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.
It was Freud’s belief that a successful psychoanalytic treatment resulted in a decreased amount of suffering, but also empowered the individual with the tools with which to cope with these remnants. Originally, Freud’s aim was to develop a theory of mind broad enough to encompass the fluctuations of human suffering. His project for a science of psychoanalysis saw its purpose as two fold: psychoanalysis as a science of mind, and psychoanalysis as a tool to help individuals overcome illness and suffering.
Their shared goal of alleviating mental suffering renders Buddhism and psychotherapy undeniably entwined. Last week we started to unpack the first two of Buddhism’s foundational Four Noble Truths, which examine the nature and cause of suffering, or dukkha. The first is simply that suffering exists; the second, that the human tendency to crave is what causes it.
Buddhism and psychoanalysis share roughly the same goal, the alleviation of mental suffering—one working from a highly personal and individual perspective, the other from a more universal point of view. As research supports the effectiveness of using both psychodynamic and mindfulness-based processes (rather than solely one or the other), it’s useful to examine some of the other ways Buddhism and psychoanalysis overlap.
Western society increasingly sees human suffering as grossly abnormal and typically generated from outside sources; it is a state to be eliminated as soon as possible. We vigorously seek external remedies, such as medications, a variety of addictions, and transient external pleasures over and above insight and understanding as cures for our unhappiness. These solutions to suffering are short lived, but we return time and time again to such supposed sources of happiness, as if they could possibly provide us with a stable state of well-being.
There is a profound common purpose shared between psychoanalytic exploration of the self and the self-discovery that occurs in mindfulness practice. Both are pursuits of aliveness, though “aliveness” may be conceived of differently. Both pursuits address the pain that comes from clinging too tightly to either outmoded or false ideas about the self. Both are, or can be, fearless and relentless in their examination of what it actually means to be “oneself.”
In his story “The Three Hermits,” Tolstoy tells of an archbishop, sailing among remote islands to spread the Gospel, who comes upon an island inhabited solely by a trio of hermits who have never known other society, much less the word of God. He teaches these men to recite the Lord’s Prayer and sets sail, quite pleased with himself at the great gift he has just bestowed. Soon after, he observes a glow on the horizon in the direction from whence he’d come, drawing steadily nearer to his ship. It is the three hermits, walking on water.
Relational psychodynamic psychotherapy emphasizes interpersonal relationships as central to the development of personality, psychopathology, and therapeutic growth. The approach is holistic in that it also considers biological drives and intrapsychic conflicts (Aron, 1996). Recently, there has been emphasis on the role of compassion as mutative in psychodynamic psychotherapy (e.g., Young-Eisendrath, 2003). Acceptance- and mindfulness-based approaches to psychotherapy emphasize acceptance, compassion, and overt behavioral change as means for developing well-being and life satisfaction.
How does mindfulness work? Thousands of therapists utilize mindfulness-based treatments and have witnessed firsthand the effectiveness of these approaches on clients suffering from anxiety, depression, and other common mental health issues. But for many clinicians, the psychological processes and brain functions that explain these changes remain a mystery, and effective methodologies for measuring each client's progress are elusive.