I got a phone call recently from a friend of mine who was worried about a close friend of hers. It seems that her friend has returned to a long term relationship that had brought little but disappointment and heartbreak, even though she had resolved to end that relationship and move on to find someone who would appreciate her more. "Why is she doing it? Doesn't she know how stupid she's being?" my friend asked in exasperation. I am acquainted with the woman in question, and though I don't know her well, she certainly doesn't strike me as stupid. On the contrary, she appears intelligent and self possessed, as well as quietly attractive. So I have to admit that I was rather surprised to learn that she would have a weakness for a man who, at least in my friend's opinion, is incapable of emotional commitment. But my friend who had phoned me for some wisdom or insight into what she considered to be her friend's self defeating behaviour, expected more of me. "Aren't you a therapist? You're supposed to know about these things!" she said accusingly. In fact, this sort of issue is one of the more common problems that people bring into the consulting room. But as I tried to explain to my friend, I really couldn't form any opinion about what the problem was unless I spoke to her friend about it. "Who knows?" I said. "Maybe she doesn't regard it as a problem, at all. Maybe she has finally worked out her differences with her boyfriend." But my friend was unconvinced: "I think you're being as stupid as she is."
Perhaps I was. But the idea that therapists have any special ability to see through the problems that bring people to therapy, especially from a hearsay report that is certain to be incomplete and is most likely unreliable, is a dangerous illusion that even some therapists seem to believe in. Indeed, pop psychology, which presents itself as a distillation of therapeutic expertise, offers little more than ready made conventional wisdom expressed in the self-mystifying jargon of therapy. Although there may be a thriving belief in the possibilities of pop therapy for women who love too much or men who don't know how too get in touch with their feelings, true therapy doesn't really begin until both therapist and client are prepared to deal with the particularity and uniqueness of the client's situation. This is not to say, however, that there are no such things as common pit falls or that people aren't unwise by repeatedly falling into them. But what may be clearly self defeating to impartial observation is seldom, if ever remedied by simply getting someone to look at their problems "objectively". For it is only by appreciating the subjective sense of someone's experience that understanding his or her actions in the world becomes possible. Or as Pascal might have put it, the heart has reasons of its own.
Blaise Pascal was a 17th Century French philosopher and mathematician who never dreamed of such a thing as psychotherapy. Moreover, his most famous quotation referred to a spiritual aspiration to know God, which may seem rather too ethereal for the coarse, dark matters that psychotherapy typically deals with. Yet, he has another, lesser known quotation about the heart which shows that his understanding of human nature did not lay credit exclusively on the side of the angelic. "How hollow is the heart of man and how full of excrement!" he wrote. We might surmise that this unflattering fecal reference earned the approval of Freud centuries later. For like Pascal, Freud argued that it is usually base emotions, not reason, that govern our actions. Ever since Freud, psychotherapy has always tried to be be alert to the possibility of base passions disguising themselves as expressions of reason and morality. Yet, therapy errs by supposing that higher, more selfless aspirations never figure into the client's experience of desire. Indeed, according to Buddhist psychology, it is by discovering a capacity for wisdom and compassion that people can conceive the desire to rise above their more lowly desires and discover their true spiritual possibilities. But how can low, base passions become transmuted into higher aspiration? Or, to put it into Pascal's pungent terms, how can the heart rid itself of excrement?
It begins with radical, indeed unconditional self acceptance. This is not the same as being non-judgemental, though suspending one's preconceptions and biases is certainly a pre-requisite for finding such self acceptance. But far from eschewing critical self judgement altogether, a deeper, more searching form of self enquiry takes the place of reflexive judgement. This enquiry allows one to see attachments and aversions as defences that are maintained in order to preserve a sense of permanence. Such a realisation makes it possible, at least in principle, to let them go. But letting go of attachments and aversions--the heart's excrement, as it were-- is seldom easy, even when people recognise that they are harmful. Indeed, sometimes they are not even thought to be detachable, so essential do they feel for self identity. To Buddhism, however, attachment to identity can only be illusory, as Buddhism regards the self as nothing more than its attachments. Dropping attachments to find the ultimate truth of no-self is what the Buddhist path is all about. But the truth of no-self can almost be just as valuable for psychotherapy which seeks to free the heart for experience in the world.
Few things reveal the potential danger of identifying with desires more than blind romantic attachment. Although almost everyone would admit that desire is not the same as love, it can be difficult to keep this truth in mind, especially when desire overpowers caution and rules the heart. For passionate desire has the power to seize us unawares and rob us of our better judgement, intoxicating us with intimations of a romantic love that will last forever. And sometimes an enduring love really does follow from passionate desire, though seldom in quite the way that desire imagines it. Unfortunately, it is also common for the passionate craving for love to turn into no less passionate hatred. Certainly every therapist has ample experience of clients crawling into therapy out of the ruins of failed love and everyone has witnessed tender lovers become bitter enemies. A cruel variation of love that goes wrong occurs when jealousy arouses more passion than the failed love that caused it. None of this is to argue against falling in love, which in any case would be as futile as arguing against any other force of nature. But only by looking into the heart and seeing what blind attachments it holds can there be any hope of letting them go and making a deeper affective realisation. Although there is little hope and not much point of making the heart reject its reasons, it may be possible to rid it of its excrement.