Psychoanalysis was born in the cultural climate of the second half of the 19th century, a period which witnessed the emergence of Existentialism as a philosophical system and as an experiential directory guiding how to live human life. Between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, two milestones marking the “Existential Manifest”, psychoanalysis emerged as the contemplative discipline positing the unique individual in its center.
However, Freud’s rather poignant struggle to gain scientific respectability for the new science of psychoanalysis severed the natural ties which linked psychoanalysis to existentialism. Freud’s mighty effort to base his thinking on foundations of rationality transformed psychoanalysis to what was, probably, modernity’s last heroic project, establishing psychoanalysis as a positivistic structural discipline, embedded deeply in what may rightly be defined as “The Metaphysics of Mechanism”.
The shared awareness that the profound and sincere self exploration of the human mind is common to these two contemplative positions, initiated several courageous attempts of comparing psychoanalysis and Buddhism, in order to solve the riddle of the linkage between them.
Within psychoanalysis the search for veins common to the two domains – starting by the pioneers (like Joe Tom Sun, F. Alexander, C.G. Jung, Karen Horney, E. Fromm & others) and culminating in the riveting figures of modern times (Nina Coltart, J. Engler, M. Epstein, A. Molino, A. Phillips, J. Suler, J.Safran and others) – has dealt primarily with the Copernican discovery of psychoanalysis, that of the Unconscious. Other points of similarity – for example, comparing the psychoanalytic method of free association with the various modes of meditative training – have preoccupied various psychoanalytic researchers.
On the other hand, it should not be surprising that, within Buddhism, psychoanalysis could not be considered a proper breeding ground for a fertile dialogue; The Buddhist philosophical system – based as it is on the profound awareness of the non-intrinsic existence of any structure or mechanism, and regarding both these concepts merely as empty, conditioned phenomena – places primary values on the human achievement of living the inner ultimate truth of non-duality. Such a spiritual faith could not accept the psychoanalytic viewpoint as a natural partner for a joint Path.
Surveying retrospectively the abundance of these intellectual efforts, especially those on the psychoanalytic side, we may observe two latent dimensions which, in spite of ambivalent relationship, may join psychoanalysis and Buddhism together thanks to common intrinsic basis:
I. The Quality of human motivation
Traditional psychoanalysis views human motivation as bearing animalistic-atavistic quality, stemming from a biological origin, and developing via sublimation into human drive which has fantasy and affect as its mental representations.
Only when a non-biological life energy has been developed within the domain of psychoanalysis (first of all by Jung, whose interest in Buddhism and Indian metaphysics is well known, and later on by eminent psychoanalysts like M. Balint, W. Bion, D.W. Winnicott, and H. Kohut, the founding-father of Self Psychology) – only then a natural bridge towards Buddhism was latently established: The possibility that an Ideal would become a teleological power, guiding the human being in his life course and in his inner goals, has paved the potential way for a spiritual energy to become the major psychic driving force.
II. Is human bad or good?
The Post-Freudian era after World War II witnessed a dedicated continuation of the Freudian project of delving into the instinctual driving forces of the human being, and was marked by a profound engagement in an ethical effort to discover the psychic roots of human evil – evil capable of causing humans to inflict, as well as to suffer, horrendous atrocities.
Only when psychoanalysts first dared to reject the view of human goodness as merely a sublimated derivative of animalistic instincts, but also to restore it to its position as the origin of human inner nature, only then did a gigantic shift of the zeitgeist in psychoanalysis occur, facilitating a real fraternal intertwining, a twin-relationship if you will, between psychoanalysis and Buddhism.
It’s our belief that these two transformations now form a basis from which psychoanalysis has returned to its existential origins, and once again posits the personal and the subjective over and beyond the general and the objective. Thus, psychoanalysis has opened itself welcomingly to a new endeavor of combining psychoanalysis with Buddhism.
The famous initiative of E. Fromm and D.T. Suzuki, culminating in the 1957 Conference of Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis, and the publication in 1960 of the major papers of that conference (including the seminal work of R. De Martino) are a living proof of that historic shift.
On the other hand, two serious obstacles still prevented solving the ambivalent equation of psychoanalysis and Buddhism:
(a) Although Fromm’s and Suzuki`s joint project was a crucial breakthrough, it remained outside formal psychoanalysis because it was a non-clinical project; From its outset psychoanalysis was a unique discipline, based on the clinical setting of the treatment room and on the empirical occurrences in the encounter between the two persons – therapist and patient – engaged in it. Psychoanalytic philosophizing or psychoanalytic applications had very little influence on the central course of psychoanalytic evolution as a meta-theoretical viewpoint.
(b) The other obstacle was rooted in the fact that psychoanalysis remained a structural theory at its core; the shift to non-biological driving force, and the restoration of inherent goodness of human, constituted a radical change in the theoretical sphere of energy, and made possible to begin the process of bridging the gap, but, nevertheless, it did not affect the basis of psychoanalysis as a structural theory, and as a theory of structures. For the bridge to be real and effective, there was required a much profounder relinquishment of a structural viewpoint, as well as a moving towards a non-linear theory of higher states of Being and Becoming.
This is the immanent reason why all the thinkers who have delved deeply into the common ground of the two spheres, have only succeeded in elaborating the sophisticated map of comparisons and contrasts between the two, but none has successfully solved the riddle of duality and ambivalence. The cleavage between psychoanalysis, whose aim is to achieve structural personality-cohesiveness, and Buddhism, which strives mainly to reach the empty inner nature of human-being, a nature free from any attachment to structural entity existing in itself and for itself – this gaping rift has not come closer to being bridged. .
During five days in October of 1992, the fourth conference of Mind and Life was being held in Dharamsala, India, in the official residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The topic was “Sleeping, Dreaming and Dying,” and one of the Western participants was the eminent French psychoanalyst Joyce McDougall. The participation of an eloquent representative of psychoanalysis in this profound meeting of East and West was of a great significance, affording His Holiness an opportunity to learn about psychoanalysis from a creative person like Dr. McDougall.
On the other hand, it is somewhat disappointing to learn that the outline of psychoanalysis which was presented in that conference was constricted to classical psychoanalysis. Naturally, Dr. Mcdougall’s introductory and general sketching of the discipline had to emphasize the basic tenets of the field, but it left the vibrant contemporary evolution of psychoanalysis wholly unrepresented, leaving it outside the arena of discussion.
It is our strongly-held belief that nowadays we are facing a fascinating opportunity to widen enormously the scope of cooperation between psychoanalysis and Buddhism via the psychoanalytic school of Self Psychology, which to our mind is the historical missing link between these twins of experiential and contemplative disciplines.