Zen Mindfulness in DBT

March 11, 2019
CATEGORY: Mindfulness

In our research and practice, we have seen the connection between Zen mindfulness and DBT. Behavior therapy has an inherent compatibility with Zen principles. Behavioral Tech Institute Trainer and Zen teacher, Randy Wolbert, breaks down for us the seven points of overlap between Zen mindfulness and DBT and how these links came to be.

While learning and practicing DBT, Randy began independent mindfulness practice and later became a Zen student of Marsha Linehan. This began his journey of Zen study, practice, and teaching, and from the beginning the role of mindfulness in DBT was clear.

As Randy puts it, when Marsha Linehan was first developing her model, she saw the need to modify behavior theory in order to successfully work with clients who have borderline personality disorder. “Linehan realized that she needed to include elements of acceptance to her treatment in order to both decrease the extreme suffering of her clients and to facilitate the changes necessary for them to build a life worth living.”*

But how to translate that realization into the treatment model? This led Linehan on the journey of seeking out an existing practice of acceptance that could be folded into the DBT model, which ultimately led her to the Zen model of mindful meditation. See Randy’s chapter “Modifying behavior therapy to meet the challenge of treating BPD: Incorporating Zen and Mindfulness” in the newly-published Oxford Handbook of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy for the full story.

The essence of Zen is seeing reality as it is, which is the starting point for changing patterns of behavior.

“Linehan translated the principles of Zen practice into a set of ‘how’ and ‘what’ skills (Linehan, 2015). These skills require staying mindful of the current moment, seeing reality as it is without attachment, and accepting reality without judgment. If a thought or emotion is observed as only a thought or emotion, then the individual can be free from the attachment to that thought or emotion. Furthermore, as the ability develops (p. 98) to observe our own experiences as a means of understanding the world, it then allows ‘disattachment’ from experiences and the ability to describe them without judgment.”*

So, as it becomes clear that there is compatibility between these practices, how does Zen mindfulness get folded into behavior therapy? Randy breaks down the seven points of overlap:

  1. Both Behavior Therapy and Zen recognize no self or no independent self. Behavior therapists, rather than focusing on the concept of an independent or permanent self, focus on learning experiences and their transactions with environmental events. Patterns of behavior exist but they are always changing. In Zen the idea of an independent self is a delusion.
  2. Both behavior therapy and Zen recognize unity; Zen as the oneness of the universe and behavior therapy as the connection between behaviors and the context in which they occur.
  3. While it may seem to contradict unity, both approaches also recognize individuality.
  4. Both Zen and behavior therapy adopt a non-judgmental worldview reflected in the way that they interact with each other, students, and clients. Both are adherents to the law of cause and effect.
  5. The focus of both Behaviorism and Zen is the present – as the present moment is the only reality.
  6. Zen and behavior therapy emphasize practice. Practice in Zen is meditation and walking the eight-fold middle path.  Practice in Behavior therapy is learning and practicing new skillful adaptive behavior to replace maladaptive behaviors.
  7. Zen believes that suffering exists and avoidance of suffering leads to worse suffering. This is similar to the behavior therapy technique known as exposure and opposite action.  Experiencing rather than avoiding leading to less suffering.

In short, “the goal of behaviour therapy is change. The goal of Zen or mindful practice is simply mindful practice. The side effects of mindful practice appear to be decreased suffering, increased happiness, increased control of your mind, and the capability of experiencing reality as it is without delusion.” Therein lies the convergence (and divergence) of Zen and DBT!

For a much deeper dive, check out the book here.

Randy Wolbert has studied Zen under Marsha Linehan and Greg Mayers, Rōshi, at Mercy Center of San Francisco. He has attended and led numerous Zen retreats (Zen Sesshins). Randy has held mindfulness workshops teaching applications for personal and professional practice in University and clinical settings including Chile and Argentina.  He was recognized by Willigis Jaeger as a Zen teacher in 2016 and was confirmed as a Zen teacher (Sensei) in 2018 by Marsha Linehan.

*Swales, M.A. (2018). Modifying behavior therapy to meet the challenge of treating BPD: Incorporating Zen and Mindfulness. Oxford Handbook of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy.  Chapter 5. Oxford University Press.


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