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.