Friday 2 March 2012

Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: Three Phases of a Cultural Encounter

By Steven Stanley, Cardiff School of Social Sciences

We might say that psychoanalysis and Buddhism are both therapies; diagnosing and alleviating our psychological or existential suffering. But the productive, one hundred year dialogue on the margins of these traditions did not begin quite so auspiciously.

Phase 1: Orientalism

Freud and Jung famously fell out over the issue of spirituality.

Freud says psychoanalysis needs to be scientific, not mystical. Religion is an illusion (Future of an Illusion, 1927). Meditators are deluding themselves. Their ‘oceanic experiences’ (Civilization and its Discontents, 1930), or feelings of oneness with God, are an escapist regression to infantile narcissism, or fetal experience in the womb.

Franz Alexander quickly followed suit, describing some advanced Indian meditative states as melancholia, catatonia, or schizophrenic dementia. Nirvana is the ‘deepest regression to the condition of intrauterine life’.

Perhaps the historical Buddha would have been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic?

Orientalists pathologised Eastern religious practitioners to further the European project of imperialist colonization.

Phase 2: Ambivalence

Jung is an important figure in the dialogue between psychology and religion. He discusses Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism - particularly their mystical strands. Like William James, he saw religion as a psychological reality.

Individuation is Jung’s key concept for spiritual and personal growth. The highest goal is unus mundus: a numinous state of unity of consciousness and unconsciousness, similar to some meditative states. We need to step aside and let the unity of Self or God archetypes guide us toward wholeness.

Jung visited India and was interested in yoga. He developed his own ideas and interpretations of it, sometimes disagreeing with yogic philosophy.

He wrote a commentary to the Tibetan Book of the Dead (1937); an introduction to D.T. Suzuki’s Zen Buddhism (1949); and had a conversation with Zen scholar Hisamatsu (1958).

While Jung admired and studied Eastern philosophy, he argued against its widespread use in the West. We cannot copy or steal from each other’s ways. Each must pursue their own path. Westerners are unable to assimilate such culturally distant ideas and practices.

Phase 3: Integration

The post-WWII encounter between Japan and the United States allowed American psychoanalysts to learn Zen.

Karen Horney investigated Morita Therapy in which you pay ‘wholehearted attention’ to everything you do. It fitted a 1950s conservatism of accepting the world, rather than changing it.

In 1960, Erich Fromm argued Zen and psychoanalysis offered parallel ways of liberating the modern person from civilization – through the relaxed spontaneity of ‘beginner’s mind’.

But both lacked experience of meditation.

In 1979 Kornfield, Ram Dass and Miyuki – psychology professionals who had trained in Eastern spiritual practices - debated whether ‘psychological adjustment is liberation’. How compatible is the narcissistic ‘growth movement’ with spiritual development? Much of the debate concerned Buddhist and Jungian ideas.

Buddhism and meditation had started to enter the consulting room. Middle class Buddhists were in analysis. Analysts meditated to train their attentions, cultivate ‘unconditional positive regard’ for clients, or create internal ‘holding environments’. Perhaps the talking cure on the couch could compliment the ‘silent cure’ on the meditation cushion? Buddhist and psychoanalytic schools intermingled.

Mindfulness meditation is important in these integrations. It involves recollecting what is happening while it is happening; becoming more aware and engaged with the present moment. It fits some analysts’ turn from a ‘there and then’ focus on the influence of past traumas on the present, to a ‘here and now’ focus on relational meaning-making between therapist and client. Instead of a transcendent absorption state, it offers a third way beyond expression and repression.


In an interesting twist of fate, psychoanalysis never became a science. While Buddhism became increasingly secularized. Indeed, psychoanalysts have played an important role in interpreting Buddhism as a psychotherapy. The Buddha has become ‘the first psychologist’.

Freud’s aim was to move people from neurotic misery to common unhappiness. Now, positive psychologists are trying to optimize our wellbeing through a ‘science of happiness’. How does this square with Buddhist teachings encouraging us to go ‘beyond the pursuit of happiness’ for its own sake? Perhaps we are misunderstanding Buddhism in the way Jung warned. And perhaps there is a grain of truth in Freud’s critique. Are we deluding ourselves once more?

Recommended Reading:

Safran, J. (2003). Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: An Unfolding Dialogue. Boston: Wisdom.

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