Friday, November 12, 2010

Psychotherapy and Spirituality

I recently finished reading Mark Epstein's Psychotherapy Without the Self, and found his treatment of the subject fascinating. Let me begin by saying that I'm not a psychologist--I teach high school English--so I'm certainly no expert in the field of psychotherapy. Epstein, a psychotherapist himself, leans towards traditional Freudian psychonalysis. Most of the text synthesizes the work of Freud and a British psychologist named Donald Winnicott with the Buddha's teaching, namely that of anatman or no-self.

The book is denser than some of Epstein's other mainstream work (I'm thinking of Thoughts Without a Thinker and Going on Being), the prose tighter, the material more challenging. It certainly is not your usual feel-good Buddhism-meets-psychology title; this is serious psychoanalytical theory.

A point that resonated deepply with me was Epstein's response to Jack Engler's famous statement, "You have to be somebody before you can be nobody." I first heard this from Ken Wilber, the amazing American uber-philosopher. Basically what it means is that before you transcend the ego, you must heal it first. Jumping over neuroses won't cure them. You may experience transcendental bliss during deep samadhi, but the moment you snap out of meditation, your old mental hang-ups will still be there to greet you.

Epstein challenges this. He points out that this assumption may cause more pain than it relieves, in that it implies that psychotherapy and meditation are at odds, or at the very least that the latter picks up where the former left off. This tends to split the self into two: a psychological and a spiritual being--a false division, according to Epstein. It may also frustrate someone on the spiritual path, because the person, perhaps unconsciously or intuitively following Engler's dictum, thinks, "Why am I so depressed (or angry or anxious)? I meditate; I should be happy (or calm or less nervous)." I know I have.

This false dichotomy, "that the meditiatve path can begin only when a cohesive self is attainted[,] is to run the risk of ignoring meditation's impact on the infantile narcissistic residue" (38). In other words, meditation can help people confont and understand the source of their suffering. Meditation and psychotherapy need not be at odds; in fact, they can work cooperatively to reveal the true nature of the self--impermanent, conditioned, and empty.

I like this a lot. It highlights a conflict I have found in my own practice: why aren't I a calmer person as the result of meditation? This leads me to feel guilty and/or ashamed, because it's hard not to feel like a Buddhist failure when you find yourself still frustrated by the stress of mundane events (I should be above all this! the thinking goes). But that's not true (or fair).

There is no spiritual me as opposed to some mental, everday me.
Overall, Engler and Wilber, I think, create an unnescessary false dichotomy in the self through their maxim. Epstein puts it best when he writes, "My ultimate position [is] that both 'somedbody' and 'nobody' are fasely reified positions that do not do justice to what it means to be a person or to grapple with the self" (16). Well put.

As I think the above quotations suggests, in this book Epstein explores the self in all its complexity and inner conflict. I highly recommend this title, especially for those intested in psychology. Check it out; I think it's well worth the read.

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