Eastern Versus Western Psychology

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B.F. Skinner and Swami Akhilananda

The East (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism) and West (Western academia, science, medicine) offer two different and illuminating approaches to the study of the mind, and are emblematic of philosophical and epistemological study of the brain. They approach the brain differently, looking at things at different levels and have their own benefits and limitations. In the end and as the left and right hemispheres of the brain do, the two approaches should complement each other, and each has influenced the other.

Psychology both Eastern and Western are important ways of understanding things and expanding the mind. The first half of this article looks at the intuitive, mystical Eastern psychology. The second half looks at the empirical, academic Western Psychology. They are different and both competing and complimenting studies of the human brain.  Both have their limits. Even when put together they still give a disjointed, limited view of the brain.

 

EASTERN PSYCHOLOGY

Eastern psychology is tied into the Eastern (Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist) philosophy and theology, is more subjective and inward-looking that the academic West’s scientific approach.  It works to serve not just the mentally disordered but everyone.  It attempts through many methods– meditation, yoga, tai chi, personal self-reflection– to bring the individual to higher emotional consciousless and enlightenment.

Eastern Psychology, Philosophy and Religion as One Not Separates

In the West, psychology is separate from other sciences, religions and often even philosophy. Traditionally it is considered bad, and even unethical and unscientific, to mix them together. Some in the West consider theology and science to be like oil and water. 

 In the East, however, philosophy, psychology, theology and the way of life are all mixed together, and considered parts of one whole. 

“If we look deeply into such ways of life of Buddhism and Taoism, Vedanta and Yoga, we do not find either philosophy or religion as these are understood in the West. We find something more nearly resembling psychotherapy”– Philosopher Alan Watts, Psychotherapy East & West

If you know Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu philosophy and techniques for enlightenment and leading a proper religious life, you essentially know their psychology. Buddhism is about clearing and expanding the mind through meditation, mindfulness and proper living, which is both a philosophical and psychological methodology. Same with the yoga and meditation of Hinduism, and the Tai Chi of Taoism. It is about mystical awareness.

Really, Eastern psychology is a mystical reflection and exploration. Buddhists regularly talk about the shallowness of symbolic language, categorization, labels. 

 

Eastern Psychology Focuses on Everyone, Not Just the Mentally Ill or Troubled 

While traditionally Western clinical psychology and psychiatry were designed for the treatment of the mentally ill or people having troubles, Eastern psychology was designed for everyone, including the normal and healthy. Eastern psychologists say that a problem with such Western psychology is that it applies its conclusions for treating the mentally ill to everyone, which they feel is an incorrect approach.  

Buddhist, Hindu and Taoist philosophies are designed to bring normal people into higher states of enlightenment and knowledge of the universe, being of better conduct and living better lives, and being harmonious with the universe. Eastern psychological techniques– mindfulness, meditation, self reflection, yoga, self reflection– are for everyone, not just the mentally troubled. 

In recent years, Western psychology has caught on to this, as evidence by the integration of Eastern psychological practices of mindfulness, meditation and yoga into clinical psychology and daily life, along with the field of positive psychology. 

“Positive psychology is the study of happiness. Psychology has traditionally focused on dysfunction—people with mental illness or other issues—and how to treat it. Positive psychology, in contrast, is a field that examines how ordinary people can become happier and more fulfilled.”–  Positive psychology, Psychology Today

 

Eastern Psychology Is About Looking Inward At The Self 

Hinduism and Buddhism were well ahead of their time, at least compared to Western psychology and science, in that they focused on the inner self, studying one’s own mind. That was the center of study and spiritual practice, and one’s inner self laboratory of psychological experimentation. Hinduism and Buddhism consider one’s self a reflection or microcosm of the universe. Also, from a practical standpoint, it is all we one can really study and know. 

This reflection and study of the self is intuitive and subjective. This goes against the tenets of the West’s scientific method. However, the East sees the limits of the Western psychology that only studies only that which can be objectively and externally measured. There is much in psychology, in the self and the universe that is personal, unmeasurable and unquantifiable: emotional feeling, aesthetic experience, mystic experience, much of the religious experience. Much of the universe is beyond science and even human logic and symbolic language. Mysticism attempts to become closer with the transcendental universe in personal, a-rational ways. 

While early Western psychology shied away from introspection and personal subjectivity, this Eastern study of the inner works of the mind was centuries ahead of Western psychology’s cognitive psychology that used scientific methods to study the inner workings of the mind. In fact, the West’s behaviorism and structuralism intentionally avoided the ‘untestable’ inner workings of the mind, and were criticized even by Western psychologists for this blind spot. That something cannot be scientifically studied, or that you choose to ignore it, doesn’t make it non-existant or unimportant. It makes the study unwhole.

It is true that this exploration is subjective to the person, and this is a limit and a problem. However, the human experience, all human experience, is subjective and the studying of this subjectivity is important to understanding humans. And while it is limiting and corrupting, it is also a path that the Eastern psychologists take to expand their mind. All explorations and modes of study– all attempts to expand the mind– have limits and problems.

 

Eastern Psychotherapy

Along with studying and reflection on the inner workings of the mind, early Eastern psychology had many clinical psychology and cognitive therapy methods that are used today in the West.

In the video ‘The Roots of Buddhist Psychology,’ Buddhist psychologist and meditation expert Jack Kornfield talks about the Buddhist method that intertwines practices such as mindfulness, meditation and introspection with moral and ethical living of loving kindness, charity and environmentalism. He says one should work to rid oneself of delusions, and realize that all one needs is in the self. One key method is to mindfully watch how one reacts to situations– what triggers anger, sadness– and observe what one really feels. The goals is to be aware and fix things as needed. A key is to be open and not avoid painful thoughts or bad things about the world. Awareness and enlightenment are keys both as a philosophy and cognitive/clinical therapy. Kornfield says one should rid oneself of the ego (a delusion), or at least see it for what it is. And he says true enlightenment is when the mind and the universe are inseparable. As you see, Buddhist psychology and philosophy are one. 

The Taoists believe that one should live in harmony with nature, and its psychology works to fix bad habits and thoughts that prevent this. 

Much Taoist psychology work is beyond words, such as Tai Chi. Taoists believe it is not just words and thoughts that are important, but even the way one moves, even walks across a room. This is mystical.

But, again, as with Buddhism and Hinduism, Taoism isn’t just trying to deal with normal living, but to raise one’s mind and consciousness to a higher, beyond-normal level. This is how it ties into its theology.

 

Eastern Psychology Is Concerned With Society And Earth, Not Just the Individual

While Eastern Psychology works with the individual, including teaching him or her to work on the self while living in a troubled, distracting, materialistic and often corrupt society, it also is concerned with society as a whole and the whole universe. Remember that the Eastern religions see everything as intertwined, not separate. 

While Western psychology often sees mental illness as one who does not fit in with society, the East often sees the society itself as being the ill one. The East often sees that the enlightened will be seen as mentally ill by the West, because the enlightened person’s thoughts and ways do not conform. Eastern psychology is concerned with social greed, corruption, war, ethnic and racial hatred, and often views them as the result of the people’s errant inner thoughts.

Duly note that when we talk about ‘Western psychology’ we talk about traditional white psychology. Many non-geographically Eastern aboriginal religions and beliefs are much in alignment with the East not the white west. The below is a comparison of Buddhism and American Indian beliefs.

 

WESTERN PSYCHOLOGY AND THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD 

Western psychology, a relatively modern area that studies human minds and behavior using the scientific method.  It studies humans using observation and measurable sensory information. 

This method has produced much important information about humans and animals, but the scientific method cannot study or know about some areas, such as theology, what emotions feel like, subjective experience, mystical experience, aesthetics and other integral parts of the human and human experience. 

Western psychologists and others have realized the limitations of this scientific psychology, and have integrated Eastern theology, psychology and practices, in particular into clinical psychology. Studying both Eastern and Western psychology, one comes to the conclusion that both approaches are essential, and should be integrated. It is not an either/or but a both/and.

 

Western Psychology as Science

Unlike the centuries old Eastern psychology, Western Psychology of the academic Europe and North America is a relatively recent area, started in the mid-1800s. Western psychology is the scientific study of human minds and behavior, traditionally approaching from a strictly scientific point of view.

“Psychology is the science that studies why human beings and animals behave as they do. Psychologists are interested in understanding the whole range of human experience, including the reasons for people’s motives, thoughts, feelings and emotions. These problems have puzzled man for centuries. But the scientific study of such problems only began in the mid-1800s . . . Psychologists have learned much about behavior and experience, but they have made only a beginning. There is a great deal they know little about, and a lot to be discovered. Suppose you ask yourself ‘How does my brain function as a mind?’ You would be asking a question that has baffled investigators for hundreds of years. The question is still largely unanswered, but it is being studied by many psychologists’ collaboration with neurophysiologists and other scientists.”– Hadley Cantril, Psychology Professor at Princeton University (Cantril 1978) 

As it is a science, psychology uses the scientific empirical method used in all areas of Western science.

The scientific method is the process where scientists collectively and over time try to create reliably objective representations, theories and/or models of the world and the things in it. It is applied to all areas of science, including chemistry, biology, physics, engineering and medicine. In particular, it creates theories and experimentally tests them through the senses and observations. It attempts to be objective and remove the scientists’ biases, though biases can never be entirely escaped. 

“The scientific method has four steps: 1. Observation and description of a phenomenon or group of phenomena. 2. Formulation of an hypothesis to explain the phenomena. In physics, the hypothesis often takes the form of a causal mechanism or a mathematical relation. 3. Use of the hypothesis to predict the existence of other phenomena, or to predict quantitatively the results of new observations. 4. Performance of experimental tests of the predictions by several independent experimenters and properly performed experiments . . . If the experiments bear out the hypothesis it may come to be regarded as a theory or law of nature (more on the concepts of hypothesis, model, theory and law below). If the experiments do not bear out the hypothesis, it must be rejected or modified. What is key in the description of the scientific method just given is the predictive power (the ability to get more out of the theory than you put in; see Barrow, 1991) of the hypothesis or theory, as tested by experiment. It is often said in science that theories can never be proved, only disproved. There is always the possibility that a new observation or a new experiment will conflict with a long-standing theory.”– University of Rochester Physics and Astronomy Professor Frank L. H. Wolf  (Wolf 2016) 

The science of psychology avoids individual introspection, experimentation through subjective personal feelings, intuition. It considers many areas such as palm reading, crystals and mystic intuition to be pseudoscience. It is wary of the way lay people use personal or anecdotal experiences as proof of broader laws. They know that such personal experience is subjective and formed by personal and often irrational biases.

There are many areas, schools and specialties in Western psychology. The following shows a few major ones, demonstrating how the scientific method is used and how each area has its limitations.

Structuralism

In 1879 Wilhelm Wundt introduced the first formal experimental psychology, and his area of study was called structuralism. He worked to study the conscious mind– totally ignoring the unconscious mind–, and intentionally studied it using the scientific methods he saw being used in chemistry and physics.

An obvious limitation of structuralism is that it was limited in its study conscious mind.

 

Behaviorism

Another major psychology school/movement that shows both the objective scientific method and its limits was behavior psychology or behaviorism.  The earlier pictured B.F. Skinner was the leader in this area.

Behavioralism studied the outward behavior of humans and animals. It dismissed the inward personal experiences and non-symbolic thoughts of the subjects, as they could not be objectively measured. Behavioralism studied how humans and non-human animals outwardly reacted (behavior) to events, stimuli and actions, and could even be used to alter human behavior. Pavlov’s dog that drooled at the ringing of a bell in anticipation of food is perhaps the most famous example.

 

Looking Inside Scientifically: Cognitive Psychology

Psychologists and philosophers saw the obvious blindspot of structuralism and behaviorism: They ignored the inner experience of the mind. The inner experience is hard to study externally, but that does not make it any less real or any less important a subject.  

The next major movement was cognitive psychology and cognitive science that worked to study the inner works of the mind: how the mind works, processes information, comes to judgments, the emotions, attention, etc.

This area also uses the scientific method, and often incorporates biologists, biochemists, neuroscientists and psychiatrists. Along with old school testing methods, cognitive science uses MRI, brain scans to study how the brain reacts under different circumstances from sleep to art perception to fear. It may be a study of the inside of the brain, but it is no less scientific than behaviorism.

Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and theories have been refuted over the years, and often called pseudoscience in part because they are testable by the scientific method, but he is credited with studying the subconscious mind, and showing how it affects the conscious mind.

Structuralism, behaviorism and cognitive psychology are just three of many areas of psychological study, but show the progression of the areas of study and the use of the scientific method.

 

Moving Beyond The Limits of Science in Western Psychology 

In recent times, people in the West have seen these limits in Western psychology, in particular in the clinical and therapeutic ways where they are dealing with real individuals with personal problems. The West has incorporated many Eastern psychology theories in practices. Meditation, self-introspection, yoga, mindfulness and acupuncture are commonplace these days in the West, including in mainstream psychology.  

Humanistic psychology is a clinical psychology that values the private, subjective experience and even says it is more important to the individual. New age religions incorporate both Western science and Eastern practices.

 

SUMMARY OF EASTERN VERSUS WESTERN PSYCHOLOGY, AND THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE SPIRITUAL AND SCIENTIFIC VIEWS 

“To put it at its simplest: science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. And we need them both, the way we need the two hemispheres of the brain.”– Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Eastern and Western psychology study and focus on different aspects of the mind. Each has its own scope and methodology.

Eastern psychology is intuitive and mystical in its approach, and studies the self, its emotions, feelings, mystical experience of things. It is of the belief that studying the self is studying the universe— a theory consistent with mystical experiences where things appear to be one, where there is no ‘self versus other.’ It studies things and addresses questions that cannot be addressed by science. However, its limits are that it is subjective and much of its findings cannot be verified empirically.

Western psychology uses the scientific method to study the human brain and mind. It is an exacting tool, which is its strength. However, its limits are that there are things that are beyond empirical study. Science can only study that which can be objectively measured and ‘seen.’ Further, science is a work in progress, with theories proven wrong, adapted and fixed. This is both its strength and its weakness.

Each method is limited, and both complementary and conflicting. Such is the nature of human existence. 

While the brain and body simultaneously use both hemispheres of the brain, some say that religion, or spirituality, is a proverbial right brain activity, while science is a proverbially left brain activity. 

“Religion is an associative, holistic, right-brain activity, while science and philosophy are linear, analytical, left-brain disciplines. In one fell swoop, the entire enterprise of reconciling science and religion (and, ergo, apprehending religion through philosophy) is torn asunder: ‘Greek science and philosophy and the Judaic experience of God are two different languages, that—like the left- and right-brain modes of thinking— only imperfectly translate into one another”. This distinction allows religion to be recognized for what it truly is—a meaning-making enterprise that was never meant to offer scientific facts about the natural world or to be analyzed through the prism of logic.– Rabbi Daniel Goodman (Reference: Harvard Divinity Bulletin)

 

Video: Prominent University of California San Diego neurologist V. S. Ramachandran explains the case of split-brain patients with one hemisphere (the right) without a belief in a god, and the other (left) with a belief in a god. 

Split brain with one half atheist and one half theist

 

Video: An interesting dialogue between Ram Dass and Timothy Leary, both former Harvard psychologists. You will notice that Dass has a particularly Eastern frame of mind, while Leary is decidedly Western. Leary is concerned with labels and term definitions, while Dass sees them as unimportant: 

Timothy Leary and Ram Dass Debate

 

FOCUS: CHARLES TOWNE ON RELIGION AND SCIENCE

University of California-Berkeley physics professor and co-inventor of the laser and maser Charles H. Townes won the Nobel Prize for physics. He was also devoutly religious, a member of the United Church of Christ. He felt that science and religion were trying to answer different questions about the universe, and predicted that in the future the two would merge to give greater understanding of the nature of the universe.

Video: Charles Townes on Science and Religion Charles Townes on Science and Religion 

Link: Townes on how scientific discovery and religion have similar qualities 

Now watch the following video where another Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman, discusses the intent of science versus the intention of religious speculation. Feynman was an atheist but confirms that science and religion or spirituality are looking at different aspects.

Video: Richard Feynman: “The Uncertainty Of Knowledge” 

 

 NATURAL THEOLOGY

Natural theology studies and theorizes about the universe, god and the nature and details thereof, using human reason and observation. It excludes the use of mysticism, and divine revelation such as Biblical or Quranic scripture. 

“Natural theology is the science of God, so far as God can be known by the light of our reason alone.”– Bernard Boedder, Catholic Priest and author of Natural Theology (Jacques Maritain Center at Notre Dame University)

This type of study can be traced to the logical philosophy of Aristotle and Plato, but is particularly associated with the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas thought that theological matters could be studied logically and through earthly observation, with the occasional aid of revelation. 

The logical and scientific study of that which is beyond logic and science seems problematic, though Aquinas said human reason is a gift from God and what separates humans from the rest of the animals. And many theologians will say that theology involves a combination of reason, faith and mysticism.

Further reading: ‘Natural Theology’ entry at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

 

Questions

  • What do you think of the different approaches of Eastern and Western psychology?
  • Do you think one is better than the other? Do you think they can be used together?
  • Do you believe that science and religion are complementary or competing?

 

References

Cantril H (1978), “Psychology”, World Book Encyclopedia

Psychology Today (2018), ‘Positive Psychology;, psychologytoday.com/us/basics/positive-psychology

Wolf, L (2016) ‘Scientific Method,’  shttp://teacher.nsrl.rochester.edu/phy_labs/AppendixE/AppendixE.html)