Years ago, I was walking through the streets of Kathmandu and turned a corner onto a fairly empty side street where I found a ragged beggar who just then happened to be waving to a friend of his across the street from him. The beggar greeted his friend cheerfully and clearly took pleasure at seeing him, but his mood changed instantly once he noticed me, a Western traveller and hence, obviously rich. He seemed to experience a brief moment of identity crisis, as if he had been unmasked by his moment of unguarded happiness. But then, like an actor resuming his role after stumbling out of character, he immediately dropped the happy attitude he had been showing and turned to me with a look of abject misery and held out his hands imploringly for some baksheesh. No doubt his pains were real enough. Being a beggar in Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, must surely offer little more than a life of deprivation with few satisfactions. Yet the sudden transition from spontaneous, unrehearsed joy to the stereotyped expression of suffering was undeniably comic and when I smiled at him he seemed to accept that there was no point in carrying on with his act. In fact, in Nepal, as in so many poor countries, beggary is a way of life, virtually an occupation. And just as there are customs for every other station in life, there are customs that govern that occupation, too. By letting me catch him in a moment of undisguised happiness, the beggar seemed to violate a rule of presentation. A beggar must never appear less than miserable lest the pretext for provoking pity in others becomes open to doubt, for it is the spectacle of his suffering that is the means by which he earns his living. Given their living conditions, beggars can hardly be blamed for having to present themselves in such a demeaning fashion. We should also observe that the economic conditions which force them to become beggars add evidence to a serious argument that has long been made against a global economic system which casts untold millions into such hopeless poverty. But a sophisticated argument about the inequities of capitalism may overlook the more immediate, psychological transaction between beggars and potential donors. What is it about their respective roles that reveals something about the human condition?
Pity, as I have noted, is the crucial bond that unites beggar and donor, as the suffering of the one elicits charity from the other. But to be the recipient of such pity requires not just poverty, but also a visible demonstration of the pain and helplessness that poverty causes. The donor, of course, is in a much more favourable position in this transaction, yet he may still feel uneasy about the nature of the exchange. Although he might see himself as a benefactor whose act of charity helps provide the beggar with his daily bread, he might also recognise how his paltry offering does little more than sustain the beggar in his wretched condition. In a better world, both donor and beggar might hope that something more could be done to reduce the beggar's misery and perhaps even rescue him from it. But there are always limits to what anybody can do in any given situation and sometimes a small act of charity may be the best that can be done. If, however, the intention behind pity never sees beyond the small objective of offering temporary relief to someone in chronic suffering, pity remains trivial and somehow demeaning. It is no more than a ritual gesture, a mere nod to the fact of suffering without any interest in becoming fully cognizant of the experience of suffering. It is little more than Compassion Lite.
Traditionally, Buddhism has always observed the necessity of linking compassion to wisdom, if only to observe the limits of what compassion can do to alleviate suffering in any particular case. When, for example, someone is suffering a fatal disease we should do what we can to ameliorate the pain without losing sight of the fact that death is inevitable--that death is in fact an existential inevitability. Similarly, in regarding some unexpected disaster, we should offer help in the aftermath, while recognising that it may not be in our power to do anything to rectify the loss. But wisdom about suffering means much more than recognising the limits of compassion. It also means recognising the experience, as well as the fact of suffering, so that compassion leads both to the sensitive expression of that recognition, as well as to effective action. For compassion may be as much an act of communication as it is an act of charity. It is also what distinguishes compassion from mere pity. Although compassion might first arise as a feeling of pity, it requires a certain attentive interest for it to become a deeper, more considered response. This does not mean that the expression of compassion must be verbal. But it must be sensitive and considered as an expression of care.
It should be obvious then that while compassion must have an essential role in psychotherapy, pity should have no place in it at all. Yet, anybody who has worked as a counsellor or psychotherapist will have had the experience of encountering clients who have come into therapy after experiencing some terrible misfortune which seemed to provoke a feeling of helplessness in both himself and the client. Facing some serious illness or impending death or some other seemingly total loss can make a client feel utterly bereft of hope; moreover, such hopelessness may appear to be an entirely appropriate response even to the therapist. The temptation of the therapist then might be to offer pity as a salve to the suffering the client presents. But this would only encourage the client to indulge in self pity, which is certainly among the worst ways of dealing with tragedy or loss. It would be as if both client and therapist agreed to share in the fellow feeling of despair, which might alleviate the feeling of emotional isolation in the client, but would do nothing to develop self insight or find better possibilities for his actual situation. To be sure, false optimism or blind faith in positive thinking can, in the long run, be just as self defeating. But finding true hope and authentic possibility in the darkest, most hopeless of circumstances is one of the great benefits that psychotherapy can offer. But it takes time and effort, as well as a willingness to experience the pain of loss.
Living in a world without pity would be to live in a heartless, uncaring world. But finding compassion in a world in which suffering is certain is a way of enduring, as well as making sense of it.
I am grateful to a reader named Aaron Zaz who has drawn my attention to an excellent article by Thanissaro Bhikku, a Thervada monk and scholar whose translations of the Pali Canon and teaching of meditation make him, in my opinion, one of the best teachers of Buddhism today. Although I have never had the privilege of personally hearing Thanissaro Bhikku speak, I highly recommend his dharma talks which can be found on Youtube and elsewhere on-line [see the links below]. As a teacher he has the virtue of bringing his deep understanding of the Buddha's teaching to the immediate experience of meditation. But in this article he turns his attention to contemporary Buddhism and the unexamined assumptions that most Westerners bring to the dharma. He argues that German romanticism has been an important, if forgotten influence in our understanding of what Buddhism is and what issues it addresses. As in ancient China, which used Taoism as an entry point or "dharma gate" for understanding Buddhist teaching, the West has taken romanticism as its doorway into the dharma. While finding such a gate is clearly a benefit, there are also drawbacks associated with the discovery. Romanticism regarded truth of feeling and inter-connectedness with the universe as the highest spiritual truths. Buddhism, at least as the Buddha originally taught it, goes beyond such emotional satisfactions to find a deeper, more lasting and transcendent truth by the realisation of not-self. The romantic attitude not only affects Western Buddhism, but according to Thanissaro Bhikku, it is also a major influence in Western psychology, evidence for which can be found in the thought of William James, Carl Jung and Abraham Maslow, to name only three. While Thanissaro Bhikku concedes that using Buddhism for therapeutic purposes can be healing, Westerners risk losing the possibility of finding a greater realisation and more complete liberation by thinking of it in predominately psychological terms with a decidedly romantic bias.
I agree with this article almost completely, but as a psychotherapist I view the matter from an entirely different, perhaps even opposite perspective. As I have consistently argued in this blog, psychotherapy is not in a position to strive for complete liberation, but must usually settle for the lesser goal of helping people make sense of their lives. Moreover, even though I am not reluctant to call myself a Buddhist therapist, I am obliged to help my clients make sense of their experience in the terms that make sense to them. This means that Buddhism--or, perhaps more to the point, my ideas about Buddhism--must not dictate either the course or the outcome of the therapeutic process. I also have no aversion to drawing on the ideas and practices of other approaches if I believe that they might help a client. But my eclecticism might seem to call into doubt my decision to call myself a Buddhist psychotherapist. For if I am not bound by my loyalty to Buddhist doctrines and feel free to improvise from ideas that aren't remotely Buddhist, can I really call myself a Buddhist psychotherapist? Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that I'm a therapist who happens to be a Buddhist?
Part of the reason that I wear my Buddhist colours so openly is to acknowledge my allegiance to Buddhist psychology, especially its ideas about attachment, impermanence and, above all, not-self. Yet, by definition any psychology must be concerned with the self as its principal interest. But the idea of not-self in Buddhism does not deny the experience of being a person, but instead implies the surrender of any idea of a permanent self to a deeper insight about the pervasive reality of impermanence. Still the delusion that a subject of experience finds permanence by coming to awareness through an interplay of desire and memory arises naturally and irresistibly in the course of living and runs much deeper than any mere concept of it. So while it may be relatively easy to accept some idea of not-self as a philosophical proposition, it is much harder to understand it as a living truth, indeed as a moment to moment phenomenon that mistakes its conditional existence for lasting reality. The elusive perception of not-self is also what makes a teacher such as Thanissaro Bhikku such a helpful guide on the Buddhist path. But it may be more difficult to see how such a deep, counter-intuitive insight that leads to the deconstruction of the self could be of use in psychotherapy whose primary concern is the healing of the self.
In truth, the skilled use of the concept of not-self can greatly facilitate psychotherapy. To put the matter simply, the self subsists on its attachments and by helping the client realise that such attachments are not-self they can be relinquished and a new sense of possibility can emerge. But this simple formula seldom, if ever works so easily in the actual course of therapy. For the idea of not-self is not a magic wand that can be waved over a client's attachments to make them vanish at will. Although attachments may constitute the illusion of self, they usually do so subtly and mysteriously, especially if they lurk in shadows that are never exposed to the light of awareness. And as Buddhism has always maintained, one of the biggest, most stubborn attachments of all is the very idea of self, an idea that is not formed by conceptual reasoning, but is largely composed of unconscious desire, fear and will. It is by seeing that attachments have a functional claim on the self and seem to possess a life force of their own that the difficult work of becoming free of them can begin. While it may not be as final as in spiritual practice, even a partial discovery of the truth of not-self can bring a degree of liberation.
The Buddhist psychotherapist Jack Engler once turned a memorable phrase about how the idea of not-self applies in psychotherapy. "You have to be somebody before you can be nobody," he wrote. What this means is that the client must attain a level of self awareness and responsibility before letting go of his preoccupation with self. But my paraphrase is an abstract way of expressing what psychotherapy is actually about, which is to make sense of experience by exploring it in depth in order to facilitate meaningful change. This requires the client to reflect on his past and on his current relationships, as well as those experiences that marked him and made him unique. But it also means reflecting on the self as it becomes revealed in the course of therapy. A romantic belief in the self is actually a hindrance to the kind of reckoning required here. For it usually has more to do with facing painful, even humiliating truths than with finding any romantic sense of oneness with the universe. Still, it is by facing those truths and bringing them to the light of awareness that the freedom to discover higher truths becomes possible.
Finding the ultimate, ineffable truth of not-self is no easy task and so finding a great teacher like Thanissaro Bhikku would be a great boon for anyone travelling on the Buddhist path. But for those who can't imagine finding any path to reach the dharma gate, they might consider trying a good psychotherapist.
Ever since Freud convinced us that it is our sexual urges that drive our emotional lives it seems that Western culture has fallen under the spell of sex. But Freud's vision was much darker and far more nuanced than the common understanding of it, which, in its most grossly simplified and distorted version, holds that it is the repression of our sexual desires that causes the frustrations which give rise to mental illness. In fact, most people know little, if anything about Freud and would be more likely to hoot in disbelief at ideas of his such as the Oedipal complex than admire the depth of insight of his essentially tragic conception of human sexual desire. Still, the idea that sex holds the key to character continues to exert considerable influence on our understanding of the human condition. But it was another figure, who was more of a sociologist than a psychologist, who had perhaps even greater influence than Freud in shaping our understanding of sex. Alfred Kinsey, the founder of modern sexology, used anonymous surveys and statistical analysis to find out what sexual behaviour people actually engaged in, as opposed to what their sexual behaviour was supposed to be. What his research revealed is that people were far more promiscuous and diverse in their sexual habits and tastes than conventional morality supposed. Although recent scholarship has questioned some of Kinsey's methods, his legacy was at least as important as Freud's in contributing to the contemporary understanding of sex. Freud convinced us that our sexual instincts rule our emotional lives; Kinsey revealed the extensive range of our sexual activities, which affected our sexual norms. Their work, though undertaken separately and with quite different aims, led to the widely shared belief that sex indicates the essential truth of self and that the only true way to understand a personality was by knowing the sexual urges that lay hidden beneath its surface. Sex has always demanded secrecy and privacy, as much for its furtive pleasures, as for its potential for shame. But due in large part to the efforts of Freud and Kinsey, discovering those secrets is now widely considered to be the only way to discover the truth of self.
Although Buddhism has always recognised the power of sexual desire in the formation of personality, it certainly does not believe that sex holds our ultimate truth. But as a psychotherapist, I have to face the evidence of my working experience, which often does seem to vindicate both the ideas of Freud and the research of Kinsey. More to the point, many of my clients believe they have unwittingly discovered their personal truths in the pain and humiliation of their sexuality. Not that all of them have miserable sex lives or have suffered painful traumas related to sex. More often, it is simply the absence of love in their sex lives that drives them to question the wholeness of their personalities and the quality of their experiences in general. For that absence seems to betoken a deeper, more unspeakable loss. If sex is supposed to be the royal road to love, it is only natural to suppose that there must be something terribly wrong with a traveller who has little hope of reaching the destination.
The truth is that erotic experience really can be a gateway to surpassing delight bordering on divine bliss, as poets have always recognised. In Love's Labour's Lost, for example, Shakespeare observed the rapturous effect of falling in love when he wrote: "When love speaks, the voice of all the gods makes heaven drowsy with the harmony." Indeed, the ecstatic union of lovers can even rise to spiritual heights when it is made to serve as a spiritual discipline. In both Buddhism and Hinduism, the esoteric practices of Tantra use erotic imagery to express the exquisite sense of union that occurs upon spiritual realisation. And in so called left-handed Tantra, though not used for the purposes of pleasure or procreation, some practices can even involve actual sexual intercourse. Yet, in spite of its potential for touching divine or near divine realms of experience, sex can far more easily descend into a hell in which the shrieking of the furies drowns out the harmonious chorus of the gods. The echo of those screams can often be heard in psychotherapy.
It is not difficult to see why sex can be such an endless source of suffering. Perhaps nothing else illustrates quite so vividly the principle that craving is the cause of suffering, for which reason Buddhism has always warned against the dangers of heedless sexual indulgence and encourages celibacy for those who are most ardently committed to the dharma. But even before we give in or refuse to give in to such craving, sexual desire arises in us as a chthonic power that can feel as irresistible as a force of nature. This is implicit in the expression "falling in love", even though we are more apt to romanticise such a surge of feeling as two lovers surrendering to passion in order to to unite in erotic bliss. But the reality of being possessed by sexual desire is usually far less pretty. It is more often a case of coarse physical craving finding release in loveless erotic pleasure for which the pornography and sex industries readily provide accessories to their immense profit. Moreover, nature is hardly beautiful when it summons the force of desire in defiance of personal identity or moral expectations. For some people sex is saturated in shame precisely because it reveals to them the selves they don't want to be. Erotic bliss, bordering on the divine, can only appear absurd when sex comes wrapped in disgrace. Yet, the desire for intimacy in sex-- two people willingly participating in bodily passion with and for each other--can survive even the worst sexual experiences. It is also why most people will always believe in love and sex as an ideal unity. Acting on our sexual urges in whatever we can may be a biological imperative, as Freud argued and KInsey documented. But trying to find love in the tropism of desire is surely no less human.
RD Laing once observed the distinction between love and lust by a simple shift of prepositions. Lust, he said, is the feeling of and love is the feeling for the person one desires. Another way of putting this is that sexual loving involves a deep recognition of the subjectivity and desires of the other, loving through sex, rather than using the other for sex. Conceived in this way, the expression "making love" would mean a true act of intimacy, rather than stand as a euphemism for engaging in sex. But what about sex as a natural instinct which, if pursued responsibly and with a modicum of respect for one's sexual partner, can be indulged in with no moral or psychological penalty to pay? For some people this appears to be true. Sex can be as casual as going to the cinema on a rainy afternoon. But for others, sex is always haunted by the absence of an intimacy that they can't help but hope for. And though this is often considered a sexual problem, it is more likely to be a problem about loneliness. For if love is knowing and wanting to know the other, sex between partners without interest or concern for each other suggests a deeper deprivation. Although everyone knows that having sex is not the same as making love, if love can't be found in sex, the fear may arise that it can't be found at all.