In this issue

The way to security: Perspectives from Buddhism and western psychology

By Kin Cheung (George) Lee, PhD, Fang-Yi Wu, Chien-Yu Chien-Yu , Shiyun Chen, and Ting-Ya Lo

From a Western psychological perspective, a sense of security is a fundamental need in human survival. The unpredictable challenges of life—such as hunger, violence, and disease— can create overwhelming levels of stress and fear that can result in severe physiological and mental health disorders (Carnally & Rowe, 2010). In order to cope with such fears, human beings are inclined to develop a sense of security based on matters such as relationships (Lemay, 2014), financial stability (Fagerström, Gustafson, Jakobsson, Johansson, & Vartiainen, 2011), and individual achievements (Koomen, Van Leeuwen, & Van Der Leij, 2004). This constructed idea of security helps to create a sense of control over uncertainties and potential dangers so that individuals can live freely and safely in a chaotic world.

In contrast to the importance of the sense of security in Western psychology, relatively little is known about Buddhist views on security and insecurity and how these concepts influence individual wellbeing. According to Ghose (2004), Buddhism may equate the pursuit of security with craving (tṛṣṇā), which is the primary cause of suffering. One of the goals in Buddhism, especially in Theravada Buddhism, is to cultivate peace of the mind and to be unbound by hindrances. Given that pursuing peace is one of the goals of Buddhism, how an individual can find peace if one does not feel secure? Might there be other explanations for the role of the sense of security in the Buddhist Canon? In order to better answer these questions, the aim of this article is to propose possible definitions of the sense of security from a Buddhist perspective and to generate recommendations for helping professionals.

The Sense of Security from the Perspective of Western Psychology

In Western psychology, two prominent theories define security as an essential basis for human survival. According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs (1970), the need for security is one of the most important human needs. Along with meeting basic survival needs (such as food and water), Maslow believed that human beings need to cultivate a sense of security from physical wellness, financial stability, and freedom from traumas in order to maintain psychological wellbeing. Individuals who do not satisfy the need for security, according to Maslow, can experience high levels of stress and become less interested in pursuing higher levels of human needs, such as the need for social recognition and intimacy with others.

John Bowlby (1963), the founder of Attachment Theory, also argued that the need for security is crucial for human survival. He held that early bonding with caregivers is a necessary component of healthy child development and defined this emotional bonding, or “attachment,” as a secure base from which children can face later challenges in life (Bretherton, 1992). In general, a responsive, loving, and persistent caregiver tends to help develop a secure sense attachment within the child, who is, in turn, likely to develop an internal perception of the self as confident, competent, and worthy of love and attention. In contrast, a neglectful, distant, and inconsistent caregiver is likely to develop an insecure attachment within the child, who may come to view the world as a dangerous place and grow up feeling unwanted, unworthy, or incompetent. Thus, in summary, modern Western psychology generally holds that the sense of security is an essential ingredient of a happy life.

Possible interpretations of Security from a Buddhist perspective

Buddhism is a nontheistic religion which has a collection of philosophy, traditions, and practices originated from the teaching of Buddha (Gethin, 1998). As Buddhism has enormous breadth and depth in terms of its teachings and philosophy, we can only focus on several aspects of Buddhism, ones that seem to be related to the concepts of security and insecurity.

One of the most important foundations of Buddhism is the Four Noble Truths, which are concerned with human suffering (Duhkha) and ways to overcome this suffering (Gethin, 1998). The First Noble Truth states that life is filled with suffering, or the unsatisfactoriness of human experience, and the Second Noble Truth describes the main cause of suffering as craving (Taṇhā), which is an urge to hold onto or possess pleasurable experiences. Although Buddhism does not directly discuss the concept of security, the concept of insecurity can be inferred from the idea that suffering arises from unsatisfied craving. Some traditional Buddhist teachings further categorize craving in to three types, which are named the three poisons: Clinging, Aversion, and Ignorance ( Loy, 2007).

Ignorance (moha) is the foundation of all the poisons. It is a state of denial in which one lacks awareness of the basic truths of life (Rinpoche & Mullen, 2005). One characteristic of ignorance is a conditioned mind that identifies a unique Self as separate from everything else and fails to see the cause and effect relationships that comprise the interconnectedness of life. This egocentric perspective sees the “I” as the center of everything and “Others” are sources of security and fulfillment, which are attainable by possession. Applying this concept to security, a person with ignorance would be unaware of how his or her behaviors (a cause) elicits responses from others in the environment (effects), and insists instead on adopting an idiosyncratic, self-oriented perspective when pursuing security. For example, an aging and neglectful father who failed to take care of his son blames his son for not taking care of him in old age. This father only sees his insecurity, which results from not being taken care of (an effect), while failing to see how his negligence toward his son (a cause) resulted in his own suffering.

The second poison, Clinging (rāga) , which is also translated as greed or negative attachment, is an uncontrolled desire to hold onto objects of satisfaction (Rinpoche & Mullen, 2005). Clinging is the impulse to maximize available sources of security such as wealth, health, achievement, or physical and/or emotional closeness with attachment figures. The third poison, Aversion (dveṣa), is usually a reaction of disgust, anger, hatred, or even violence to situations where our desires are not being satisfied. For example, insecure babies may cry or have temper tantrums when they are not receiving enough attention and insecure adults may fight with or blame their partners when they are not being affirmed with the right intensity of love in a romantic relationship.

To cure the three poisons, traditional Buddhist teachings discussed the need to refine the three good "roots" of human nature: wisdom (prajna) to counter ignorance, giving (Dāna) to counter clinging, and compassion (mettā) to counter aversion (Rinpoche & Mullen, 2005). In other words, gaining knowledge and awareness of the relatedness between the self and others can reduce ignorance; cultivating generosity by giving away one's possessions can relieve the anxiety and rigidity that results from holding onto impermanent things; and having compassion and understanding others' perspectives can alleviate one's anger and aggression towards others. Wisdom is seen as the fundamental cure to the three poisons, and one of the ways to achieve wisdom is to gain insight (Vipassanā) through introspection. Through insight, meditation, or self-scanning of one's thoughts and feelings, we can increase our awareness of how our own behaviors affect people's reactions, how our thought processes provoke anger, and how things can be perceived differently from another viewpoint. By practicing the three “roots” of wisdom, one can attain a sense of security, have peace of mind, and maintain a positive attitude in the face of unsatisfactory life events (Alexandrova, 2005).

The Mahaparinibbana Sutta and some other sutras elaborated suffering into eight categories which may help to shed some light on the Buddhist perspective of security and insecurity (Trungpa, 2009). Chogyam Trunga (2009), a Buddhist meditation master, explained these eight types of suffering as follows:

  • Birth (jāti): the suffering of the restrictions of the mother's womb and the new challenges and demands after leaving the mother's womb.
  • Old age (jarā): the suffering that arises from aging, which includes psychological as well as physiological disturbances.
  • Sickness (byādhi): the sufferings of physiological or psychological disorders.
  • Death (maraṇa): suffering related to the inability to continue one's endeavors in life and the physical pain of dying.
  • Getting what you don't want : suffering associated with having to encounter undesirable people and situations.
  • Not being able to hold onto what is desirable : suffering from the failure to hold onto people or things that are desirable.
  • Not getting what you do want : suffering related to not gaining desirable outcomes, such as achievement and recognition.
  • Suffering between the periods of birth and death : this suffering refers to the five aggregates of form, sensation, perception, conditioned function, and consciousness, which formulate the experiences of the human body.

Among the eight types of suffering, insecurity seems to be most closely associated with Not getting what you do want and Not being able to hold onto what is desirable. Human beings have the tendency to cling onto different things in order to create a base for security (Low, 2012).

For example, young children seek as much love and attention as possible from their parents in order to feel secure, and adults may build their sense of security upon money, social recognition, or romantic relationships. Since these experiences are so pleasurable, individuals have a natural tendency (which the Buddha called “greed”) to possess people, objects, or events, attempting to make them permanently available to us. However, most of our human pursuits—of parental love, romantic love, money, and social status—have impermanent outcomes. The failure to attain our desired outcomes (Not getting what you do want), the failure to maintain those experiences that we do attain (Not being able to hold onto what is desirable), and the fear of losing those experiences while we are having them can all lead to strong feelings of insecurity and, as a consequence, suffering (Wada & Park, 2009). In other words, insecurity is rooted in our tendency to cling onto desirable objects and events and to avoid undesirable ones. As a result, our intent to seek security from impermanent objects can only create a temporary sense of security, and we end up, by clinging to them, even more insecure because we cannot hold on to what is evanescent.

The Buddhist remedy for insecurity is to become aware of and accept the fact that insecurity is a way of life (Bhikkhu, 2003) . Buddhism posits that all sentient beings are governed by karma and that owning, losing, living, death, and rebirth are merely integral and circular parts of life (Wada & Park, 2009) . By truly seeing through this inevitable cycle of life and loss and gaining mindful awareness of the impermanent nature of our experiences, we can learn to avoid basing our sense of security on transient objects. Therefore, the practices of Buddhism are intended to train one's mind to achieve inner peace and to let go of one's grasping of the ever-changing and uncontrollable external world. Perhaps another way to describe security, from the Buddhist perspective, is that our sense of security should be built on our acceptance of insecurity.

Discussion and Implications

In Western psychology, security implies a sense of empowerment that allows individuals to believe they can be safe and free of danger in the world. As human beings who are inclined to survive, we are driven by instinctual needs to maximize our available resources as well as our sense of security in order to be physiologically and psychologically healthy and happy. Buddhist perspectives affirm the fact that human beings are born into bodies with instinctual cravings for pleasant feelings and a desire to avoid unpleasant feelings (Mikulas, 2007). Indeed, Buddhism perceives the human mind as a restless engine that continuously seeks pleasurable feelings, including those of security, and is designed to avoid unpleasant ones. However, the Buddha held that everything in the world is fabricated, impermanent, and constantly changing; in turn, our mind's attempt to attain security from the external world will only result in dissatisfaction and disappointment.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs portrayed human needs as sequential and hierarchical, suggesting that one can achieve ultimate happiness by fulfilling each level of needs. From a Buddhist perspective, by contrast, human beings can never be satisfied by fulfilling their needs. Once a need is satisfied, our mind automatically jumps to another object. For example, a high school student hopes to feel more secure in life by getting into a reputable college; once enrolled, he desires to get a high paying job; after obtaining a good position at work, he desires a promotion; after being promoted, he desires to prolong his ownership of the position. There are at least two problems in this pursuit of security. First, he may only enjoy a transient level of happiness when his goals are achieved before quickly moving onto the next goal to seek more satisfaction. Second, as he uses his accomplishments as his primary sources of security, there will be multiple opportunities for these sources to be assaulted, such as being rejected by desirable universities or laid off by an employer. Similarly, although Buddhism emphasizes compassion and loving kindness, over reliance on attachment figures as a basis for security can also result in suffering. For example, we can feel extremely insecure and depressed by our parents' death, the loss of significant others, and rejection from the people we love.

To help individuals achieve a more stable form of happiness, Buddhism provides a variety of methods for teaching impermanent nature of sensory experiences and for helping individuals to accept the threat of impermanence and let go of attachment to their external sources of security (Wada & Park, 2009). Some practices from Buddhism that may be useful for helping professionals include the following:

  • Developing self-compassion may help patients to accept the instinctual need for security and discern more effective ways to build a sense of security, such as achieving internal peace of mind.
  • Using insight meditation to increase mindful awareness on our thought processes, such as what we do to pursue security, our reasons for insecurity, and our experiences of different types and qualities of security.
  • Understanding and accepting the impermanent and provisional nature of all conditioned things.
  • Introspecting our behaviors and thought processes in daily life to better understand what motivations drive our behaviors in our pursuit of security.
  • Developing a non-judgmental acceptance of our insecurities at the current moment without excessively dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
  • Introspecting on the environmental causes and effects of their actions may help individuals to alter the causes of their suffering ( Vimalaramsi, 1997) .
  • Practicing giving and cultivating compassion for the suffering of others can reduce one's desire to possess impermanent agents for a sense of security (Wada & Park, 2009).

This article is a preliminary attempt to understand security and insecurity through the lens of Buddhism. The lexical meaning of security is “freedom from danger,” and both Western psychological and Buddhist perspectives seem to agree that this basic type of security is an important factor in life. However, psychological perspectives tend to focus on how to effectively satisfy the need for security while Buddhist perspectives emphasize accepting the insecure nature of life in order to allow a self-reliant sense of security to flourish. Helping professionals can consider using this Buddhist idea to positively reframe clients' view on security and empower clients to build internal strength by showing clients the transient nature of life.


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Kin Cheung (George) Lee, PhDKin Cheung (George) Lee, PhD is the assistant chair and assistant professor of the Department of Psychology at University of the West. He received his PhD in clinical psychology from California School of Professional Psychology (Alliant International University) and his master's degree in marriage and family therapy from the University of Southern California. His research interests include Buddhist psychology, treating Asian American clients with trauma history, and training and educating international students.