Monday, February 18, 2019

Therapies of Desire: Introspection in Buddhist and Psychoanalytic Psychologies

Buddha meditating
Characterized, roughly speaking, as similar “therapies of desire,” Freudian psychoanalysis and Buddhist meditation techniques (which do not exhaust the kinds of such therapies, as the Stoics attest) have interesting commonalities and significant overlap, although of course the Buddhist worldview emerged as an Indic śramaṇa tradition “sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE,” while psychoanalysis began at the end of the nineteenth-century in the cultural climate of European modernity. A fair number of books, largely but not exclusively from Buddhists (some of whom are psychotherapists) have sought to address the various constructions of similarities and differences. I’m inclined to believe this subject has yet to be explored with the kind of philosophical and psychological depth and complexity it deserves, a judgment which is not intended to detract from the otherwise significant contributions and insights of this literature, which began, it appears, with Erich Fromm, D.T. Suzuki, and Richard De Martino’s Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis (1960) and is perhaps best recently exemplified by Padmasiri de Silva’s Buddhist and Freudian Psychology (4th ed., 2010). 

Freud's consulting room
For now I want merely to highlight one conspicuous common feature, namely, the respective methods of introspection in Buddhism and psychoanalysis (in the latter it is technically termed free association): paying, as it were, close attention to one’s mind … and body; although in psychoanalysis, it is typically the analyst who is observing the analysand’s bodily comportment, while in Buddhism, the practitioner herself can do this. I was reminded of this when reading George Makari’s Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis (2008). In an introduction to Freud’s early thoughts on the practice of dream analysis as “a kind of trained introspection,” Makari writes that in according “close attention to their inner life, their fleeting thoughts and feelings,” avoiding all temptation to edit or censor their “observations,” Freud’s patients “were not to criticize or delete, but simply report.” This, in effect, is an attempt to combine first- and third-person points of view (similar if not identical to what J. David Velleman terms “the reflexive guise” or reflexive mode of presentation of facets of one’s individual identity or ‘sense’ of self in a temporal sense, or as past, present, and future ‘selves’). The same injunction or instruction, more or less, is given to one first learning to meditate in Buddhism.

In Buddhism, one is of course sitting (in one of several possible postures, all of which involve sitting straight—‘but not stiffly’—and still) when engaged in “trained introspection” or meditation (of which there are several kinds, ideally used in combination), while in psychoanalysis the analysand is, traditionally, lying on a couch (in Freud’s office, on a Turkish divan!). In psychoanalysis one may be asked to close one’s eyes, while in Buddhism one’s eyes should remain open, focused downward (partly to avoid falling asleep!). What is common here is the attempt to more or less dispassionately observe (what devotees of the Gītā or Patañjali’s Yoga system would describe in English as acting or meditating with ‘non-attachment’) one’s thoughts and feelings (one might, as a manner of speaking, call this self-examination, as long as it is clear that one is not examining a ‘self’ as such) sans any judgment, moralistic or otherwise. We are referring here to only the barest beginnings of self-examination, of introspection, of meditation. All the same, I think it is rather quite remarkable that we may (philosophers would say arguably) possess such a power or capacity for impersonal or “detached” observation or inner attentiveness, that is, that we may be able to observe or take note of our thoughts and feelings, however chaotic, forbidden, confused, deceptive, painful, what have you, as if watching a roll of film picturing a stream-of-consciousness the contents of which are our sensations and intuitions, our imaginings, our thoughts and feelings. Of course such impartial or objective introspection or meditation, insofar as it may be possible, does not occur automatically or easily, and in fact it is often said that strenuous effort or the deliberate attempt or simply the sheer act of willing to bring about this kind of introspection is self-defeating (there needs to be some effort after all, but one should avoid acting ‘self-consciously’ as we say, with regard to this effort, thus it is believed that over time one becomes adept at introspecting without thinking about the act of introspection, which is very difficult to do, as any beginning meditation student or analysand might inform us), in which case it amounts to what Jon Elster—after the psychiatrist Leslie H. Farber—terms the (psychological or existential) fallacy of “willing what cannot be willed” (exemplified by the attempt, say, to ‘be natural’ or ‘act spontaneously’).

Wat Pho buddha
As is well known, the aim of psychoanalysis is not identical to the “spiritual insight” sought in Buddhism (although a conception of ‘insight’ is no less intrinsic to the former, as Ilham Dilman’s writings on psychoanalysis have made plain), and yet their therapeutic methods, at least in the beginning stages are, as we have seen, grounded in introspection (which, we might point out, is only one-third of the Eightfold Path in Buddhism), and these philosophical and psychological therapies are animated by a shared concern for the relief of sundry forms of suffering (Buddhism holding out the promise of the absolute cessation of suffering).

In a future post I hope to better clarify what introspection is and is not in this instance. For example, at least in psychoanalysis and Buddhism, it is not equivalent or reducible to thinking or perceiving in the epistemic sense, or indeed to any of our cognitive and cogitative powers or sensations, emotions, moods and so forth. Rather, it is the process of observing these mental and bodily powers and capacities as if they are reflected onto a mirror (a metaphor for meditation and consciousness or mind found in several Asian philosophies). We can of course reflect on these in the conventional sense, in other words, think about or ruminate on them, but that is not the sense of reflection we are speaking about with introspection, although things get a bit complicated or tricky when we address the topic of “analytic” meditation in Buddhism, for that does, most assiduously, entail applying the powers of reason to these mental contents! As Jeffrey Hopkins has said, “With one voice all the Mahāyāna masters proclaim that analysis of objects, and not mere withdrawal of the mind from them, is the path to liberation.” Introspection or meditation is thus a necessary yet not sufficient condition of the therapeutic process, as “psycho-analysis” likewise presumes the prior presence of the mental “objects” of introspection. In short, both Buddhist meditation and psychoanalytic therapy begin with introspection, the contents of which are then subject to various kinds of “analysis,” the point at which reason, among other things (including the roles of the guru or spiritual teacher and analyst), enters the therapeutic picture.

Spellbound 2
In the end, therapeutic practices that begin with meditation or introspection may culminate in an “empty mind,” at least in Patañjali’s Yoga, Daoism, and Advaita Vedānta (in the last, nirguṇa Brahman is the simultaneous immanent and transcendent indeterminate state of mystical awareness about which nothing can be affirmed, hence the via negativa or apophatic tradition of mysticism is germane). In Buddhism, the experience of nibbāna is, in the words of Miri Albahari, “none other than the mind in its pure mode of percipience or witnessing,”“[s]o nibbāna must be embedded in the principle of percipience [or introspection?] itself, with the full percipience of nibbāna implying the witnessing mind to be completely free from objects of awareness (whether attended to or not).” Nibbānic consciousness is therefore best characterized as “in itself,” both subjectless and objectless. The end or ends of psychoanalysis are more modest and therefore less elusive: while psychoanalytic therapy may prove successful in the relief of certain kinds of suffering (that arise, say, from deep dissatisfaction of one kind or another, from unmet emotional or psychological needs, from profound feelings of helplessness, from oppressive anxieties, from bad habits or addictions, etc.) in the amelioration of its conditions, it does not claim to provide the absolute transcendence of suffering as such.

The paths of therapeutic praxis in Buddhism and psychoanalysis might both be considered long-lasting, circuitous and arduous (at least in comparison to purely cognitive, behavioral, biomedical or pharmacological approaches), which is not surprising given our prior comments about the folly of “willing what cannot be willed” in these matters. Finally, introspection need not assume in any strong or reified sense that these mental objects, so to speak, are simply “inner” in nature, even if this process is largely solitary and personal (leaving aside for the moment the roles of the spiritual teacher or guru and analyst), as it involves a metaphorical kind of looking inwards, observing what is in or on our minds in this peculiar intertwining or fusion of the first- and second-person perspectives.
Psychanalyst's couchRelevant Bibliographies:
Thai Buddha


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