Meditative Path & Therapeutic Progress

Posted by – March 29, 2017
Categories: Guest Post Psychology & Personal Growth Spirituality & Religion

We continue celebrating our women authors with this exclusive author post by Beth Jacobs. Traditionally, there have been very few women in Abhidharma study. Beth Jacobs is the first to discuss the Abhidharma—the original psychological system of Buddhism—and its potential impact on the future of therapy. Based on concepts and intentions fundamentally similar to clinical psychology, Buddhist psychology employs specialized approaches and practices that broaden the experience of consciousness and therapy. Her upcoming book, The Original Buddhist Psychology examines the original psychological system of Buddhism recorded in the sacred Abhidharma and outlines how the mind works in the universe of reality, and the reasons and methods behind mindfulness meditation.


Meditative Path & Therapeutic Progress
An Introduction to the Abhidharma’s Psychological Context

The landmark movement of Western clinical psychology in the 20th century was the development of psychotherapy. The landmark movement of clinical psychology in the 21st century will be the absorption of meditation practices from Buddhist psychology. While millions of people explore meditation and related research, very few people are exposed to the original Buddhist philosophy on this topic, especially to its original articulation in the Theravadan Abhidharma.

The Abhidharma is an intricate system of lists and matrixes that were used to understand and remember the Buddha’s teaching. The Abhidharma delineates the first psychological system of Buddhism, how the mind works in the universe of reality and why meditation training strengthens and purifies the experience of life. Its lists outline the psychology of mental constructions, perception, emotion and cosmological causation.

While the Abhidharma is technical, elaborate and complex, its essential purpose relates to the central purpose of clinical psychology: to relieve human suffering. Like Western depth psychology, the methodology rests on understanding underlying processes of consciousness and perception. What clinical psychologists might describe as therapeutic improvement, the Abhidharma delineates as a specific pathway of ascending actions of consciousness.

The core path in Buddhism is the Eight-Fold Path, which is the fourth noble truth and the launching of activity toward liberation. The path is not composed of eight ordinal steps; it’s eight-fold and is described as opening the way, not funneling choices. Another specific path described in the Abhidharma is a trail of development of consciousness activities. This path is not something a human moves on, but something that moments of consciousness develop within.

The steps of this Abhidharma path are composed of “cittas.” Cittas are extensively described in the Abhidharma as the atomic-level unit of a raw action of consciousness touching upon an object in a field, and there are 121 types of cittas categorized. The cittas are embedded in the mental factors, which could be described as the psychological packaging elements of our experiences of consciousness.

Based on these constellations of infinitesimal, linked occurrences of consciousness, citta are categorized by dimensions and degrees of purification. A path is a chain of citta developing through causes and conditions. There are no selves, no pronouns in the Abhidharma. Instead of a person walking on a path, this is about working with conditions to cultivate a stream of consciousness that is pure, immediate, direct and generous.

The same effort, in very different terms, informs the work of most psychotherapies. Depth psychology seeks to release the bound, unconscious elements of mental process into the clarity of realization. Cognitive and behavioral psychologies work on breaking down automatic thought valuations and actions, changing schemas and interpersonal dynamics.

The contextual difference of psychotherapy and the Abhidharma has great implications, despite the overlaps in their directions or goals. Where psychotherapy hits a ceiling is where it stays focused on changing the individual person. A releasing pivot comes from broadening the field of effort: realizing that any change is all change, that turning karma is turning reality, that consciousness can touch on an object with clinging or with raw appreciation. The boundless context of the Abhidharma view turns path or improvement from an attainment into a felt contribution to all causes and conditions.

The Abhidharma frames the original psychological system of Buddhism, explaining how the mind works in the universe of reality and why meditation training strengthens and purifies the experience of life. Now, for the first time, Beth Jacobs brings this amazing body of work to general readers in The Original Buddhist Psychology. Drawing on decades of experience as a psychotherapist and Zen practitioner, she uses imagery, examples, and practical explanations to breathe new life into the Abhidharma.

About the Author

BETH JACOBS, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice and a former faculty member of the Feinberg School of Medicine of Northwestern University. A lay teacher in the Soto Zen tradition, Jacobs incorporates Buddhist studies and meditation into her work as both a psychologist and a writer. She is the author of Writing for Emotional Balance (2005) as well as an award-winning column for the National Association for Poetry Therapy.