Friday, March 02, 2007

Buddhism vs. Psychotherapy

I was working on two essays on the Arab-Israeli conflict posted at and so couldn’t post here.

A friend reminded me of the difference between Buddhist practice as a mode of self-development and psychotherapy. In the last few years, there have been people and books who have tried to integrate the two, but there is a fundamental contradiction between the two. Buddhism is interested in the form of experience and psychotherapy is interested in the content of experience. I had noticed this in the early nineties and it was one reason (not the most important) that I stopped my regular Buddhist meditation practice.

I told my friend that a Buddhist teacher I saw recently probably has a deep experience of impermanence. Knowing that everything changes on deeper and deeper levels is one way to describe the Buddhist path. There is nothing to hold on to. No person, no thing, not even your self. All that we strive for and try to attain will disappear. I told my friend that if I could appreciate that I could stop being so concerned with being a somebody and avoiding being a nobody (which I described in the early posts on this blog). He suggested that you could know about impermanence and still not know your historical process – the succession of events and experiences that, when more deeply appreciated, ground you in your present life and guide you into your future. This is what Judaism and the Kabbalah would look to as a way to live a full life. The importance of “Tradition!” and the history of one’s people as encoded in The Book. Also, the history of one’s self as reconstructed and re-appreciated as done in psychoanalysis, also created by Jews, for the most part.

Two distinct ways of living and engaging life. On the one hand, the content of your life is simply one ever-changing story whose form can be plumbed to experience the nature of all things. On the other hand, the form of you life – the arising of thoughts, feelings and sensations – isn’t meaningful without understanding the unique content of your psyche and history.

Why do we choose one path over another?


Tony said...

Have you read Engler? After reading his interview in What Is Enlightenment Magazine ( I gained a different perspective on the famous quip “you have to be a somebody before you can be a nobody.” He makes a good case for integrating therapy and meditation; seeing them complementary processes rather than as opposed.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...

Yes Engler says that “The goal and the method in the broader sense are very similar, very complementary.” But moment to moment, does one see a thought as a thought without interest in its content, or anger as anger without interest in what it is about and why it's there? That's a crucial difference in way the practices are conducted.

Certainly, a person could do a daily mindfulness practice and go to therapy weekly, but I'm observing something about the subjective stance one takes to one's own experience in any given moment. How will we relate to experience in any given moment? What kind of "us" will we facilitate. In ancient Greece there were different philosophies of the self and different kinds of selves that we were supposed to cultivate.

I said to a very good Buddhist teacher once, I guess it doesn't matter what arises in our experience, we just want to mindfully know it whatever it is. She said yes. This is the aspect of impersonality in Eastern spiritual practices.

But certainly Engler's point is true that a result of each practice can be a loosening of the hold that any one of our selves has over us.

Rodolfo Baett said...

There is a well known problem in buddhist techniques, including meditation, yoga and others. Some authors have explored them, interestingly authors like Jack Kornfield that are themselves psychologists and have dedicated their lives to buddhists practice (theravada). In "After the Ectasy, the Laundry", he warns about the danger of believing meditative budhhist practices can protect us or solve our personal psychodinamical historical problems (neurosis, phobias, personality disorders, etc).

"Some people have come to meditation after working with traditional psychotherapy. Although they found therapy to be of value, its limitations led them to seek a spiritual practice. For me it was the opposite. While I benefited enormously from the training offered in the Thai and Burmese monasteries where I practised, I noticed two striking things. First, there were major areas of difficulty in my life, such as loneliness, intimate relationships, work, childhood wounds, and patterns of fear, that even very deep meditation didn’t touch. Second, among the several dozen Western monks (and lots of Asian meditators) I met during my time in Asia, with a few notable exceptions, most were not helped by meditation in big areas of their lives. Many were deeply wounded, neurotic, frightened, grieving, and often used spiritual practice to hide and avoid problematic parts of themselves"

I think there is no an unique way, it depends on the individual. However, neither meditative techniques nor western based psychotherapy can do the work alone.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...


I like Jack Kornfield. I did a couple retreats with him. His talks are very good. I generally agree with what you and he write, although for some, one or the other practice is enough. They may not have the interest or the need for either psychotherapy or spirituality.