Healing and Emotional Maturity

Geoff Dawson

Since the time I began Zen practice about twenty five years ago, I have also been working as a psychologist. Through my experience of working in both fields I have always been curious as to how much these two practices were similar or different and how much they could contribute to one another. The reason why they have been so frequently compared and contrasted is because they are both concerned with psychological suffering. One is a spiritual discipline and the other a mix of hard and soft science but what both have in common is that neither are primarily interested in questions of academic philosophy or theological correctness. These are secondary issues. The prime focus is healing and maturing the emotional mind. Therefore the questions that drive my curiosity are pragmatic questions that address issues about duty of care in my role as a psychologist and as a Zen teacher and questions about what works and what doesn’t work. After all, Buddhist practice and psychotherapy are ultimately about people and their well being, not about theories and ideals.

Buddhist practice has always been concerned with the general malaise and dissatisfaction which all human beings suffer from – dukkha, whereas psychotherapy on the other hand has been concerned historically with mental illness – the more extreme forms of suffering, such as psychosis and personality disorders. However as psychotherapy has evolved and become more accepted within western cultures it increasingly addresses the normal /neurotic population as well. The “worried well” as the saying goes. Unflattering as it may seem to some, the vast majority of Buddhist practitioners fall into this last category too. As I remember my teacher Charlotte Joko Beck once saying, the profile of the average American Zen student is that of a tertiary educated, intelligent and caring, middle class neurotic. I think the same assessment could apply to Australian Zen students and Buddhist practitioners in general. Buddhist meditation centres and psychotherapists are dealing with a clientele that overlaps considerably!

It is also important to consider when addressing this large and complex topic that within Buddhism there are a diverse number of schools which don’t necessarily agree on what is best practice for people. Within psychotherapy there is also a diverse number of therapeutic models which have different points of view so we cannot take a simplistic black and white approach to this topic. The best one can do with such a broad topic is take core attributes of both traditions, knowing there may be exceptions to the rule.

Recognising the richness and complexity of both traditions I would like to simply outline some of the training I have as a psychologist that may apply to working with people in a Buddhist context and secondly, training I have experienced through Buddhist practice that may apply to working with people in a psychotherapy context.

There are many psychotherapists as well as Buddhists who would take the view that it is not useful to try to mix the two together and make a soup out of them. I respect this view and I think there is a place for purists but for myself, I enjoy soup and don’t mind stirring in new ingredients if it enhances a soup that nourishes and heals.

Psychotherapy Applied to a Buddhist Context


The manual of diagnostic categories in clinical psychology and psychiatry is called D.S.M.IV (Diagnostic Statistical Manual) It outlines, for example, the various types of psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia; personality disorders such as borderline and anti-social; anxiety disorders such as panic attacks and post traumatic stress disorder; mood disorders such as major depression and dysthymia. To put it in Buddhist terms, it outlines the various types of dukkha, or at least the more extreme forms of dukkha, that people suffer from. Buddhism would describe such particular forms of suffering in metaphorical terms such as hell realms, hungry ghost realms and heavenly realms etc but these metaphors, colourful as they may be, lack specificity and an understanding of the possible genetic, neurological or environmental causes or correlates of such disturbances.
Buddhist meditation centres could benefit from an understanding of psychopathology. From time to time I come across psychotherapy clients or Buddhist practitioners who have not been psychologically ready to do an intensive meditation retreat and who have had a breakdown or at least a disturbing experience which did not help them as a result of attending one. On the other hand they may also have been disruptive to others.

As a guideline, meditation intensives are not appropriate for people with a history of psychosis, current major depression, a current drug or alcohol problem, or with a very fragile and disorganised sense of self. I am also a strong believer in Buddhist practitioners having a gradual approach to practice. Starting off with daily meditation, progressing to half day or one day retreats when ready and then attempting longer intensive retreats. What is also a safeguard is a system of personal interviews in a retreat, as we have in the Zen tradition, where practitioners have one to one private and confidential interviews with the teacher on a daily basis to discuss practice issues. The guidance and support of a teacher or senior student can assist enormously in helping people to get the best out of a retreat.

People who are encouraged to go straight into a meditation intensive without any meditation experience are at risk of having distressing experiences and may be put off further practice. We need to examine our own grandiosity if we think that meditation or our particular school of meditation is good for everyone. I believe some kind of assessment procedure is needed for centres conducting intensive retreats. Even as simple as asking participants on an application form if they are having any psychiatric or therapeutic treatment or whether they have a history of psychiatric illness. People need to be assessed on an individual basis but we need to be responsible and compassionate enough to say “no” on the occasions where it is clearly not in the persons best interest.

One further comment on this topic. People who adopt an alternative health philosophy are often attracted to meditation and Buddhism and may be opposed to the medical model and psychiatric diagnosis, believing that it demeans people by labelling them and putting them in a box. The Buddha on the other hand referred to people as stream, and therefore having no fixed identity. These two ways of understanding human experience are not necessarily incompatible. Diagnosis of psychological problems can be given in a spirit of compassion and understanding or in a cold, critical, dehumanising kind of way. What is important is the intention and manner in which it is done and with the recognition that the label is not the person, just a short hand way of understanding a particular problem in the same way a doctor may diagnose asthma or diabetes. I am reminded here of a well known Zen phrase, “Don’t mistake the pointing finger for the moon.”

Childhood Development and the Unconscious

All human beings have conditioning, both in a cultural sense and a family sense. One thing that is becoming clearer as Buddhism is practised in the West is that insight into the experience of No Self that comes from meditation practice does not necessarily break down our dysfunctional conditioning. Mature Buddhist practitioners may have the experience of seeing through their neurotic patterns and not taking themselves or their neurosis so seriously but nevertheless these karmic patterns remain.

One of the core beliefs of analytical psychotherapy is that we are a product of our past and our earliest impressions of life and other people are layed down in early childhood, particularly the first two years of life. In Buddhist terms this may be referred to as karma. One of my colleagues who has an interest in spirituality and psychotherapy refers to psychoanalysis as ‘karma analysis’. In other words it addresses the phenomenal perspective of cause and effect but not necessarily the essential perspective of No Self. Buddhism does not offer a detailed and scientific understanding of the effects of emotional neglect, trauma or abuse in childhood other than to just say that it is our karma.

Statistically it has been shown that people who have had significant misattunements, neglect and or abuse from their primary care givers early in life are likely to develop difficulties in their relationships with others throughout life. There is evidence to show that certain neurological connections in the brain are not formed when there is a lack of affection and care given to infants. Memories are layed down before the infant has developed verbal and conceptual skills and remain unconscious. In other words these memories influence the way we see the world and other people in ways we are not even aware of. For example whether we can trust others or not – or more particularly whether we can trust our intimates. The good news is that these connections can be remade again through corrective emotional experiences later on in life, such as psychotherapy. Cerebral blood flow studies show increased blood flow to certain parts of the brain post psychotherapy. Also, the research into meditation consistently shows that people who practice meditation develop more empathy towards others. Perhaps meditation also helps rewire our neurological networks.

Emotion and its Communication

In the book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, he places emotions into eight different families, fear; anger; sadness; love; joy; disgust; surprise and shame. We could also add a ninth – serenity, although it is not a state of arousal so it can be easily overlooked. Buddhism also distinguishes between afflictive and nourishing emotional states and emphasises the cultivation of the Four Noble Abodes; loving kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. Both psychotherapy and some Buddhist practices work towards integrating emotions rather than denying them. A general rule of thumb that could be applied to working with emotions in psychotherapy or Buddhist practice is “Don’t suppress them, don’t act them out.” However one of the common problems myself and other colleagues have found in working with clients with a spiritual practice is that there is a tendency to deny negative emotions because they don’t fit in with ones self image as a “nice” or “enlightened” spiritual person.

Christians as well as Buddhists and other religious minded people have a tendency to identify with their ideals rather than cultivate a true mindfulness as to what they experience emotionally. Buddhists, or at least Western practitioners of Buddhism, have a tendency to try to live up to an ideal of detachment and calmness which denies the existence of emotion. There is also a tendency, particularly amongst male practitioners of Buddhism to approach practice from a purely intellectual point of view which does not touch their emotional self. Emotions are simply a fact of being human, they are hard wired into our nervous system. The issue to do with the human condition is whether we can modulate and integrate emotions , not whether we eradicate them by conscious suppression or unconscious repression.

Psychotherapy may be seen as a type of mindfulness practice which helps us to identify and accept emotions that have not been integrated as we grew up. For instance, in the way boys are brought up in our culture, they are not supposed to have fear or cry and so this emotion so often does not get truly recognised and integrated but simply denied or disavowed which results in many psychological and health problems. The same is often true for the experience of anger in girls.

Identifying emotional states and learning how to modulate them can occur through the privacy of mindfulness meditation practice, however what is usually more therapeutic is identifying, acknowledging and expressing emotions in the presence of another person who can mirror them back in an empathic way and also help to contain them when they become overwhelming or destructive.

It is this emphasis on face to face empathy and containment around the acknowledgment and expression of emotion that makes psychotherapy a healing experience. It cultivates openness in a way that solitary introspection never really achieves. This same attitude of emotional openness and honesty is an important factor in a teacher/student relationship as well. It is impossible for any spiritual maturity to develop without it. It is part and parcel of the ongoing commitment of a therapeutic or spiritual relationship that one faces the truth of one’s emotional life.

Relationships – attachment, detachment and non-attachment

The main point I want to make here is that meditation cannot work successfully in a vacuum. It works within a context of relationships with other people, our teachers and community members, work colleagues, friends and family. Even hermits meditating in caves have an internalised memory of teachers and sangha members which sustains them. Mindfulness of relationships is the specialty of psychotherapy. People who have gone through extensive psychotherapy develop a greater awareness and understanding of their emotional reactions to others and others to them.

Generally speaking, in the way Buddhism is taught in the West, there is too much emphasis on practice as an understanding of internal states of consciousness. A practice which focuses only on internal states of consciousness and internal insight experiences is limited. The essential teaching of Buddhism is after all to recognise our interconnectedness with all of life and the application of this insight results in a transformation in our relationships with others.

I remember distinctly the words of one of the first Buddhist monks I met, who said, “You need to be attached before you can be non-attached.” A similar view is expressed by Jack Engler an American Vipassana teacher and psychologist who believes that many Western practitioners use Buddhism to rationalise their experience of alienation by seeing practice as simply an exercise in detachment. True non-attachment is the ability to throw oneself into life without the fear of rejection or the need to manipulate others. True non-attachment is the ability to love fearlessly, not the avoidance of relationships.
We can make relationships our practice rather than thinking they are something outside of practice. In the Ordinary Mind Zen School we make it our practice to work with what upsets us the most in our interactions with others and focus on that in meditation so that we can manage our own reactivity and see the true nature of others and ourselves more clearly.

Transference and Counter transference

As two people meet over and over again in a relationship of a therapeutic or spiritual nature where there are clear roles of one being a teacher and the other a student, or one a therapist and the other a client, a dynamic occurs which is referred to as transference. Spiritual teachers would be aware of the ‘felt sense’ of transference in their interactions with students. Analytical therapists have made a study of transference in far more detail and depth and it is one of the cornerstones of all analytically oriented therapies.

Transference, put simply, is the fixed expectation we have of other people in our lives. It can take the form for example of an idealised transference, an erotic transference, a hostile transference or a dependent transference. Clients or students project certain expectations onto a therapist or teacher which will be conditioned from their past experiences, particularly by their relationship with their mother or father, or their fantasy of what a mother or father should be if they lacked parental figures. When we are caught in a transference, it is as though we are in a trance. It is as though we are looking through a green lens and all we can see is green whenever we look at that person.

To put it in Buddhist terms, transference is a kind of delusion which prevents us from seeing the person as they are. One of the most common transferences in spiritual groups is an idealised transference, where the teacher is seen in a superhuman way and larger than life. Within limits this can be a healthy kind of transference to begin with which promotes good role modelling and the idealising evens out as the student matures. But if there is an over-idealised image of the teacher and unrealistic expectations, it is usually followed at some stage by a devaluing of the teacher. The more unstable the student is (or the more influenced the teacher is by praise and blame) the more stormy the relationship is likely to be.
Counter transference on the other hand refers to the therapists reaction to the client. In Freudian terms, this used to refer to unresolved issues the therapist has which colour his/her relationship with others. eg a fixed view that all people are weak and helpless and need to be helped. A more contemporary view is that transference and counter transference evolve together and the experience of counter transference is a key to help the therapist understand the client’s inner experience in greater depth. A therapist’s role and a spiritual teacher’s role is to absorb the transference and detoxify it, rather than react to it.

An understanding of these interpersonal dynamics is invaluable in helping therapists and teachers understand the difficulties that may develop in their relationships with clients or students. Difficulties may then be worked through rather than misunderstandings remaining unresolved or resulting in an end to the relationship. Understanding transference helps us to have a longer and wider view of the teacher/student relationship so that the storms can be weathered much more effectively.

The recognition of counter transference in the therapist or teacher is essential. It should be a part of a teacher’s ongoing practice to examine their own problems that get drawn to the surface in their interactions with students. We are only too aware of Buddhist teachers in all traditions who have become caught up in their students’ erotic and idealised transferences which has lead to an unethical violation of boundaries. A teacher who is not prepared to examine their own counter transference is not humble enough to teach and is a danger to others and to him/ her self. Religious traditions with their high ideals can become a hiding place for unexamined grandiosity. Buddhist teachers are only human and need ongoing support and accountability with their colleagues just as psychotherapists do.

An old truth which is worth repeating is that a therapist or a teacher can only take someone as far as they have gone themselves along the road of maturity.

Buddhism Applied to a Psychotherapeutic Context


The engine of Buddhism is meditation. Without it Buddhism is just another set of interesting but useless philosophical beliefs. It is not necessary in this brief essay to try to summarise the research into the well known benefits of meditation but it may be useful to categorise the different levels at which it may be practiced, according to the aspirations of the meditator.

Meditation may be used for:
Relaxation ;
Mental Health;
Spiritual Awakening.

In a clinical setting meditation is mostly used for its relaxation response. The more I work as a therapist, the more I introduce meditation into therapy. Nearly all of my clients that I see individually learn to meditate at some point or another and I find nearly all are interested in doing so. The method I teach people who are beginners is the Zen method of breath counting. ( Focussing on the breath and mentally vocalising the word one with the length of the out breath, then 2….3…..4 etc up to 10 and then starting at one again etc.)

A technique I have introduced to quickly help beginners understand the benefits of meditation in an empirical way, is to measure their breaths per minute before I teach them the method and then contrast it to their breaths per minute after 10 minutes of meditation. I always meditate with them. A healthy rate of breaths per minute is 10 to 12 at rest. (experienced meditators may be lower than this) Many of the clients I see are people who are very anxious and are often well over this rate. After 10 minutes of meditation most people have about a 50% reduction in their breaths per minute and are surprised at the effect it has had. They often say they feel the most peaceful they have felt in a long time.

Meditation gives people a simple but effective means to self soothe. This capacity to calm and nurture oneself is usually not well developed with people who have experienced neglect and/or abuse in their formative years. Meditation gives people an immediate way of developing an inner source of well being that they never internalised from loving parental figures.
Whether we use meditation for relaxation, to improve mental health or for spiritual awakening, the process is the same. By bringing the mind into the here and now, focussing on the breath and not automatically following thoughts and images, the brain circuitry immediately starts to settle down and the body follows. The benefit is not just a relaxation response but the realisation, a passing glimmer though it may be, that one doesn’t have to be a slave to one’s neurotic thoughts and the effect they have of stirring up negative emotional states.

Breath counting is the meditation method of choice for me when working with people in a clinical setting because it is free of any religious overtones which might clash with their religious or secular beliefs.

It gives people a clear structure to work within and it is particularly appropriate for people with so called borderline conditions and others who feel lost in their internal landscape.

While I am not enthusiastic about people with mental health problems doing meditation intensives without assessment and close supervision, I find that brief regular practice of meditation is beneficial for nearly everyone I come into contact with.

Mental Health

When one moves beyond the desire to experience the relief of relaxation, there emerges a desire to understand the causes of distress and not just treat the symptoms. This involves learning how to understand, communicate and manage emotions. This is the common denominator in most forms of therapy. The main skills the client develops in therapy are self reflection and the ability to identify and verbalise emotions. Cognitive therapists also help people to understand and challenge their automatic negative thoughts and core beliefs that lead to faulty thinking and negative emotional states.

Meditation can be a wonderful adjunct to therapy because apart from its self soothing effect, it also strengthens the power of the observing self and slows the mind down enough to enable us to observe its contents and it processes more clearly.

Once clients have learned to self soothe and focus the mind with some degree of success, it can be useful I find to move onto labelling as a form of meditation. This involves simultaneously observing and fully experiencing one’s stream of consciousness and giving a simple label to one’s state of mind as it comes and goes. It requires curiosity about oneself and a willingness to be honest and true about what we experience without editing out the undesirable bits. It can be likened to holding up a mirror which reflects the content of the mind -a mirror does not distort what comes and goes in front of it, neither does it judge, nor does it cling to or reject what comes and goes. Examples of labelling are ‘angry mind’, ‘fearful mind’, ‘neutral mind’, ‘confused mind’, ‘planning mind’, ‘comparing mind’, ‘hysterical mind’, “judging mind”,’obsessing mind’ (obsessing over what is the right label!) Whatever comes up we can label.

Immediately after labelling the state of mind we then return to the bodily experience, identifying in one’s body the specific contraction the mind creates. For example, this may be a tightness or burning sensation in the chest, butterflies in the stomach, or a subtle lifting of a shoulder. By returning to the body each time we label, we cut off the habitual thought patterns that feed the negative emotions without denying or suppressing the experience which is present. By returning to the body we also ground ourselves in the real sensations of our experience, not in the imagined constructions of the mind. When used intelligently this method has an enormous power to cut through the unhealthy defence mechanisms we develop such as splitting, projection and denial which distort our emotional life and create a faulty perception of others. Some of my clients have said that this simple method was one of the most useful things they had learned from therapy.

A few words may also be worthwhile mentioning here about working with the unconscious.The concept of the unconscious has entered into the mainstream of our cultural way of thinking. It has been a mixed blessing. It is a way of conceptualising how we edit from our conscious experience those parts of ourself that we find undesirable. But it can also lead to people self consciously trying to search for their unconscious motivations or trawling through the depths of their past rather than observing the obvious in the present moment. Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, but the opposite is also true, the over examined life is not worth living either.
Buddhism as I understand it has a much simpler phenomenological understanding of human experience. Phenomena arises in the mind and ceases! Where is this thing called the unconscious? It is only a concept which if taken too literally becomes another way of distracting the mind from the here and now and can create an endless and obsessive distrust of oneself. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, who perhaps comes closest to the Buddhist understanding than any other analyst, also refuted this old Freudian view. This straightforward observable Buddhist understanding of the nature of the mind brings us into an examination of the present moment, not an examination of the past or an interpretation of what may be hidden from our conscious mind. If our unconscious is observable it is only observable through the conscious mind. Memories are also only observable in the present mind. If we observe our conscious mind over and over again with the clarity of awareness, we will eventually see more clearly what we edit out.

One of the mistakes that people who are psychologically educated constantly bring to meditation practice is using meditation time to analyse themselves rather than observe themselves. This only brings more thinking and confusion and doubt to the moment rather than the clarity of just seeing what is there. Buddhist meditation is primarily interested in the question – “What is here?” not the question “Why is it here?” Obsessive self analysis is really just another defence mechanism, another hindrance, that stops us from seeing into the true nature of our experience and kills any spontaneity.
When people develop the power of the observing self, this is arguably what makes any therapy work. The trouble with a lot of therapy however is that people talk too much! They are often so busy trying to work themselves out and express what they are feeling that they never pause to just BE with whatever they are experiencing. Most of us are terrified at being silent for any length of time with our inner experience in the presence of another person, let alone ourselves, and have a compulsion to talk in order to fill the void.

Therapists mostly encourage their clients to talk about their inner experience, which is important obviously, because communication is the vehicle of therapy. However as a therapeutic relationship evolves there are more pauses between the talking where silent awareness can penetrate like sunshine in a darkened room. When this occurs communication deepens into communion and less words are needed to convey a common understanding. When the trust and understanding of a therapeutic relationship develops over time, it becomes a kind of meditation in the presence of the other. When it reaches this point it is time for the therapy to move towards a conclusion and for the client to walk alone but at peace in the world again.

Spiritual Awakening

Spiritual Awakening is the essence of Buddhist practice but it can also grow and mature in a therapeutic setting as well. Once we have developed some ability to self soothe and self observe and have achieved emotional stability, this becomes a platform from which we can move towards spiritual awakening. The primary stages of therapy revolve around support and empathy but the secondary and ongoing stages revolve around self confrontation as well. This may be the point at which it is appropriate for a person to leave therapy and take up a spiritual discipline or they may wish to use both mediums.

Of course Buddhism is also a complete practice in itself without recourse to psychotherapy. It becomes a complete practice in itself when it includes an honest and intelligent examination of our self centred emotional life, not when it becomes a bypass to a spiritual ideal that we simply wish to identify ourselves with.

The essence of all the major religions of the world is to acknowledge and see into our self centredness and awake from our self centred dream. The more we see how pervasive this self centredness is in our life the more it can dissolve and our true nature of wisdom and compassion can emerge. In Zen we refer to this pervasive human condition of self centredness as ‘the frozen block of emotion/thought’. In psychotherapeutic language this same phenomena is similar to what is known as narcissism which is becoming more and more of a focus for contemporary psychotherapists. When we become ready to face our own narcissism we are ready to penetrate more deeply, not only into the cause of our own suffering but also into the suffering we cause others. This is the starting point of spiritual awakening.

Narcissism, the Self Centred Dream

The term narcissism derives from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a beautiful young man adored by both sexes, who one day caught a reflection of himself in a pond and died while fixated by the beauty of his own self image. The concept refers not just to physical vanity, but is a metaphor for any type of malignant self love that is fixated on a self image. The desire to cling to any self image in the transient flux of life, according to Buddhism (including the self image of being an enlightened being!) is the source of human suffering and delusion.

The symptoms of narcissism are characterised by a lack of empathy towards others and moods that swing between pumped up grandiosity and deflated low self esteem as one strives to maintain the unrealistic self image that one has created. This is in contrast to a healthy self esteem which exudes self confidence and love towards others and moves along more smoothly with the vicissitudes of life. While Narcissus died fixated by his own self image staring into a pond, the Buddha looked up at the night sky and saw the morning star and it shattered once and for all the idea of any fixed sense of self. Thus he awoke fully from the self centred dream and became fully present. In the enlightened mind there is a forgetting of the self and an ongoing integration with life as a whole which releases an innate wisdom and compassion. As practitioners, we are all Narcissus and we are all Shakyamuni Buddha.

The study of narcissism is the point where Buddhism and Psychotherapy intersect. Narcissism is a universal human condition but Western cultures like our own have a particularly virulent form of this mental sickness. Our free enterprise way of life and our value systems with their emphasis on the importance of competition and individuality, promote material wealth and a greater degree of choice in our lifestyles but the price we pay is a pervasive sense of alienation and low self esteem as we all clammer towards being “winners”. As the “winners” become parents and continue striving towards their self preoccupied “winning” to the emotional neglect of their children, the cycle keeps repeating itself over and over again. We need look no further than our everyday experience of advertising to see a mirror held up to our culture and to our inner desires which reflects this pervasive narcissism we are trapped within.

One particular form of inverted narcissism which is becoming increasingly widespread in our culture is victimism. Without wishing to deny or minimise or belittle the suffering of those who are severely oppressed by others such as in domestic violence; sexual, physical or emotional child abuse; or racial discrimination, this particular form of fixed self image develops its own blindness. It is one thing to have been victimised (we all have been victimised at one time or another as the recipient of other peoples’ karma) but it is another to make a life long identity out of it. Victimism shifts the focus onto what others have done to harm the victim but blinkers the victim to seeing what they may do to harm others or harm themselves and diminishes the sense of personal responsibility. Victims blame their narcissistic parents forever as well as their partners and don’t take any responsibility in their relationships with others or for their life in general.

Buddhist practice with its strong emphasis on personal responsibility acts as a counterbalance to this disturbing trend in our culture – a trend which can be inadvertently aided and abetted by psychotherapists and counsellors who have not examined their own narcissism. Just as an alcoholic doctor finds it hard to diagnose and treat alcoholism in a patient, a narcissistic psychotherapist finds it hard to diagnose and treat narcissism in a client. Buddhist practice gives us not only the philosophical basis to examine narcissism, but also gives us the skilful means of meditation and the precepts to dissolve it. The more we have examined narcissism in ourselves, the more effectively we can then proceed, not with judgement, but with honesty and compassion to work with it in our clients.

Self and No Self

Who is born? Who dies? Who meditates? Who is enlightened? Who rides down to the corner store on a bicycle to get the newspaper? Who gets reborn from one lifetime to another? If, as Buddhism teaches, all things are impermanent and insubstantial what carries over from one moment to another or one life time to another? As a friend of mine said recently to me in a conversation, is the Olympic flame that arrives in Sydney this year the same Olympic flame that was lit in Athens?

As human beings we have a sense of continuity which gives us a sense of self. The body I have now is not the same body I had as a five year old but it changed so gradually over time I can recognise that it is me and there is still the resemblance of the same facial features when I look at a photograph of myself as a child. I also have factual memories and emotional memories going back over that time that give me a sense of continuity. I also have a sense of agency – I can choose to do or not do certain things in my life. All of these experiences give me a sense of self and help to ground me in the flux of life so I have a sense of what is me and what is not me in order to survive. Even at a cellular level this is true as our immune systems identify and respond to what is foreign to the body. We need a sense of self to function effectively in our lives. What becomes dysfunctional from a Buddhist point of view is the delusion that there is some inner core within this bundle of perceptions we call the self that is permanent and fixed and which is preciously me. If we are entranced by this fixed sense of self, what follows is we then have to protect it from annihilation or promote it as superior to others, or aggressively horde things to satiate its need for possession. Professor James Austin, author of Zen and the Brain, refers to this phenomenon very aptly as the “I, me, mine, complex”.

This Buddhist view of self has relevance to psychotherapy both theoretically as well as clinically. It has been observed that when people start to improve in psychotherapy they have a sense of flow and a sense of play in their stream of consciousness and that people with a dysfunctional sense of self have a sense of hindrance and blockage in their mind. The more dysfunctional people are, the more fixed and confused is their idea of who they are. We also experience the same phenomena of flow and play as we practice meditation and as our fixed ideas about ourselves and life dissolve.

As Dr. Mark Epstein says in his book Thoughts Without a Thinker (Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective) – through meditation practice and insight we shift from a spacial metaphor of self, where we think of it as a thing existing in space, like an onion with layers to it, to a temporal metaphor of self where it is just something that moves through time, like the wind, or a passage of music. Psychotherapy and Buddhist meditation are moving in the same direction here. However I think the insight that comes through meditation takes it much further to its final conclusion. Not only is the observing self letting go of its experience, but there is no observing self to identify with either, just observing. As Katagiri Roshi, a Japanese Zen teacher once said. “The observer is the last stand of the ego!” As the Buddha said, a human being is just stream.

This understanding of the insubstantial nature of the self has a practical therapeutic application in that it guides us not to interfere when a client is in this state of flow but simply allows it to happen. In other words, when a client gets out of their own way, we as therapists need to get out of their own way as well otherwise we may fall into the trap of doing too much and being too helpful or continuing to pathologise. Flowing playfully with the stream of life is after all the Tao, the means and the end of practice and the true nature of reality which we can learn to enjoy rather than resist.

Wisdom and Compassion

Buddhism, contrary to some popular misconceptions, is a very affirming approach to life. The Buddha said there is suffering but he also said there is an end to suffering and that our true nature as human beings is wise and compassionate. Psychoanalysis on the other hand, having grown out of a medical background, often uses the negative language of pathology and mental illness to describe all human behaviour. One term that amuses me the most is the description of such virtues as kindness and generosity as an altruistic defence! This type of scientific thinking is known as reductionism – explaining the highest in terms of the lowest. Psychoanalysis often gives the impression through its theoretical frameworks that there is only suffering and the best one can do as Freud described it is to be adjusted to the normal suffering of everyday life as though there was a glass ceiling as to how joyful and fulfilled one can become as a human being. The Cognitive Behavioural Therapies (CBT) which are probably the most widely practiced types of therapies, have many similarities to Buddhism in that they challenge deluded ways of conscious thinking. However they are based on a simplistic value system that a happy life is one that maximises one’s pleasure and reduces pain. All of these types of therapies when practiced well help to reduce suffering but often the best they achieve is helping one become an adaptive narcissist.
The transformation that occurs when practice becomes an awakening from the self centred dream, is a transformation in our emotional life. In the deluded mind, fear, anger, sadness, disgust, shame and distraction predominate. In the awakened mind, equanimity, love and joy predominate and wisdom emerges – the ability to make appropriate responses to life which are based on seeing life as a whole, not on a perception which is narrowed down to self interest. This transformation does not annihilate the negative emotions or eliminate them from our emotional repertoire as human beings. It shifts them from self centred motivation to a life centred motivation as the following table illustrates. This shift is the movement towards emotional maturity – a journey that has no end.

Buddhism and Psychotherapy