Buddhism and Psychoanalysis: An Unfolding Dialogue (Book Review)

Author:  Safran, Jeremy
Publisher:  Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003
Reviewed By:  Susan Parlow, Spring 2004, pp. 45-47

It may be too soon to write the definitive book on Buddhism and psychoanalysis, but Jeremy Safran’s idea of an edited volume written by psychoanalysts who also are long-time meditators, whose chapters are discussed by well-known psychoanalytic writers, allows us to make a definitive step forward. The unique features of this encounter are laced through the different chapters even where an author may address more conventional issues in psychoanalytic thought or follow traditional methods perhaps not reworked for this particular interdisciplinary initiative. The editor’s own introduction serves as the frame of the discussion and locates the project in a traditional academic domain, but the book itself challenges this framework and by the end illuminates the limitations of this approach in truly grasping the dialogue at the level of real encounter.

Safran locates the encounter at the edge of progressive/relational psychoanalysis. Through rigorous scholarly method, he poses the question: “Why now?” Why has psychoanalysis become strongly interested in Buddhism? Safran maintains that psychoanalysis has recently moved away from a strictly scientific self-image to recognition of itself as a belief system of sorts, one that requires a kind of faith—if faith can be fairly construed as commitment to a set of intellectual principles and procedures. But it is in the common use of versions of dialectical constructivism in both Buddhism and relational psychoanalysis that he find the major conceptual bridge between the two, finding a meeting point in their shared view of the human self as insubstantial, contextualized , socially constructed, and interdependent. For him, this convergence is compatible with the political, social climate of today where traditional authority—whether of a church or an analytic relationship—is less useful than a democratic re-distribution of power and initiative between the analytic dyad, and ultimately in the inter-dependently and creatively constructed self.

Safran believes that today we are psychological, not religious, in our basic self-view, and believes that purely religious expressions of the human condition can no longer have important meaning for us. He assumes, then, that what is effective and meaningful for us is to see both the religion of Buddhism and the hermeneutic/science of psychoanalysis as human cultural inventions. He traces the development of each discipline through different cultural, social and historical circumstances. He suggests that the traditional agnosticism of Buddhism complements the contemporary upsurge of interest in faith, creativity and community, and recognition of psychoanalysis itself as a belief system. The twain may be meeting.

Safran is himself a long-time serious meditator and respectful student of Buddhism. Like the other authors, he can communicate sense and sensibility of Buddhism in his elegantly construed concepts of mind from a Buddhist perspective. But it is only in the last two sections of his chapter that a hint of the spiritual as having anything truly new and other to what we already know emerges. First, he returns to the notion of the disenchantment of reality that emerged within both traditional psychoanalysis, with its valorization of secondary process, and Western culture in general, with the modern, scientific and technological age. Here again, constructivism offers salvation: the multiple relational self, as developed particularly by Mitchell, can be validly constructed as passionate, ecstatic, and open to fantasy, rather than autonomous, bounded and rational; he is satisfied that openness to enlightenment experiences can fall under this rubric.

But the final section introduces a consideration that to the mind of a spiritually identified person such as myself truly contacts the spiritual in its own nature and hints at its fuller potential and a major challenge to this dialogue. Safran quotes Donnel Stern’s review of the existential commitment of Irwin Hoffman’s book: “He puts psychoanalysis in life, and not life in psychoanalysis”. This bare hint is the nod he gives to the radical, transformative, uncontrollable power of the religious ground, the Infinite, which after all contains us, is entirely outside of our capacity to name it and discuss it, and which creates the larger context of life in which psychoanalysis these days is nervously trying to serve.

Sara Weber has different intuitions of how to profitably open the minds of psychoanalysis and Buddhism to each other. In her graceful opening sentences she gently takes the reader by the hand and enfolds her into the space of surrender: the alert, open, easy space sought as the goal of meditation practice. She is not just talking theoretically about the differences between Eastern and Western notions of mind but has chosen, to fine effect, to use her own surrendered mind as a window open to us. We are no longer outside the walls of the great city but have passed through the gates. “When I was a child I often experienced equanimity,” she begins, “a sense of profound peace when I was sick. If I had the flu or a fever, all was somehow at rest in the world. Though uncomfortable, I was somehow safe—held in a state of grace” (p. 170). One reads this, remember the suspension of angst when one was simply physically ill; feels her mother, secure in her clear maternal role priorities, put a cool cloth on her forehead. So,

how can anyone believe, faced with the depth of pain, wounds, depression, ugliness and fear of death that we all carry, that we can survive being alive—much less become fully alive? And yet if we cannot tolerate our pain and suffering and fears, can we be truly present in our lives?” (p. 171)

Weber identifies the state she cultivates through meditation (after Langan) as “willing not to will”…not to will health, or no pain, or no depression, when one’s “undiagnosed manic-depressive sister, or one’s mother’s suicidal wishes,” are roiling the real atmosphere of one’s life. She connects this with Ghent’s notion of surrender. Weber suggests (she does not argue) that the state of surrender is connected to the Winnicottian developmental tasks wherein the baby inhabits its own psyche-soma, floating as fragments while being held by the mother. She draws a connection—found partly through her own study of Buddhism but even more through her own experience as a meditator–between such containing and holding , the experience of being safe and floatingly held, and the practice of Vipassana meditation, where the goal is to gently attend to the contents of awareness, letting it float there but not getting involved with it.

She then suggests that this state can be seen as a relational, post-scientific interpretation of Freud’s “evenly hovering attention,” a version emphasizing the holding quality of the attention of the analyst in the relationship rather than the precise, technologically imagined objectivity of Freud’s scientific orientation. She goes on to demonstrate the efficacy of this quality of presence in an extended and beautifully articulated clinical example, where a shift in the quality of the analyst’s attention, once she surrendered herself in the presence of the patient, communicated the depth of safety, profound nonjudgementalness, and lack of fear necessary for the patient to dare to become fully present to her own self— “to see things as they are, from a foundation of equanimity and deep acceptance”. I was impressed by the radical degree of tolerance for the most mad, shameful or aggressive material cultivated by this approach. Weber shows us the spiritually transformed mind at work, a deeply compassionate, quiet presence that suffers all things and contains all things, and thus “permits greater creative experiences of being”. She observes that she, perhaps like the field of psychoanalysis itself, was too much overtaken by the content of thought in its theories and had forgotten the powerful value of just being there, if, as Weber clearly has done, one can achieve this position to begin with.

Jeffrey B. Rubin’s final chapter of the book takes us the furthest into a post-synthesis statement by content, spirit and method. I assume that Safran placed this article last knowing that Rubin has seized hold of the question of psychoanalysis is in life or life in psychoanalysis and has developed it in original ways. Rubin’s overarching topic is the well-lived life, as good a rubric as any for the basic question of Wisdom traditions (religions that deal with everyday life, as opposed to dealing with issues of transcendence) that inform faith systems such as Buddhism and psychoanalysis, placing each system within the question, how to live? His chapter is richly argued, informed from multiple perspectives, lively and fresh in its conceptions.

It has been my belief, expressed in the opening sentences of this review, that the terms, methods and issues of dialogue between this spirituality and psychoanalysis are not yet developed. Rubin argues that this area is marked less by real dialogue and more by “monologue without interruption” (p. 388), wherein each tradition stands within itself and lack capacity, interest and real understanding of the other. We are aware of Freud’s pathologizing of religion: Rubin adds that the idealization of the spiritual quest hampers dialogue (and augments disappointment), particularly true with the current elevation of Buddhism by some to a place of infallibility and insight into questions of how to live. He argues for true dialogue of reciprocity, which requires thinking in the spaces between each tradition—reminding us of Safran’s emphasis on the process of psychic construction—and remembering that each of these disciplines return us to attend to our individual experience; the Buddha taught we are to be a lamp unto ourselves. What can each do for the other? Psychoanalysis, for example, illuminates the secret self-deceptions and evasions that lie outside of willed efforts to follow spiritual disciplines, can reveal the shaping patterns of past experience on the present, can illuminate multiple private meanings of even altruistic acts. Buddhism can open up what is the good life of itself; what life itself is about, when are we ready, for example, to terminate?

Psychoanalysis has particular value in any discourse or practice pertaining to a struggle for the good life, Rubin continues, because it is itself value-neutral, yet can interrogate any version or lack of version of the values, existential attitudes whether an unreflective materialism or an unthought though religious life. More centrally, he makes the point that psychoanalysts have privileged “access to depths of contemporary subjectivity that are not explored anywhere else in daily life.” (p. 396)

Rubin weaves the awareness that truth is not a province of any one school of thought, but thrives in the interstices between, into a fuller, spiritualized embrace of that very individual experience. I especially his mention of the Japanese aesthetical conception of wabi sabi: the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete (p. 399). The embrace of real experience, as found in psychoanalysis, meditation and Eastern aesthetics, challenges the idealism and perfectionism of our culture and retrieves the value of the ordinary, passing moment, in its imperfections being perfectly what it is—the snow three days later, the psychoanalytic session which isn’t yet going anywhere. Psychoanalysis and Buddhism share this embrace of the messiness of real experience in the real world, and each recommend continual vigilance—of self analysis, of meditative acceptance and awareness—to keep it fresh and worth living.

I recommend to the reader the rest of Rubin’s richly textured considerations. As well, of course, I recommend the chapters by the other authors that I do not have the space to address. In certain cases what I believe to be the failure of the discussant to take hold of the spiritual otherness of the meanings of the essays is apparent and can serve usefully to reveal the limitations of existing academic methods in there place in this dialogue. In particular, Owen Renik, in his discussion of Polly Young-Eisendrath’s Jungian systematization of her way of working, winds up returning to arguments he has made elsewhere, as if the very difference of her approach cannot and will not sway him from what he already knows. Charles Spezzano, in discussing Rubin’s chapter, also seems to find the spiritual meaning and direction elusive; Rubin himself comments, “He may be missing a central focus of my essay.” (p. 419)

The chapter by Jack Engler on the experience of self from Buddhist and psychoanalytic perspectives, with Steve Mitchell as the discussant, may alone attract people to this book. In the course of that discussion, Mitchell recognizes that there is a kind of absolute divide between secular humanists and the spiritually experienced. He adverts to several patients of his own who had had mystical experiences that they brought to the analysis. Mitchell says of this: “I can help them explore its possible contributing factors and implications, which can be very important. And I have told them that if I had experienced some of what they had, it would undoubtedly reorient my own sense of realities and illusions.” (p. 86) Mitchell’s appreciation of this limit reminds of another issue that cross-cuts the dialogue in question—the issue that Jews and Christians refer to as the divide between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In the present volume, Mark Finn takes space in his response to his interlocutor to address the issue of God that lies unspoken just outside of any academic discourse of Buddhism not as the psychology we can comfortably relate to from our existing methods and habits of thoughts, but as in fact the religion it holds itself to be. In responding to Neil Altman, he states: “It struck me that there remains a coyness about spiritual matters that perhaps contributed to my feeling of our agreeing but not quite meeting. I had a sense he found Buddhist psychology generally acceptable but chose not to engage the mystical ground of that psychology. I believe that part of the reason that Buddhism has proven to be so acceptable to psychology is that it is an empirical method of psychological change with spiritual overtones that can be pursued while the whole upsetting matter of religion can appear to be avoided.” (p. 124)

The different approaches allow us to sketch out a few compass points in this dialogue between the sacred and the secular. It is with thanks to the breath, quality and comprehensiveness that we can begin to ask such questions.

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