Monday, April 25, 2011

Psychoanalysis and Buddhism

“You have to be somebody before you can be nobody,” Jack Engler famously said in his 1986 Transformations of Consciousness. What he means is that in order to transcend the self, we must first have a full developed one in the first place. As Barry Magid, psychoanalyst and Zen teacher, explains: "No spiritual practice can truly undo a dualistic perspective without engaging and working through previously disassociated experience. Otherwise, momentary experiences of 'oneness' will only serve to further split off and sequester disassociated traumatic affects with a false promise of attaining a transcendent state beyond the reach of the old trauma." In Psychoanalysis and Buddhism, edited by Jeremy Safran, Engler revises and elaborates upon this statement he made over 25 years ago.

What I find most fascinating about Engler’s treatment of the subject of anatman (no self) is his systematic deconstruction of the stages leading from our ordinary self to the experience of no self. According to him, the jhana states represent ascending levels of reality construction that our minds perform on a pre-conscious level. So as meditators proceed upwards through the jhanas, they are in fact retracing how their minds create this dualistic world, where subject and object appear to be divorced. The final state resembles a quantum experiment, where reality is experienced in its rawest form—as flashes of discontinuous, impersonal quanta (for lack of a better word). Impermanence, emptiness, and interdependence, while only words, are the ones best suited to describe the realm of anatman. Engler draws upon the voluminous, painstaking detail of the Abhidharma (and I believe, though am not certain, upon his own personal experience) as evidence. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you agree with him or not.

Another fascinating topic that Engler tackles is why we experience the self in the first place. If, after all, the self has no ontological reality (as opposed to a psychological reality, which Engler agrees does exist) Engler suggests that the reason we rely on this representational construct called a self is because our minds' emptiness terrifies us. In fear of our own emptiness, we try to reify the representational "I" into a separate, concrete, unchanging entity with a core or essence. This, according to Buddhism—the false belief in a substantial “I”—is the root of our suffering. So it’s not, as some might assume, the fear of death that prompts the “I” delusion, as much as it is fear of our own emptiness. For why fear death if, as Barry Magid puts it later in this same book "[t]here is no essential self to defend"?

Overall, Psychoanalysis and Buddhism is a bit of a mixed bag. Some essays are better than others, or at least more suited to my tastes. Barry Magid’s essay “Orindary Mind” rocks. But what else would you expect someone in the Ordinary Mind school to say? More about that in future posts.

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