Buddhism’s intricate relationship to modern psychology

Buddhism is called the “middle way” because it winds between two other paths. On one hand is the material path, which we follow in the belief that collecting enough possessions, wealth and influential friends will keep us safe from suffering. When that fails we turn to the spiritual path, the belief that by behaving in certain ways we can enter some non-physical reality – heaven or nirvana – where we will also be safe from suffering.

Against The Stream by Noah Levine

The middle way is not separate from either the material or spiritual path. We all live in a material world and have to deal with its sometimes harsh realities, the middle way can help make that experience less stressful and more joyful. We all have a spiritual life that seems to reach beyond purely material concerns, the middle way helps people explore spiritual ideas without taking them too literally. But what the middle way actually IS can be very hard to grasp at times.

Josh Korda is a member of the Dharma Punx community founded by Noah Levine, who publish a regular podcast that is one of the best sources of contemporary Buddhist teaching I have found. Josh now leads the New York Dharma Punx group,and his podcasts from their meetings reveal a fascinating insight into the middle way of Buddhism.

Modern psychology and the dharma: the true and false self.

Modern psychology and the dharma: irrational thoughts and beliefs.

Modern psychology and the dharma: alternatives to repression denial and avoidance.

It’s often argued the modern discipline most closely related to the 2500 year old tradition of Buddhism is psychology. In the three talks above Josh Korda delves into this idea in detail, comparing the work of 20th century psychologists to the Buddhist teachings from the Pali cannon, the oldest Buddhist texts believed by many to best represent the original essence of Buddhism.

Even if you accept the idea that Buddhism is an early form of psychology, it may not be immediately clear what that means. The middle way does not try to change the outer world like the material path. Neither does it try to escape the outer world like the spiritual path. Instead it asks those who follow it to turn their attention inward, to look at our inner world, and to examine the thing that makes that inner world: the mind.

But examining our our mind can be a far from comforting activity. In the second talk in the series, Josh Korda looks at the well known ABC model taken from cognitive psychology of the Activating event, our Belief in what that event means, and the Consequences of that belief. For instance, if we believe that an event like losing our job will lead to starvation the consequence is we will panic. But if we believe we will simply find a better job, the consequence is we will calmly look for new employment. More often than not, it’s our own beliefs that create suffering in life. But how many of us, when we encounter a problem in life, have the presence of mind to admit that we are very likely the problem’s cause? And how many of us will choose to look more deeply at our mind when that action constantly challenges us to take responsibility for ur own problems?

The insights shared between Buddhism and psychology are deeply fascinating. While you may well choose to believe in neither, and ignore the middle way in favour of a path of your own choosing, I suspect Josh Korda’s talks will be useful to you whether you beieve in them or not.

Read more about the five spiritual practices that lead to true power with Thich Nhat Hanh, or follow the advice of Alan Watts to find security in insecurity.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

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