August 11, 2010

Therapy, Meditation, and Buddhist Humor

Last week, Daphne Merkin wrote an excellent personal essay, entitled “My Life in Therapy,” about her varied experiences as a patient within the therapeutic establishment (lasting over 40 years!), that appeared in The New York Times Magazine. The piece is entertaining, thoughtful, and, not surprisingly, painfully “self-aware.”

From the piece:

I learned, that is, to construct an ongoing narrative of the self, composed of what the psychoanalyst Robert Stoller calls “microdots” (“the consciously experienced moments selected from the whole and arranged to present a point of view”), one that might have been more or less cohesive than my actual self but that at any rate was supposed to illuminate puzzling behavior and onerous symptoms—my behavior and my symptoms.

This makes me think of the Jack Kornfield line from one of his Tricycle interviews touching on Buddhism and psychotherapy: “Knowing the story doesn’t solve it.” [See the blog entry on those interviews here.]

Merkin's writing also is quite funny, reminiscent of the narrator of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (who she references in the article).

During this session the three of us decided that I would marry the man I had been dating on and off for the past six years, despite the fact that I had broken off my engagement to him months earlier. We discussed the matter of my newly pending marriage as if it were simply the practical solution to a neurotic issue, having little to do with the man in question and much to do with my abiding inability to make a decision. I remember distinctly that Dr. E. and my mother agreed that I was a very loyal person and that the chances of my getting divorced, no matter how tentative I might have felt about going ahead, were minuscule. (As it turned out, I divorced less than five years later.)

What I really want now is for Daphne Merkin to try her hand at meditation and then write about that experience. Would it be nearly as funny? Buddhists are always so earnest. For all the respect and appreciation I have for Buddhist writers and thinkers, I can’t think of a time I’ve sought out Buddhist sources when looking for a good hard laugh. Another question: is self-conscious and self-deprecating humor detrimental to the spiritual path? I’m never quite sure if certain humor falls into the category of right view or wrong view, but one thing is certain: a good joke can be the most joy-inducing, spiritually-reviving experience to be had, mystical even. And sometimes, even if the punch line cradles an obsessive self-image, you can lose yourself in the laughter.

Image: from The New York Times

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J's picture

Some Buddhists (as well as non-Buddhists) can be quite humorless (that dry shit stick goes pretty far up some people's asses), but there is also lots of potential for humor with all the loving-kindness (read the Vimalakirti Sutra for the hilarious transgender adventures of Subhuti and the goddess, or Subhuti and the bowl of food). Of course some people want to be Puritans without God, and just make Buddhism into some kind of uber-Protestantism, but you find similar dynamics in all kinds of groups. Some people are suffering so much, they can't yet laugh at themselves or others.

Some people also get stuck in therapy, just as some Buddhists and others get stuck in their own suffering. The NYT article about the zen master and the psychoanalyst was fairly triumphalist about therapy, but didn't really go into what the psychoanalyst got from working with a Buddhist, although the journalist mentioned that they started working on a new form of therapy.

If you want Buddhist humor, though, check out The Life and Times of Tofu Roshi after you have sat a couple of sesshins. Priceless.

N's picture

I am into therapy and vipassana for last some years. I joined my first vipassana retreat some months after my first therapy session . Later I got to know that my therapist is a person deeply embedded in Buddha Dharma . I remember going to her for the first time- shattered, broken, completely out of touch with my own self and having this tendency to blame outside forces for my situation. Therapy helped me to look inside, to know myself. Vipasssana and therapy brought back the quality of liveliness back.and yes, I remember having my first hearty laugh during a therapy session- after years and years of depression. If in right hands, therapy could become another vehicle, another ground to be in touch with our own self in a non-judgmental manner.

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Mark's picture

Yeah, I missed the yucks here too. How glad I am that, when I needed help dealing with depression, I found a therapist who taught mindfulness. My depression dissapated quickly, and I do know what character change is, because I behave differently than I used to. Reading this article is a great reminder that the self can't ever be fixed; it exists to suffer, and only by seeing beyond the fiction of the immutable inner "me" are we ever going to taste peace. I hope Ms Merkin finds peace, and that if she does make another foray into therapy, she finds a therapist trained in the dharma.

Incidentally, Ajahn Amaro has a very droll sense of humor that's often on display in his dharma talks.

Lee's picture

Funny? Really? She is, admittedly, no happier tens of thousands of dollars and thousands of hours later. Ms. Merkin might find more happiness in selfless service. She seems sadly obsessed with her sense of self.

Morning Star Dhamma's picture

The hardest I've ever laughed in my life was while reading what turned out to be a profoundly meaningful (for me) Dharma teaching a few years back.

When it comes to humor, there's a difference between trying to be funny, and authentically evoking laughter without trying. The most effective teachers do the latter, in my view. I often laugh when I hear Dharma teachings, and I mean that in a positive way.