At the first New York conference on Buddhism and psychotherapy in the late 1980s, discussion between the two disciplin,es proved more difficult than many had expected. There were a lot of therapists in attendance and a number of Buddhist teachers on the program, but many of the Buddhist teachers were not particularly interested in, or knowledgeable about, the psychodynamic view. The Buddhists wanted to talk about Buddhism, while the therapists wanted to talk about emotional issues, and it was not clear what kind of common ground there might be between the two. The tension rose steadily from the opening invocation. Finally, after a day and a half, an exasperated woman rose from her chair and directed a statement at the Tibetan lama who had just finished his presentation. “I don’t care how many Zen masters can fit on the head of a pin,” she began, her frustration evident to all. There was a smattering of applause and a general heightening of attention. “I want to know about shitting and pissing and fucking.”

A hush fell over the crowd. This was not the way to speak to a Tibetan lama. And yet the woman’s point was understood by many in the audience. The conference presentations seemed too rarified for the therapists in attendance, too divorced from the day-to-day reality of their therapeutic concerns. Where was the earthiness of the good old Freudian instincts?

The lama, not understanding, turned to the conference organizers for a translation. “She wants to know about shitting and pissing and fucking,” they told him rather sheepishly, and he looked momentarily perplexed. “But how has she managed up until this point?” he asked. For a moment, the Freudian concerns with primitive experience seemed absurd in the light of Buddhism.

ccccccrightWhile this particular interchange highlighted the gulf between dharma and psychotherapy, between psychoanalytic instincts and Buddhist spirit, the steady dialogue that has emerged over the past decade between the two traditions has done much to enrich them both. Although the therapists at the conference were frustrated. by the Buddhist teachers’ reluctance to face emotional issues head-on, the therapists nevertheless remained. Something was pulling them toward the dharma. What was it? A recognition, perhaps, that the Buddhist view of selflessness fleshed out their own emphasis on self, that the Buddhist “spirit” did much to balance and enliven their interest in shitting, pissing, and fucking. The therapists could relate to the thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master Dogen, whose famous statement about dharma graced the conference’s program guide: “To study Buddhism is to study the self. But to study the self is to forget the self. And to forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.”

Psychotherapists, in their attraction to Buddhism, have begun to recover the spiritual possibilities inherent in their work. They have indeed studied the self, and in so doing have found for themselves that curious principle upon which all Buddhist insight is based. The more we zero in on the self, the more difficult it is to locate. It is like trying to isolate an electron. The more we try to see it as a particle, the more of a wave it becomes. Therapists. I have found themselves in the position of the poet Wallace Stevens in his famous work “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”:

I do not know which to
       prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Western psychology has been in the position of focusing its attention on the whistle of the self. But by concentrating on that whistle, it has come to appreciate just how much of the beauty of innuendo it has been missing. Many therapists sense that Buddhism has something important to teach them about the “just after,” about the benefits of moving beyond an exclusive identification with self.

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