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That, and the question of outdated assumptions aside, Psychotherapy East and West is replete with the timeless wisdom that Alan Watts seemed to posses naturally, and which made him such an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.


Strange Connections

Marvel’s latest release, Dr. Strange, will hit theaters in the U.S. this Friday, November 4th.  I suspect that for many moviegoers, this will be their introduction to the sorcerer superhero.  But for others, like myself, Dr. Strange is an old acquaintance.

In the early 1960’s Marvel Comics revolutionized the comic book scene with their innovative stories and more developed, and more human, superheroes.   Marvel had three great things going for it:  the phenomenal writing of Stan Lee, and two superb artists, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

strange-tales_110In 1963, Ditko came up with an idea for a comic about a mysterious master of black magic.  He and Stan Lee decided to call him Dr. Strange and this new ‘superhero’ made his debut in Strange Tales #110.  Ditko claimed Chandu the Magician was an inspiration, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Mandrake the Magician wasn’t another one.   Dr. Strange was never as popular as other Marvel character, such as Spiderman, Hulk, and Captain America, but the story lines and Ditko’s surrealistic artwork were perfect for the psychedelic 60s that won a kind of cult following.

In a quote I’ve lifted from Wikipedia’s Dr Strange page, Mike Benton, a comic book historian, says,

The Dr. Strange stories of the 1960s constructed a cohesive cosmology that would have thrilled any self-respecting theosophist. College students, minds freshly opened by psychedelic experiences and Eastern mysticism, read Ditko and Lee’s Dr. Strange stories with the belief of a recent Hare Krishna convert. Meaning was everywhere, and readers analyzed the Dr. Strange stories for their relationship to Egyptian myths, Sumerian gods, and Jungian archetypes.

As Benton notes, there were overtones of Eastern Mysticism, and with the new Dr. Strange movie, there are some actual connections with Buddhism.

First, although Dr. Strange mainly hangs out in Greenwich Village, the mystical land high in the Himalayas where he encounters the Ancient One (aka “The High Lama”) is little more than a mythical Tibet.

Reuters reports that one member of the crew was a Tibetan Buddhist monk, Gelong Thubten, invited on set by Tilda Swinton, the British actress who plays the Ancient One.  Thubten taught everyone mindfulness and, I guess, provided good vibes.

Apparently, the actor who plays Dr. Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch is Buddhist.  Before he started playing Sherlock Holmes for the BBC, Cumberbatch taught English at a Buddhist monastery in India, and he recently narrated Walk With Me, a documentary about Thich Nhat Hanh.

I won’t see Dr. Strange until it hits cable some time from now.  I must confess that I am pretty bored with super-hero movies now.  The special effects are wonderful but the plots are the same: bad guy or group of bad guys or evil force out to destroy Earth and of course, the superheroes save the day.  I suppose the plots have always been the same but when you’re ten years old it doesn’t matter too much.  Coolness and thrill-quality trump redundancy any day.

One thing that didn’t register too much with me when I was younger was that superhero stories also have a theme of transformation.  To be a superhero, a person must change, literally.  Clark Kent changes into Superman, Diana Prince changes into Wonder Woman, Peter Parker into Spiderman, etc.  Some of these metamorphoses are not merely physical; they are personal.  For instance, Stephen Strange is an egotistic, materialistic surgeon, who loses his ability to perform surgery when his hands are wrecked in a car accident.  This sends him on a quest where he eventually encounters wisdom in the form of The Ancient One, and through the acquisition of wisdom undergoes a personal transformation, finds inner peace, and is transformed into a bodhisattva-like figure on a mission to help others, Dr. Strange.

Transformation is a major theme in the Eastern philosophies of Taoism and Buddhism.  In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says,

Seek to realize emptiness.
Maintain a peaceful mind.
All things are in process, rising and returning.
Plants will blossom, but only to return to the root.
Returning to the root is tranquility.
Tranquility is to see the way things are
And to know what endures.
This is wisdom.
To know wisdom is to know infinity,
And to not know wisdom is to invite danger.
Knowing wisdom is to be at one with the Tao,
and decay of the body is not feared.

Commenting on this passage, Lama Govinda wrote, “Changlessness is a sign of death, transformation a sign of life; decay is the negative aspect of transformation, while the positive aspect is generally hidden from our eyes.”*

When a flower blossoms, it is noticeable.  If right before our eyes, some guy was transformed into a raging giant green-skinned hulk, that would be pretty hard to miss.  However, most of the transformations that come from seeking wisdom are not as noticeable.   Many people quit meditation practice or move away from Eastern philosophy because the changes they seek are not immediately apparent.  This is simply confusing change with consciousness of change.  There can be change without any consciousness of it.

There are those who think that enlightenment must be some big earthshaking event or a kind of psychedelic explosion in the mind.  But we find actually that it is the small, subtle shifts in awareness and thinking that often have the biggest impact on our lives.  We just don’t always see them or experience them in the short run.  Change in the manifestation of one quality for another is often gradual and becomes apparent in the long run, over time.

Well, enough of that.  It’s Halloween and this is a post about Dr. Strange “the Master of Black Masic”, so I feel I should share with you some words the Buddha had on the subject of the black arts:

You are not, O Bhikkhus, to learn–to teach–the low arts of divination, spells, omens, astrology, sacrifices to gods, witchcraft, and quackery.

– Vinaya Pitaka, S.B.E, Vol. XX

Let him not use Atharva Vedic spells, nor things foretell from dreams or signs or stars; let not my follower predict from cries, cure barrenness nor practice quackery.

– Sutta Nipata, IV., 14

In other words, don’t do it.  Take my own example.  I tried quackery once, and I look what I was turned into:

howard4cThat’s right.  I was transformed into a gin-swilling duck.  For some reason, people kept calling me Howard, and I felt trapped in a world I never made . . . Anyway, I gave up quackery and I’m all right now.


Living in the Spiritual World

George Harrison: Living in the Material World on HBO

I watched Martin Scorsese’s new documentary, George Harrison: Living in the Material World. It’s excellent, as was the filmmaker’s previous documentary on Bob Dylan. Naturally it tells the story of the Beatles rise to fame, their phenomenal success and impact, breakup, and George Harrison’s solo career. The film shows that Harrison was perhaps the first of the Fab Four to question living in the material world. Long before he had even heard of the Maharishi, in 1965 George wrote to his mum,

I know that this isn’t it. I knew I was going to be famous, but now I know I can reach the real top of what man can achieve, which is self-realization.”

I was one of the 74 million Americans who tuned into The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964 to see The Beatles for the first time. From the moment the show started, you knew this was not going to be your average Ed Sullivan variety program. You could feel the electricity all the way from New York City to where I was at, in Wichita, Kansas. Ed introduced the Beatles, they began to play, and nothing was ever the same again.

For me, it was like stepping out of a black and white world and into a Technicolor one.  After that first appearance, everything was different: the way we talked, walked, styled our hair, and dressed. It may sound superficial, but it was really as profound as change can possibly be. It changed how we thought, too.

Rishikesh, 1968 (l-r): Jenny Boyd, Jane Asher, Paul McCartney, Donovan, Mia Farrow, George Harrison, the Maharishi, the Beach Boys' Mike Love, John Lennon & Pattie Boyd

The Beatles had a second significant impact on the world. In the fall of 1968, either Life Magazine or the Saturday Evening Post (I don’t remember which) ran a multi-page spread on the Beatles in India hanging out with that groovy guru, the Maharishi, with some great color photographs. It looked really cool.

Before you knew it, Eastern spirituality was all over the place. Love beads and Nehru jackets were in style. Every other song had a sitar in it, and every other band seemed to have a new religion and a guru. I don’t remember them all, just that The Rascals found the swami Satchinanda and for The Who, it was Meher Baba.

I am not too proud to admit that I was a dedicated follower of fashion. I set out then to find a new religion for myself. I had only one criteria: no God. I figured that if I wanted a religion with a god in it, I could just keep the one I had. Naturally, the first god-less thing I found was Buddhism, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Beatles were to abandon the Maharishi while in India (after he allegedly hit on Mia Farrow), just as eventually most of our rock gods abandoned their gurus and returned to more secular music. George Harrison, however, pretty much stayed on the path provided by Eastern spirituality for the rest of his life, which is certainly reflected in his post-Beatles music.

Martin Scorsese says,

George was making spiritually awake music. We all heard and felt it, and I think that was the reason that he came to occupy a very special place in our lives.”

The narration that moves George Harrison: Living in the Material World along is provided by friends and family, as well as letters the late singer wrote home; the film covers the Hamburg days quiet extensively, as well as other facets of Harrison’s life, including his relationship with Eric Clapton, and of course, the Beatles’ breakup. Scorsese, who made the film with the backing of George’s widow, Olivia, was given access to the singer’s own collection of photographs, films, recordings and documents, and he makes good use of them.

George Harrison’s interest in the sitar and Indian music opened him to new ways of thinking based on ancient spiritual traditions. He wasn’t the only influential person of that time keen to explore Eastern spirituality, but I think a case can be made that his influence, with his bandmates, was considerably greater.

These days, I tend to get sentimental when I think about The Beatles. For a time in our lives they were like angels, they were magical, and we, my generation, were magical too. The world was a brilliant tapestry we were trying to unravel and all its violence and darkness could not dim the brightness of our youthful hope and aspiration.

I don’t know if it is natural or silly, or both, to be nostalgic for your youth. I don’t really care. I like to feel sentimental from time to time. Makes me feel good.