Alan Watts’ Psychotherapy East and West

As I mentioned in a recent post, a new edition of Alan Watts’ Psychotherapy East and West has been published by New World Library and I received a free copy for review.

According to the publisher’s description on the back, “When psychotherapy merely helps us adjust to social norms, Watts argued, it falls short of true liberation, while Eastern philosophy seeks our natural relation to the cosmos.”

In Watt’s view, both Eastern philosophy and psychotherapy have the same goal: death of the ego, the sublimation of the fictional self.  And both could benefit in learning from the other.

It is important to keep in mind this book was first published 56 years ago.  That most of it remains relevant today is remarkable, but there are some places where Watts’ assumptions no longer hold water.  The book was a reaction to the state of psychotherapy in the late 1950’s.  For instance, Watts criticizes American psychology for being “over-Puritan.”  I doubt if that is the case today.

As far as any blending of East and West is concerned, some folks may gloss over this huge caveat:

“Nevertheless, the parallel between psychotherapy and, as I have called them, the Eastern ‘ways of liberation’ is not exact, and one of the most important differences is suggested by the prefix psycho-.  Historically, Western psychology has directed itself to the study of the psyche or mind as a clinical entity, whereas Eastern cultures have not categorized mind and matter, soul and body, in the same way as the Western.”

What we have here is basically “East is East and West is West,” that is, two radically different approaches to the problem of human suffering, one based on intuitive reasoning, the other based on a deductive mode of reason.  I am not sure the twain can ever truly meet, which is part of my concern about how the modern Mindfulness movement seems overly dependent on Western psychology.

That, and the question of outdated assumptions aside, Psychotherapy East and West is replete with the timeless wisdom that Alan Watts seemed to posses naturally, and which made him such an influential figure.  He is, as usual, erudite and thought-provoking.  He makes several points very clear, such as Eastern ways of liberation are not religion, and they have nothing to do with the supernatural:

“All my experience of those who are proficient in the ways of liberation indicates that feat of magic or neurotechnology are quite beside the point… I have found no evidence whatsoever for any sensational achievement of this kind.  If they have achieved anything at all it is of a far humbler nature and in quite a different direction, and something which strikes me as actually more impressive.”

Which strikes me as a very nice description of the process of awakening or enlightenment.  The passage appears in a section in which Watts makes his chief assertion:

“Yet very few modern authorities on Buddhism or Vedanta seem to realize that social institutions constitute the maya, the illusion, from which they offer release.”

Because I tend to look at this through the lens of Buddha-dharma, it occurs to me that there is some evidence to suggest that in developing the sangha, the Buddha was attempting to create a new society, but, in the end, does the Buddhist sangha, all the temples and centers, actually perpetuate the illusion we are seeking to dispel?  Watts says that we should “see that social institutions are simply rules of communication which have no more universal validity than, say, the rules of a particular grammar.”  Easier said than done.  I wonder how freedom from the maya of social institutions relates to the sense of personal liberation that is one of the major characteristics of Buddhism?

I think those who have an interest in psychology will get more out of this book than others will.  Personally, I don’t care too much whether or not “Freud and Jung seem in some ways to be wiser than the Existentialists.”  I don’t practice Buddhist Psychology, and I don’t see the historical Buddha as an ancient psychotherapist as some others do, but for those attracted to that approach, I will remind again, in Watts’ words:

“[It] strikes the uninformed Westerner that Buddhism could be an alternative to Christianity…”

Likewise, the same person may think that Western psychology + meditation could be an alternative to Buddhism.  As Watts noted above, those who are proficient in the Eastern ways of liberation are headed in a “different direction.”  And while we may agree that these Eastern “ways” compare to nothing in the West except for psychotherapy, we must be careful not to think that they are psychotherapy, for that would be illusion.


5 thoughts on “Alan Watts’ Psychotherapy East and West

  1. The tone in early Buddhist literature seems to be about “the all”…complete knowledge/wisdom. Nothing , even science/tech today, can promise or deliver that; as it requires one’s unbiased(transcend Maya) self.

    It was more about ignorance and wisdom, than any artificial/social constructs, or concepts. This (emptiness) is also what set it apart from other Vedic/vedanta concepts during that time.

    These practices/teachings enabled one to be balanced, with perfect view, enabling them to beat other religious thoughts anywhere they went. No sword was ever needed.

    I think discussing psychotherapy in this context may not be doing it proper justice, as you pointed out.

    1. I don’t think it does the subject, or dharma, an in-justice, rather we just have to be careful not to get carried away with it. Buddhism embraces many things, including religion and pyschotheraphy, but then goes beyond them. The hardest thing for us Westerners to do is to leave our Western thought processes behind, or at least realize that we can never understand Buddha-dharma with our normal thinking. Thanks, Red.

      1. I have a pet peeve, anytime I see a discussion taking a small part of a thing, and then viewing/judging the whole thing from that point of view. Often times that small thing was not even a consideration when that “thing” got started 🙂 . This then quickly spirals out, ending up in discussions which often times are not even relevant. This actually happens quite often in today’s info-overload culture, and 24×7 media…Often times people involved in said discussions actually end up debating/talking totally different things in the end 🙂

        In this case, it was not as bad, and i do agree there is value that people with no Buddhism interest , but have psychotherapy interest can gain by exploring Dharma thought/teachings.

  2. David, It appears to me that you miss the whole point of the book. It is your analysis and way of thinking that Alan is addressing in his book, telling you that what you think is not possible, IS.

    In fact, Eastern philosophy picks up where Western science stops and goes beyond. Listen to Deepak Chopra, a man of medical science and learn from him.Also Maharishi Hahesh Yogi who started out studying physics.

    I believe you are speaking from the perspective of one who practices Buddhism and feels this book has maligned or oversimplified your faith. That is just not the case.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.