A practicing-Buddhist Taiwanese immigrant and an American secular Jewish psychoanalyst walk into a bar. Actually, it wasn’t a bar. The psychoanalytic psychotherapist was Henry M. Seiden, who was supervising the work of the Taiwanese immigrant, Peter Lin. They met most often in Seiden’s office in Queens, New York. Together they wrote about the convergence of their traditions – those of Buddhist-based mindfulness and Western psychotherapy – in the journal of Division 39 (psychoanalysis) of the American Psychological Association, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy.
As you know, the idea of mindfulness, based in part on ancient practices of Zen Buddhism, has entered the modern consciousness not only as a therapeutic technique, but as a personal practice of experiencing oneself in the moment. Mindfulness includes the idea of observing yourself – your actions, emotions, thoughts and motivations – and choosing to wonder about and eventually accept your way of being in the world.
Seiden and Lin point out that the term mindfulness has been used to describe “a psychological mechanism, a scientific construct, and methods of cultivating a frame of mind.” In other words, mindfulness is not only a state of mind, but also the means by which we can create this state of mind.
Similarly, the authors write that psychoanalysis asks patients to “address in an emotionally experiencing way their own lived experience.” Patients free-associate to explore their history; they sit with the emotions this history generates; they examine their resistance to acknowledging this history; and they examine their experience of this history in the context of their relationship with their therapist.
In both traditions, Seiden and Lin write, there is a “turning toward distress rather than turning away from it in the effort to alleviate it.”
Neither tradition asks practitioners to accentuate the positive. Both emphasize understanding and acceptance of life events that are easier repressed than examined. (In fact, I have told my own patients that if they wanted to feel immediately better after a session, they should have gotten a massage.)
“It is difficult to face directly what is painful or guilty or shameful in ourselves. We need a helpful process and a guide, a therapist or a teacher,” write Lin and Seiden. As such, mindfulness and psychoanalytic psychotherapy present the same challenge: with guidance, to unflinchingly examine the self.
Let’s look with Seiden and Lin at four steps of mindfulness that mimic the process of psychotherapy, namely “face it, accept it, deal with it, and let it go.” Both traditions ask the practitioner to cycle through these steps, progressively deepening the practice of each. For example, in the step of face it, a patient, student or practitioner may not immediately bring to consciousness the entirety of a past trauma or other more contemporary painful experience. To do so can and frequently is overwhelming and counterproductive. Instead, “Face it urges the patient to a gentle meta-awareness, to watch thoughts and feelings without merging into or being overwhelmed by those thoughts and feelings,” the authors write. These traditions allow practitioners to wade into the waters of their consciousness a little at a time, facing what they can, when they can, at their own pace.
In each tradition the goal, insofar as there is a “goal,” is letting go. In mindfulness, this is a letting go of the self, a realization of an ego-less state in which the self is no longer understood as divided from the whole. In psychoanalytic psychology, this is the “letting go of excessively rigid and judgmental notions, both of self and others,” the authors write. Despite this difference between losing the self (in mindfulness) and losing the aspect of self that is our judgments (psychoanalysis), it is notable that in both traditions, the end-state is in fact a return to an individual’s beginning state. Rather than building something anew, these traditions are meant to wash away the emotional, cognitive and spiritual detritus that accumulates through histories filled with accident and compromise.
“The clinical outcome is self-acceptance,” they write.
There are many names for this path to self-acceptance. There are many traditions that have mapped this path in many ways. But these old wisdoms share the same broad brush strokes. Face it, accept it, deal with it, and let it go – whether you call it mindfulness or psychoanalytic psychotherapy, this guided release is at the heart of self-understanding.