Going on Being - Introduction

Life at the Crossroads of Buddhism and Psychotherapy


184 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9780861715695

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There is an obscure story about one of Freud’s personal conversations that puts an interesting twist on the state of psychology in the West. The discussion was with Ludwig Binswanger, a Swiss psychiatrist and the founder of the existential movement in psychoanalysis. Binswanger felt that there was something missing in Freud’s approach to therapy—too many patients simply did not get better. He raised the problem of the paralysis of analysis with Freud.

Might there not be a deficiency of spirit, asked Binswanger delicately, such that certain people were unable to raise themselves to a level of “spiritual communication” with their analysts? Could this lack of spiritual communication be the thing that stopped people from healing? To Binswanger’s surprise, the old man readily acknowledged his point. “Yes,” he said, “spirit is everything.”

Binswanger thought that Freud must have misunderstood his use of the word spirit, perhaps thinking he meant something on the order of “intelligence.” But Freud continued on.

“Mankind has always known that it possesses spirit,” Freud said. “I had to show that there are also instincts.”

When Freud sought to make room for instincts against the background of spirit, he did not anticipate a time when we would forget about spirit altogether. He could not foresee an era when instincts would reign supreme. By the time I was growing up in twentieth-century America, however, spirit already seemed out of reach. Freud’s psychology was the accepted language of the mind, challenged only by B. F. Skinner’s behaviorism. Those of us who sensed a “deficiency of spirit” were aware only of a feeling of absence, a yearning for something intangible, a sense of emptiness that could not be explained. We did not have words or concepts for what we were missing. Even today, one of the most common questions that I am asked is the meaning of the word spiritual. Many people have lost touch with it altogether.

“Anything that takes us beyond the personality,” I usually reply. The most important gift that my encounters with Buddhism have given me is access to this spirit that Freud seemed to have taken for granted. Its recovery was of crucial importance to me.

Freud was wrong on one particular point in his conversation with Binswanger: Mankind does not always know that it has spirit—sometimes we forget.

How People Change

Examples of this forgetting abound, even among those searching for a spiritual life. The split between instincts and spirit comes up in my practice all of the time. A woman named Sally, for instance, called not so long ago seeking advice from me. I had seen her for a single session in consultation months before, and we had talked about a variety of therapeutic and spiritual issues. She was suspicious of the role of psychiatric medications in today’s culture. It seemed like some kind of brave new world to have moodaltering drugs so readily available. But Sally wondered if there might not be a medicine that could help her. She had been plagued with chronic feelings of anxiety and depression for much of her adult life, and despite a healthy investment in psychotherapy she still felt that there was something the matter with her.

Sally had been taking a small dose of an antidepressant for several weeks, ten milligrams of Prozac, and she was finding that she felt calmer, less irritable, and, dare she say, happier. She was planning on going to a two-week meditation retreat later that month and was wondering whether to stay on her medicine while she was there. Something about taking it while on retreat made her uncomfortable, and that was the reason for her call. “Perhaps I should go more deeply into my problems while I’m away,” Sally questioned. She worried that the antidepressant would impede that process by making her problems less accessible to her. What did I think?

I was relieved to hear that Sally was feeling better. People who respond well to these antidepressants often have few, if any, side effects. They find instead that they feel restored, healed of the depressive symptoms that they were expending so much of their energy trying to fend off. Less preoccupied with their internal states, they are freer to participate in their own lives, yet they often wonder if they are cheating. “This isn’t the real me,” they protest. “I’m the tired, cranky, no-good one you remember from a couple of weeks ago.” As a psychiatrist, I am often in the position to encourage people to question those identifications with their symptoms. Depressed people think they know themselves, but maybe they only know depression.

Sally’s question was interesting not only because of the drug issue but because of her assumptions about what would make her feel better. The notion that we need to go “more deeply” into our problems in order to be healed is a prevalent one, and one that, as a therapist, I am sympathetic toward. Certainly, ignoring the shadow side of our personalities can only lead to what Freud once called “the return of the repressed.” Yet it struck me that there was a remnant of American Puritanism implicit in Sally’s approach, or at least a Judeo-Christian tendency to divide the self into lower and higher, or better and worse. Her belief that she should go more deeply into her problems reminded me of the Freudian emphasis on the instincts.

When people believe that they are their problems, there is often a desire to pick away at the self, as if by doing so they could expose how bad they really are. People think that if they could just admit, or even believe, the awful truth about themselves, they would start to feel better, but feeling bad about oneself seems, in fact, to be a bottomless pit. One never reaches the far end of it. While it usually fails as a strategy, “going more deeply” into our problems can be just another variant on trying to get rid of them altogether, back to a state of imagined original purity like the Garden of Eden. While most therapists would probably deny a religious influence on their thinking, many often collude unconsciously with this mode of thought. Going more deeply into one’s problems is the standard approach of most therapies—and it can indeed lead, at its best, to a kind of sober honesty and humility that gives people a quiet strength of character.

But to go more deeply into our problems is sometimes to go only into what we already know. This approach can also lead, at its worst, to a kind of jaded pessimism about the self, a resigned negativity that verges on self-hatred. I was quite sure that Sally did not have to go looking for problems on her retreat. Retreats are difficult enough, even for people who are not depressed. Her unresolved issues would come rushing in to fill every space whether she took her antidepressant or not, but she might have more success in not being sucked in by them with the medicine inside of her. I told her that at this point I felt she needed to come out of her problems, not go into them more deeply, and that the antidepressant would not get in her way in that regard. To be overwhelmed while on retreat would not be useful.

As a therapist influenced by the wisdom of the East, I am confident that there is another direction to move in such situations: away from the problems and into the unknown. Sometimes this fills us with fear. But if we stay with our anxiety, we have a special opportunity to know ourselves more authentically. Buddhism is very clear about how important it is to move in such a direction, and, as such, it is relentlessly optimistic. Rather than going more deeply into our problems, Buddhism teaches us how to disentangle our minds from them. There is, in the Buddhist view, more to the mind than just neurosis. At the heart of all of us is the potential for kindness, generosity, and wisdom.

This is an approach that Western therapy has little experience with, but it is the foundation of Eastern wisdom. The contents of the mental stream are not as important as the consciousness that knows them. The mind softens in meditation through the assumption of a particular mental posture called “bare attention,” in which impartial, nonjudgmental awareness is trained on whatever there is to observe. Problems are not distinguished from solutions in this practice; the mind learns how to be with ambiguity while learning to be fully aware.

In my work as a therapist I have found it necessary to bring what I have learned from Buddhism back into the psychological realm. The spirit that Binswanger noticed ebbing out of the field is essential if true healing is to take place. People who are suffering want to change, but they do not know how. They feel, like Sally, that they have to go into their problems, or somehow get rid of them entirely. They want to analyze, or be analyzed, and they want to love, or be loved. But they do not know that to bring about true healing they have to learn how to see themselves as they truly are.

The Buddhist Perspective

“How does your interest in meditation make you different from a conventional therapist,” people wonder when they learn of my study of Buddhism. “Do you teach your clients to meditate?” they ask.

For a time I simply dodged the question, repeating a joke that one of my patients relayed to me: “What is the difference between a Buddhist and a non-Buddhist? A non-Buddhist thinks there’s a difference.”

Buddhism taught me to let go of concepts and opinions and to break down constricting boundaries, not to create a new ideology. Meditation taught me to be with whatever I was doing. It encouraged me to be myself. It taught me to wash the dishes when I was washing the dishes, to walk when I walked, and to play with my children when I played with my children, to be more fully in the moment, in the Now, engaged in the process of being alive. It was not about creating a new form better than the old form.

I like the story of the Zen master whose students were horrified to find him eating his breakfast and reading the paper at the same time. “You taught us to do one thing at a time!” they admonished him, “and now look at you!”

“When eating breakfast and reading the paper, just eat breakfast and read the paper,” he shot back.

Meditation taught me to give myself over to my role as a therapist. Like the Zen master, I did not have to look like I was always meditating, but I could try to be as present as possible. When doing therapy, I was just doing therapy. I did not assume that I was different from a non-Buddhist therapist. I certainly did not ordinarily teach my clients to meditate, although if they asked me I would tell them who I thought a good teacher might be.

Yet as I considered the question, I realized that my answer was also a little disingenuous. The positive outlook of Buddhism does guide the way I work as a therapist. It molds my approach from the beginning and affects everything from my goals to my method to my basic orientation. Buddhism was with me as I made my way in psychotherapy, influencing all of my choices as I developed my own style of working.

I was in the rather unique position of learning about Buddhism—both in theory and in practice—before I knew very much about anything else. This was different from the usual mode in our culture, in which Buddhism is encountered as Other, and attempts are made to understand it through the filters of our own systems of knowledge.

Still a college student, I was fairly naive when I first came upon the Buddha’s psychology. It did not seem alien to me—in fact, it made much more immediate sense than the first writings on psychoanalysis or behaviorism that I had already studied in my first years at Harvard. While I was interested in becoming a therapist by this time, I did not know much about what it actually entailed. Only after immersing myself in Buddhism did I decide to enter medical school to pursue training as a psychiatrist. My involvement with Buddhism predated the bulk of my education as a psychotherapist.

The Intrinsic-Reality Instinct

The core teaching of Buddhism is a psychological one. In his Four Noble Truths, the Buddha analyzed the human condition and taught the vehicle for change. Experience is tinged with a sense of pervasive unsatisfactoriness, he declared, and the cause of this pain is our own clinging or grasping after certainty and security. There are three types of clinging, said the Buddha: for pleasant sensory experiences, for “being,” and for “nonbeing.” The first needs relatively little explanation, it is equivalent in many ways to the Freudian sexual drive and involves the seeking after sensual gratification, but the second two contain the heart of the Buddhist approach.

From the Buddhist perspective, there is another, more fundamental, instinct than the Freudian ones of sex and aggression. While it is sometimes referred to as “ignorance,” it is called the intrinsic-reality instinct, the tendency to see a false and absolute identity in people and in things, to falsely conclude they have an intrinsic reality, or essence, at their core. It is the major illness of the human personality, the Buddha realized, to see things as “something” or as “nothing.” The ego needs to concretize reality so it can be understood and managed, and this extends to our experience of ourselves as well. We cling to “being,” and believe that our selves are absolutely real, that they have self-identity, intrinsic reality; or we swing to the opposite extreme and cling to “nonbeing,” seeing ourselves as nothing, empty, and unreal. But both the something and the nothing are wrong, the Buddha saw; they both precipitate out of our clinging for certainty. Later Buddhist teachers and philosophers developed a “central way” between something and nothing, and taught methods of training awareness to be able to open-handedly hold or maintain such an approach. It is this teaching that provides a bridge between instinct and spirit, between Freud and Binswanger. It is the intrinsic-reality instinct, the belief in ourselves as somebody or as nobody, which has to be uprooted in order for spirit to be set free.

As I evolved my own style, as every therapist must do, I have come to see how much this core insight of Buddhism influences the way that I work. It gives me a hope and a method for my work that I would not have had otherwise. I know that if I can rest in the “central way”, if I can help people find their attachments to being and nonbeing, their own authentic selves—their own Buddha nature—will shine through.

This book is, in one sense, a case study about how I came to dwell more easily in awareness, and, as such, I hope it may offer some insight about how others may do the same. This book is also about the traditional Buddhist path of insight, which makes it possible to live in accordance with change, as one’s truest self. Living in this way is a potential for all of us that emerges naturally when we see ourselves as we actually are. We can change, it turns out, not by trying to make our problems go away nor by going into them more deeply, but by learning how to be more aware.

Already Free

I had a visit with an early teacher of mine recently, Ram Dass, at his home in northern California where he was recovering from a crippling stroke that he had suffered the year before. Body and spirit were both much in evidence in our meeting. The visit reminded me of how much of my own search had been inspired by him. The author of Be Here Now, and one of the pivotal figures of the sixties, Ram Dass was engaged in a process of physical rehabilitation and speech therapy designed to bring his body back from the stroke. While his outward form was altered, his inner one was still very familiar. He had trouble finding his words at times, but when he did, they seemed to express his thoughts perfectly. He had not lost any of his inner vitality or wisdom. He walked the length of his porch with the aid of a walker and then lowered himself into his wheelchair. I sat beside him on the porch, gazing into the distance at the leaves of the trees shimmering in the afternoon breeze. He asked me if I felt I had carved out some new territory between Buddhism and psychotherapy. “For myself, you mean?” I asked him, knowing that he tended to be suspicious of the psychotherapeutic model and of the appropriation of spirituality by therapists. He indicated this was what he meant, and I, in turn, nodded my assent.

“Do you see them—” Ram Dass began, and then he paused. The breeze blew through his silence. “Already free,” he murmured, as I strained just a bit to make sure I was hearing him properly. It took me a moment to put together what he was asking me; it was the only time that afternoon that I had trouble understanding him.

“Do I see my patients as already free?”

He nodded. He knew the essence of the Buddhist approach. People come to me seeking something, and I have to know that they are already free. “They are souls seeking God,” he said. “The game is to pretend with them that they are lost and then help them rediscover their freedom.” The therapeutic relationship is a grown-up version of the child’s earliest game of peek-a-boo.

Ram Dass’s insight was pivotal. Our freedom is already present within us, but we allow it to be obscured by our own clinging. It is as if we are playing hide-and-seek but we forget midway through that it is a game. We forget we are hiding and feel lost instead. The trick, as Ram Dass understood, is to open up the process of looking so that we can reconnect with the awareness that is already there.

As I sat on the porch in conversation with my old teacher, I touched on all of the contours of my own evolution. My earlier sense of being lost or locked out of myself, yearning for intimacy, my discovery of Buddhism, my relationships with family, spiritual teachers, and therapists, and my processing of these experiences into my work all seemed to be of a piece. Time’s inexorable march surrounded us: Ram Dass was in a wheelchair. “Your hair is gray!” he had said as he greeted me, shaking his head and chuckling. There we sat, words and silence intermingling, old friends reminiscing, the warmth of our feelings enlivening the lazy afternoon. “This was like a delicious appetizer,” said Ram Dass as I gathered myself to leave.

I was momentarily surprised by his analogy. “An appetizer?” I wondered to myself. I was ready to wrap it up already, preparing to make my departure. It was one of those times that seemed to encapsulate the trajectory of an entire life, and, to me, it felt more like dessert than an hors d’oeuvre. But Ram Dass was catching me in my tendency to seek closure too precipitously. I was all too ready for nonbeing. He might be older and more frail, but he was not saying goodbye. We had just managed to find each other; I did not need to close it down already. I reconsidered my reaction.

An appetizer sounded just fine to me.


How to cite this document:
© Mark Epstein, Going on Being (Wisdom Publications, 2008)

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