Psychoanalysis and Buddhism are complex, sophisticated and comprehensive systems of thought and belief with important similarities and differences. The dialogue between them has been evolving in the US and Europe since the 1920’s and 30’s, as marked initially by an article published in The Psychoanalytic Review in 1924, entitled “Psychology of Primitive Buddhism”; by C. G. Jung’s foreword to D. T. Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen Buddhism published in 1939; and by the participation of Karen Horney and Erich Fromm in Professor Suzuki’s courses at Columbia University in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
For the past decade and a half there has been a strong resurgence of interest in Buddhism within the American psychoanalytic community. This is reflected in the popularity of a number of books on the topic of the interface between these two practices that have been published in recent years. This increased interest parallels the tremendous popularity of Buddhism in American society at large. Over the past three decades, a considerable number of experienced psychoanalysts have become serious students of Buddhism, bringing to the surface a more refined understanding of what these two disciplines might offer one another. A decade or so ago, those of us who practice both Buddhism and psychoanalysis were most enthusiastic about introducing psychoanalysts to Buddhism. In the process of reflecting on this development and on the evolution of American Buddhist communities and teachers, it has become clear that Buddhism would also benefit from becoming better acquainted with psychoanalysis.
“Enlightening Conversations”—a non-profit organization sponsoring conferences based in structured conversations (in place of prepared papers)—will focus on the contributions that psychoanalysis and Buddhism can make to one another as traditions of wisdom and healing, and as systems for understanding the nature of human experience. Enlightening Conversations will sponsor conversational conferences (that will become books) between psychoanalytic scholars/practitioners and Buddhist teachers, as well as scientists doing research in areas relevant to the conversations between these two traditions. These might include researchers in the areas of attachment theory, mother-infant communication, unconscious defenses, emotion theory, and some aspects of cognitive neurosciences. The topics of conferences will range along a continuum from the enlightenment sciences and healing practices of the two disciplines, to the relational contexts that undergird their practices, to the obstacles and pathologies that prevent the realization of the goals of the practices, and sociocultural topics that impinge on the two disciplines (e.g. climate change).
While the dialogue between psychoanalysis and Buddhism has a long history, in recent years the impact of some aspects of Buddhism on cognitive-behavioral therapeutic practice and theory seems to have outstripped the pace of cross-fertilization between psychoanalysis and Buddhism. The American cognitive-behavioral tradition, with its pragmatic and technical emphasis has embraced mindfulness practice as a technology without engaging in a far-reaching exploration of its theoretical and philosophical compatibility or incompatibility with Buddhism. In contrast, we want to renew the dialogue between psychoanalysis and Buddhism in order to deepen our understanding of both, especially in regard to the relational contexts in which they are practiced.
Buddhism has much to offer psychoanalysis. It can provide a necessary corrective to the self-centeredness and pathological individualism that have come to dominate American culture. Buddhism offers a pragmatic theory of consciousness and unconsciousness that is almost twenty-six-hundred-years-old, as compared to the one-hundred-year-old theories of psychoanalysis. Moreover, Buddhism has refined the cultivation and strengthening of “evenly hovering attention” that is essential for psychoanalytic methods of relating. And, of course, Buddhism can help psychoanalysts restore a spiritual dimension to the practice of psychoanalysis in a manner that is in tune with a postmodern sensibility.
At the same time, psychoanalysis has much to offer Buddhism. Psychoanalysis has developed a specific expertise for understanding habitual conscious and unconscious processes in a relational context, usually labeled as “transference” and “countertransference.” Psychoanalysts are trained to use a systematic and technical approach to explore the ways in which idealization and unconscious fantasy may influence the therapeutic relationship, family relationships of parents and children or life partners, and other relationships of authority and power, such as student-teacher and employee-employer. Psychoanalysts are also trained to investigate how and why their own unconscious conflicts and needs may unintentionally contribute to certain patterns and impasses, especially in the therapeutic relationship. This exploration clarifies how trust and relational bonds can be re- established in the midst of conflict, difference, and other impingements. This body of knowledge may be particularly useful to Buddhist teachers grappling with the complexities of the student-teacher relationship, especially within the openness and individualism of American society.