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The Search for Happiness
Through Buddhism & Psychotherapy
by Ron Leifer, M.D.
With the decline of religion and the rise of science,
jurisdiction over the problems of happiness and suffering were transferred from
the former to the latter. Scientific medicine took responsibility for the
sufferings of the body and scientific psychology and psychiatry -- and their common
issue, psychotherapy -- assumed authority over problems of the mind, emotions, and
There is an intriguing symmetry (not an identity) between the
twenty-five hundred year old search for happiness through Buddhism and the
hundred year old search for happiness through psychotherapy. Having practiced
psychotherapy for thirty-five years and Buddhism for fifteen years, I have
noticed striking similarities as well as differences between the two. Others
have also noticed the resemblance. Alan Watts observed that Oriental religions,
particularly Buddhism, are more similar to psychotherapy than to Western
religions. At the same time, he noted, Western psychotherapy resembles religion
with its own charismatic leaders, dogma, and rituals.
If we look deeply into such ways of life as Buddhism and
Taoism, Vedanta and Yoga, we do not find either philosophy or religion as these
are understood in the West. We find something more nearly resembling
psychotherapy...The main resemblance between these Eastern ways of life and
Western psychotherapy is in the concern of both with bringing about changes of
consciousness, changes in our ways of feeling our own existence and our relation
to human society and the natural world. The psychotherapist has, for the most
part, been interested in changing the consciousness of peculiarly disturbed
individuals. The disciplines of Buddhism and Taoism are, however, concerned with
changing the consciousness of normal, socially adjusted people. But it is
increasingly apparent to psychotherapists that the normal state of consciousness
in our culture is both the context and the breeding ground of mental disease.
Psychotherapy East and West)
Buddhism and psychotherapy share significant common ground.
Comparing them will help illuminate hidden features of each. By comparing the
two, however, I do not mean to equate them. Buddhism is a twenty-five hundred
year old exquisitely developed tradition with a core of profound truth. By
comparison, psychotherapy is immature, fragmented, and superficial.
Nevertheless, Western psychotherapy may contribute something to our
understanding of ourselves and the truths we hide from ourselves, even if it may
only be to rediscover and confirm traditional Buddhist insights.
Buddhism and psychotherapy share a common ground of concern
with suffering and the means of relief and release from suffering. This is the
foundation and raison d'être of both. That they share this common ground is
neither a coincidence, nor a minor consideration. It has profound implications.
The experience of suffering is the foundation of Buddhism and, arguably, of all
religions. Gautama Buddha began his spiritual quest when he became aware of
suffering and dedicated his life to finding the cause and cure for it. From the
Buddhist point of view, the spiritual journey begins with awareness of suffering
and it is fueled and motivated by the desire to escape suffering and find
The problem of suffering is also the central concern of
psychotherapy. Indeed, it is the common boundary of psychotherapy, medicine, and
Myth of Mental Illness : Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct
by Thomas Szasz) Each of them deals with a different form of suffering. Medicine deals
with the sufferings of the body, psychotherapy deals with the sufferings of the
mind, and religion deals with the sufferings of the soul. Because of this common
ground, some people think of psychotherapy as a medical technique while others,
with equally good justification, think of it as a form of spiritual healing.
People seek psychotherapists because they are suffering -- from
painful emotions, painful thoughts, painful relationships, painful experiences.
The negative emotions -- anxiety, stress, depression, anger, guilt, shame,
frustration, boredom, and so forth, are all forms of suffering. What psychiatric
patients want from their therapists is not a technical treatment or cure for
illness, but, like Buddhists, they want relief and release from their suffering,
and a chance for some peace and happiness in life.
Buddhism and psychotherapy also share a second significant
common ground of an abiding interest in mind. From the Buddhist point of view,
suffering is not caused by external, traumatic events, but by qualities of mind
which shape our perceptions and responses to events. Accordingly, happiness is
not to be found in the outer, social world, but in a transformation of mind
which generates wisdom, tranquility, and compassion.
Many psychotherapists hold similar views. Many therapists
believe, as Buddhists do, that suffering is caused not so much by external
traumas per se, but by our responses to these traumas. These responses are
conditioned by mental factors such as desires and fears which may be denied and
repressed. This is one of the basic tenets of Freudian psychoanalysis.
Psychoanalysis is based on the axiom that neurotic suffering is caused by an
individual's active response to life, rather than passively and mechanically by
the life events themselves. If neurotic suffering is caused by an individual's
reactions to life events rather than by the events themselves, then that
suffering potentially can be relieved through a personal transformation in which
life events are experienced from a different frame of reference.
We Suffer From Ignorance
Given the significant common ground of Buddhism and
psychotherapy, it is not surprising that a stream of thought has developed in
psychotherapy similar to the Buddhist view on esoteric self-secrets. This stream
of thought shares with Buddhism the notion that we suffer from ignorance, from
secrets we keep from ourselves. Two of the fundamental, classical concepts of
psychotherapy are repression and the unconscious. The concept of repression is
similar to, although more narrow and more shallow than, the Buddhist concept of
ignorance. Like avidya, repression is the failure or unwillingness to see
important facts or aspects of experience. As Norman O. Brown observed, "the
essence of repression lies in the refusal of the human being to recognize the
realities of his human nature." (Life
Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, Norman O. Brown) The difference between avidya and repression is
that the former is the failure to face basic facts about the nature of self and
phenomena, while the latter is the more narrow failure to face certain facts
about one's self, particularly one's responsibility for one's responses to the
painful experiences of life.
The generally accepted view of repression is that it is a
defense against anxiety. Anxiety, especially high anxiety, is one of the most
common and intense forms of suffering. People will do almost anything to relieve
their anxiety, especially to palliate it with alcohol and drugs. The
anti-anxiety drug business, both legal and illegal, is a multibillion dollar
industry. We are afraid of our anxieties and we react to the memory or prospect
of anxious experiences by repressing them. Repression, like avidya, is only
partially successful, however. The repressed returns to haunt us. Neurotic
symptoms are painful because they are manifestations of the suffering which has
been repressed -- the so called "return of the repressed." In the psychoanalytic
view, the mental and emotional content of painful experiences are repressed,
modified, attenuated, and re-experienced as the neurosis.
Mental & Emotional Suffering
The psychotherapy of mental and emotional suffering is
similar in many vital ways to the Buddhist approach. Both involve developing a
relationship with a teacher or guide, sometimes called a guru or a
psychotherapist. The function of the guru /psychotherapist is to guide the
sufferer on a journey of self-discovery and self-transformation which, in
Buddhism, is at the same time, a discovery of the facts of existence. The
teacher helps the patient -- the sufferer -- to develop increased awareness,
acceptance, and realization ("emotional working through") of painful emotions
and the facts of life. In both Buddhism and psychotherapy, the individual's
growing awareness of the origins and dynamics of his or her neurotic suffering
is facilitated by the guru's teachings and the therapist's interpretations. Both
potentially convey insights. The realization and integration of these insights
leads to relief from the painful symptoms of denial and repression. This
involves a courageous willingness to examine one's self honestly, to face and
take responsibility for one's desires and fears.
The truth about ourselves and our lives that we do not wish
to see, which is the inverse of our neurotic symptoms and our character
defenses, forms part of the content of the unconscious. The unconscious contains
our denials and repressions -- the lies we tell ourselves. Our neurotic symptoms
and character defenses are products of the lies we tell ourselves. In this
sense, the unconscious can be construed as containing the esoteric psychological
knowledge we seek. Carl Jung was the first to make this connection when he
discovered the correspondences between dreams and myths. Dreams reveal the
personal unconscious and myths reveal the "collective unconscious." He called
this sphere of denial and repression "the shadow." Jungian therapy consists in
large part of confronting the shadow, facing what one has rejected about one's
self and the fundamental qualities of experience, which he called "archetypes."
of the Soul, Thomas Moore)
Continued on page 2:
Making the Unconscious Conscious;
The Oedipus Complex;
The Three Poisons.
This article is excerpted from the book
The Happiness Project by Ron Leifer, M.D. ©1997.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Snow Lion
Info/Order this book.
Ron Leifer, M.D. is a psychiatrist who
trained under Dr. Thomas Szasz and the anthropologist Ernest Becker. He studied
with various Buddhist teachers in the seventies and in 19811 took refuge vows
with Khenpo Khartar Rinpoché, abbot of Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in Woodstock,
New York. He helped organize the first KTD Buddhism and Psychotherapy Conference
in New York City in 1987. Since 1992, he has been associated with
Monastery in Ithaca, New York as a student and teacher. Dr. Leifer has lectured
widely and published two books and more than fifty articles on a wide variety of
psychiatric issues. He has lately turned his attention fully to the interplay
between Buddhism and psychotherapy. he is the author of
The Happiness Project.
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