- Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: An Unfolding Dialogue
In the burgeoning literature on Buddhism and psychoanalysis/psychotherapy, Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: An Unfolding Dialogue stands out. True to its subtitle, the format is designed to encourage genuine dialogue. Following an excellent introduction by the editor, Jeremy D. Safran, all of its nine chapters are by experienced therapists who are also committed to Buddhist practice; several of them are teachers within their respective traditions. Each chapter is followed by the commentary of an established psychoanalyst (many of them associated with the journal Psychoanalytic Dialogues), and after that there is a reply by the original chapter author. The conversations are given plenty of space to develop; several chapters are over fifty pages long. In most cases the commentators rise to the occasion, with sympathetic but trenchant interrogations. The result is a fascinating discussion that raises the interaction between Buddhism and psychology to a higher level of intensity and insight.
Safran's introduction looks at the different cultural contexts of psychoanalysis and Buddhism. He focuses on their own internal tensions, especially a shared one between agnosticism and faith. Recent psychoanalysis has shifted from a rationalistic, ego-oriented approach toward a relational and constructivist understanding of [End Page 363] the multiple self, a perspective more open to various narratives. "It has become clear that psychoanalysis is not a science in the same sense that physics or chemistry are, but rather a secular form of spirituality. In some ways it functions to fill the void once filled by religion" (p. 2). This shift to a therapy of faith and commitment highlights a similar tension within Buddhism, for example between the rationalist approach of Nāgārjuna's Karikas and the devotionalism of Pure Land Buddhism. In contrast to the classical Freudian emphasis on the reality principle controlling the pleasure principle and the Mādhyamikas' radical deconstruction of all narratives, letting go of the need to understand and control can lead to awe and reverence in the face of life's mystery. The advantage of a comparison between psychoanalysis and Buddhism is that each can help the other avoid crystallizing into an orthodoxy that tends to lose its liberative power.
Several of the contributors refer to Freud's recommendation that the analyst keep an "evenly-suspended attention," and they emphasize how their Buddhist practice helps them to do this. In chapter 4, "An Analyst's Surrender," Sara Weber describes a difficult case study that began to flourish when there was "a shift in the nature of holding." Instead of trying to "fix" the patient, she surrendered herself to deeper, lesser-known areas of her patient's being and her own. She refers to Lacan: although we need others as mirrors, there is always an element of illusion in any organized meaning we frame for ourselves. The solution is to employ models loosely, allowing one's therapeutic techniques as well as one's clients to be in flux. She concludes by emphasizing that the analyst's role as "holder" of the patient "is insufficient unless we see it as a special case of that more profound faith in being that is temporarily embodied in ourselves" (p. 189). In chapter 3, "The Dissolving of Dissolving Itself," Robert Langan offers a personal and phenomenological meditation that plays with multiple perspectives as a way to reflect on the "in-between," the openness that both Buddhism and psychoanalysis at their best encourage: keeping room in the analytic process for paradox and contradiction, for gaps and emptiness.
In chapter 6, Barry Magrid eloquently defends the need for analytic work as well as Buddhist practice. "Too often, it seems that both students and teachers have mastered their pain but succumbed to their impulses, experienced a oneness with all beings but remained in conflict with their families, discovered the emptiness of the self but continued to abuse their authority, found peace on their cushions but not in their lives" (p. 257). Yet we should not conclude that Buddhism and analysis are concerned with different aspects of our lives. "Like psychoanalysis, Zen practice is a...