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From Helpless to Selfless – the Disruptive nature of Papañca and Automatic Thoughts (Cognitive Therapy) – A Comparison

The Buddhist vision of language. From

Editor’s note: This feature was first published in the now-retired Bodhi Journal, Issue 2, January 2007. 

Aaron Beck met the Dalai Lama in June 2005 at the Göteborg Convention Centre in Sweden for dialog on Buddhism and Cognitive Psychology. In preparation for this meeting Beck had read some of Matthieu Ricard, a French Tibetian monk’s, writings on Buddhism. Beck found a great deal of similarities, although he does not explicitly mention that Buddhism influenced his research in Cognitive Therapy (CT).

In reading Bhikkhu Ñ?nanada book ‘Concept and Reality in Early Buddhist Thought’ I was struck by the similarities between the Buddhist theory of Papañca and the psychological theory of Automatic Thoughts. Beck developed CT in the sixties. He has explained and elaborated on what he terms Automatic Thought in his numerous books and articles. 

Bhikkhu Ñ?nanada states that essentially the meaning of Papañca is the proliferation of concepts. In the Madhupi??ika Sutta of Majjhima Nik?ya the Buddha states that papañca is based on sense perception and it is the final state in the process of sense-cognition.

Both Early Buddhism and Beck see human thinking on a continuum that can not be clearly divided into ‘normal’ versus ‘pathological’ categories. This is particularly evident when we look at papañca. ‘Vitakka’ is the preliminary application of thinking; both vic?ra and papanca follow vitakka. Vic?ra is based on analyses and reflections that sustain the thought arisen from vitakka, hence the terms tend to appear as ‘vitakka-vic?ra,’ indicative of the close relations between the two. Papañca on the other hand is the tendency of the individual’s imagination to break all boundaries and create havoc. Thus, vic?ra represents orderly thought while papañca denotes chaotic thought, though it should be stressed that there is always the possibility that vic?ra may become papañca. 

Bhikkhu Ñ?nananda maintains that all conceptualisation utilises language. Vitakka-vic?ra also are verbal function of the mind and are so called ‘inner speech’. In the case of Papañca it becomes ‘muddled inner speech’ which overwhelms the individual and he losses control over it – he becomes helpless.

?Vic?ra (Vitakka vic?ra) characteristics –

·         Analysis

·         Reflection

·         Inner speech

·         Orderly mind

? Vitakka characteristics –

·         First and Initial application of thought

? Papañca characteristics –

·         Imagination

·         Creating havoc

·         Highly subjective, muddled inner speech

·         Chaotic mind-state

·         Indirect, ambiguous, containing euphemisms and long winded – mental rambling

·         Overwhelms the individual

·         The individual losses control

·         The individual is helpless

·         Is infused with subjectivity

·         Is based on past, present and future

·         Caters to our need to predict the future

·         Is led by three psychological states – ta?h? → craving, m?na → conceit and di??hi → clinging

·         These psychological states hinge on the notion of ‘I’ and ‘mine’.

·         Contains egocentricity, leading to a departure from real experience

·         Egocentricity assume control over the experience, but in real terms the individual is helpless

·         To the individual, the creations of the mind become more real then reality

Imagination (maññan?) is based on egoism and is central to papañca. The application of maññan? is described in the Dvayat?nupassan? Sutta Verse 757(1):

“In whatever egoistic terms (maññan?) they think of an object, it becomes otherwise. And herein, verily, lies its falseness, the infantile deceptive phenomenon that it is” trans. by Bhikkhu Ñ?nananda)”.

Beck’s greatest theoretical contribution is shifting from the Behaviourist Psychology theory of environmental determinism to the ‘internal determinism’ of the individual’s experience. This theory was developed to better reflect individual behaviour, rather than trying to make behaviour accord with theory. Our cognitive appraisals determine our emotional and behavioural responses. CT views individual’s experiences as they are and avoids resorting to elaborate interpretations, as can be the case in psychoanalysis. 

Beck’s paradigm of cognitive organisations at different levels of thinking makes distinctions according to differing levels of accessibility and stability:

Most accessible – voluntary thoughts

·         They appear in the stream of consciousness

Less accessible – Automatic thoughts

Deeper  – Assumptions and values

Deepest level – Schema

·         Organising principles

·         The basis of the individual’s world view

·         The basis of his beliefs about himself

·         The basis of his relating to others

Automatic Thoughts are cognitions that are involuntary, in the sense that the individual has no control over initiating them or over suppressing them without being trained to be aware of them. They are often ‘inappropriate’ for the particular situation that triggered them, and there is discrepancy between reality and cognition. Beck’s therapy technique is to encourage the subject to question and analyse their interpretation of the particular situation in question in order to reduce the subjective nature of the interpretation. Essentially, the Automatic Thoughts are part of communication system particular to the individual and concentrate on the ‘me’, ‘mine’ and ‘myself’. The individual creates a network system where ‘egocentricity’ is pivotal in that it provides meaning to his and others behaviour and expectations for the future. Each client according to his emotional disorder distorts, over-generalises, or exaggerates particular situations.

Characteristics of Automatic Thought –

·         Automatic

·         Involuntary, no control over initiating or suppressing them

·         Inappropriate – exaggerated, distorted, over generalised

·         They do not come about as a result of deliberation, reasoning, or reflection about an event or topic.

·         Most powerful kind of thought and highly idiosyncratic

·         Uses stereotyped applications and explanations; ie, the tyranny of the ‘Should’ and ‘Should not’ dichotomy.

·         A discrepancy exists between reality and cognition

·         Marks a ‘cognitive conversation’ particular to the individual

·         The individual is ‘helpless’ to stop them

·         The individual is unable to concentrate on anything else

·         Are obsessional

·         Have a gripping tendency on cognition

·         Consists of fleeting thoughts that the individual is not aware, but that nonetheless retain their ability to effect the subject

·         Concentrate on the ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’

·         Egocentricity provides meaning to his and others behaviour

·         Egocentricity serves as the basis for expectations for the future

With regards to consciousness and Automatic Thoughts Beck reiterates(2)
“The ‘unconscious’, according to Freud, consisted of the compartment of the mind that is completely isolated from the conscious mind and kept in isolation through repression and defence mechanism. Now my own notion is that consciousness is on a continuum. Some things are more conscious then others and some are less conscious than others. When you drive your car, you’re not conscious of every single move you’re making, but if you’re focusing on it, then you do become aware of what you’re doing. Automatic Thoughts are brief signals at the periphery of consciousness. It’s only when people train themselves to concentrate on the periphery that they become aware of their Automatic Thoughts. They are the most significant messages going through the brain in terms of emotions and psychopathology. These little signals don’t have to be at the forefront of your consciousness. However, it’s interesting that when people get into a psychopathological state, this internal communication system become dominant.”

Comparison of Papañca and Automatic Thoughts characteristics


Automatic Thoughts


These psychological states hinge on the notion of ‘I’ and ‘mine’
Egocentricity assume control over the experience but in real term the individual is helpless

Concentrate on the ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’
Egocentricity provides meaning to his and others behaviour
Egocentricity is the basis for expectation for the future. 


It is led by three psychological states – ta?h?→craving, 
m?na →conceit
di??hi →clinging
For the individual the creation in the mind is more real then reality
It is infused with subjectivity
Is based on the past, present and future

Most powerful and highly idiosyncratic
Discrepancy between reality and cognition
Not the result of deliberation, reasoning, or reflection about an event or topic
Stereotyped applications and explanations. The tyranny of the ‘Should’ and ‘Should not’ 
Based on the past, applied to the present and future


Infused with imagination
Create havoc
Highly subjective muddled speech
Chaotic thoughts
Indirect, ambiguous, contain euphemisms and are long winded – mental rambling

Involuntary, no control can be exerted over initiating or suppressing them
Inappropriate, exaggerated, distorted, over generalised
‘Cognitive conversation’ particular to the individual


Overwhelms the individual
The individual losses control
The individual is helpless

The individual is unable to concentrate on anything else
Have a gripping tendency on cognition
Fleeting thoughts that the individual is not aware of but that retain their effect on the subject

As we can see papañca and Automatic Thoughts have a great deal in common. Central to both is the ‘I’ and ‘Mine’ as the pivotal springboard to a subjective and chaotic orientation to reality. In both cases they result in inappropriate stressful, emotional reactions to one experience of the world.

In the Brahmaj?la Sutta the Buddha examines the views on the self and the world, but does not resort to dealing with all of them with a single refutation. The Buddha understood that the individual sees the self as intrinsic to his existence and proceeds to try and locate it in the situation around him. Through methodical examination the Buddha exposes this view’s own internal implicit contradictions, thus, weakening, challenging and undermining this view. The individual is gradually assisted to reach the understanding that the notion of self is neither sustainable nor plausible. Bhikkhu Bodhi says of the self view “in this way an unexamined assumption at an earlier stage becomes the basis for a firmly grasped error at a later stage”. The Buddhadeconstruction of the notion of self is a wonderful example of the application of CT.

In the Mah?nid?na Sutta the Buddha states that when ‘mine’, ‘I’ and ‘my self’ are examined, all that can be found are the five aggregates, and that they are impermanent, conditioned and have no substance beyond the five aggregates.  
In the Po??hap?da Sutta D/N(3) the Buddha tells Citta –

“These, Citta, are merely names, expressions, turns of speech, designations in common use in the world. And of these a Tath?gata makes use, indeed, but he does not misapprehend them”

Buddhism has afforded us with both the notion of no-self and personal identity, James Giles(4) says in his article ‘The no-self Theory Hume, Buddhism and Personal identity,’ “There are two levels at which the notion of identity can be employed: one which deals with questions about identity at the metaphysical or ultimate level, and one which deals with them at the verbal or conventional level…We can however, arrive at a fuller understanding of what the two-level account involves by turning to another version of the no-self theory. This is the no-self theory as propounded by the Buddha and several of his followers. The Buddhist theory can offer some insights. For at the very heart of this theory lies the doctrine of the two levels of truth.” 

Finally, the Buddha’s teaching and CT accept that a person reliant on an egocentric view of his experiences ends in personal pain and social conflicts. Thus, a change is required, and the central premise ofchange is choice, and central to choice is the notion of free will. Beck’s theoretical perspective is that people have free will and can change. Furthermore, they have responsibility to change and will change. The ability to change is rooted in the pursuit of well being.

Early Buddhism teaches the law of Kamma that is grounded on the ethical basis that only intentional action by the individual can lead to fruition, with good intention leading to happy fruition. Damien Keown’2001(5) in the article ‘Kama, Character, and Consequentialism’ argues that

“The connection between Karma and intention is indisputable in Buddhism. Buddhism also holds that Karma can be produced by volitional action alone and that it is possible to ‘sin in one’s heart’ without the performance of a physical act. Buddhist ethics is best understood in terms of virtue-mediated character transformation.”

I take this to reflect the element of free will in the Buddhist teaching.


1. Norman, K.R.(1992) ‘The Group of Discourses (Sutta Nip?ta)’ The Pali Text Society p.100

2. Weishaar, M.E. (1993) ‘Aaron T. Beck’ Saga Publications, London pp.50

3. Maurice Walshe (1995) ‘The Long Discourses of the Buddha, A Translation of the D?gha Nik?ya’ Wisdom Publications, Boston pp. (53) 169

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