Buddhism, Psychoanalysis and Jewish Theology

The importance of being understood for healthy emotional development

Posted Jul 31, 2011

A delightful benefit to get my ideas out into the world via the Internet is that people send me their books. Recently I received a book written by a person who describes himself as having been "awakened to the tradition of Zen Buddhism." I found the idea that someone thinks my work is related to Buddhism appealing.

When families come to see me in my pediatrics practice for "behavior problems", both parents and children feel out of control. They are disconnected, angry and sad. I help them to recognize each other. Meaningful change happens in my office when we share these moments of re-connection.

Being understood by a person you love is one of the most powerful feelings, for adults and children alike. The need for understanding is what makes us human. When our feelings are validated, we know that we are not alone. For a young child, this understanding facilitates the development of his mind and his sense of himself. I aim to support parents' efforts to be fully present with their child.

Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher and contemporary of Sigmund Freud, wrote of a concept he referred to as "I-Thou." In contrast to "I-it" exchanges, which are typical of our day to day human interactions, in an "I-Thou" moment there is a true meeting of minds, a profound feeling of human connectedness. He felt that these moments indicated the presence of God. Not being an especially religious person, I would not put it in those terms. However, I would describe being in the room with a parent and child when they connect in a meaningful way as a spiritual experience.

I learned about Buber from the Rabbi at our local synagogue. Interestingly, however, I recently found this quote from Donald Cohen, former director of the Yale Child Study Center, who, had his life not been tragically cut short by cancer, likely would still be working today with Linda Mayes developing the ideas about parent-child relationships upon much of my clinical work and my writing, including my forthcoming book, Keeping Your Child in Mind, and  is based. He wrote:

What fascinated me most was how intimate relationships and the desire for being with the other precede the rest of cognitive development, and that this social motivation moves these other achievements forward, including meta-representation and theories about other minds. This intuitive, deeply encoded social orientation is first expressed in the mother's arms and then forms the basis for all future I-Thou relationships.

D.W.Winnicott, pediatrician turned psychoanalyst, was referring to a similar phenomenon when he wrote about how a parent's recognition of a child's "true self" facilitates healthy emotional development. Whether through Buddhism, Jewish theology or psychoanalysis, it is important, in this age of advice, medication and 15 minute psychiatry visits, to stay focused on the value and healing power of true human connection.


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