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Review: Freud and the Buddha

Axel Hoffer’s book, Freud and the Buddha: the Couch and the Cushion, aims to explore what two traditions dedicated to the alleviation of human suffering, psychoanalysis and Buddhism, can learn from each other.

Both traditions are concerned with the contents of the mind and come from careful observations by individuals of the inner workings of the mind. For psychoanalysis, the goal is an understanding of the unconscious which runs our lives and of which we are unaware. For Buddhist meditation, the goal is to free ourselves from unwholesome feelings, misperceptions, misunderstandings and even delusions that keep us from seeing reality as it actually is. There is no shortage of books on the general topic of psychotherapy and meditation. However, this book seeks to add a new perspective by examining these traditions through the eyes of a contemporary psychoanalyst.

Hoffer has had a long standing interest in psychoanalytic neutrality and in the fundamental psychoanalytic rule of ‘free association’ (for the patient) and ‘evenly-hovering’ attention (its counterpart for the analyst). Saying everything that comes to mind without critical judgment is pretty profound. It is unique in its simplicity, and offers a special window into the mind. Freud viewed free association as the “fundamental rule” of psychoanalysis. There is a similarity between what psychoanalysts do behind the couch as they listen to patients, and what Buddhist monks do on the cushion when meditating. Buddhist practitioners observe the mind without judgment and notice whatever comes to mind… and then let it go. They tend to do something similar to what psychoanalysts do, except that every now and then analysts hold on to a passing thought and speak into it as an observation, question, clarification, or interpretation.

Buddhism is a philosophy, comprised of a unique, complex, and ethical psychology, aimed at relieving human suffering. Some schools of Buddhism are thought of as a religion, but it is more accurately a psychology without a creator or deity. Psychoanalysis is a form of therapy that also treats human suffering. Hoffer and his contributors explore what these two disciplines share in common. Each of the contributors is expert in Buddhism or psychoanalysis, and describes his/her extensive knowledge about their field. This enables the reader to compare and contrast the essential features of each discipline. Contributors include a psychiatrist (Epstein), six psychoanalysts (Hoffer, Weber, etc.), and a Buddhist scholar (Olendzki). They share many areas of agreement, and a few contentions. Each in his/her own way describes the problems of truly understanding Buddhist concepts like suffering, clinging, impermanence, and the especially difficult to grasp Buddhist concept of ‘no-self.'

Of the three controversial areas outlined in the book, the first problem area is ‘free association,’ which can be seen by Buddhists as creating a distracting narrative. A second issue is the Buddhist view of the inherent limitation imposed by the conscious effort required to produce words. The third is the idea that even the pursuit of understanding can be a problem because it too can interfere with the immediate connection to direct experience.

Regarding free association, Olendzki says, “Anathema to the traditional psychotherapist, Buddhist meditation is leading the mind to a state, not of enhanced free association, but of freedom from the affliction of free association entirely.” Olendzki's statement is sure to startle every analyst who views the psychoanalytic rule of free association as fundamental. As he explains, free associations create a narrative, and the narrative itself is the problem. He goes on to say, “The reflexive tendency of the mind to incessantly make a narrative of everything that arises in experience is itself the cause of much of our suffering. In the flow of proper mindfulness practice, one is intensely aware of every episode of consciousness, but lets go of it so immediately in order to open to the next moment, that nothing 'sticks' and it all ‘passes through’ the mind.”

Here lies a fundamental difference between the analytic approach to the unconscious mind and the Buddhist approach to the mind. For the analyst, free association is the fundamental rule, which provides access to the unconscious. If the analyst neglects this method then what are the alternatives? Analysts value and depend on the narrative to deepen the understanding of the unconscious and how the unconscious affects how we live our lives. How would analysts function without the fundamental rule? Olendzki argues that the self, by instantly turning everything into a narrative, clouds and distorts experience. He suggests that Buddhism offers an alternative - the use of mindfulness to explore the deep and systematic exploration of what really is.

There is also a point of contention with the use of words between psychoanalysis and Buddhism. Olendzki points out that it takes mental work to put words together and that work distracts us from the immediacy of experience. Olendzki’s line of thinking affirms the Buddhist priority of awareness over insight. His focus on direct experience of unconscious and conscious communication leads us to question the creation of words, narratives, and even insight. Awareness in meditation gives no priority to words - it doesn’t need words.

By contrast, free association, is closely linked to words in therapy work. Olendzki claims, “The knowing of facts, even important facts about one’s own history and inner workings, involves the aggregate of perception more than the aggregate of consciousness, and thus must be mediated through language and conceptual thought. A limitation of all forms of talking therapy, from the Buddhist perspective, is that it must be cast into language in order to be both created and understood, which ensures that it is passing through interpretive filters." He goes on to make another important point, “We are inevitably distracted from direct experience by the mental effort required to create language. Language cannot help but create a new distance from the immediacy of experience in order to accomplish the cognitive work necessary to form the descriptive words necessary for communication to another. Meditation doesn’t require words.”

If psychoanalysts disregard the use of words, what are they left with? Nonverbal communication? Silence? Intersubjectivity? I think we should embrace an awareness of the limitations that words impose and proceed with precautions of timing, tact, and dosage.

Weber raises a third important question that reflects some of the above differences between the Buddhist and psychoanalytic approaches. Does the analytic commitment to pursue understanding interfere with an immediate connection with the patient’s experience? Weber challenges another fundamental principle of thought - namely that insight and understanding are important goals of psychoanalysis. Weber is not only suggesting that the pursuit of understanding interferes with immediate, direct awareness and communication, but she questions whether we should be pursuing understanding all together.

So then, what is the problem with understanding?

Epstein goes on to discuss analysis' Buddhist influence. For example, Bion said, “Psychoanalytic observation is concerned neither with what has happened nor with what is going to happen but with what is happening.” Bion, along with telling analysts that they need to abandon memory and desire, urged analysts to, "abandon the regurgitation of previous formulas, or the recitation of ‘brute facts’ embedded in the ‘desire to understand.’ It is important to forget what one knows in the immediacy of the current session, so that some new pattern might be allowed to evolve.” That sounds a lot like a Buddhist open mind.

The detailed comparison of Buddhism and psychoanalysis explored in this book, supports the growing awareness that Freud’s legacy has favored thinking and understanding over feeling. This has led to minimizing of the importance of the role of the real, actual, relationship between analyst and patient. Therapy work is now more clearly seen as a function of the relationship between analyst and patient rather than making the uncouscious concious. Current attention to intersubjectivity and the interpersonal field has served as a welcome corrective and deepened psychoanalytic understanding of transference and countertransference. The age-old debate about the role of thinking and feeling in human experience, while still far from being resolved, is deepening.

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