Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Buddhism and psychoanalysis: two rather different “therapies of desire” fashioned for the relief of suffering

Freud and the Buddha
“How does Freud create a [new] science out of a self-analysis?” (John Forrester) is a question akin if not identical to asking, ”How did Siddhattha Gotama (of the Sākiyas)—the Buddha—create a spiritual and philosophical therapy (or new religion) out of meditation?” (a question posed by students of religion). While I think these are worthwhile queries for any number of reasons, I will not attempt to address them here, although even their cursory consideration may prove provocative and fruitful. These exemplary and creative historical endeavors are not of course instances of creation ex nihilo, for in both cases we situate their emergence within traditions, cultures, societies—their religious, philosophical, and scientific contexts and predecessors, for example—that serve as necessary yet not sufficient conditions for both Buddhism and psychoanalysis.* And in spite of their obvious historical, geographical, and cultural distances and thus differences from each other, both Buddhism and psychoanalysis proffer distinctive philosophies and methods of therapeutic healing with some overlap in methods, values, and even psychological insight.

A significant and growing body of literature now exists engaged in what we can loosely call cross-cultural interaction, examination, and dialogue between these two psychological therapies: there are Buddhists (more than a few being Western converts) and Buddhist communities (representing the three main ‘schools:’ Theravāda, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna) in countries where Freudian psychology has (for motley reasons and for better and worse) created what John Forrester aptly terms “psychoanalytic cultures,” or what Auden memorably described as “a whole climate of opinion” suffused with the thoughts, values, and spirit of psychoanalytic psychology; and there are psychoanalytic traditions and institutions established in Asian countries, indeed, in many countries outside Europe and North America (in other words, both Buddhism and Freudian psychology are globally entrenched). There are psychoanalysts who are at the same time Buddhists (owing to psychoanalysts becoming Buddhists and, on occasion, Buddhist practitioners becoming psychoanalysts), and a few Buddhists like Padmasiri de Silva who have, with ardent interest and clear sympathy, examined Freudian psychology with due scholarly care and acumen.

Both of these therapeutic philosophies and regimens address existential and psychological questions and problems indissolubly linked to (avoidable) suffering with considerable intellectual sophistication and affective knowledge and awareness, each with perhaps something to offer their historical and cultural counterpart by way of enhancing the breadth and depth of their unique forms of healing (both overlap with, yet are different from, historic forms of ‘philosophy as therapeia’ like Stoicism, bearing in mind that the distinction between philosophy and religion in Asian worldviews is often difficult to make), possible respective contributions that need not be made at the expense of effacing their undoubtable interpersonal, psychological, and philosophical or spiritual differences.

From my vantage point however, and generally speaking (i.e., there are a few exceptions), the regnant assumption or presumption—at least if the extant literature is representative—is that psychoanalysis or psychoanalysts can learn or benefit from an acquaintance with Buddhism, not that Buddhists should be students of psychoanalytic philosophy and therapy. I would argue the former might indeed benefit from familiarity with intra-and inter-personal psychological phenomena identified during analytic treatment, in particular, and by way of but one example, transference and counter-transference as it occurs in the relationship between the analysand and analyst (consider the well-documented sexual and other scandals involving Buddhist teachers and their students). I say this not to insinuate the superiority of psychoanalysis over Buddhism but only by way of suggesting the possibility that we might engage in the aforementioned and ongoing cross-cultural interaction, examination, and dialogue in such a manner as to refrain from (pre)judging the superiority, as it were, of one or the other therapeutic tradition, even as we attempt to assay their respective merits and possible shortcomings. In other words, this dialogue might proceed without the interlocutors claiming or attempting to prove their form of healing as somehow superior to all others. This is, of course, extremely difficult to do when the participants often identify with one or the other therapeutic traditions although, as we hinted above, some practitioners may have already found a way of personally integrating—or complementing—Buddhism and psychoanalytic psychology within their individual worldviews and therapeutic praxes, regardless of possible or probable tensions, contradictions, or lack of intellectual consistency (which is not to claim that it is impossible to dialectically transcend same, thereby achieving some coherent form of theory and/or praxis on this score).

* An important difference here is that the Buddha’s teachings were exclusively oral, while Freud’s self-analysis achieved sufficient publicity through literary form (as ‘autobiographical writing’) in The Interpretation of Dreams (Die Traumdeutung, 1899). The structure and distinctive features of early Buddhist literature suggests these teachings were memorized by his disciples (monks who specialized in such memorization and recitation) and passed down for several centuries in oral form before being written down. Both Buddhist and non-Buddhist scholars of Buddhism have argued that these oral teachings were adapted to the spiritual and psychological capacities or needs (or knowledge) of the audience, disciple(s) or interlocutor(s) of the Buddha, hence this is often an important factor in interpreting the precise meaning of the teachings in question. The psychoanalytic counterpart of this pedagogical adaptability exists in the process of analysis itself, which is characterized by its personal dimension and the corresponding therapeutic objective of the psychoanalytic dialogue (the principal reason, as Ilham Dilman reminds us, one cannot characterize psychoanalytic interpretations as either ‘descriptive statements’ or ‘explanatory hypotheses’). The analyst’s interpretation “speaks to the person ... about himself, and seeing its truth [in the form of self-knowledge] is very different from coming to see an ‘objective’ truth” (Dilman). All the same, I would depict the dialectic between objective and subjective truth a bit differently in the case of Buddhism insofar as it is not, generally speaking, individuated in quite the same manner or degree (Buddhist teachers do, however, attempt to identify general character or personality traits of their students, for such knowledge is indispensable for suggesting a particular type of meditation practice) as it is in psychoanalysis (in comments on this thread, I expressed thoughts to the contrary, or at least downplayed possible differences).

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