People read a book for a variety of reasons. It may be simple curiosity or a random gift from a friend. However, I suspect you are reading this book because you are on a journey. Your journey is trying to move toward a life that has more consistent happiness and well-being. This is the journey for most of us.
You may be someone who feels stressed at home or at work. You may suffer from a mental health problem like anxiety, depression, anger, or posttraumatic stress. Your situation may include coming to terms with difficult experiences you have had along your journey. You may think about trying therapy but are not yet sure. Or, you may have already tried therapy but felt like something was missing or it didn’t help. You may have read spiritual books, but they left you with a feeling unsure of how to apply to ideas you read about. If any of these things apply, this book is for you.
We typically seek psychotherapy or spirituality for the same reason: we want something to change. Not a single client has ever come to my therapy practice and said, “Glad to be here, doc. Nope, don’t want to change anything, I’m good.” We want something to change but are sometimes uncertain about what should change and how to go about it.
Usually, the thing we want to change at some level is our suffering. Suffering can take many forms, including physical pain, emotional distress, and existential angst. While some suffering results from things such as illness, injury, or death, some of it is the product of human action, such as violence, oppression, or exploitation. We would prefer to suffer less and experience contentment and well-being more often. With this book comes a promise. Practice the tools and concepts in this book and you will experience a more consistent feeling of well-being. You will learn how to be more in control of your well-being rather than have it controlled by circumstance.
How This Book Can Help You
One of the biggest problems people face today is the growing prevalence of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and stress. Despite advances in medicine and technology, rates of mental health issues continue to rise, and many people struggle to find effective and accessible solutions. This is where The Mindful Path: Combining Psychotherapy and Buddhist Practices comes in, offering an evidence-based approach to improving mental health and well-being—and to easing the suffering that has become so prevalent in our lives.
Psychology is a scientific study of human behavior and functioning and relies on observation and the scientific method to arrive at understanding and insight. Buddhist philosophy is likewise empirical, relying on the scientific method. Buddhism relies on understanding and insight through introspection and careful observation of direct experience. Both address why people suffer and how to ease that suffering.
Even if someone does not consider themselves “spiritual,” the approach outlined in this book can still help improve mental health and well-being. While this book incorporates Buddhist practices that are thousands of years old, such as mindfulness meditation and the Eightfold path, it also draws heavily from evidence-based modern psychotherapy approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy. The techniques and methods presented in the book are grounded in research and proven to effectively reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. I offer them in a secular and accessible manner, making them suitable for people of all backgrounds and beliefs.
The practices presented focus on developing self-awareness and emotion-regulation skills. These skills benefit everyone, regardless of their beliefs or spiritual orientation. Creating greater self-awareness and emotion-regulation skills can help individuals better understand their patterns of thinking and feeling, and develop more effective coping strategies.
Here are some things to keep in mind while exploring the various concepts and tools in the book:
· Take your time: We will cover a lot of material, and it is essential to take your time as you read through each chapter. Take breaks and don’t rush through the material. Allow yourself time to reflect on the material and practice the exercises before moving on to the next chapter.
· Practice regularly: The approaches presented in the book, such as mindfulness, meditation or journaling, are most effective when practiced regularly. Commit to practicing the activities offered in the book regularly. Even a few minutes of daily practice can improve your mental health and well-being.
· Engage with the material: The book includes exercises and reflection questions designed to help you engage with the material more deeply. Take the time to complete these exercises and reflect on your experiences. Consider keeping a journal to document your progress and insights.
· Be open-minded: The approach presented in the book combines Buddhist practices with evidence-based psychotherapy techniques. If you are new to either of these frameworks, approach the material with an open mind. Try to suspend any judgments or preconceived notions and approach the material with curiosity and a willingness to learn.
· Seek support if needed: While the practices presented in the book can help reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress, they are not a substitute for professional help. If you are struggling with mental health issues, consider seeking support from a mental health professional besides reading this book.
My Journey on the Mindful Path
When I was a young boy in middle school, I became intrigued by a television show about a young monk. The monk was the son of an American father and a Chinese mother who was orphaned at a young age and then raised in a Shaolin Monastery. He grew up in a monastery and eventually had to flee to America to escape the bounty put on his life by the Chinese emperor.
Each episode would have the general format of the monk wandering around western America in the late 1800s. He would usually have some situation that would escalate into a kung fu fight with one or more bad guys. They punctuated the storyline with flashbacks of him growing up in the monastery. It amazed me at how the kind, humble, soft-spoken monk quickly subdued the bad guys. My friends and I would all be excited: “Did you see that episode last night? What’d you think when he did that spinning back kick and flipped the guy? Man, so cool.”
I was less vocal but equally interested in the lessons the young monk received from the elderly teachers in the flashback scenes in the monastery. It was nice to have the validation of my best friend, who also was intrigued by the flashback lessons from the elder monks. (It is a good thing to have an old soul as a best friend growing up. It helps when someone understands things that are hard to put into words.) These lessons were rich in philosophies of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhist concepts. The influence of Buddhism on the show was particularly strong. I believe that the little pieces of wisdom I could understand at that young age were pivotal in my thinking and helped me to cope effectively in middle school and onward.
The monk in the show usually seemed calm and peaceful no matter what was going on, whether walking by himself in the woods, helping someone in need, or protecting an innocent or himself from bad guys. The monk often quoted Buddhist ideas and used Buddhist practices such as meditation and mindfulness to guide his actions. Over many episodes, I realized that being calm, centered, and content was not a function of a particular circumstance but rather what the mind was doing. The character was a skilled martial artist but humble and compassionate, despite whatever suffering he experienced in his young life.
Why do people suffer? This question was often in my thoughts. I was always curious why some people seemed happy and well, and others were often angry, anxious, or sad. The question of why people suffer is a complex and multifaceted one. There likely is not a single answer that applies to all cases. This did not stop me from trying.
Because of my persistent interest in why people suffer, I became curious about Buddhist philosophy and is likely why I pursued a career as a clinical psychologist. In my years of practicing, I have visited with many people with varied problems. Understanding that everyone’s journey is unique, I take an eclectic approach to therapy. However, I find concepts from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) useful for a wide variety of issues and will emphasize this framework as we explore different issues. Sometimes I listen to an individual and have a sense of their problems fitting directly into some concept from CBT; I enjoy sharing one tool or another that they could apply to address their problem. Other times, their issue brings to mind a Buddhist concept; I enjoy exploring a Buddhist idea with them, even if it was not explicitly labeled. I gradually realized over the years that these distinct supportive interventions togetherprovide a very practical framework for personal growth. Sometimes our modern psychology approach can use a boost from wisdom that has stood the test of time. Sometimes ancient wisdom can be supported with tools developed from modern scientific methods.
Keep in mind that I do not intend this book to be an in-depth treatise on Buddhism. I am not an expert on Buddhism. There are many other good academic resources for those who want to learn about this philosophy in more depth (Keown, 2004; Hanh, 1998; Gethin, 1998; Rahula, 1978; see the Bibliography). For those who have never been exposed to Buddhist ideas, I hope to give an understandable introduction to the basics of this philosophy and how it can be a helpful framework for practical self-development.
For those who have never been exposed to CBT concepts, this book is also not meant to be a CBT literature review or a compilation of techniques. It focuses on the various CBT concepts and general psychotherapy tools that people struggling with difficulties find helpful. Consider it an introduction to CBT. Many of these tools and ideas overlap significantly with the Buddhist framework of the Eightfold path.
The Path Forward…
What I offer you in this book is a compilation of concepts and techniques gathered and honed over 35 years of practice and visiting with hundreds of people about various issues. Many have expressed thanks for what they have learned from our sessions. What they don’t always consider is how the learning is a two-way street. I have learned a great deal from them as well. They have taught me what speaks to them, what is effective, and what has been most helpful on their journey.
I hope that the insights and techniques presented in this book will be helpful to you on your journey toward more significant mental health and well-being. I understand that everyone's journey is unique, and it is an honor to offer support and guidance as you navigate the challenges of modern life. My wish is for the practices and perspectives shared in this book to act as a valuable resource for you now and in the future. May your suffering diminish across these pages.
Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. Do not believe anything because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything because it is written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
- The Buddha