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That, and the question of outdated assumptions aside, Psychotherapy East and West is replete with the timeless wisdom that Alan Watts seemed to posses naturally, and which made him such an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

Share

East, West

I recorded the Charlie Rose Show from the other night and watched Aung San Suu Kyi interviewed via Skype at a Clinton Global Initiative event. She said, “Some people say that democracy is a Western concept . . .” Obviously those people are in her country and using that line as a way to legitimatize maintaining the very non-democratic status quo there.

It mirrors expressions I often hear in the Buddhist World: “this or that is confusing for Western interpreters of Buddhism”, “Westerners putting a negativistic spin on Buddhism”, “the teachers of Western Buddhism will ignore most of this. . . “. And then, “Why are Eastern Buddhists condescending to Western Buddhists”, “Eastern Buddhism needs to catch up to the 21st Century” and so on.

East, West – What does it matter anymore? We’re one world now.  East and West are just hands on the one world body. If you are right handed, you don’t dismiss things done by your left hand, do you?

Sure, there are Eastern customs that may be archaic, just as there are some concepts from the West that are incompatible with Buddhism, like those from Christianity. But we seem to be stuck in a general mode of thinking that still looks for differences. At times, we sound like relics from 150 years ago, “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet . . .”

That comes from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, and the remainder of the verse has often been overlooked: “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,/ When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”

We’re one world.  East and West are just hands on the one world body.

In response to a question about the recent Arab Spring, Aung San Suu Kyi replied, “Of course, our societies are very different. But in the end, we’re all human beings and I think we can all understand each others hopes and fears . . .”

You can see the interview here. Desmond Tutu, it seems, has a bit of a crush on Aung San Suu Kyi. This I can understand. She is beautiful inside and out.

Share

Eastern Mind, Western Mind

There is a difference between Eastern mind and Western mind and it is the same as the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning.

Deductive reasoning is defined as a “reasoning process in which the conclusion logically follows from the premises, and in which the conclusion has to be true if the premises are true. In inductive reasoning, on the contrary, there is no logical movement from premises to conclusion. The premises constitute good reasons for accepting the conclusion.” (csun.edu).

By the Western standard of reasoning much of Eastern philosophy is illogical because it strings together incoherent, irrelevant and unconnected thought to form conclusions, whereas we use what we consider to be logical thought. However, that thoughts are logical is not proof of their truth, and conversely, because something is illogical is not proof of falseness.

In my opinion, it is a mistake to approach an Eastern philosophy like Buddhism purely from a Western perspective. We are too analytical and you can’t get Buddha-dharma from analysis and study alone. This is a philosophy based on experience, specifically the meditative experience. What we gain intuitively from that and then translate into our daily lives is the prime point, and the philosophy, all the doctrine and concepts and terms, are just there as support.

That’s bad news to those, myself included, who have a tendency to philosophize first and practice second. But mindfulness practice is about moving away from the kind of thinking that prevents us from having a direct experience of reality as it truly is. To be frank, from the Buddhist point of view, thinking gets in the way. That’s why there are teachings about “no-thought” and admonitions about putting aside thought construction, and embracing the emptiness of mind.

Pure thought just is. It does not require proof nor does it, as pure thought, provide proof of anything, except that there is mental activity. But once we move away and start with conceptual thought, then it’s all about construction and fiddling around with the building blocks of appearance, symbols, meanings, referents, language, semantics, and so on. None of which zeros in on the kind of direct experience that Buddhism is ultimately concerned with.

Vipassana is a form of Buddhist meditation based on self-observation and introspection. It is interesting to note that neither observation nor introspection is thought. Actually, the two words are essentially the same as introspection is only the observation of subjective mental properties. Thought may lead a person to become aware of a particular thing, yet that awareness is not a module of thought, and cognition is the result of mere observation.

This is not to say that analytical or critical thinking should be discarded. On the contrary, it is encouraged, but it requires balance. There should be recognition that in the end the subject is beyond analysis and thinking. It’s a fine line. Doubt is natural, especially in the beginning years of one’s practice. However, it can easily turn into skepticism. A doubter is open to the possibility that the opposite of what he or she believes is true. A skeptic, on the other hand, can be a person who habitually doubts, indicating a narrower frame of mind. What was once healthy, then becomes unhealthy.

I’m also not suggesting that the Eastern approach is perfect and could not benefit from some Western influence. Nonetheless, we should not lose sight of the fact that Buddhism sprang from an Eastern mind and for us to understand it in any meaningful way requires that we be open to this different mode of thought.

Turn off your mind, relax
and float down stream
It is not dying
It is not dying

Lay down all thought
Surrender to the void
It is shining
It is shining

That you may see
The meaning of within
It is being
It is being


John Lennon, “Tomorrow Never Knows”

Share