We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts, we make the world. – The Buddha
I’m not sure if many people would naturally think about REBT and Buddhism as having that much in common. Obviously some differences exist in the scope of the practices as REBT aims to treat psychopathology and Buddhist practice is directed at attaining enlightenment. However, I have found that there are many similarities between them and this is especially true when it comes to the foundations on which they are based. The Buddha could in many ways be considered a psychologist of his time, focusing on understanding the complexities of the mind, and Albert Ellis was most definitely a philosopher, working to explain the human condition.
Albert Ellis developed REBT around Epictetus’ philosophy that “people are not disturbed by the events that happen to them, but rather their view of them.” As such, REBT is based on the premise that irrational thinking causes unhealthy emotions and dysfunctional behavior. Further, the way to healthier emotions and more functional behavior in REBT is through more rational appraisals of situations, others, and oneself. In Buddhist philosophy, the human condition of suffering is caused by the mind’s constant attempts to control perceptions, which distorts reality and perpetuates negative feelings and states. The way to alleviate suffering is to guide the mind to see things as they really are, through open awareness and understanding of experiences. Although developed over 2,000 years apart and for different means, the core philosophies and mechanisms of change in REBT and Buddhism are very similar even if their practices appear different on the surface. Both philosophies are based around our responsibility for our own experiences and freedom from suffering.
When you delve deeper into the relatedness between REBT and Buddhism, more similarities arise. In REBT, the root of irrational thinking is demandingness, or believing things must be the way you want them to be, and the rational alternative is acceptance. In Buddhism, it is grasping, or attempting to believe in the permanence of things rather than accepting their impermanent true nature. Both philosophies teach this form of radical acceptance of reality (Ellis emphasizes people’s ability to continue to like/dislike it) leads to healthier experiences of it. Both also emphasize how this extends to our view of ourselves and arrive at conceptions of the self as infinitely complex and essentially without a tangible value. REBT explains unconditional self-acceptance and also posits the importance of the relationships between individuals and society, while in Buddhism the concept is no-self, meaning that the “self” is ever-changing and interconnected with the world around them.
REBT and Buddhism philosophies are grounded in empiricism. Ellis explained that irrational thinking was problematic because it did not make logical, empirical, or functional sense for the individual. In REBT, individuals are encouraged to think rationally, not based on dogmatic principles, but rather what makes more sense to them when they evaluate it. In the course of REBT, a therapist uses a variety of methodologies to find the idiosyncratic formula that works for a particular client. Buddhist practice is designed to be flexible teachings and techniques to help individual practitioners arrive at their own realizations of what their reality is. Even the teachings of the Buddha on which Buddhism is based are considered suggestions for practitioners to put to their own empirical study. Both REBT and Buddhism emphasize the value of personal effort in one’s path to end suffering.
Upon contemplation it is possible to see a great deal of commonalities between the REBT and Buddhist philosophies. What I have presented is a limited investigation into the analysis of their similarities and differences. Is it possible that Albert Ellis found his own path to nirvana as the Buddha did? I certainly don’t know, but I’d like to think so.
Next Up: Chris Smith, Ph.D. on When Is Working Too Much, Too Much?