Two Ways to Listen: A Visit to "Enlightening Conversations"

What can psychoanalysis and Buddhism teach one another?

Posted Jul 10, 2014

One recent evening in New York City, eight luminaries from the worlds of psychotherapy and Buddhism were onstage talking about ways in which their discipines can work together and others where, despite best intentions, their worldviews will never meet.

Analyst Polly Young-Eisendrath, author of the upcoming book, The Present Heart, was the force behind “Enlightening Conversations: Opportunities and Obstacles in Human Awakening,” in sponsorship with Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Young-Eisendrath, a practioner of Buddhism for 40 years, is passionately interested in the healing potential of this dialogue and invited a world-class array of teachers, analysts, and authors to explore the possibilities.They included Enkyo O’Hara, Henry Shukman, Shoji Muramoto, Jeffrey Rubin, Pilar Jennings, Robert Caper, Grace Schierson, Robert Chodo Campbell, Nancy Cater, Tricycle editor-publisher, James Shaheen, and others, with topics ranging from “What Does It Mean ‘Be Enlightened’ or ‘Be Psychoanalyzed'?” to “The Uses and Abuses of Power in Buddhism and Psychoanalysis.”  

“For the past decade and a half, there has been a strong resurgence of interest in Buddhism within the American psychoanalytic community,” Young-Eisdendrath tells me. “Over the past three decades, a considerable number of experienced psychoanalysts have become serious students of Buddhism, bringing to the surface a more refined understanding of what these two disciplines might offer one another. Buddhism has much to offer psychoanalysis. It can provide a necessary corrective to the self-centeredness and pathological individualism that have come to dominate American culture,” for starters," she says without animosity.  "Also, Buddhism offers a pragmatic theory of consciousness and unconsciousness that is almost 2,600 years-old, as compared to the 100-year-old theories of psychoanalysis.”

And what can psychoanalysis offer Buddhism?  “So much!" insists Young-Eisendrath. "Psychoanalysis has developed a specific expertise for understanding habitual conscious and unconscious processes in a relational context," she says, meaning tools to aid social intelligence. "Also, psychoanalysts are trained to use a systematic and technical approach to explore the ways in which idealization and unconscious fantasy may influence the therapeutic and family relationships, partner relationships, and relationships of authority and power, such as student-teacher and employee-employer.” In light of the trouble certain Buddhist teachers have helped to create, this last category seems especially helpful.

For his part, Tricycle’s James Shaheen found himself equally interested in the divergence of these two worlds, the ways where they never agree, as in their common ground.  “Buddhism posits an absolute release from samsara or suffering," Shaheen explains, "whereas both in Freudian analysis and in Jungian methodology, the end points are a little bit more modest.” Talk about existential understatement. The critical point he is making that analysts and therapists, brilliant though they might be, offer mere mental health as the end goal, while Buddhism holds out the promise of total liberation, or enlightenment. Nonetheless, Shaheen appreciates their overlaps. “Both are narratives that describe our experience of the world and neither is based on the material sciences,” he says.  "And they're both, of course, methodologies for addressing suffering.” Also, most Western Buddhist teachers in his acquaintance have been in therapy at one point or other. 

There were lots of you-had-to-have-been-there highlights. Roshi Enkyo Pat O'Hara, a formidable, gay, ex-NYU professor, who heads the Village Zen Center in downtown Manhattan, illuminated the tough Buddhist teaching of “No-Self” in a way a lay person could understand. “It’s not No-Self but no separate self,” she made clear.  Young-Eisendrath elaborates.  “No-Self is not a thing, but a condition of non-separation, an experience of our embeddedness” in the world. Japanese psychologist Shoji Muramoto talked about the differences between American Zen communities, where there’s a willingness to process internal problems, and the Japanese where there is not. In the matter of teacher-student abuse, most panelists agreed that while teachers are certainly culpable, there are no “simple victims” in these scandals (any more than there are simple victims in abusive analyst-patient relationships). Instead, "adult people give away their responsibility for moral imagination," as Jeffrey Rubin repeatedly called it, complicating the nature of justice.

Fascinating, potentially life-changing exchanges. Then again, no one ever accused a Buddhist of not enjoying cerebral discourse. And no one ever accused an analyst of not wanting self-realization, whether or not it involved the dharma. “Enlightening Conversations” was just that.

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