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.
While 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
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.
But Buddhist teachers have had to face the implications of the latter part of Dogen’s statement, “To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.” All things include the emotional life—even shitting, pissing, and fucking. In the West, emotional life insists on attention. Buddhism, through its encounter with a culture steeped in therapy, has had to address itself to a host of emotional issues that traditional Eastern societies keep private.
At one of the first gatherings of Asian Buddhist masters and Western dharma teachers and therapists, for example, the Dalai Lama was completely puzzled at the notion of low self-esteem that he kept hearing about. It was utterly foreign to his experience. He finally went around the room, asking each of the Westerners in attendance, “Do you have this? Do you have this?” while shaking his head in disbelief as each one of them nodded yes. It was as strange to him as the statement from the audience was to the lama at the conference. In the Dalai Lama’s world, the presence of a strong and secure feeling of self is taken for granted, while in our culture restless and insecure feelings are often very much alive for those engaging in Buddhist practice.
In the West, dharma has had to accommodate itself to emotional issues like low self-esteem, and Buddhist teachers, despite their unfamiliarity with many of the principles of Western psychotherapy or the Western personality, have, by necessity, found themselves blurring the lines between teacher and therapist. Their students’ needs have required them to dig down into “the psychological substrate of Buddhist teachings and to familiarize themselves with Western therapies, leading to the creation of new forms of dharma, where emotional issues are not relegated to the shadows.
At that same early conference, the British psychiatrist R. D. Laing made one of his final public appearances. “We are all afraid of three things,” he rumbled to the assembled crowd. “Each other, our own minds, and death.” Both Buddhism and psychotherapy help us with those fears, he implied. No one tradition can claim hegemony over them. In their mutual discovery of each other over the past decade, these two wisdom traditions have not only begun a fruitful dialogue, but they have also accelerated each other’s evolution, creating the possibility of a more spiritual psychotherapy and a more psychodynamic Buddhism. Like any vital relationship, the one between psychotherapy and Buddhism will not be without conflict, but the potential for generative union is definitely upon us.
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