'Chasing Elephants' by Diane Shainberg

Paul R. Fleischman, M.D.

CHASING ELEPHANTS:
Healing Psychologically with Buddhist Wisdom
by Diane Shainberg
Asti-Rahman Books: New York, 2000
200 pp. ; $16.95 (paper)

In her new book, Diane Shainberg, a clinical psychologist and Zen Buddhist priest, places the reader in the present moment. From multiple angles, in forceful prose, she repeats this refrain, pointing to its universally applicable and beneficial relevance. The most striking aspect of Chasing Elephants is the author’s capacity to write and rewrite her thesis with infectious clarity and conviction. Dr. Shainberg says:

To be aware of where we are now, to have noticed, recognized, welcomed, heard, and given space is the ground for healing . . . throughout therapy, we bring clients to their awareness with a hundred variations of the question “What are you experiencing right now?” . . . we always work with the basic human potential of staying present and immediacy in any moment . . . As we realize how phenomena continue to arise and pass in us until we die, we don’t have to identify so much with each particular wave in the ocean. We can observe without identifying.

Chasing Elephants is an inspirational text combining vivid psychotherapeutic examples and the author’s personal experiences with general discussion. The tone of the writing is heartfelt, hopeful, and energetic. We feel the author reaching out through the printed page to help us discover what she herself has found elevating. She keeps finding ways to rephrase her message, enabling us to catch it from wherever we are, urging us “to come into the now . . . to stay open frame by frame.”

The book contains brief as well as extended therapeutic transcripts in which we can feel the presence of a trusted and comforting therapist who exposes her working style and skills with confessional honesty. Her message is this: Seeing things as they are, leaving things as they are, nonjudgmental awareness, releases healing potentials that we all possess and that help us both psychologically and spiritually to be liberated in the moment, moment after moment.

That said, there are a few important areas in which the book falters. Although Dr. Shainberg is both a clinical psychologist and a Zen Buddhist priest, she never addresses potential problems from such a fusion. The risk of blurring boundaries between teacher and therapist is an issue that should not be left aside, particularly when the author is in a position to speak to both sides.

Furthermore, this book shows no awareness that the path as taught by the Buddha stresses moral teachings and precepts. Nothing that purports to be Buddhist can ignore this first step. Nor can casual avoidance of any discussion of ethics be justified as skillful means. The skillful means to present morality that the Buddha actually employed was to emphasize it clearly in all his teachings.

chasing elephantsWhile Dr. Shainberg describes the help she gratefully received from her teachers, and while she suggests that some people will benefit from the support of a psychotherapeutic relationship, there is no discussion in the book of community. Call it sangha or call it friendship on the path, community is a key factor that actually separates real meditative lifestyles from individualistic psychotherapy. The capacity to live in the present moment is only partially a product of belief, willpower, or even meditation practice; it is predominantly derived from a whole, synthesizing way of life, a path.

On a few unfortunate occasions the writing in Chasing Elephants descends to rhetorical extremism and generalization, the very kind of thing that Dr. Shainberg has actually warned us against in other passages. She writes: “If a therapist does not have a spiritual practice . . . they have not experienced the natural healing power of the unconditioned aspect of the mind.” It is unfortunate to present “spiritual healing” as the province of an elect, particularly in a book that otherwise argues so well for the natural and pervasive availability of human spiritual strengths. The Buddha taught that truth is not the private property of self-appointed specialists in wisdom. The spiritual potentials of the unconditioned aspect of the mind are in fact experienced by many people who do not necessarily attribute their experience to “Buddhism” or even to “spirituality.”

Despite a few problems, Chasing Elephants offers inspirational reading and encouragement from a skillful writer.


Paul R. Fleischman practices psychiatry in Amherst, MA, and is the author of Cultivating Inner Peace, Karma and Chaos (both by Vipassana Research Press), and other books.

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