When East Doesn't Meet West: Buddhism and Psychotherapy By Kim Chernin, PhD on 2/26/13 - 5:21 PM

Two statements from the Dalai Lama suggest a conflict between meditation and the type of self-awareness we develop in psychotherapy. The first statement has fascinated and puzzled me for decades. A friend, who meditates regularly, told me that the Dalai Lama said the following in conversation with an American psychiatrist: “When someone has been shot with an arrow you psychologists ask how the arrow got there, who shot it, how long ago, with what intent. We, on the other hand, reach over and pull the arrow out.”

Another statement from the Dalai Lama, suggesting an incompatibility between Western psychotherapy and Eastern meditation, used to cause me sleepless nights: “In the Buddhist tradition, compassion and love are seen as two aspects of the same thing: compassion is the wish for another being to be free from suffering; love is wanting them to have happiness. Self-centeredness inhibits our love for others, and we are all afflicted by it to one degree or another.”

Back then, when I had been in psychoanalysis for many years and I had also been meditating, I had the impression that my meditation practice and my psychoanalytic sessions were antagonistic and that sooner or later I would have to choose between them. Was individual psychotherapy, in its attempt to understand “how the arrow got there,” a form of self-centeredness? Shantideva, an eminent 8th century Buddhist scholar, wrote: “Cherishing the self is the cause of all suffering. Cherishing others is the source of all happiness.” Does psychotherapy amount to a “cherishing of the self?”

This critique of the self runs consistently through Eastern thought. I also found it in the I Ching: “Through hardness and selfishness the heart grows rigid. This rigidity leads to separation from all others. Egotism isolates people.”

Three or four times a week lying around, rambling on about my self. That was egotism. What else could I call it? I mentioned this concern to my psychoanalyst who pointed out that the question was very likely a form of resistance. Maybe it was, but it was also a concern that needed discussion.

A number of Eastern traditions also come down hard on suffering. Shantideva wrote: “The Sanskrit word for suffering is dukkha. The root word kha means sky, or space. The prefix du means unhealthy. So dukkha, suffering, is a condition in which our relationship to space is unhealthy. We suffer when we feel disconnected and alone. An experience of emotional trauma may cause us to retreat into a ‘fortress self.’ We unconsciously imprison ourselves in a state of psychic solitary confinement.”

One thing I knew about myself was that I suffered; I went into psychotherapy to address this suffering. Over the years I found a great depth of self and self-knowledge, a hidden treasure of the self I would not have found but for the suffering. Could the uncovering of this treasure be considered a retreat into a “fortress self?” An imprisonment in a state of “psychic solitary confinement?”

In those years I was always looking for some reconciliation between East and West and especially between these two traditions. One day I came across something promising. I had just discovered that the Sanskrit word for bliss was sukha. Sukha, I read, connotes a healthy relationship to space. We are open. We feel related to others. We are connected to our own embodied selves, to others and to spirit. The key to the transformation of suffering into bliss is to open our hearts. And what do we find when our heart is open? We find love. An open heart is a heart filled with love, yes love. The very thing I had become more capable of feeling as I explored the reasons for my suffering.

Would this settle my worry about selfishness, self-centeredness, egotism, arrows that stay stuck until we understand who shot them? I think it did. Perhaps, in both meditation and in self-reflective work, in our spiritual inclinations and through our inner broodings, we are embarked upon the self-same path. I don’t know that psychotherapy in its many schools would think of its goal as the liberation of love from a heart twisted in on itself by suffering. But I have found, in my self-work, and now for many years in my work with others, that as suffering retreats love enters; as self-pain diminishes, care and concern for others ripens. Maybe it is as natural to love as for a cherry seed to ripen into a cherry, and we psychological workers need only provide the right circumstance for this to happen.

I once read about a seed that had been wrapped away for thousands of years in an Egyptian mummy. Unearthed, brought into the light and planted, it shot out its roots, sent forth its branches, unfurled its leaves. I can’t remember the name of the plant it became but perhaps, whatever it was, it will help us in our work to imagine that love is like that, a mighty seed, often hidden away and hard to reach, but ready to thrive given the right conditions.


File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections