The Cushion Or the Couch?

Psychotherapy & Buddhism

By Barry Magid

2500 years apart, both Sigmund Freud and Shakyamuni Buddha announced their discovery that the root of human suffering is desire. According to Freud, neurotic suffering arises from a denial of the desires grounded in our animal instincts, and a subsequent deep, unconscious conflict about our sexual and aggressive wishes. For Buddha, suffering arises from a desire to hold on to or deny the ever-changing, transient nature of existence and the attempt to establish a fixed or unchanging self. Each in his own way established a practice to cope with the suffering caused by their particular understanding of the nature of desire.

Both psychoanalysis and meditation teach us to pay attention to the moment-to-moment flow of consciousness, one under the rubric of free association, the other under that of mindfulness. Over the years, the followers of Freud and the Buddha have taken the teachings of both in many different directions, with new schools often claiming to be the best representative or restorer of the master’s original teaching. Somehow, Freud’s followers have managed to create more schisms and offshoots in one hundred years than have Buddha’s in 2500. We’ll have to wait and see how many of them endure for two millennia.

When it comes to the nature of the self that suffers, the two practices seem to diverge. Freud and his followers mostly talk about a self that suffers because it is fragile, all too easily disrupted either by the demands of its own inner drives, emotions and fantasies, or by the failure of vital loving and caregiving relationships. Buddhism, on the other hand, speaks of the self as a powerful and tenacious illusion. Both, however, insist that only through a sustained, disciplined practice can we learn to face the painful facts of what it is to be human.

However we do it, learning to face our life as-it-is is the common goal of both systems. Within therapy, learning to face our life is described in terms of increased ego-strength or self-cohesion, while within a Buddhist perspective, we are inclined to describe the process in terms of the self (or our self-centeredness) dropping away. Paradoxically, the Buddhist “no-self” turns out to exhibit all the strength, cohesion and affect tolerance that is the goal of Western therapies.

What sort of difference does it make, then, if we see the problem of suffering from a religious versus a psychotherapeutic point of view? We must ask ourselves what relation the psychological has to the spiritual and what exactly we mean by these words. Do we understand psychology so broadly as to encompass all mental functioning and experience, including religious experience? That was a perspective William James suggested in The Varieties of Religious Experience, which appeared at just about the same time as Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. Or is what we call the psychological merely a small subset of Big Mind, a mind not confined by an individual’s body, but the mind of interconnected oneness, the mind of the whole body of life itself? Is the spiritual an opening to a separate realm of experience or a quality of experience that emerges from fully occupying the life we already have?

The psychological and the spiritual are not mutually exclusive, nor is one vantage point “higher” or “deeper” than the other. Like figure and ground, they represent two dimensions of one reality. If we cling to one at the exclusion of the other, we miss part of the picture. We must be able to move seamlessly back and forth, as this old story illustrates:

As Yunyan was sweeping the ground, Daowu said, “Too busy.”
Yunyan said, “You should know there’s one who isn’t busy.”
Daowu said, “If so, then there’s a second moon.”
Yunyan held up his broom and said, “Which moon is this”[i]

Each practice brings with it its own particular perspective, its own advantages and its own pitfalls. With luck, the virtues of one can correct or at least alert us to the pitfalls of the other. An empathic therapeutic relationship can help us understand, and learn to face up to, hitherto repressed or denied aspects of our emotional life that as meditators we may have tried to hide behind a façade of calmness or compassion. However, therapy runs the danger of becoming “too busy” and can turn into an endless self-improvement project. We run the risk of an endless preoccupation with our own story, failing to see that self-absorption is not the same as self-awareness.

Meditation lets us become intimately aware of “the one who isn’t busy.” We can experience the reality that nothing needs fixing and there is no dust anywhere. But we can also use meditation to bypass confronting our anger, sexuality and conflicts about the legitimacy of our needs and desires. We can narcotize ourselves with samadhi. Despite all we claim to know about impermanence, we can strive to attain some unchanging state of equanimity we imagine to be enlightenment. We can fall into a masochistic or compliant posture that we confuse with selflessness or compassion. We can end up saving all beings minus one.

When we meticulously sweep our mind with the broom of attention, and fully experience this moment’s body, thought and emotion, which practice is this?

Barry Magid, MD, is a psychoanalyst and psychiatrist. He is resident teacher at the Ordinary Mind Zendo in New York City and the author of Ordinary Mind: Exploring the Common Ground of Zen and Psychotherapy (Wisdom Publications).