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That, and the question of outdated assumptions aside, Psychotherapy East and West is replete with the timeless wisdom that Alan Watts seemed to posses naturally, and which made him such an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


Buddhism and Addiction

Medicne Buddha
Bhaisajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha

Yesterday there were a number of reports in the media about Lindsey Lohan turning to Buddhism in an effort to deal with her troubles. Mostly vague reports, mind you, and perhaps, not even true, but several mentioned that she was using yoga and breathing techniques that might help her cope with the upcoming jail sentence. I suppose to some folks breathing techniques and yoga automatically mean Buddhism or something, but who really knows what she is doing, in private. In public, that’s another matter.

Anyway, on one of the sites I visited some smart-alec left a comment saying that Ms. Lohan should move to Los Angeles and open a Buddhist rehab clinic. I think she already lives in Los Angeles.

Less than two minutes later, on another unrelated site, I ran across this: Inside Bangkok’s only Buddhist rehab temple

For six years, Wat Saphan, a Buddhist temple located in a notorious slum in Bangkok, has been working with men addicted to methamphetamines. This is the only drug addiction they deal with. No heroin addicts or marijuana users. And they only treat men.

As an alternative to prison, these users from the slum were sentenced by a court to free rehab at the temple, along with several months of probation. Sophon Pattananusit, the phra kru or abbot of Wat Saphan says, “About 100 people at a time attend our Buddhism classes. The course takes two months. About 30 percent of the addicts go back to drugs, compared to about 30 percent who show some improvement and get stronger. The other 30 percent seem to be cured completely.”

Addiction is a problem that I know Buddhism can be very effective in treating. It’s an area that is just beginning to be explored, which I find rather puzzling considering the fact that historically many Westerners have turned to Buddhism specifically because they were trying to overcome an addiction problem.

Some of the current efforts unfortunately try to adapt Buddhism to the 12-Step Program, or vice versa. I am no fan of the 12-Steps. I see it as merely replacing one addiction with another. Participants in these programs only transform their addictions to drugs, alcohol, or whatever the case may be, into an Addiction to Recovery. When you have to attend meetings on a daily or weekly basis in order to maintain sobriety, it is not recovery. It’s using a crutch.

The program at Wat Saphan does not use the 12-Step method. “I teach them about Buddha and dhamma,” Sophon says.

Addiction, like most forms of suffering has roughly two components. One is obviously attachment, and the other is looking for something outside on oneself for satisfaction or happiness. The two are interrelated, of course. Addiction also involves behavior. In order to facilitate recovery, there is a need to not only change one’s way of thinking, but behavior has to be modified.

Psychology and Buddhism: from individual to global community by Kathleen H. Dockett, G. Rita Dudley-Grant, and C. Peter Bankart was published in 2002, and deals not only with the subject of the title, but also provides a nice history of Buddhism in the West, along with (I love this) “Bio-babble”, and some other topics.

In her article, “Buddhism, Psychology, and Addition Theory in Psychotherapy,” G. Rita Dudley-Grant,  Ph.D., MPH, ABPP, and licensed clinical psychologist, writes:

Behavioral Theory has also found itself in concert with Buddhist philosophy, and Buddhist practices. It is found that in both disciplines there is a fundamental belief that behavior change is possible (de Silva, 1986). Moreover, both Buddhism and behavioral psychology set out specific methods by which one’s outward as well as inward behavior can be modified. One particularly interesting example was provided from the Dhammapada Commentary, which described the Buddha’s recommended “treatment” for a King who had an eating problem, and who sought help from the Buddha due to his “slothful” and “drowsy” state after each meal. The Buddha set out a specific behavior modification plan, which included gradual reduction in food quantities, along with queuing, the systematic use of rewards, modeling and self-monitoring. Many other techniques now labeled as behavioral, but existing within Buddhist practice for centuries have also begun to gain acceptance in behavioral psychology.

While I am skeptical and critical of approaches that strip Buddhism of important components to the point that it becomes just another form of psychology (I think the scope of Buddha-dharma is infinitely wider than that), there is absolutely nothing wrong with Buddhism and psychology informing each other, or with integrating elements of one into the other. One of the key words in the above quote is “self-monitoring.” This has to come from within. When monitoring, and by this I mean being self-aware of the triggers and so on that perpetuate addiction and as well the struggle to resist the addiction, is imposed from mainly from outside, how can there be any real recovery?

Some will disagree with my assessment, and perhaps there is no real recovery. There are many who believe not, and they maintain that one is always addicted, and while that may be true to an extent, and though I recognize that the 12-Step program is considered very effective, I can’t help but think that there must be a better way. In terms of dharma, two of the 12 steps (the powerlessness over addition and belief in a outside higher power) are, to my mind, antithetical to Buddhist philosophy.

Buddhist practice, Tibetan medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda and other Eastern disciplines have tremendous potential which the West is just beginning to tap into, and they can contribute substantially to modern science in almost every area. Hopefully the work at Wat Saphan will be studied in depth and perhaps it can serve as a model for future efforts in the treatment of addiction and other areas.