Self Psychology – A New Psychoanalytic Bridge to Buddhism

Let us now describe what we believe to be the potential bridge via which psychoanalysis and Buddhism can evolve together as the perfect Eastern and Western twins.

From 1959 till his death, in 1981, Heinz Kohut, a Jewish-Austrian emigrant to the United States of America, developed his revolutionary psychoanalytic paradigm, which he coined “Self Psychology”, a paradigm we wish to present as the most promising contemporary perspective for deciphering the riddle of ambivalence, and for eliminating the intellectual and emotional chasm that now separates psychoanalysis from Buddhism.
If the Freudian epoch is characterized by the establishment of a comprehensive system for the human psychology based on the point of views of energy and structure, the emergence of Kohut’s psychoanalytic self psychology marks the evolutionary step towards the domain of experience. This developmental step has posited the psychoanalytic project in the midst of subjectivity, and facilitated the transformation of the whole discipline from the sphere of positivistic sciences to an experiential realm.

D.T. Suzuki had taught us that “in the realm of total subjectivity lies the ultimate self”. It was, therefore, just natural that Kohut`s total immersion in the human subjective experience led him to the establishment of the first systematic and comprehensive theory of the self in psychoanalysis.

Kohuts sensitive and wise words describing his fundamental viewpoint of the self delineate, so we believe, the core element of the self psychology credo. The citation is taken from Kohuts 1977 book, The Restoration of the Self:
“My investigation contains hundreds of pages dealing with the psychology of the self – yet it never assigns an inflexible meaning to the term self. But I admit this fact without contrition or shame. The self is, like all reality, not knowable in its essence. We can describe the various cohesive forms in which the self appears, can demonstrate the several constituents that make up the self, and explain their genesis and functions. We can do all that, but we still will not know the essence of the self as differentiated from its manifestations.”
In this brief and programmatic introduction it is impossible to draw a full picture of the intricate matrix of the whole theory, so that we shall confine ourselves to the presentation of three basic tenets of the theory which, to our deep belief, make the passage between psychoanalysis and Buddhism a clear, wide, and generously open door.

I. The human self as transformations:
Self psychology presents a non-linear developmental conception of a constant transition between:
virtual self – nuclear self – cohesive self – cosmic selfhood

According to this conception, human selfhood oscillates between constituting states and dissolving states. The accomplishment of a free motion which flows between the two modulations of selfhood is the spiritual achievement of the awakened human.
The philosophical and experiential gap between the striving to no-mind and the striving to structuralized and cohesive personality finds its resolution in the coordination grid of establishing a self and dissolving it as a process of wholeness.
This theoretical achievement stems from Kohut`s reformulation of the psychoanalytic theory of narcissism; Freud viewed narcissism as an inevitable libidinal stage in human development from autoerotism to object love, and therefore judged the spiritual experience as a manifestation of the wish to regress to the state of primary narcissism, that of the infant with his mother. This reductionism was one of the major obstacles between psychoanalytic thinking and the Buddhist conception of the spiritual realm.

Self psychology, on the contrary, views narcissism as a unique non-biological energy which develops independently from any instinctual driving force, via a non-linear transformational oscillation. Narcissism is no more the key-word for self-centeredness and egotism, the key-word of separatist existence. In self psychology narcissism becomes the unique energy of the self for its human spiritual journey from cohesive state of being to cosmic transcendence of emptiness.

II. Empathy – the psychoanalytic matrix of non-duality:
Self psychology has formulated a comprehensive theory of empathy as a quantum position, in which the observer is not differentiated from the observed, and the ‘two’ are not two within an inter-action but a unified entity in a state of inter-being. Based on this starting point, self psychology proposes a profound insight into the essence of the human relations leading toward states of being of non-duality.
Empathy in this sense is defined rigorously as the only possible attitude for looking into the subjectivity of the Other and, therefore, as the only valid stance for meeting the other’s state of being without clinging to one’s own subjectivity.
Empathy as a non-dual stance is based on three dimensions:

  1. The Epistemic-Cognitive dimension: By this dimension the non-judgmental quality of the empathic stance is emphasized, an attitude that does not divide the total experiential field into categories of subject and object, or subject and subject.
  2. The Ontological-Existential dimension: This dimension touches upon one’s capability to relinquish his self-narcissism via processes of un-clinging and un-attachment. Psychologically, this dimension is felt as a totally undefended state of being, in which one willingly accepts his total inter-connectedness to the universe.
  3. The Ethical-Moral dimension: Of all human attitudes, empathy is probably the one most related to the Buddhist concept of Bodhisattva, the mythical figure who is devoted to awaken the other. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, has formulated the closest contemporary Western philosophical theory to self psychology, and his ethical dictum that being human is to be responsible for the establishment of the Others selfhood, is, in our opinion, the most moving definition of empathy outside psychoanalysis. On the base of this we can also derive the ultimate definition of Ones self as the mere responsibility for the establishment of the self of my Other.

This circular quality of empathy in its ethical dimension brings us to the third, and the last, tenet for this brief depiction of self psychology.

III. Selfobject relationship – the psychoanalytic matrix of compassion:
Freud was struggling for a single psychic energy, to which he assigned the term libido. Whenever this energy is directed to an other, in traditional psychoanalytic terminology, to an object, it is an energy of object-relations; and whenever this same energy is directed inwardly, towards one`s own self, it becomes narcissistic in its quality. Narcissism is defined by mainstream psychoanalysis, therefore, by the direction of the flow of psychic single energy – libido.

In contrast to this conception, self psychology has reached an insight of narcissism as an intrinsically distinct energy which, like the Freudian libido, can also be directed either to ones own self or to an object. Based on this radical conception a clinical discovery of a Copernican quality was made by Kohut: people tend to invest narcissistic energy not only in themselves, but also in the other. In these cases the other who is loaded with narcissistic energy is not a separate figure but a kind of an external representative of ones self, a kind of an indivisible other. To this particular other who is functioning like an external or alter self to ones self, Kohut gave the term selfobject: i.e. an object which is not an object in itself and for itself, but an object who is his Others self.

The human self cannot develop independently throughout the course of its life, constantly needing the matrix of relationship with a selfobject. Only through such a relationship can the human self oscillate from virtuality to cohesion and from cohesion to cosmic dissolution. The need of the human self for a merger with a selfobject has to be met by a special attitude of devotion on the part of the selfobject who accepts taking on himself this crucial mission, which, we believe, is comparable only to noble compassion. The indivisible totality of selfobject relationship is born, therefore, from an unquestionable attitude of immersion on the part of the selfobject into the other human-being, and it sheds the light of novel psychological insights on the position of compassion.

The unique equation of immersion-merger which characterizes the selfobject relationship may lead to self psychology`s major contribution to Buddhism, namely, a daring revelation of the very essence of the teaching-learning relationship in spiritual training.

We would like to conclude this concise portrayal of self psychology by sharing with you our personal commitment concerning the joint journey of psychoanalysis and Buddhism in the coming future. After formulating his complete world view in a seminal paper written in 1966 -“Forms and Transformations of Narcissism” – Kohut concentrated on systematizing a clinical theory of helping people to achieve a self cohesion, and refrained from dealing further with the question of cosmic narcissism. We believe that, by doing this, he left the uncompleted second half of self psychology theory to us, in order that we may sincerely devote our intellectual and spiritual exertions to the further development of his ideas. We regard this task as our personal and professional vocation, which links our psychoanalytic commitment and our gratitude to the Dharma.