During therapy, have you ever felt like one issue has been resolved, only to find another… and then another?
We may seek the support of a therapist to better cope with work stress, only to discover that our expectations of our work performance are unrealistic. When prompted to find out why we have such improbable expectations, therapy guides us toward messages received in childhood.
And on it goes, seemingly to no end.
But what if there were a practice that could help get to the bottom of suffering in all its forms? Better yet, what if this practice could point toward an internal and everlasting source of contentment from which we could draw, no matter our life situation or past experiences?
Enter Zen Therapy.
In this article, we’ll explore the emerging applications of Zen Buddhism as psychotherapy, highlighting its core messages and benefits for not only alleviating psychological suffering, but also steering us toward a life of fulfillment and positive transformation.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology, including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.
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What Is Zen Therapy?
According to the American Psychological Association (n.d.), Zen Therapy is
“psychotherapy that is informed by and incorporates the philosophy and practices of Zen Buddhism and that, like existentialism, is concerned with the unique meaning of the client’s life within the universal context, rather than with simple adjustment to or removal of symptoms.”
A symbolic representation of the philosophy behind Zen Therapy can be seen in the popularized image of the Buddha Śākyamuni.
The image of the Buddha sitting in meditation signals tranquility, poise, and even a small smile. These symbols are likely an appealing alternative to stress, anxiety, and depression that drive many to seek therapy and reflect much of what Zen Therapy offers clients.
Zen Therapy practitioners may argue that conditions like depression and anxiety are mere symptoms of unease with deeper roots. Zen Therapy strives to clear away the conditioned psychological illusions that cause suffering and attachment in their entirety, as well as disconnection from our true selves, others, and the Earth (Farias, Brazier, & Lalljee, 2021).
What Zen Therapy is not
Strictly speaking, Zen Therapy is not a treatment protocol with a closely followed sequence of steps or rules. Rather, it is an approach or philosophy underlying treatment, grounding therapeutic change in Buddhist principles (Farias et al., 2021).
In talking about ‘liberation’ and ‘radical transformation,’ it is also important to distinguish the principles of Zen Therapy from the notions of religious conversion or ascension. The goal of Zen Therapy (and Buddhism) is not to renounce or transcend our human life, such as by securing a particular condition in a promised afterlife.
In fact, from a Buddhist perspective, such a view would signal an unease with our human limitations and vulnerability – an experience contrary to the ease we see in the smiling face of the Buddha Śākyamuni (Van der Braak, 2020).
In Zen, ordinary life and mind are embraced, and there is no boundary or horizon over which a more positive way of being can be found. Rather, lasting happiness is thought to become available in the life we are currently living (Van der Braak, 2020).
Additionally, while the principles of Zen Therapy have been drawn from the religious doctrines of Buddhism, the practice itself has been secularized. You can enjoy the therapeutic benefits of Zen without adopting the Buddhist belief system.
3 Key Concepts of Zen Buddhism
Three key concepts underlie the practice and philosophy of Zen Buddhism.
They were discovered by the Buddha after many years of meditation and spiritual practice and naturally feed into its applications for therapy.
These concepts are (United Religions Initiative, n.d.):
- The three universal truths
- The four noble truths
- The noble eightfold path
The three universal truths
The three universal truths are (United Religions Initiative, n.d.):
- Everything is impermanent and ever changing.
- Because nothing is permanent, a life based on possessing things or people cannot make you happy.
- There is no eternal, unchanging soul or “self.” Rather, each of us is just a collection of characteristics or attributes.
The three universal truths reflect a helpful starting point in any Zen Therapy endeavor as they succinctly dispel many of the myths we hold about what is required to ease psychological suffering.
For instance, they highlight that gaining material possession, losing weight, or finding a romantic partner will not lead to lasting happiness, as each of these things is impermanent.
Possessions will wear down, weight is always in flux, and the people we love will eventually pass away. Given that even our sense of self is dynamic, it suggests we must ground our happiness in something more lasting and stable (Mikulas, 1978).
The four noble truths
Following from the three universal truths, the four noble truths can begin to guide a person toward the end of suffering.
These truths are (United Religions Initiative, n.d.):
- Human life involves a lot of suffering.
- The cause of this suffering is attachment.
- It is possible to end suffering.
- To end suffering, you must follow the eightfold path to liberation.
According to the Buddha, the essential conditions of life appear to be fraught with suffering, such as in the form of disease and grief, but also seemingly positive things, such as hope and infatuation.
These conditions all point to attachment as a central cause of suffering. Attachment in Buddhist tradition can be thought of as craving or clinging, as well as its reverse in the form of aversion (e.g., avoidance or hatred; Aich, 2013).
For instance, our suffering in grief reflects our struggle to adjust to a severed attachment with a loved one. Likewise, we suffer when we are emotionally attached to a future outcome that may not arrive, such as when we hope for something too strongly.
The Buddha discovered that when we cease attachment, we also cease to suffer. This does not mean we cloister ourselves off from others and natural human experiences. Rather, we learn to draw contentment from an ever-available internal source rather than our external life situation.
Read more on the in-depth treatment of the four noble truths in relation to psychotherapeutic practice in this paper (Mikulas, 1978).
The eightfold path to liberation
Also known as the middle way, the eightfold path to liberation was put forward by the Buddha as outlining the characteristics of a person who has found a balance between denial and indulgence of physical and psychological human desires.
Falling under three overarching categories of ethical training, the eight paths to liberation are as follows (Lopez, 1998):
|Wisdom||Correct view||An accurate understanding of the nature of things.|
|Correct intention||Avoiding thoughts of attachment, hatred, and harmful intent.|
|Ethics||Correct speech||Refraining from verbal misdeeds, such as lying, cruelty, or senselessness.|
|Correct action||Refraining from physical misdeeds, such as murder, theft, and assault.|
|Correct livelihood||Avoiding trades that directly or indirectly harm others, such as weapons.|
|Concentration||Correct effort||Abandoning past negative mental states, preventing future negative mental states, and sustaining present positive mental states.|
|Correct mindfulness||Awareness of all that the existing world comprises (i.e., body, feelings, thought, and phenomena).|
|Correct concentration||Single-mindedness (i.e., holding attention steady on a chosen object of focus).|
In Buddhism, the eightfold path is considered less a series of prescriptive instructions on how to live, and more the qualities that naturally arise in the mind of someone who has achieved the cessation of suffering.
Therefore, increased clarity, ethical behavior, and concentration on the positive aspects of life may be markers of progress for somebody undergoing Zen Therapy.
Psychology Behind Zen Therapy
Among the world’s religions, Buddhism is arguably the one most concerned with the psychology of the human mind, and many of its beliefs have been secularized to support Western therapeutic practices.
To understand the psychological benefits of Zen Therapy, it can be helpful to view its core tenets and effects side by side with the widely practiced therapeutic modes of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Psychodynamic Therapy (Beck, 2020; Ekman, Davidson, Ricard, & Wallace, 2005; Farias et al., 2021; Summers & Barber, 2010):
|CBT||Psychodynamic Therapy||Zen Therapy|
|The present with a focus on specific goals||The past as a window into present experiences||The present (and eternal)|
|Short-term||Long-term||Long-term and an ongoing way of life|
|Highly structured||Somewhat structured||Loosely structured|
|Level of Mind|
|Conscious mind||Unconscious mind||Radical transformation of consciousness|
|Examples of common foci for treatment|
|Anxiety, depression, stress, coping, self-esteem/image, interpersonal conflict||Trauma, anxiety, self-awareness, depression, pain management, cycles of unhealthy relationships||Borderline personality disorder, general suffering, life dissatisfaction or directionlessness|
|Helps clients recognize and challenge negative automatic beliefs||Helps clients recognize and resolve the source of negative automatic beliefs rooted in early experiences||Reduces cognition to just one form of mental activity/mode of knowing and puts clients in touch with a heart-based mode of knowing|
|Emotions and their source|
|Teaches emotion identification and regulation in response to external stimuli||Helps clients recognize and resolve the source of negative emotions rooted in early experiences and triggered by present external stimuli||Helps clients discover a form of positive affect arising from a balanced mind and accessible in spite of challenging external stimuli|
|Negative behavior positioned as an outcome of negative thoughts and emotions or leveraged as a means to induce positive mood (e.g.,
|Helps clients recognize and resolve the psychological forces rooted in early experiences that unconsciously drive present behavior||Teaches clients to act attentively, with positive intention, and motivated by skillfulness rather than attachment|
|Cognitive restructuring, journaling or thought diaries, role-play||Inner child work, free association, dream analysis, working through painful memories||Meditation, radical acceptance, mindfulness, internal family systems|
4 Ways Zen Therapy Can Help Clients
While systematic research on the effectiveness of Zen Therapy is still emerging, evidence from the broader literature on psychology and meditation highlight ways that the principles underlying Buddhism and Zen can support clients.
- Zen meditation has been shown to have a broad range of positive effects on the brain and body by reducing blood pressure and preventing cognitive decline associated with age and attention deficit disorders (Chiesa, 2009).
- The radical acceptance component of Buddhism, rooted in the relinquishing of attachment, has been shown to reduce negative emotions experienced by survivors of childhood sexual abuse (Görg et al., 2017).
- Mindfulness-based stress reduction, which applies the Buddhist conceptualization of mindfulness to Western medicine, has been shown to increase vitality and sleep quality and reduce pain and depression/anxiety symptoms in samples of cancer survivors even more effectively than psychoeducational support (Johns et al., 2016).
- The treatment approach of internal family systems, which involves recognizing ourselves as being composed of various parts in complex, dynamic relationships rather than as a unified self, speaks to the Buddhist doctrine of anattā (“non-self”) and has been shown to support both depression and pain management (Haddock, Weiler, Trump, & Henry, 2017; Shadick et al., 2013).
How to Perform Zen Psychotherapy
As noted, Zen Therapy is not a traditional therapeutic protocol with its own sequence of steps or guidelines. Rather, it is an overarching approach or philosophy that can underlie any therapeutic approach.
In your shift toward employing a more ‘Zen’ approach to the care you provide, consider the following suggestions from psychotherapist and Zen expert Julie Webb (2016):
- Still yourself before each session.
It can be common to experience a small surge of anxiety before commencing a session upon realizing you cannot know exactly what will unfold. Take a moment before greeting your next client to sit quietly and center yourself. This can help you prepare to be articulative, attentive, and sensitive to your client’s emotional needs.
- Avoid categorizing your clients.
Even though your clients will come to you with varying concerns and conditions, remember that these are all different manifestations of the common distresses of being human. By holding this stance, you can avoid unnecessarily dissecting people into parts and recognize people’s wholeness and common humanity.
- Recognize yourself in the process.
A core tenet of Buddhism is that we can learn to feel and recognize reflections of ourselves in others. Therefore, think of the therapeutic process as a reflexive and dynamic process, providing an opportunity for your client to see themselves reflected through your warmth, attentiveness, and support.
See 4 Fascinating Zen Therapy Books below for resources offering a more in-depth explanation of Zen Therapy practices.
Zen and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
An interesting exception where the principles of Zen are explicitly woven into a therapeutic modality is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). This style of CBT centers around the synthesis or integration of opposites as a means to help clients live more mindfully, regulate their emotions, and better cope with stress (Salsman & Linehan, 2006).
This style of practice emerged upon growing recognition that standard psychology protocols tended to invalidate the extreme levels of distress felt by people with borderline personality disorder. Therefore, DBT explicitly draws on the principles of Zen and other Eastern traditions to help clients find the ‘middle way’ in relation to their own emotions, while also teaching radical acceptance.
4 Fascinating Zen Therapy Books
Here are some of our favorite therapy books exploring the practice of Zen Therapy and its principles.
1. Zen Therapy: A Buddhist approach to psychotherapy – David Brazier
Applications of Zen as a form of therapy reflect the merging of Eastern and Western perspectives on the path to alleviating suffering.
This readable, practical book presents the tenets of prominent Western psychologies side by side with Zen, highlighting the effectiveness of Buddhist theory and tradition for overcoming many of the limitations of Western psychology via a new Zen Therapy paradigm.
Find the book on Amazon.
2. The Original Buddhist Psychology: What the Abhidharma Tells Us About How We Think, Feel, and Experience Life – Beth Jacobs
The Abhidharma are classic texts reflecting ancient Buddhist scholars’ attempts to map and categorize the various facets of the human psychological experience.
In her book, Jacobs explores some of the most insightful takeaways from these notoriously complex writings, illuminating key aspects of Buddhist thought on the human psyche and making these profound insights accessible to a modern audience.
Find the book on Amazon.
3. Genuine Happiness: Meditation as the Path to Fulfillment – Alan Wallace
Meditation remains one of Buddhism’s primary pathways to realizing enlightenment and alleviating suffering.
With a foreword from the Dalai Lama himself, this book is a powerful self-help resource that guides readers along a practical path to discovering lasting contentment through five simple yet powerful meditations.
Find the book on Amazon.
4. Zen and Psychotherapy: Partners in Liberation – Joseph Bobrow
Clear insight, focused attention, and fundamental shifts in consciousness are core features of both Buddhism and psychotherapy.
This book highlights the fascinating and complementary overlaps between the practices of psychotherapy and Zen, serving as a useful aid for individuals or practitioners working with themes like trauma, attachment, and emotions.
Find the book on Amazon.
Resources From PositivePsychology.com
Looking for more resources to support your Zen Therapy? Check out the following free mindfulness meditations and exercises:
- Anchor Breathing
This simple seven-step meditation protocol can help clients anchor themselves to the present moment via the breath.
- 3-Step Mindfulness Worksheet
This versatile exercise outlines three steps clients can follow to bring awareness to the present moment throughout daily activities.
- Connect the DOTS
This exercise helps clients examine the long-term impacts of strategies they employ to deal with painful feelings or thoughts.
- Thoughts and Feelings: Struggle or Acceptance?
This 15-item questionnaire will help you quickly assess the extent to which a client adopts an attitude of acceptance when facing unavoidable discomfort and challenges.
- Linking Feelings and Situations
This exercise helps clients draw links between situations and emotions and can help facilitate discussion of cognition’s effects on these links.
- 17 Positive Psychology Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, check out this signature collection of 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.
A Take-Home Message
Buddhism offers many insights about the human condition relative to everyday living. This growing recognition of positive psychotherapy and spirituality’s complementarity represents a promising direction for practitioners and their clients.
Importantly, each of us can take the time to verify the Buddha’s truths for ourselves with simple meditation tools and exercises, irrespective of our belief system.
If you’re a therapist looking to bring some Zen to your practice, we hope you’ve found this article and its resources helpful. Likewise, if you’re someone looking for the keys to greater happiness or Zen but have been unsure where to begin, we hope this article has offered some entry points to this fascinating field.
Finally, if you’ve been unsure about whether to begin a regular meditation practice and are still on the fence, perhaps consider this quote attributed the Buddha himself:
“Drop by drop is the water pot filled. Likewise, the wise man, gathering it little by little, fills himself with good.”
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.
- Aich, T. K. (2013). Buddha philosophy and western psychology. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 55(suppl. 2), S165–S170.
- American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Zen therapy. In APA dictionary of psychology. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/zen-therapy
- Beck, J. S. (2020). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond (3rd ed.). Guilford Press.
- Bobrow, J. (2010). Zen and psychotherapy: Partners in liberation. W. W. Norton & Company.
- Brazier, D. (2012). Zen therapy: A Buddhist approach to psychotherapy. Robinson.
- Chiesa, A. (2009). Zen meditation: An integration of current evidence. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15(5), 585–592.
- Ekman, P., Davidson, R. J., Ricard, M., & Wallace, B. A. (2005). Buddhist and psychological perspectives on emotions and well-being. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(2), 59–63.
- Farias, M., Brazier, D., & Lalljee, M. (2021). The Oxford handbook of meditation. Oxford University Press.
- Görg, N., Priebe, K., Böhnke, J. R., Steil, R., Dyer, A. S., & Kleindienst, N. (2017). Trauma-related emotions and radical acceptance in dialectical behavior therapy for posttraumatic stress disorder after childhood sexual abuse. Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation, 4(1), 1–12.
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- Jacobs, B. (2017). The original Buddhist psychology: What the Abhidharma tells us about how we think, feel, and experience life. North Atlantic Books.
- Johns, S. A., Brown, L. F., Beck-Coon, K., Talib, T. L., Monahan, P. O., Giesler, R. B., … Kroenke, K. (2016). Randomized controlled pilot trial of mindfulness-based stress reduction compared to psychoeducational support for persistently fatigued breast and colorectal cancer survivors. Supportive Care in Cancer, 24(10), 4085–4096.
- Lopez, D. S. (1998). Eightfold path. In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Eightfold-Path
- Mikulas, W. L. (1978). Four noble truths of Buddhism related to behavior therapy. The Psychological Record, 28(1), 59–67.
- Salsman, N., & Linehan, M. M. (2006). Dialectical-behavioral therapy for borderline personality disorder. Primary Psychiatry, 13(5), 51–58.
- Shadick, N. A., Sowell, N. F., Frits, M. L., Hoffman, S. M., Hartz, S. A., Booth, F. D., … Schwartz, R. C. (2013). A randomized controlled trial of an internal family systems-based psychotherapeutic intervention on outcomes in rheumatoid arthritis: A proof-of-concept study. The Journal of Rheumatology, 40(11), 1831–1841.
- Summers, R. F., & Barber, J. P. (2010). Psychodynamic therapy: A guide to evidence-based practice. Guilford Press.
- United Religions Initiative. (n.d.). Buddhism: Basic beliefs. Retrieved from https://www.uri.org/kids/world-religions/buddhist-beliefs
- Van der Braak, A. (2020). Reimagining Zen in a secular age: Charles Taylor and Zen Buddhism in the West. Brill.
- Wallace, B. A. (2005). Genuine happiness: Meditation as the path to fulfillment. Wiley.
- Webb, J. (2016). The artistry of therapy and Zen practice. Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies, 15(3), 190–199.