The three decades since mindfulness meditation was first found to help with anxiety, chronic pain and depression have seen the reversal of a trend that goes back over a century. When Freud founded psychotherapy as "a middle way between philosophy and medicine," he took pains to keep it on the scientific side of the modern gulf between science and religion. He did this in part by basing his insights on evolutionary neurobiology, and in part by distancing his psychology from its sources in the spiritual philosophy of Romanticism.
Sadly, in cutting his "new science" away from its spiritual roots, he felt a need to jettison not just myth and ritual but contemplative states and practices too. Though spiritually minded analysts like Carl Jung warned this was throwing the baby out with the bathwater, Freud's rejection of all things spiritual came to earmark mainstream psychotherapy. Jung's dream was that psychotherapy would not only work as a clinical art to heal mental suffering but also as a spiritual science to help build the best in our nature. The recent film, "A Dangerous Method," dramatizes with telling accuracy Freud's break with Jung and the rift this caused in modern psychology.
Fast forward to the present. The more mindfulness has been proven to enhance attention, empathic attunement and neuroplasticity, the more it has found its way into traditional psychotherapy and new cognitive therapies. As this simple technique has made waves in psychotherapy, it has raised a groundswell of interest among researchers and clinicians in contemplative methods in general and Buddhist psychology in particular.
Of course, mindfulness did not turn the anti-contemplative tide of mainstream therapy all by itself. It helped catalyze a complex reaction fueled by new findings in evolutionary biology, the neuroscience of plasticity and emotion, developmental psychology and positive psychology, all of which have converged in a new view of human nature as far more malleable and sociable than we thought. Buttressed by a growing body of research on meditation and yoga, this new consensus has begun to bridge the gulf between science and spirituality. Where the split faces of modern culture are starting to reunite is in two emerging fields for the scientific study and clinical application of humanity's ancient contemplative traditions: contemplative neuroscience and contemplative psychotherapy.
As clients and therapists have grown more curious about the traditional practice behind mindfulness, they've learned that it comes embedded in a complex psychology all its own, including integrated disciplines of cognitive self-analysis, emotional self-healing and behavioral life-change. This second wave of influence has brought mounting awareness of the scientific tradition of classical Buddhist psychology and its core disciplines. With this, the tide has shifted away from simply grafting mindfulness into conventional therapies, toward a fuller confluence of Buddhist and Western psychology.
A vibrant new field blending meditative insights and tools with current neuroscience, contemplative psychotherapy represents a turning of the modern tide away from contemplative methods. And as Buddhist contemplative science has been a catalyst in this turn thus far, it seems likely to play a more influential role in years to come. This is no accident, but reflects Buddhism's unique bent as a religion which seeks to awaken the human spirit less by myth and ritual than by therapeutic philosophy and contemplative psychology.
Fortunately, the rise of contemplative psychotherapy also comes at a watershed moment in the history of the West's encounter with Asian Buddhism. As neuroscientists and psychotherapists turn toward contemplative science and practice, Western and Asian scholars of Buddhism for the first time are giving us access to the long isolated Buddhism of Tibet. This most recent confluence seems likely to give rise to a third wave in the convergence of Buddhist and Western psychology, for several reasons.
First, Tibetan civilization preserves in its final form the ancient Buddhist tradition that was most concerned with bringing contemplative tools to lay people in everyday life. This was the socially engaged tradition linked with the rise of the world's first university at Nalanda, a world-class institution which became India's beacon of liberative education and a think-tank for contemplative civilization throughout Asia. The second reason is that the Nalanda tradition was and is both scientifically rigorous and psychologically minded. Its core curriculum assumes that success in secular and religious life both require mastery of scientific knowledge and empirical methods, especially the insights and methods of psychology. The third reason is that this tradition is not just universal but comprehensive, enhancing mindfulness and loving kindness with a whole range of industrial-strength tools for building compassion, altruism and inspired leadership in a stress-driven world.
Unfortunately, there's a rub. Because it forged the religious practice of Indian yoga into a human science of spirituality, the Nalanda legacy is not only the most modern and scientific of Buddhist traditions, but ironically also the one that seems most religious! The challenge contemplative therapists face in integrating its rich archetypal imagery and transformational arts is reminiscent of those faced by analysts like Jung.
Can powerful, mind-altering contemplative states and methods be harnessed to the therapeutic work of building confident, caring and inspired new selves, while staying grounded in objective science and reproducible methods?
Fortunately for us all, this challenge is far simpler in our day than it was only decades ago. Brain science has progressed so dramatically that we now understand how empathy and altruism, archetypal imagery and transmuting affects like joy and bliss work. And direct access to the living masters of the Nalanda tradition offers the time-tested perspective and methodology we need to make the work of reinventing ourselves for interdependence eminently safe, reliable and reproducible. Given the fast-shifting tides of science and civilization, contemplative psychotherapy seems ideally poised now to realize Jung's dream, with a rigor that would have satisfied even Freud.