Cognitive behavioral therapy

Last week 100-year-old Aaron Beck passed away after an incredibly productive life. Beck was an Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. The American Psychologist has called him “one of the five most influential psychotherapists of all time.” Beck is the founder of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). CBT approaches are now widely used to help people recognize and reframe spontaneous, negative thoughts and cognitive distortions. These approaches have been clinically proven to be more effective than antidepressant medications and other therapies for treating depression.

University of Pennsylvania psychology researcher, author, and professor, Martin Seligman, built on Beck’s work to lay the foundation for Positive Psychology. His autobiographical book, The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist’s Journey from Hopelessness to Optimism, outlines how he learned to build optimism, leverage strengths, and apply positive psychology.

In 2005, Beck met the Dalai Lama to compare the core principles of cognitive therapy with Buddhism. Beck also gave the Dalai Lama a copy of his book, Prisoners of Hate, which outlined his findings that hatred imprisons individuals who harbor it.

The two agreed on these overlaps between their two approaches:

Similarities between Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Buddhism

I. Goals: Serenity, Peace of Mind, Relief of Suffering

II. Values:

  1. Importance of Acceptance, Compassion, Knowledge, Understanding
  2. Altruism vs. Egoism
  3. Universalism vs. Groupism: “We are one with all humankind.”
  4. Science vs. Superstition
  5. Self-responsibility

III. Causes of Distress:

  1. Egocentric biases leading to excessive or inappropriate anger, envy, cravings, etc. (the “toxins”) and false beliefs (“delusions”)
  2. Underlying self-defeating beliefs that reinforce biases
  3. Attaching negative meanings to events

IV. Methods:

  1. Focus on the Immediate (here and now)
  2. Target the biased thinking through
    1. Introspection
    2. Reflectiveness
    3. Perspective-taking
    4. Identification of “toxic” beliefs
    5. Distancing
    6. Constructive experiences
    7. Nurturing “positive beliefs”
  3. Use of Imagery
  4. Separating distress from pain
  5. Mindfulness training

The Oxford dictionary defines cognition as “The mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.” And metacognition is “knowledge about cognition itself and control of one’s own cognitive processes.”

We all have cognition. BUT…we often don’t have metacognition or awareness of our automatic thinking patterns. Aaron Beck modernized ancient wisdom on the value of paying attention to how our mind works and our thinking.

Over 2,500 years ago, as the “awakened or enlightened one” Gautama Buddha taught, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think, we become.”