Finding the Soul of AnatmaRead Now
I just submitted an article to the New York Times this morning entitled "A Soul by Any Other Name." It is just about impossible for an unsolicited article to be published in the Times so don't expect to read it there. In fact, it may well wind up here on this website so if the article might hold any interest for you, be patient and allow the rejection to be confirmed by the Times not responding to my submission. The article concerns the public suspicion of the term "psychotherapy". To many people psychotherapy is only for crazy people and in the UK, at least, there is a certain stigma that attaches to going to see a psychotherapist. My article points out that psychotherapy is actually derived from two ancient Greek words which together mean healing of the soul. Then I go on to discuss how psychotherapy works as a treatment for the soul. But as a Buddhist psychotherapist this poses a certain problem for me, namely the doctrine of anatman or no-self/no-soul. I did not discuss this problem in my article at all nor did I mention the fact that I am a Buddhist therapist. But it certainly deserves explanation so let me talk about it here.
Firstly, let me discuss the term anatman, which is Sanskrit [anatta in Pali] for no-soul. The term contrasts with another Sanskrit term, atman [atta in Pali] which means soul or self. These two opposing terms mark a crucial distinction of Buddhist views from other Indian, particularly Vedic views of selfhood. According to the prevailing view of the Buddha's time, there is in each person an essence or soul--called atman--that is eternal and indestructible and carries the karma of all its activity from one life to another in an eternal cycle of becoming known as samsara. The Buddha accepted that there is indeed an eternal cycle of rebirth based in the actions or karma for which there are morally lawful results. But his astonishing claim was that there was no eternal self that carried any karmic burden. There was just karma. Indeed, it is the blind belief in self that is the most potent source of karma and once it is understood that the self is not eternal, but is merely contingent upon a craving for existence, karma effectively stops and spiritual liberation or enlightenment is found.
Like most people I found this doctrine rather baffling. After all, if there is no self then to whom could such an allegedly liberating insight be addressed? It took quite a bit of reading and reflecting before I understood that no-self belongs with two other features of Buddhist philosophy, impermanence and suffering, to appreciate what the Buddha was arguing for. Essentially, a self cannot be permanent or eternal because everything about it is in perpetual flux. Yet the desire for permanence, especially to be permanently satisfied by sating all desires, is certain to perpetuate misery. But the way the self is conventionally understood was not denied. People were still taken to be individuals with distinct personalities and there was a sense that each person must find a path based in his or her karmic disposition. Seen from this point of view, no-self may seem more a metaphysical doctrine then a psychological way of looking at human experience. But in fact, no-self is profoundly psychological for it tells us how the self is constructed out of craving and sees that this process of construction plays out moment by moment. No-self is a way of deconstructing experience, that is to say of analysing how experience is constructed from a futile attempt to create a lasting self. And although this doctrine was primarily developed for those who want to follow the Buddhist path, the analysis of all things as impermanent and hence no-self, can be used in many other contexts, especially one such as psychotherapy.
Still, how does the notion no-self square with the of the idea of psyche or soul? If we accept that Buddhism has no problem with being a person, the problem may simply seem to vanish. But I think there is more to the matter and that Buddhism has a great deal to say about human experience in addition to providing a map for enlightenment. The Buddha knew about the passions, the follies and the nobility that can arise in human experience and he was surpassingly perceptive about character formation. Moreover, Buddhism has always called for the cultivation of character with a view towards increasing the human capacity for wisdom and compassion. In other words, Buddhism gets us in touch with our deepest human qualities by abjuring our selfish wish for a lasting self. But does therapy do that and should it even aspire to do so?
In my view, psychotherapy should not be a preparation for taking Buddhist vows. Therapy is about helping people become more self aware so that their lives can become more fulfilled and meaningful. But such fulfilment and meaning must emerge in the terms of their own life experiences. Becoming Buddhist or subscribing to the dharma need not figure into this at all. Nevertheless, when Buddhism tells us that the roots of all suffering arise from the three poisonous passions of aversion, greed and delusion, we have much to learn from the Buddhist analysis. So even if we stick to the goals of conventional therapy of developing a healthy, functioning ego, we can benefit by what Buddhism has to say about becoming better, more contented people. Soul work, in other words.
Now I know this explanation is rather glib and not very satisfactory. But the point I am driving at is that self awareness which is crucial for psychotherapy, is also a supreme value of Buddhism, even though no-self is central to Buddhist thinking. Dogen, the great Japanese Zen Master and founder of the Soto school, expressed this paradox well: "To study the self is to forget the self." Alas, this leaves a vexing question for people like me who style themselves Buddhist psychotherapists. Can forgetting the self ever be a value for psychotherapy?
Stumbling in the DarkRead Now
A friend of mine who admits that she is no fan of blogs said that she found the idea of selling the self rather intriguing. In my previous post I wrote that it's what contemporary society obliges everyone to do in order to establish a public profile. Perhaps it has always been thus, but there is something about the vast array of media that are within almost everyone's grasp that makes creating a public profile seem like shameless self promotion. I suppose everybody has their own personal experience of this so I will avoid the dangers of generalisation and speak only for myself as someone who is trying to advertise my services as a counsellor.
I guess the thing that makes me feel most uneasy is any claim to expertise that counsellors and therapists feel they need to make. This not only includes their academic and training credentials which certainly should be open for public inspection. It also includes "experience", which generally seems to mean time spent in the consulting room with clients. This certainly deserves to be presented to the public, as well. As a relatively inexperienced practitioner myself, I can see that far more is learned by seeing clients than by any amount of academic training. Here the essential skills of listening and empathising are developed and through the development of those skills a certain savoir faire can arise. So yes, this is an expertise of a kind. But the open secret of the psychotherapeutic arts is that nobody quite understands how therapy works, which is something that Jung --the greatest psychotherapist, in my opinion-- observed when he said that every successful course of psychotherapy hinged on an event that could not have been predicted beforehand.
Perhaps another way of putting this is that psychotherapy is an art that feels under pressure to present itself as a science. People with problems want answers and results provided by experts that are versed in science. They don't want some self indulgent artsy types who are treating their problems like some sort of poetic texts. To be fair, I would also have my doubts about any therapist who sees himself as some sort of creative genius. But the truth is that therapy and by extension therapists do not possess a comprehensive map of human experience and therapy often feels like stumbling in the dark for both therapist and client. A skilful therapist knows how to negotiate that darkness so that a secure destination can eventually be reached. But this is not something that therapists would usually want to advertise.
Part of this reason for this blog is to give prospective clients a better view of me and my therapeutic orientation than they could get on something like my page on Counselling Directory. I am on Counselling Directory and I am happy to be able to advertise my services there. But frankly, I pretty much followed the example of others in presenting myself. Of course, you could still say that I am still selling myself by writing this blog. But what I m telling you now is that as a counsellor/therapist I often stumble in the dark.
By the way, the logo on this website and my business cards is from a painting by Hakuin, the 17th century Zen master. It is entitled "Two Blind Men Crossing a Log Bridge", which seems to me to be an apt metaphor for therapy.
July 11th, 2014Read Now
I have always found the idea of blogging rather intriguing, but I have never found the right format for it. It seems to me that counselling and therapy always bring up issues that have a wider importance beyond the therapeutic encounter in which such issues may arise. These include such familiar themes as politics, power, sexuality, spirituality, the self, society, relationships...the list is virtually endless. But the fact that such issues can arise in the course of therapy means a certain caution must be observed, too. The privacy of the therapeutic relationship must never be breached, certainly not by a blog such as this. So if I ever refer to client work, it will only be in the most general terms and will never refer to any actual cases of mine, though I might refer to famous cases from psychotherapeutic literature such as the case of Sabine Spielrein. So any clients of mine--past present or to come--can be assured that I will never be making comments about them.
One of the things that has lately been on my mind that I would like to discuss in this public forum is what I call Selling the Self. It is something I have had to do in trying to establish myself as a new counsellor in Canterbury and frankly, I can't stand it. In truth, I suspect few counsellors or therapists relish doing it, but it seems to be a necessity if you want to set up in private practice. But it occurs to me that this is what lots of people have to do and not just in their professional lives. The same things happens on dating sites where people shop around for romantic or sexual partners. But buyer beware! Sellers are shrewd and dissimulating, for this is the nature of the marketplace. My question is are we in danger of losing sight of something by the need to market ourselves as people?
Anyway, like complaining about the weather, there is not much I can do about this state of affairs other than endure it. But I might explore selling the self a little more deeply to see if it has deeper implications than being an unwanted chore for me. Any civil comments will be welcome.