Minding What Matters: Psychotherapy and the Buddha Within (Book Review)

Author:  Langan, Robert
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
Reviewed By: Geneva Reynaga Abiko, Vol. XXVI, 4 (Fall 2006), pp. 72-73

Consider the stereotype of the seemingly all knowing, strikingly intellectual psychoanalyst. Then consider the stereotype of the all-knowing, strikingly profound Buddhist monk or scholar. Now combine the two. What suddenly emerges is an impression of Robert Langan, author of the fantastic text, Minding What Matters: Psychotherapy and the Buddha Within. This book not only tells us about the many correlations between psychoanalysis and Buddhism, but also serves as a great introductory text into Buddhist thought.

It truly is quite difficult to put words to the experience of reading this book, for it takes the reader on a journey that cannot possibly be captured or contained by anything as finite as words. The journey that begins (or is continued by) reading this book has no clear destination, but certainly includes a process that is far beyond ordinary teachings of both Buddhism and psychoanalysis. This is not the type of book that one may skim through or easily turn to a particular chapter with the intent of finding out a specific fact or piece of information. In order to understand this work, one must truly engage it; carefully consider it; even meditate on its deep lessons.

Reading this book feels like peering into the mind of Langan and following him around for a bit, through both clinical practice and meditation. Hidden within the text are lessons of life as well as humble suggestions for how to work clinically. Langan’s writing style often feels like a stream of consciousness, seemingly without a specific theme or clear beginning point. However, if one carefully follows his arguments, it becomes evident that what seem like sentences simply flowing out of his mind and onto the page are actually lessons that only a person who has devoted significant amounts of time to life’s most important questions can possibly create. In this way, the profound nature of each chapter only becomes clear after one gives it time to “settle in,” as it were.

For those patient and astute enough to persevere, this book is absolutely a gem. It combines Langan’s Buddhist approach to being in the world with clinical vignettes demonstrating his therapeutic style. It is a very useful meditation on several key concepts of Buddhism, such as attending within (Ch. 1), emptiness (Ch. 2), consciousness (Ch. 3), the Tibetan Buddhist phases of life and death (Ch. 4), attachment (Ch. 5), and transformation (Ch. 6). Throughout each chapter, Langan flows back and forth from Buddhism and psychoanalysis, illustrating the shared goals, styles, and approaches of the two. The fictional clinical vignette also flows throughout the entire book, requiring “…a turning of attention on the part of the reader which, I hope, can impart something of a mindful self-awareness to the process of reading” (p. 138).

In other ways, this text is for advanced readers who are familiar with the manner of speaking that seems common with Buddhists, and perhaps psychoanalysts as well. This style shines through very clearly throughout the text and requires willingness to follow Langan through the journey of each chapter, trusting that lessons are embedded deep within the text. This style may frustrate the beginner who desires simple answers, much like patients new to psychoanalysis often feel frustrated with the ambiguous nature of the process. However, it could be said that there is no clear, easily identifiable path to learning about Buddhism, or psychoanalysis, for that matter. This book, like the fields of study it attempts to illuminate, requires complete engagement in order to even begin to understand it.

Langan’s writing style is almost like an example of Buddhism. It is very creative and flows so smoothly that the reader often feels like s/he is being led on a journey, hearing stories from a trusted elder along the way. Langan’s poetic style is genius, with humility and subtle humor surrounding each word. However, the material must be carefully digested in order to fully integrate all of the information that is offered. It seems that the reader is offered three different texts: the chapter content, the clinical vignette, and the endnotes. The only time Langan actually teaches about clinical practice is in the endnotes, which is a very clever touch, in that the reader may choose to experience the text as a Buddhist one, a psychoanalytic one, or in a way that completely defies categorization.

The book ends simply, almost as abruptly as it begins, and the only sense of resolution one may find is on the last page of the endnotes:

“…’being dismissive or being merged’ as ways of living both reflect, in Buddhist terms, clinging, an ungenerous grasping. The merging is a kind of greed, the dismissiveness a kind of aversion, and both the greed and the aversion avoid the more generous option of letting go, allowing otherness, surrendering to impermanence and emptiness. A similar letting go is required of you, the reader, and me, the author, while the analysand leaves, the analyst fades to emptiness, and the book ends. As we watch, in mind’s eye, the analyst’s eyes half close, let us allow to cross his mind…” (p. 164).

Langan is to be commended for producing this phenomenal work. It is a much-welcomed addition to the growing literature on psychoanalysis and Buddhism. As a psychologist interested in psychoanalytic theory who just happens to be a practicing Buddhist, I found myself challenged to look at both fields in new ways as well as reconsider previously held assumptions. I also thoroughly enjoyed Langan’s approach, and admire his ability to communicate with the reader in such an open, humble, yet complex manner. He possesses the rare ability to illuminate complex Buddhist concepts with a poetic writing style that allows the reader to understand what he is talking about without becoming bogged down in complex theory or new vocabulary. Langan focuses on the core essence of Buddhism and psychoanalysis, taking a roundabout approach when illuminating his ideas. This is, paradoxically, what makes his work so easy to understand, provided one stays on board for the entire journey.

Perhaps I am not being clear enough. Perhaps I have not answered your questions as to what to expect from this book. However, perhaps that is the point. Perhaps the only way to find out what the book is like is to experience it for yourself. In this way, Langan’s text is much like life, the practice of meditating, and the art of psychoanalysis: all the teaching in the world cannot prepare you for the actual experience of it. You must engage the process and find out for yourself!

Geneva Reynaga-Abiko

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