Filed in Science

Dharma and Psychotherapy

As Buddhist teachings on suffering and the nature of self continue to spread in the West, psychotherapists have begun to recover the spiritual possibilities inherent in their work. Mark Epstein, M.D.

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At the first New York conference on Buddhism and psychotherapy in the late 1980s, discussion between the two disciplin,es proved more difficult than many had expected. There were a lot of therapists in attendance and a number of Buddhist teachers on the program, but many of the Buddhist teachers were not particularly interested in, or knowledgeable about, the psychodynamic view. The Buddhists wanted to talk about Buddhism, while the therapists wanted to talk about emotional issues, and it was not clear what kind of common ground there might be between the two. The tension rose steadily from the opening invocation. Finally, after a day and a half, an exasperated woman rose from her chair and directed a statement at the Tibetan lama who had just finished his presentation. "I don't care how many Zen masters can fit on the head of a pin," she began, her frustration evident to all. There was a smattering of applause and a general heightening of attention. "I want to know about shitting and pissing and fucking."

A hush fell over the crowd. This was not the way to speak to a Tibetan lama. And yet the woman's point was understood by many in the audience. The conference presentations seemed too rarified for the therapists in attendance, too divorced from the day-to-day reality of their therapeutic concerns. Where was the earthiness of the good old Freudian instincts?

The lama, not understanding, turned to the conference organizers for a translation. "She wants to know about shitting and pissing and fucking," they told him rather sheepishly, and he looked momentarily perplexed. "But how has she managed up until this point?" he asked. For a moment, the Freudian concerns with primitive experience seemed absurd in the light of Buddhism . . .

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