February [13] 2009



Excerpted from:


                By MARK EPSTEIN, MD

1. As psychotherapy has grown in scope and sophistication over the years, its parallels with Buddhist thought have become ever more apparent.  As the emphasis in therapy has moved from conflicts over sexual and aggressive strivings, for instance, to a focus on how patients are uncomfortable with themselves because, in some fundamental way, they do not know who they are, the question of the self has emerged as the common focus of Buddhism and psychoanalysis.

2. While the Western tradition has grown quite adept as describing what has been called the narcissistic dilemma—the sense of falseness or emptiness that propels people either to idealize or to devalue themselves and others—much controversy has arisen over the psychoanalytic method’s applicability for such problems.  In fact, Western therapists are in the position of having identified a potent source of neurotic misery without having developed a foolproof treatment for it.  In reaching this point, many within the field of psychology have finally caught up to William James: they are ready to look at the psychological teachings of the Buddha. 6

3. Buddhist psychology, after all, takes this core sense of identity confusion as its starting point and further claims that all of the usual efforts to achieve solidity, certainty, or security are ultimately doomed.  It not only describes the struggle to find a “true self” in terms that have impressed Western psychologists for decades…but also offers a method of analytic inquiry unavailable in the Western tradition. From the Buddhist perspective, meditation is indispensable to free the individual from neurotic misery.  

4. Psychotherapy can identify the problem, bring it out, point out some of the childhood deficiencies that contributed to its development, and help diminish the ways in which erotic and aggressive strivings become intertwined with the search for a satisfying feeling of self, but it has not been able to deliver freedom from narcissistic craving. 6

5. People are attracted to the Buddhist approach, but it remains enigmatic; they know that it speaks to them, yet they have trouble translating the message into a form applicable to their daily lives. Still approached as something exotic, foreign, and therefore alien, the power of the Buddhist approach has not really been tapped and its message has not yet been integrated.

6. (According to Epstein)—In our culture, it is the language of psychoanalysis, developed by Freud and carefully nurtured by generations of psychotherapists over the past century, that has seeped into general public awareness.  It is in this language that the insights of the Buddha must be presented to Westerners. 

7. According to Buddhism, it is our fear at experiencing ourselves directly that creates suffering.  This has always seemed very much in keeping with Freud’s views. As Freud put it, the patient:  “must find the courage to direct his attention to the phenomena of his illness.  His illness itself must no longer seem to him contemptible, but must become an enemy worthy of his mettle, a piece of his personality, which has solid ground for its existence and out of which things of value for his future life have to be derived. The way is thus paved for the reconciliation with the repressed material which is coming to expression in his symptoms, while at the same time a place is found for a certain tolerance for the state of being ill.

8. In his teachings on suffering, the Buddha made clear that some kind of humiliation awaits us all.  This is the truth that he felt could be apprehended by those with “little dust in their eyes.”  No matter what we do, he taught, we cannot sustain the illusion of our self-sufficiency.  We are all subject to decay, old age, and death, to disappointment, loss, and disease.  We are all engaged in a futile struggle to maintain ourselves in our own image.  The crises in our lives inevitably reveal how impossible our attempts to control our destinies really are. 44

9. The Four Noble Truths take this vulnerability as a starting point, cultivating humility out of the seemingly oppressive and inescapable humiliations of life.  Far from the pessimistic religion that Buddhism has been portrayed to be, it is, in fact, relentlessly optimistic.  All of the insults to our narcissism can be overcome, the Buddha proclaimed, not by escaping from them, but by uprooting the conviction in a “self” that needs protecting.

10. Buddhism promises a kind of relief that is beyond the reach of the psychotherapeutic method, brought about through techniques of self-examination and mental training unknown to the West.  Happiness is a real possibility, taught the Buddha, if we can but penetrate our own narcissism. 45

11. The Buddha sees us all as Narcissus, gazing at and captivated by our own reflections, languishing in our attempted self-sufficiency, desperately struggling against all that would remind us of our own fleeting and relative natures. His message is a wake-up call.  He seeks to rouse us from our Narcissus-like reverie, to redirect our attention from a preoccupation with shoring up an inevitably flawed sense of self to knowledge of what he calls “the Noble Truth.” 45

12. Because of our craving, The Buddha is saying, we want things to be understandable.  We reduce, concretize, or substantialize experiences or feelings, which are, in their very nature, fleeting or evanescent.  In so doing, we define ourselves by our moods and by our thoughts.  We do not just let ourselves be happy or sad, for instance; we must become a happy person or a sad one.  This is the chronic tendency of the ignorant or deluded mind, to make “things” out of that which is no thing.  Seeing craving shatters this predisposition; it becomes preposterous to try to see substance where there is none. 77

13. The Buddha is suggesting something very radical here: that it is possible to isolate the forces of craving in one’s own mind and become both liberated from them and unattached to them merely from seeing that craving for what it is.  The contrast with Western psychoanalysis seems at first glance to be particularly stark.  One of the fundamental concepts in psychoanalytic theory, after all, is that instinctual drives or forces (erotic, aggressive, or narcissistic strivings) are inborn, inherent, and inescapable.  

14. The vision of the Buddha is that the neurotic aspects of mind—as personified by the pig, the snake, and the rooster of ignorance, hatred, and greed—are not essential to the mental continuum.  They may be inborn or even instinctual, but they are not intrinsic to the nature of mind.  They can be eliminated, or, in psychoanalytic parlance, sublimated to the point of cessation.  Most of Buddhist psychology, in fact, is concerned with demonstrating how the narcissistic impulses to identify with or distance oneself from experience can be transformed into wisdom about the true nature of self.  This is sublimation of an order that Freud did not often consider, and as we shall see, it is brought about not only through analysis but also through methods of mental training explicitly taught by the Buddha. 79

Compiled by Art Rosengarten, Ph.D. Adjunct Professor, California Institute For Human Studies.


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