Buddhism and Psychotherapy, Part 5: Comparing Psychoanalysis and Meditation

We’ve spent the last few weeks discussing the overlaps between Buddhism and psychodynamic therapy, citing the views of the Buddha and Sigmund Freud. Today we are wrapping up the series with some final comments comparing psychoanalysis and the therapeutic use of mindfulness meditation.

Like Buddhism, psychoanalysis focuses on self-exploration and self-understanding, seeing for oneself what causes suffering. In the psychoanalytic process, the therapist asks the patient to give up conscious control over the presentation of his or her inner world. The patient is told to say whatever comes to mind, without censure. For this to occur, the analyst must maintain genuine open neutrality, a listening stance without judgment or goal, or else the patient will not risk venturing into the recesses of his or her mind and share it with the analyst.

Neutrality implies an openness, a not siding with one side or another in the patient’s internal process of bringing his or her conflicts to light (Hoffer, 2010). It is a crucial stance, with interesting parallels in the Buddhist concept of equanimity. This equanimity on the part of the analyst allows the true meaning of the conflict to emerge in-session. The goal is to provide an optimal environment for the free exploration of the patient’s conflicts without injecting our version of their resolution or foreclosing on their experience. The form of attention emphasized in psychoanalysis has obvious parallels with vipassana meditation. Meditation requires a similar sort of evenly hovering attention and neutrality on the part of the meditator.

In some ways, as meditators, we are taking on the role of both analyst and analysand: we are freely associating, which is precisely what begins to take place when we consciously decide not to control what is going on in our minds, and we are exercising a form of evenly hovering attention, which is what is required if one is to neutrally assess or simply note the contents of mind. In meditation, however, we do not chase the contents or associations into every possible nook and cranny of our psyches in order to seek out the unconscious meaning of what arises.

This type of exploration is most effective in the presence of another person. The exploration of the contents of our consciousness, the intensely personal process of uncovering and understanding the ways in which we have come to view personal conflicts, is not at all the goal in meditation.

Of course, analysis of thoughts can occur in meditation, especially if we are analytically inclined. But the ultimate goal of meditation is a step deeper than merely understating personal conflicts. By attending to the process of what arises in consciousness, by noting its arising and falling away, we come to understand the constructed nature of our self-view and that of all phenomena. The root causes of suffering can be observed as we note the arising of desire and our tendency to reify experience.

When all is going well, meditation has a positive impact on psychic functioning. It can strengthen adaptation, increase one’s ability to tolerate difficult affects, improve attention and concentration, and enhance psychological flexibility. But at times, particularly in the early stages of meditation practice or during times of personal turmoil, sitting with what arises is especially difficult. Once the mind is quiet, ego functions relax, and one involuntarily accesses the previously repudiated aspects of experience (see Epstein, 1988, 1990). Meditation, like psychoanalysis, lifts the repressive barrier and allows access to that which we typically control by distraction, suppression, repression, and all the other defensive maneuvers we employ. To meet all content of mind in a nonjudgmental and equanimous manner requires a level of sustained maturity and a capacity for managing strong emotion and disturbing content. Such maturity is not always accessible to the meditator. On the other hand, when managed by a skilled therapist, the personal insights, psychological conflicts, and blocks that arise in the context of meditation practice can serve to further therapeutic gains.

Buddhism and psychoanalysis share the goal of the alleviation of mental suffering, one working from a highly personal and individual perspective, the other from a more universal point of view. Both are radically experiential, rather than primarily philosophical or dogmatic. Both employ the technique of moment-to-moment awareness of our mental processes to reduce suffering. Psychoanalysis, however, by focusing on the personal, stops short of insight into our common humanity and does not posit the possibility of the end of all suffering. Perhaps the final view is that both ways of viewing the mind need to be considered synergistically. This is hardly an original conclusion, but it bears repetition and elaboration in light of the difficulties many have in personal meditation practice. There are clearly aspects of our contemporary existence that the original authors and compilers of the early Buddhist texts and commentaries were either not aware of or that carried little significance in their time. Buddhism and psychoanalysis investigate different aspects of functioning, and a complementary approach may, in the end, be the most realistic and useful.

For more on integrating Buddhist psychology, mindfulness meditation and psychodynamic work, check out the new volume Mindfulness, Acceptance and the Psychodynamic Evolution: Bringing Values into Treatment Planning and Enhancing Psychodynamic Work with Buddhist Psychology.


Epstein, M. (1988). Attention in analysis. In M. Epstein (Ed.) (2007), Psychotherapy without the self (pp. 101–122). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Epstein, M. (1990). Psychodynamics of meditation: Pitfalls on the spiritual path. In M. Epstein (Ed.) (2007), Psychotherapy without the self (pp. 71–96). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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