The Buddha: A Distinguished Psychologist Before the Dawn of Psychology

Over the past 150 years, the scientific world has been awed by the theories, experiments, and discoveries that have come from the field of psychology. It was in the late 1800s when Wilhelm Wundt and William James, commonly thought of as psychology’s founding fathers, took steps to legitimize the study of the brain and behavior. Since that time, we have been fortunate enough to witness major advancements in the treatment of mental, emotional, and physical health. While a number of the field’s now immortal figures should be given due credit for their contributions, the truth is that many of the most important psychological theories and discoveries were understood long before.

Thousands of years before Carl Rogers, Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and every other illustrious psychologist was even born, a man by the name of Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha, had uncovered many of the most important pieces of psychology’s brain and behavior puzzles. While Wundt and James are largely credited with laying the groundwork for the celebrated psychologists that came after them, it was undoubtedly the Buddha who had already answered the fields most important questions. James, being a man of great intelligence and character, may have actually understood this truth. Psychological folklore tells us that at one of his lectures, he actually offered his seat to a Buddhist monk who had come to hear him speak and told him:

“Take my chair. Yours is the psychology everyone will be studying 25 years from now.”

By comparing some of history’s most important psychological theories and discoveries with the teachings of the Buddha, we can see how the Enlightened One was in fact a distinguished psychologist 2,500 years before the dawn of psychology. Although he didn’t test his theories in a laboratory, his teachings suggest that he had, in comparison to anyone in the history of the world, a superior understanding of the human brain and behavior. While his knowledge of the following psychological theories and discoveries is certain, his understanding of human existence assuredly wasn’t limited to these alone:

The Cornerstones of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT):

It was in the 1960s when a psychiatrist by the name of Aaron T. Beck began conceptualizing and developing the philosophical framework for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). At the time, Beck was treating his depressed patients using psychoanalysis treatment strategies popularized by Sigmund Freud, and in an attempt to legitimacy these therapeutic techniques, Beck began carrying out several experiments aimed at testing his treatment’s effectiveness. What he learned, however, was that psychoanalysis didn’t positively impact his patients at all. This realization is what eventually led him to develop the cornerstone concepts and strategies of CBT.

One of the most important notions in CBT is that an individual’s thoughts, behaviors, and emotions are continuously influencing each other. When a person think negatively, their behaviors and emotions will be negatively affected. When a person behaves unethically, their thoughts and emotions will similarly be affected adversely. This theory has become known as the CBT Triangle and shows how one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors influence one another on a continuous and never-ending basis.

Even though Aaron T. Beck is largely credited with conceptualizing this idea, the Buddha in fact had a clear understanding of how one’s thoughts, behaviors, and emotions affect one another. It is for this reason that three of the pillars found in the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path are solely dedicated to ethical conduct.

Not only did the Buddha understand that right speech, action, and livelihood were necessary to cleanse the mind, he also understood how the thoughts of an individual more often then not dictate their behaviors and emotions. Beck, who also came to realize this truth, determined that therapists should work on changing the automatic thoughts of patients to help them move towards higher levels of personal wellbeing. The Buddha’s understanding of these CBT cornerstones can be illuminated by recalling what he once said:

"Mind perceives all phenomena. Mind matters most. Everything is mind made. If with an impure mind you speak or act, then suffering follows you as the cartwheel follows the foot of the draft animal. If with a pure mind you speak or act, then happiness follows you as a shadow that never departs.”

Theories of Emotion:

Since William James and Wilhelm Wundt helped to modernize the field of psychology, there have been a number of different proposed theories that aim to outline the process of emotional reaction. It was in fact James and physiologist Carl Lange who actually laid out the first theory in the mid 1880s. According to the James-Lange Theory of Emotion, the process of emotional reaction can be broken down into four chronological steps:

  • An activating event (leads to)
  • A bodily sensation (leads to)
  • An interpretation of the sensation (leads to)
  • The emotional reaction

Years after Lange and James developed their theory of emotion, other psychologists and physiologists have developed their own models that closely resemble the James-Lange Theory. The Canon-Bard Theory and the Schachter-Singer Theory, for example, similarly emphasis the powerful role that bodily arousal plays in the process of emotional reaction.

While these psychological theories of emotions only surfaced within the past 150 years, the idea of bodily sensations affecting our emotional responses and personal wellbeing was understood by the Buddha long before. The ancient meditation practice of Vipassana, which many believe to be the meditation technique taught by the Buddha himself, focuses directly on the notion that bodily sensations give rise to emotional reactions, in addition to our cravings and aversions towards particular events, people, and things. While James, Bard, Schachter, and others thought that our reactions are in response to outer stimuli, the Buddha came to believe that strong emotional responses are actually in response to our own bodily sensations. For this reason, Vipassana meditators practice becoming consciously aware of their bodily sensations and focus on developing equanimity towards both positive and negative feelings.

Human Conditioning:

In the world of psychology there are thought to be two distinctive types of conditioning, classical and operant, that were discovered by two of the field’s most prominent psychologists. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, Ivan Pavlov famously discovered how conditioned biological reactions can be produced by reappearing stimuli in the environment, even if it had no previously associated meaning. While Pavlov was studying the digestive systems of his pet dogs, he saw how they began to salivate at the sight of a co-worker whom they had come to associate with being feed. Upon coming to this realization, Pavlov quickly switched his experimental focus and eventually showed how dogs, and humans, naturally develop conditioned biological reactions by training his dogs to link the sound of a bell to feeding time.

Where as Pavlov’s classical conditioning focuses on natural biological reactions, B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning aims to show how humans learn behaviors and develop conditioned habits. Skinner came to theorize that the positive or negative consequences of a behavior will influence an individual to either continue or stop acting a particular way. It is now widely assumed that each one of us learns a considerable amount about behavior by uncovering the rewards and punishments that are produced by our actions.

Although Pavlov and Skinner discovered these two forms of conditioning in the 20th century, the Buddha realized much about the conditioning process over 2,500 years ago. With the goal of showing individuals how to overcome the suffering that is a natural byproduct of life, the Buddha focused much of his energy teaching about our conditioned attachments that keep us locked into the cycle of craving and aversion. He determined that our conditioned cravings for pleasurable experiences and our conditioned aversion towards negative ones, both of which create impermanent bodily sensations, are in fact what limits our wellbeing in the present moment. He is famously quoted as sayings:

“Attachment is the root of suffering.”

The Unconscious Mind:

Just as there are a wide variety of psychological processes that operate unconsciously, there are a variety of different beliefs about which psychological figure first theorized the deeper inner workings of our minds. While some say that Arthur Schopenhauer or Karl Robert Eduard von Hartmann were the first to discuss the abstract concept of the unconscious mind, Sigmund Freud’s name is most closely related to theories of the unconscious. By looking within himself and analyzing his own mind, like the Buddha, Freud came to discover that numerous mental, behavioral, and physical processes function outside of our conscious awareness.

While much of Freud’s work has recently been devalued within psychology circles, including many of his ideas about the inner workings of the mind, his notion that there is an unconscious mind, where memories, cognitions, desires, and perceptions reside, still holds weight amongst psychologists. Today, it is widely assumed that mental patterns found within the unconscious mind greatly contribute to an individual’s sense of wellbeing, their behaviors, and their conscious thoughts and perceptions.

Although Freud is largely credited with discovering the unconscious mind, it is clear to see that the Buddha wholly understood how particular memories, thoughts, perceptions, and desires remain out of our conscious awareness and affect our personal wellbeing. Within the doctrines of Buddhism, there is said to be a storehouse consciousness, or alaya-vijnana, that is home to past memories and perceptions that play a role in determining our everyday thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. Furthermore, the Buddha regularly talked about the importance of using meditation as a tool to gain insight into the unconscious mind.

Using the Buddha’s Teachings to Improve Our Lives:

None of what has been written here was done with the intention of taking anything away from the likes of William James, Aaron T. Beck, or the other decorated psychologists we discussed, rather the aim of the article is to open readers eyes to the incomparable psychological teachings found within Buddhism. Recently, in the western world of psychology, there has been a great amount of attention shown to the practices of mindfulness and meditation, which are both rooted in the Buddha’s teachings, and over the coming years more evidence-based research will continue to show why the Buddha was the most distinguished psychologist to ever walk the earth.

There is no questioning the fact that each of us can increase the levels of joy we live with, and the joy of those around us, by taking the time to explore and utilize the Buddha’s secular teachings and practices. At the very least, by making a determined effort to learn and practice meditation on a regular basis, each of us can experience new and improved levels of personal wellbeing. Taken a step further, each of us can move closer to ultimate salvation by delving into the Buddha’s teachings on topics such as suffering, impermanence, equanimity, and liberation. If happiness and unwavering life satisfaction is what you are after, take it from the Buddha himself:

“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”
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