course on transcendental consciousness. Later, he studied with Tibetan Buddhist teachers. Patterson has worked with a teacher for the last 27 years, which has allowed for a deeper development of his meditation practice.
“What I have learned is that there is a way for human beings to accomplish a complete understanding of their nature,” he said. “When people can do this, they can resolve their fundamental issues and feel completely free.”
Today, Patterson applies the Eastern concepts he learned to his work with patients and in his own life. He stresses that the meditation practice combined with direction, observation, and experience may lead to a new way to see the world and be in it.
What can we learn from meditation, yoga, and other practices that many people in Western cultures may see as “nontraditional?” More importantly, is there a way to blend what’s commonly referred to as Eastern medicinal practices into what we practice in Western psychology?
Keep Reading To Learn
- Eastern approaches to mental illness and treatment
- Western mental health treatments inspired by Eastern approaches
- Eastern practices that have been adopted in the West
A Growing Trend: Yoga and Meditation as Mental Health Treatment
Patterson’s observations about meditation impacting both his mental health and the health of his patients are not uncommon. Communities in the East have engaged in mindfulness and yoga for thousands of years.
These practices started taking off in popular Western culture only in the previous century and have been gaining popularity in recent decades.
A 2017 interview survey by the National Institutes of Health shows that more Americans report using Eastern-influenced health approaches than in previous years. Yoga and meditation are the most popular of these practices. Over 14% of U.S. adults say they regularly practice yoga or meditation.
In the West, various therapies and medications remain the primary interventions for mental health care. People may seek alternatives because they tried these conventional treatments without success, or they may resist taking medication because they fear side effects or long-term effects of drugs.
Some studies support the potential effectiveness of Eastern practices as options to supplement a treatment plan.
For example, a 2021 study in JAMA Psychiatry found that kundalini yoga was more effective for generalized anxiety disorder than stress management, another standard treatment for the condition. A 2015 study in the Lancet reported that mindfulness-based cognitive behavior therapy was just as effective as antidepressant medication in preventing relapse and for improving quality of life in patients with a history of depression.
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness, or giving your full attention to the current moment, has been shown to benefit both physical and mental health. Learn how to get started in being more mindful.
Could Stigma Play a Role in Blending Practices?
Stigma around mental illness may affect the popularity of Eastern practices in the West.
While acceptance about the importance of mental health is increasing, stigma about mental health conditions or seeking mental health care remains an unfortunate reality, even though mental health conditions are common. In fact, over 50% of people in the U.S. will experience a mental health condition at some point in their lifetime.
People with mental health concerns may resist going to therapy or taking medication because doing so would be an admission of “having a problem.”
As a therapist influenced by Eastern views, Patterson looks at patients entering treatment programs through the lens of acknowledgement and validation. “I don’t tell them there’s something wrong with them,” he said.
“To begin with, I say, ‘Welcome. I see you are struggling. Join the club—let’s talk about it,’” he explains. “It’s getting the person out of their individual prison, which is where we all live.”
Through practices such as meditation and yoga, people can find relief from mental health symptoms while not necessarily viewing such practices as treatment. They may also find comfort in the beliefs of the spiritual traditions to which these practices are attached.
For example, if a person agrees with the Buddhist perspective that life is suffering, then they are perhaps less likely to consider themselves as failures for their struggles.
Eastern philosophy’s collectivist viewpoint may also provide comfort. If we are all connected, then we know that we are not alone.
Taking a Whole-Body Approach to Mental Health
Western medicine and psychology have traditionally viewed the mind and body as separate entities. Eastern practices take a more holistic approach and also incorporate spirituality.
In recent years, Western clinicians have been embracing certain Eastern healing practices that date back thousands of years. According to a 2017 article, therapists who integrate yoga into standard treatment can extend the care they provide while also teaching techniques, such as breathing patterns, that patients can use between sessions.
More specifically, Eastern medicinal practices have influenced the field of holistic talk therapy.
To treat patients, holistic psychotherapists use conventional Western treatments, such as talk therapy, as well as non-traditional methods including:
- Massage therapy
Self-Care Is Important
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Common Eastern Practices Embraced in the West
There are dozens of alternative and complementary practices that have been incorporated into Western medicine. Many of them can be found in popular therapies, like dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and some can be used to supplement Western mental health treatments.
These non-traditional methods may not work for everyone, and depending on other conditions, may not be helpful to incorporate into treatment. If you or someone you care for is considering adding in a whole-body aspect to treatment, please consult with your treatment team.
As modern life grows increasingly fast-paced, many individuals seek to slow their experiences down. Mindfulness is the practice of existing in the present moment.
Human beings have a natural tendency to worry about the past or plan for the future. We also tend to become attached to things, whether these are physical objects, relationships, or thoughts. Such clinging can be a source of pain since nothing lasts forever.
“We have these things that we regard as reality,” Patterson explains. “We fixate on them, but they are impermanent. And the impermanence causes distress. We always make plans, and always expect things to last.”
Some degree of remembering our past or planning for our future is essential to functional living. However, too much time spent outside of the present moment can lead to psychological distress.
Through mindfulness, people learn to notice and accept the present moment, even when the present brings discomfort. They can learn to acknowledge the impermanence of life.
“The whole purpose of this path is to be present here and now and see clearly,” Patterson said. “That’s it, along with recognizing our nature. If we do that successfully, then there’s no inner conflict.”
Meditation is a practice that cultivates mindfulness. In meditation, people sit still for set periods of time to experience the present moment. Meditators often focus on their breath as a grounding point. They can also use other forms of grounding, such as noticing bodily sensations.
While meditating, people will inevitably notice thoughts and emotions that arise. If meditating, it’s important to nonjudgmentally observe such experiences as they come up. Then, the person meditating can bring awareness back to their breath or focus point and into the present moment.
Many people find meditation challenging at first—which is understandable, since many people are constantly “on” and may have a hard time quieting their minds and bodies. Their heads become flooded with thoughts. They struggle to sit still.
For beginners, it can be helpful to meditate for short periods of time, such as five minutes, or even just one minute, and eventually increase the number of minutes per session. Often, building up a meditation practice slowly and over time can make it easier to turn into a habit.
Some people seek traditional routes to learning meditation through teachers, group classes, and retreats. Many others find modern means. For example, meditation apps are growing in popularity. These and other online platforms offer timers, guided meditations, tutoring, and live classes.
According to Patterson, regardless of the method chosen for meditation, it’s important to understand that the meditator gains wisdom and insight when they take the opportunity to practice regular meditation.
“It is like if you get a jar of water out of the muddy swamp and put it back on your desk,” he said. “That’s how we are from day to day. But if the contents are allowed to settle, there’s clarity you can see through the jar.”
Patterson advises individuals to practice meditation without expectations—which can go against our subconscious desire to plan. “Eventually, people can begin to experience a shift in their perspective,” he said. “This allows them a sense of ease because they have more room within which to work in their own minds.”
Research supports the power of meditation. A 2008 study showed that compared to novice meditators, experienced meditators had increased activation in areas of the brain associated with concentration. They also had less activation in the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with emotional processes.
According to the study, meditation can lead to increased concentration and decreased emotional reactivity. This indicates attention is a trainable skill that can be developed through meditation.
Yoga is an ancient mind-body practice that originated in India to treat disease and other forms of distress. The practice involves movement, breath, and meditation as practitioners move through a series of postures, or asanas.
There are many types of yoga. Hatha, Iyengar, and Kundalini are among the most popular forms. All yoga practices focus on the stretch and release of muscles, the rhythm of the breath, and the release of tension. Yoga can be considered a type of meditation with movement.
While practicing yoga, people remain aware of sensations in the body and how these physical sensations may connect to emotions.
Since yoga focuses on sensations in the body, it can be especially helpful for people who struggle to express their pain verbally. By connecting to physical tension and releasing it, people can release their emotions.
Yoga has been found to reduce pain and to increase quality of life for many people. Specifically, the practice has shown to reduce muscular tension, relieve stress, and reduce depression and anxiety.
Like meditation, yoga is an ancient healing art that has become more accessible through technology. Many people still practice yoga in traditional classrooms or on retreats. In such settings, people value direct feedback from instructors and the presence of others. However, there are also many online yoga practitioners, offering a variety of classes of different lengths and focuses.
Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that involves the placement of fine needles at key points on the skin. Approximately 25% of acupuncture patients in the West are referred by Western medicine clinicians.
According to TCM, the body’s energy, qi, flows along key points, or meridians. Each organ in the body is aligned with one of these points. When pressure, heat, or needles are placed at meridians, they can influence the flow of energy at specific organs.
From the view of TCM, mental illnesses occur when there is an imbalance in the body’s energy system. According to TCM, various organs—not just the brain—are involved in mental illness, and acupuncturists target the energy of these organs in their healing approaches.
Scientists are still not completely sure of acupuncture’s effectiveness in treating mental health conditions, although the research is promising.
In the treatment of depression and anxiety, for example, it is thought that acupuncture may release endorphins. Research suggests that acupuncture creates deep relaxation and may release the body’s natural melatonin in patients presenting with anxiety.
ACT and Teens
Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) focuses on six psychological processes that are believed to be at the core of our struggles and mental well-being. Nate Gruner, LICSW, explains how ACT can benefit the mental health of young adults and answers audience questions about how small, habitual practices can have a big impact.
Mental Health Treatments Based in Eastern Practices
Even before mindfulness, meditation, and yoga became popular with the public, many Western clinicians were aware of their importance. This is seen particularly in the application of third-wave cognitive behavior therapy.
Developed in the 1960s, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based treatment that explores the effect of a person’s thoughts on their emotions and their behaviors.
A CBT therapist challenges a patient’s negative beliefs with the aim of making the patient’s behavior more functional. They can help patients think more rationally and unlearn problematic habitual thought patterns.
CBT incorporates behavioral techniques that may include thought stopping, challenging irrational beliefs, using literature as therapy, relaxation, and breathing exercises.
Third-wave CBT incorporates Eastern practices into CBT. Unlike standard CBT, these treatments do not view thoughts as negative and do not challenge these thoughts.
Third-wave CBT includes acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Developed in the 1980s, ACT emphasizes that our thoughts are not the same as reality. Unlike classic CBT, ACT does not distinguish thoughts as positive, negative, rational, or irrational.
Similar to Buddhism, ACT views struggling as how people view their experiences—not that the experiences themselves are inherently negative.
“If you look at a thought, you won’t see where it comes from, where it is, when you see it, or where it goes,” Patterson explains. “Yet we give these thoughts all the power that there is. In fact, many of us tend to regard our own thoughts as the ultimate authority. That’s an issue, and that’s what this whole spiritual practice works against.”
According to a 2008 article, ACT is closely aligned with Taoism, an ancient Chinese religion and philosophy that emphasizes being in harmony with the universe.
Central to both ACT and Taoism is the idea that direct experience and observation of that experience help reduce struggles. Through ACT, patients learn to accept uncomfortable thoughts they may have, instead of pushing them away.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
Developed in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness-based stress reduction was developed to ease stress, pain, and illness. The eight-week treatment combines meditation, yoga, and group discussions to help patients identify and tolerate sensations in their bodies.
By developing and practicing mindfulness, patients can identify which thoughts and emotions are linked to physical distress. They can learn to accept and ease mental and physical pain.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy
Mindfulness-based cognitive behavior therapy is an offshoot of Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress management. In the 1990s, clinicians began to note the effectiveness of a mindfulness-meditation component to classic CBT.
Clinicians often provide MBCT in a group therapy format. Unlike classic CBT, which focuses on replacing distressing thoughts with more productive ones, MBCT helps patients become aware and accepting of intrusive and difficult thoughts and emotions.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy
DBT, developed in the 1980s as a treatment for borderline personality disorder (BPD), is now considered an effective treatment for many mental health conditions.
The treatment includes individual psychotherapy, skills groups, phone coaching from the therapist, and consultation groups for DBT therapists. DBT emphasizes Eastern concepts such as acceptance of change. Patients learn mindfulness as a core skill of DBT, and DBT therapists must maintain a mindfulness practice.
If you need help managing your mental health, McLean is here to help. Call us today at 617.855.3141 to learn more about treatment options.
An Ancient Perspective on Modern Problems
Through mindfulness, meditation, and yoga, people may learn to accept inner experiences. They may also become better at tuning into the experiences of others and feel more connected and can explore the transience of experiences and things, and re-frame attachments that cause pain.
An Eastern view asks: What if struggling is part of the human condition? If we can’t remove our pain, are there ways we can accept it, or even embrace it?
The search for continual security is a loop many can get stuck in. Trying to achieve a fixed, permanent happiness, according to Eastern approaches to mental health, only propels us into future unhappiness.
“But once we can begin to accept that that’s the truth, we can parlay it into a desire not to dwell in the past, not to have anxiety over the future,” Patterson said. “But to live more fully and completely in the timelessness of now.”
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