Buddhism and Psychotherapy

Words have a magical power. They can bring either the greatest happiness or deepest despair; they can transfer knowledge from teacher to student; words enable the orator to sway his audience and dictate its decisions. Words are capable of arousing the strongest emotions and prompting all men's actions.” Sigmund Freud

I first started practicing and studying Buddhism in 1985. That same year I also began seven years of training and study to qualify as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. Since qualifying, I have continued to study and have built up a large psychotherapy practice and have worked with many patients presenting with a myriad of problems and complications over thousands of hours.

I practice Buddhism but am not what is called a Buddhist psychotherapist, I’m a psychoanalyst and a Buddhist. I have never been remotely tempted to make these two into one making Buddhism into therapy or therapy into religion. Yet I am often asked whether and how they work together? Can you get by with just one and not the other? Which one’s better and when and for what?

Let me do a bit of finger painting here, and attempt to sketch the analogies between these two noble traditions in a few words. Buddhism is a spiritual approach, is over 2500 years old and is aimed at enlightenment, waking up to our true nature. Psychoanalysis is a general psychology and a form of therapy having its roots in 19th century humanism and aimed at remedying and understanding psychological problems. Of course these two great traditions are quite different, and yet there are also interesting similarities nonetheless. I will limit myself here to exploring a few of these similarities.

Both concern themselves with dissatisfaction, human suffering, and its alleviation; both offer a kind of “diagnosis” and a “treatment plan”. They both take place within an important emotional relationship, therapist/patient or student/teacher. Both promote the importance of comparable experiential processes one emphasising speech and the other silence. In analysis generally this comprises listening with even hovering attention on the part of the therapist and courageous speaking in a on the part of the client/patient. In Buddhism being able to rest in silence, by way of mindfulness/awareness meditation, is key.

Both are practices that demand a 'letting go' into and a trust in the process or journey. Both provoke obstacles and challenges. In Buddhism we experience resistance to seeing our true nature. In psychoanalysis we resist letting go of self-cures. Self-cures here are behaviours that develop over time, and in private, and present themselves as if they were complicated attempts to reduce suffering while in secret locking us further into our distress. “Self-cures” produce destructive, limiting behaviours, addictions, co-dependencies, grudges and many other forms of defensive self-reliance.

In both Buddhism and psychoanalysis these obstacles and defences are considered sources of suffering. In psychotherapy we talk, and the real cure lies in finding a talking cure that enables recognising, acknowledging, and working-through. This drives the transformational process.

We could say that both entail uncovering or unmasking. In both the change takes place on the level of the unconscious. Both share a relatively neutral, though compassionate stance on the part of the therapist or the spiritual teacher, who are attentive and who notice details, but who should not give direct advice. That is to say that both client and meditator are encouraged to learn to observe what is there without censorship. For this to happen, there is also a necessary abstinence in that the teacher or therapist is not intentionally confirming, but functions as a guide in the person’s own process.

We might also say that that in both a certain “split in the self” is encouraged between watcher and watched, experiencer and experience. The final existential responsibility in the process rests with the client/patient and the meditator and not with the teacher/therapist, who facilitates the process, is a guide on the journey.

Finally, in the trauma of everyday life, Mark Epstein writes of an encounter with an enlightened teacher, a man of great eminence and many years of spiritual practice. He told Epstein that throughout his life he suffered from almost constant anxiety and wondered if psychotherapy might help with this symptom. I mention this to make the point that spiritual practice, even at the highest level is not always the right medicine, or not always a complete answer, for psychological distress. Sometimes speaking is better than silence. Sometimes silence is the problem not the cure. Most of us will at some point need a place where we are able to find new words to tell old imprisoning stories, to tell them in liberating, new ways. This is nothing to be ashamed of but rather is in itself a valid and further expression of Warriorship. The trained and experienced therapist job is to befriend and to listen us freshly and creatively into our own wisdom, peace of mind and intelligent courageousness.

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