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That, and the question of outdated assumptions aside, Psychotherapy East and West is replete with the timeless wisdom that Alan Watts seemed to posses naturally, and which made him such an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

Jung at Heart

Today is the birthday of Carl Gustav Jung, who if still alive would be 136 and no doubt one of the oldest people in the world. The famed psychologist is, as you may know, the subject of a famous song by Bob Dylan, in which the singer expresses the sentiment, “May you stay forever Jung.”

Which has no connection whatsoever to the Mott the Hoople song, “All The Jung Dudes.”

There is, however, a connection between Jung’s work and Buddhism. Jung himself once said, “The goal in psychotherapy is exactly the same as in Buddhism.” There are those who feel that Jung misunderstood Buddhist philosophy, but it is certainly clear, as Polly Young-Eisendrath writes in The Cambridge Companion to Jung: Second Edition, that

C. G. Jung was the first psychoanalyst to pay close and serious attention to Buddhism and to write commentary on his own careful readings of Buddhist texts . . .beginning with Jung’s 1939 “Foreword” to Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen Buddhism . . . Jung wrote about and commented on writings from Japanese, Tibetan, and Chinese sources. Bringing in both original insights and important questions, Jung’s essays formed an early backdrop for various conversations to develop between Western psychology and Buddhist practices.

The correlations between Jung’s work and Eastern philosophy (he was interested in Hindu Yoga, particularly Vendanta, both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, and Taoism, especially the I Ching) is too vast a subject to handle in a blog post. My own feeling is that while he was occasionally off the mark, in general Jung’s interpretation of Eastern philosophy was, if nothing else, interesting. For example, his take on several core concepts, such as karma, that he saw as archetypes. In “Psychological Commentary on Kundalini Yoga,” Jung wrote,

There is a rich world of archetypal images in the unconscious mind, and the archetypes are conditions, laws or categories of creative fantasy, and therefore might be called the psychological equivalent of the samskara.”

Samskaras are generally regarded as “karmic formations” or karma-formed states. In Buddhism, samskara is the the fourth skandha (aggregate) and the second link in the twelve Nidanas (links), the chain of dependent arising.

Today is quite a day for birthdays: Mick Jagger (68!), Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Dorothy Hamill, Susan George, Helen Mirren (unforgettable as Jane Tennison in the “Prime Suspect” series), Dobie Gray (song “Drift Away”), Bobby Hebb (song “Sunny”), Brenton Wood (song “Gimme Little Sign”), Darlene Love (song “He’s a Rebel”), film director Stanley Kubrick (“Dr. Strangelove”, “2001”, “A Clockwork Orange”), director Blake Edwards (“The Pink Panther”), comedian Gracie Allen (Burns and Allen), author Robert Graves (“I, Claudius”), Irish English novelist Aldous Huxley (“Brave New World”), Pearl Buck (“The Good Earth”), George Bernard Shaw (“Pygmalion”) and Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, who wrote the following, entitled Cantares or “Songs [Machado’s Testament]”:

All goes, and all remains,

but our task is to go,
to go creating roads
roads through the sea.

My songs never chased
after glory to remain
in human memory.
I love the subtle worlds
weightless and charming,
worlds like soap-bubbles.

I like to see them, daubed
with sunlight and scarlet,
quiver, under a blue sky,
suddenly and burst…

I never chased glory.

Traveller, the road is only
your footprint, and no more;
traveller, there’s no road,
the road is your travelling.

Going becomes the road
and if you look back
you will see a path
none can tread again.

Traveller, every track
leaves its wake on the sea…

Once in this place
where bushes now have thorns
the sound of a poet’s cry was heard
‘Traveller there’s no road
the road is your travelling…’

Step by step, line by line…

The poet died far from home.
Shrouded by dust of a neighbouring land.
At his parting they heard him cry:
‘Traveller there’s no road
the road is your travelling…’

Step by step, line by line…

When the goldfinch can’t sing,
when the poet’s a wanderer,
when nothing aids our prayer.
‘Traveller there’s no road
the road is your travelling…’

Step by step, line by line.

Share