When Eastern Practices Meet Western Psychology
Some of the most impactful ways we currently treat mental health aren’t innovative: they have been around for thousands of years.
June 29, 2023
Western culture often views psychological symptoms as problems to be solved. Eastern practices tend to focus on taking a deeper look into a person’s life circumstances.
“Most people are too caught up trying to survive from day to day,” explains social worker Charlie Patterson. “We are always trying to secure ourselves—emotionally, financially, or whatever. In our quest to make everything secure, all we find is difficulty.”
Patterson discovered mindfulness and meditation in the 1980s when he was finally able to end his struggle with alcohol. Patterson wanted to explore what caused his alcoholism and figure out what helped him stop drinking.
He returned to college, where he studied philosophy, anthropology, and psychology, and was particularly influenced by a course on transcendental consciousness. Later, he studied with Tibetan Buddhist teachers. Patterson has worked with a teacher for the last 27 years, which has allowed for a deeper development of his meditation practice.
“What I have learned is that there is a way for human beings to accomplish a complete understanding of their nature,” he said. “When people can do this, they can resolve their fundamental issues and feel completely free.”
Today, Patterson applies the Eastern concepts he learned to his work with patients and in his own life. He stresses that the meditation practice combined with direction, observation, and experience may lead to a new way to see the world and be in it.
What can we learn from meditation, yoga, and other practices that many people in Western cultures may see as “nontraditional?” More importantly, is there a way to blend what’s commonly referred to as Eastern medicinal practices into what we practice in Western psychology?
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A Growing Trend: Yoga and Meditation as Mental Health Treatment
Patterson’s observations about meditation impacting both his mental health and the health of his patients are not uncommon. Communities in the East have engaged in mindfulness and yoga for thousands of years.
These practices started taking off in popular Western culture only in the previous century and have been gaining popularity in recent decades.
A 2017 interview survey by the National Institutes of Health shows that more Americans report using Eastern-influenced health approaches than in previous years. Yoga and meditation are the most popular of these practices. Over 14% of U.S. adults say they regularly practice yoga or meditation.
In the West, various therapies and medications remain the primary interventions for mental health care. People may seek alternatives because they tried these conventional treatments without success, or they may resist taking medication because they fear side effects or long-term effects of drugs.
Some studies support the potential effectiveness of Eastern practices as options to supplement a treatment plan.
For example, a 2021 study in JAMA Psychiatry found that kundalini yoga was more effective for generalized anxiety disorder than stress management, another standard treatment for the condition. A 2015 study in the Lancet reported that mindfulness-based cognitive behavior therapy was just as effective as antidepressant medication in preventing relapse and for improving quality of life in patients with a history of depression.