In my last blog I questioned whether realising the truth of anatman or no-self should ever be a value for psychotherapy. This is a question that therapists with a Buddhist orientation have had to confront ever since Buddhist psychology was discovered as a source of insight for psychotherapy. More than twenty years ago the well known Buddhist psychotherapist, Jack Engler, came up with a a marvellously pithy expression for how the self development which psychotherapy seeks could be reconciled with the ultimate truth of no-self. "You have to be somebody before you can be nobody," Engler wrote. His dictum became quite popular among Buddhist therapists, but non-Buddhists may be forgiven for being puzzled by it. After all, who would want to become a nobody? And should being a nobody really be held out as any sort of spiritual or psychological ideal?
Perhaps the first thing that should be said here is that being no-self-- or being nobody in Engler's sense of the term-- does not mean depersonalisation, that dreadful state in which someone does not experience himself as human, but feels like a mere object or thing. This occurs either as a precursor to psychosis or features prominently in psychotic breakdown [a brilliant description of this phenomenon can be found in RD Laing's The Divided Self]. By contrast, realising no-self entails no impairment to human feeling and actually enhances the capacity for feeling sympathy towards others. Indeed, it frees one of obsessive egoic concern and allows one to encounter others in a spirit of free generosity. Perhaps another way of putting this is that when the self is no longer an issue a person becomes free to encounter others in an unobtrusive way that encourages and shares in the well being of others. Yet, it must be observed that this lofty ideal may seldom seem to occur in therapy where the selves of both client and therapist often lie coiled and hidden in unconscious processes that work insidiously to thwart any deep realisation of no-self. So is it possible that no-self has little true relevance to psychotherapy which typically deals with the low, base, often shameful passions of human nature?
Actually, no-self can apply very well in psychotherapy, though a crucial feature must be borne in mind when considering the idea. No-self doesn't so much refer to a thing or even a state of mind or state of being, as much as it indicates a fundamental and inherent characteristic of all things. No-self is better understood as an underlying feature of reality which is only made at all evident by the apparent effects of impermanence. Moreover, it is the craving for permanence which gives rise to the illusion of self which produces suffering. All of this is very basic Buddhist psychology and my brief sketch of it here hardly does justice to the detailed vision and exhaustive analysis that support the Buddhist idea of no-self. But if we were to make a rough and ready translation of a core principle of Buddhist psychology for easy assimilation for psychotherapy it could be that attachment to any phenomena---objects, pleasures, aversions, views, but above all, ideas of self--is the principle cause of psychological distress. Clearly, this principle has a great deal in common with similar ideas about attachment in secular psychology. But the Buddhist analysis based upon the key idea of no-self is surely the most thorough deconstruction of attachment to be found. Arguably, it is that very thoroughness which may pose a problem for psychotherapy.
Now I don't think for a moment that Buddhism is an exclusively monastic practice, but there is no doubt that the monastic life has always been upheld as the most conducive for attaining enlightenment. We might go on to observe that few environments could be better suited for realising the truth of no-self than in a monastery where distractions are kept at a minimum and the conditions for developing the concentration that are necessary for realising no-self are highly propitious. Psychotherapy, by contrast, must labour in the everyday world of money, sex, war and karma (this wonderful phrase comes from the title of David Loy's excellent collection of essays) and thus finding equilibrium in the turmoil of the everyday world must be one of the foremost concerns of any form of psychotherapy. Moreover, psychotherapy is not usually about seeing into the ultimate nature of things. It is about functioning in the world where relationships break down, untimely and tragic deaths occur and where failures and disappointments abound. Here clients seldom, if ever strive for ultimate release, but will usually settle settle for immediate relief from their woes. Yet, having said all this, I don't think the notion of no-self and the higher promise of ultimate release are entirely out of place in the consulting room. Certainly for me, my faith in Buddhist principles is vital for my work as a therapist, even though I am hardly enlightened and would never cast myself as an exemplar of the Buddhdaharma. Still, I am convinced that Buddhism is fundamentally right about all the essential questions regarding the human condition. But this is only my faith and therapy must never rely on faith alone.
Earlier, I referred to the coiled and hidden selves of both client and therapist that are brought to bear on psychotherapy. What I was alluding to was transference and counter-transference, the complex and largely unconscious exchange of feelings that client and therapist inevitably develop for each other during a long course of psychotherapy. Dealing with such feelings can be tricky and dangerous business, but as Freud maintained, it is essential for psychoanalysis and performs an important function for other forms of long term psychotherapy, as well. The reality of transference and counter-transference present convincing evidence of the self processes of both therapist and client and would seem to undermine any possibility of finding the more elusive presence of no-self. Yet, occasionally both parties may experience a moment of clarity when the anxiety that infiltrates therapy unexpectedly lifts and the sense of oppression that governs the life of the client temporarily dissolves. "Find the space between your thoughts," is an instruction sometimes used for meditation. It often comes as a surprise that there is such a space and that in its very emptiness it can be astonishingly luminous. Any such experience, however brief, holds an intimation of what consciousness might actually be once it is freed of mindless habit. Psychotherapy is about exploring mindless habits and bringing them to the light of consciousness. But Buddhism shows a way to locate that light.