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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 behavior.

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. (Alan Watts, Psychotherapy East and West)

Common Ground

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 happiness.

The problem of suffering is also the central concern of psychotherapy. Indeed, it is the common boundary of psychotherapy, medicine, and religion. (The 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." (Care 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 Publications. http://www.snowlionpub.com
Info/Order this book.

About The Author

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 Namgyal 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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