With the decline of religion and the rise of science, jurisdiction over the problems of happiness and suffering were transferred from the former to the latter. Scientific medicine took responsibility for the sufferings of the body and scientific psychology and psychiatry -- and their common issue, psychotherapy -- assumed authority over problems of the mind, emotions, and behavior.
There is an intriguing symmetry (not an identity) between the twenty-five hundred year old search for happiness through Buddhism and the hundred year old search for happiness through psychotherapy. Having practiced psychotherapy for thirty-five years and Buddhism for fifteen years, I have noticed striking similarities as well as differences between the two. Others have also noticed the resemblance. Alan Watts observed that Oriental religions, particularly Buddhism, are more similar to psychotherapy than to Western religions. At the same time, he noted, Western psychotherapy resembles religion with its own charismatic leaders, dogma, and rituals.
If we look deeply into such ways of life as Buddhism and Taoism, Vedanta and Yoga, we do not find either philosophy or religion as these are understood in the West. We find something more nearly resembling psychotherapy...The main resemblance between these Eastern ways of life and Western psychotherapy is in the concern of both with bringing about changes of consciousness, changes in our ways of feeling our own existence and our relation to human society and the natural world. The psychotherapist has, for the most part, been interested in changing the consciousness of peculiarly disturbed individuals. The disciplines of Buddhism and Taoism are, however, concerned with changing the consciousness of normal, socially adjusted people. But it is increasingly apparent to psychotherapists that the normal state of consciousness in our culture is both the context and the breeding ground of mental disease. (Alan Watts, Psychotherapy East and West)
Buddhism and psychotherapy share significant common ground. Comparing them will help illuminate hidden features of each. By comparing the two, however, I do not mean to equate them. Buddhism is a twenty-five hundred year old exquisitely developed tradition with a core of profound truth. By comparison, psychotherapy is immature, fragmented, and superficial. Nevertheless, Western psychotherapy may contribute something to our understanding of ourselves and the truths we hide from ourselves, even if it may only be to rediscover and confirm traditional Buddhist insights.
Buddhism and psychotherapy share a common ground of concern with suffering and the means of relief and release from suffering. This is the foundation and raison d'Otre of both. That they share this common ground is neither a coincidence, nor a minor consideration. It has profound implications. The experience of suffering is the foundation of Buddhism and, arguably, of all religions. Gautama Buddha began his spiritual quest when he became aware of suffering and dedicated his life to finding the cause and cure for it. From the Buddhist point of view, the spiritual journey begins with awareness of suffering and it is fueled and motivated by the desire to escape suffering and find happiness.
The problem of suffering is also the central concern of psychotherapy. Indeed, it is the common boundary of psychotherapy, medicine, and religion. (The Myth of Mental Illness : Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct by Thomas Szasz) Each of them deals with a different form of suffering. Medicine deals with the sufferings of the body, psychotherapy deals with the sufferings of the mind, and religion deals with the sufferings of the soul. Because of this common ground, some people think of psychotherapy as a medical technique while others, with equally good justification, think of it as a form of spiritual healing.
People seek psychotherapists because they are suffering -- from painful emotions, painful thoughts, painful relationships, painful experiences. The negative emotions -- anxiety, stress, depression, anger, guilt, shame, frustration, boredom, and so forth, are all forms of suffering. What psychiatric patients want from their therapists is not a technical treatment or cure for illness, but, like Buddhists, they want relief and release from their suffering, and a chance for some peace and happiness in life.
Buddhism and psychotherapy also share a second significant common ground of an abiding interest in mind. From the Buddhist point of view, suffering is not caused by external, traumatic events, but by qualities of mind which shape our perceptions and responses to events. Accordingly, happiness is not to be found in the outer, social world, but in a transformation of mind which generates wisdom, tranquility, and compassion.
Many psychotherapists hold similar views. Many therapists believe, as Buddhists do, that suffering is caused not so much by external traumas per se, but by our responses to these traumas. These responses are conditioned by mental factors such as desires and fears which may be denied and repressed. This is one of the basic tenets of Freudian psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is based on the axiom that neurotic suffering is caused by an individual's active response to life, rather than passively and mechanically by the life events themselves. If neurotic suffering is caused by an individual's reactions to life events rather than by the events themselves, then that suffering potentially can be relieved through a personal transformation in which life events are experienced from a different frame of reference.
Given the significant common ground of Buddhism and psychotherapy, it is not surprising that a stream of thought has developed in psychotherapy similar to the Buddhist view on esoteric self-secrets. This stream of thought shares with Buddhism the notion that we suffer from ignorance, from secrets we keep from ourselves. Two of the fundamental, classical concepts of psychotherapy are repression and the unconscious. The concept of repression is similar to, although more narrow and more shallow than, the Buddhist concept of ignorance. Like avidya, repression is the failure or unwillingness to see important facts or aspects of experience. As Norman O. Brown observed, "the essence of repression lies in the refusal of the human being to recognize the realities of his human nature." (Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, Norman O. Brown) The difference between avidya and repression is that the former is the failure to face basic facts about the nature of self and phenomena, while the latter is the more narrow failure to face certain facts about one's self, particularly one's responsibility for one's responses to the painful experiences of life.
The generally accepted view of repression is that it is a defense against anxiety. Anxiety, especially high anxiety, is one of the most common and intense forms of suffering. People will do almost anything to relieve their anxiety, especially to palliate it with alcohol and drugs. The anti-anxiety drug business, both legal and illegal, is a multibillion dollar industry. We are afraid of our anxieties and we react to the memory or prospect of anxious experiences by repressing them. Repression, like avidya, is only partially successful, however. The repressed returns to haunt us. Neurotic symptoms are painful because they are manifestations of the suffering which has been repressed -- the so called "return of the repressed." In the psychoanalytic view, the mental and emotional content of painful experiences are repressed, modified, attenuated, and re-experienced as the neurosis.
The psychotherapy of mental and emotional suffering is similar in many vital ways to the Buddhist approach. Both involve developing a relationship with a teacher or guide, sometimes called a guru or a psychotherapist. The function of the guru /psychotherapist is to guide the sufferer on a journey of self-discovery and self-transformation which, in Buddhism, is at the same time, a discovery of the facts of existence. The teacher helps the patient -- the sufferer -- to develop increased awareness, acceptance, and realization ("emotional working through") of painful emotions and the facts of life. In both Buddhism and psychotherapy, the individual's growing awareness of the origins and dynamics of his or her neurotic suffering is facilitated by the guru's teachings and the therapist's interpretations. Both potentially convey insights. The realization and integration of these insights leads to relief from the painful symptoms of denial and repression. This involves a courageous willingness to examine one's self honestly, to face and take responsibility for one's desires and fears.
The truth about ourselves and our lives that we do not wish to see, which is the inverse of our neurotic symptoms and our character defenses, forms part of the content of the unconscious. The unconscious contains our denials and repressions -- the lies we tell ourselves. Our neurotic symptoms and character defenses are products of the lies we tell ourselves. In this sense, the unconscious can be construed as containing the esoteric psychological knowledge we seek. Carl Jung was the first to make this connection when he discovered the correspondences between dreams and myths. Dreams reveal the personal unconscious and myths reveal the "collective unconscious." He called this sphere of denial and repression "the shadow." Jungian therapy consists in large part of confronting the shadow, facing what one has rejected about one's self and the fundamental qualities of experience, which he called "archetypes." (Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore)
Freud, too, explicitly described the aim of psychoanalysis as making the unconscious conscious. In the psychoanalytic view, neurotic sufferings are caused by the denial and repression of painful experiences. Relief from suffering comes from bringing the repressed experiences into awareness and working through the painful emotions. Thus, in both Freudian and Jungian therapy as well as in Buddhist practice, the expansion of consciousness requires an inner transformation -- a realignment of character with the facts of life which leads to a corresponding softening of neurotic tendencies.
In the Buddhist view, avidya is not only the denial of facts about oneself and the world, it is also a projection onto the world of something not originally there. This state of ignorance is also called "illusion" or "delusion." From the Buddhist point of view, illusion consists of the projection of permanence and/or substantial existence onto phenomena. We can see that rainbows and clouds are ethereal, but we project the quality of enduring permanence and substantially onto solid objects and onto ourselves. The highest wisdom in Buddhism, the wisdom which realizes emptiness, sees through these projections and understands that all phenomena, including self, are impermanent and insubstantial.
Ernest Becker (1925-1974), my dear old friend and colleague who won the Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction in 1974 (two months after he died) for The Denial of Death, reinterpreted some of Freud's central ideas in a way that brings them into harmony with Buddhist views on ignorance and emptiness. Becker proposed that both character and neurosis are shaped by ignorance, specifically, the denial of death."
In his early work, Becker reinterpreted the Oedipus Complex as a stage of psychological development rather than as a neurotic complex. The classical psychoanalytic myth of the Oedipus Complex is a caricature of lust and aggression in the form of a boy-child who loves and wants to have sex with his mother and who hates and wants to kill his father. Becker reinterpreted this caricature as a period of transition, the Oedipal Transition, which represents a crucial period of development of the human personality. In this transitional stage, the child's attachment to the mother and fear of the father represent the resistance to growing up -- the resistance to losing the narcissistic, self indulgent, paradise of childhood. During the Oedipal Transition sexual and aggressive drives are controlled and repressed. The child grows beyond a physical dependence on and attachment to the mother into a relatively independent adult who relates to his or her parents and others through a more mature, distanced, social relationship mediated by language and symbols.
The Oedipal Transition, which is the process of human socialization, signifies the evolution of the human individual beyond the purely animal. This process involves a denial of the body as the ground of self and its replacement by the social self. Since the body dies, the denial of the body implies a denial of death. During the Oedipal Transition, primitive, animal, and childish desires are repressed and sublimated. Many desires which demand instant gratification are denied, delayed, and projected into the future through the creation of an "Oedipal Project." The Oedipal Project is a project for the creation of self in a world of social time and meanings. It involves not only the development of the capacity to think and act in a world of conventional symbols, but also the contrivance of a system of desires, goals, and ambitions which embody the hope for future happiness. In this project of self-creation, the child's present-centered search for pleasure is transformed into a search for future happiness -- the Happiness Project.
The pursuit of happiness, thus, is a universal means for the construction and maintenance of self. Self is constructed through the denial of the body and the development of a social self-consciousness predicated on language. This state of mind, which Buddhists call "dualistic mind," conceives of itself as a social-historical entity whose existence and well being are dependent upon the achievement of future happiness. When the happiness project fails, the individual experiences a negation of self which often leads to frustration, aggression, depression, and even to suicide -- the murder of the negated self. The title of this book, "The Happiness Project," reflects the fact that the pursuit of happiness is, at the same time, the project for the construction and maintenance of self. Tragically, it is also the major source of the unhappiness and suffering we inflict on ourselves and others.
In the Buddhist view, the primary cause of suffering is attachment to self, an inborn state of ignorance which develops into ego. However, fully developed ignorance, as we have already indicated, is not merely the infantile lack of awareness of the nature of self and phenomena. It is also the projection onto existence of something which is not there. Ignorance is ego mistaking itself as real by falsely attributing substantial existence to itself. The capacity for this attribution is dependent upon language and develops during the Oedipal Transition. Language makes possible the creation of the illusion of an inner soul or a person which is then projected on to others and on to existence.
This does not mean that self does not exist. From the Middle Way Buddhist view, called Madhyamika, it is false to say either that self exists or that it does not exist. Self exists but only as a self-created fiction, a self deception. It is, indeed, a necessary deception. Becker called it a "vital lie." It is vital because interpersonal relationships and social life depend upon it. We need an ego to relate to each other, to make a living and pay our bills. It is a lie because it denies the facts of existence and attributes false substantially to itself. This clinging to the illusion of self is, in the Buddhist view, the source of suffering we cause ourselves and others.
In a Buddhist practice known as "analytic meditation," self is unmasked to itself. The guru asks the practitioner to look within for this self. Where is it? In the body? In the head or the heart? In the mind? What part of the mind? What color is self? The reader can try this exercise. No self can be found. This self which cannot find itself anxiously fears its insubstantially and the loss of itself to itself. Through the psychological mechanism of reaction formation, self denies its insubstantially by asserting itself, by striving, through its various Happiness Projects, to protect, preserve, and expand itself -- here and now on earth and forever after in heaven, or through serial reincarnations. This self-created, self-deluded, self-asserting self mistakenly believes that happiness is to be found by pursuing its desires and avoiding its aversions. Buddhists know these three factors, ignorance (the creation of a substantial self), desire, and aversion, as "The Three Poisons." Taken together, they are regarded as the complex of causes of the suffering we humans inflict on ourselves and others. Desire and aversion are also known as passion and aggression, attachment and anger, and other synonymous antithetical pairs. For simplicity's sake, we shall use desire and aversion as the most general representation of these dichotomous pairs. It is important to recognize, however, that not all desires and aversions are evil. Those that cause suffering to oneself or others are regarded as vices, while those that cause happiness to oneself and others are regarded as virtues.
This should not be unfamiliar to Westerners. The antithetical pair of desire and aversion are the twin foundations of modern behavioral psychology. The basic principle of behavioral psychology is that organisms are polarized around pain and pleasure. The desire for pleasure and the aversion to pain are regarded as the basic bipolarity of mind and the basic motivations of behavior. In this respect, behavioral psychology echoes Buddhism. Add self, or ego, to the pair and one has the nexus of our negativities.
In the Buddhist view, the basic secret of happiness that we hide from ourselves is that the three poisons are the root causes of the pain and suffering we cause ourselves and each other. The three poisons are the basis of our neurosis, our negative emotions, and our unhappiness. The shocking central insight that Buddhism gives us, therefore, the secret of happiness we hide from ourselves, is that our selfish striving for happiness are, paradoxically, the greatest cause of the suffering and pain we inflict on ourselves and others. From this point of view, the secrets of genuine happiness involve a self-transformation, including a reconfiguration of our idea of happiness itself, based on a deeper awareness of the nature of reality and a sense of values derived from this realization.
The Three Poisons
Over the past twenty years or so, Westerners have become increasingly interested in Buddhism. This is especially true of Western psychotherapists and their patients, many of whom attend Buddhist teachings. I have heard Tibetan lamas speculate that Buddhism may come to America through psychotherapy. If Buddhism is to succeed in the West, it must be compatible with Western science. The reader should be cautioned, therefore, that the interpretation of the Buddhist paradigm presented here is designed to convey the orthodox Buddhist view in a form which is acceptable to scientifically minded Westerners.
One of the problems educated Westerners have with the "wisdom traditions" is that many of us believe and trust in science for our valid knowledge about the world and the technology for manipulating it. We mistrust religion out of which the wisdom traditions have descended. It is necessary, therefore, first to attempt some reconciliation of this breach between religion and science so we can more freely and intelligently use the best of both to help us to see the truths we hide from ourselves.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Snow Lion Publications. ©1997. www.snowlionpub.com
This article is excerpted with permission from the book:
The Happiness Project: Transforming the Three Poisons that Cause the Suffering We Inflict on Ourselves and Others... by Ron Leifer, M.D.
Also by this author:
Vinegar Into Honey: Seven Steps To Understanding And Transforming Anger, Aggression, And Violence.
Our desires and our fears are woven into a tangled web of conflicts. Anything that threatens our happiness is perceived as a threat to our very lives — the response to which is defensiveness, anger, aggression, and violence. Vinegar into Honey proposes a new paradigm for understanding the relationship between stress, anxiety, anger, and depression.
Click here for more info and/or to order this book on Amazon.
Ron Leifer, M.D. is a psychiatrist who trained under Dr. Thomas Szasz and the anthropologist Ernest Becker. He studied with various Buddhist teachers in the seventies and in 19811 took refuge vows with Khenpo Khartar RinpochT, abbot of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in Woodstock, New York. He helped organize the first KTD Buddhism and Psychotherapy Conference in New York City in 1987. Since 1992, he has been associated with Namgyal Monastery in Ithaca, New York as a student and teacher. Dr. Leifer has lectured widely and published two books and more than fifty articles on a wide variety of psychiatric issues. He has lately turned his attention fully to the interplay between Buddhism and psychotherapy. he is the author of The Happiness Project.