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Ushering Wellness: The Convergence of Buddhism and Psychoanalysis

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Once considered esoteric by most Westerners, Buddhism and psychoanalysis have come to infiltrate much of contemporary culture. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has become a universal symbol of peace and good will. Buddhist meditation centers abound in most urban centers, and increasingly the scientific community has given credence to the ameliorative impact of meditation on many psychological struggles, including depression and anxiety.

The same is true for psychoanalysis. What was once a stigmatized option for the mentally ill and affluent, therapy -- at least in most urban settings -- is today almost a rite of passage. It's the rare New Yorker who has made it through the various travails of contemporary life -- finishing one's formal education, finding a partner, making a living -- without seeking some form of psychoanalytic support. Add to these pervasive struggles the distressing issue of terrorism, the rise of childhood diseases including autism and leukemia and the onslaught of stimulation from advances in technology, and you have a population increasingly eager for help in finding psychological and spiritual wellness.

What has changed in recent years, and captured the attention of both Buddhist teachers and psychoanalysts, is the fascinating relationship between these divergent traditions. Today, there are growing numbers of people looking for therapists who respect their need for meditation and spiritual support. So too, there are scores of long-term (even second generation) meditators who have come to realize that spiritual practice does not always eliminate the psychological problems they hoped it would. In this way, these two radically different approaches to wellness have begun to intersect with new levels of respect and curiosity.

As a caveat to this growing conversation, scholars of both traditions have been quick to point out that the differences between these two healing realms are extensive. Buddhism arose some 2,500 years ago in India. Its founder, Siddhartha Gautama, was a young man of great wealth who grew up in cloistered privilege. It was through his introduction, at the age of 29, to the suffering world of sickness, aging and death that he was inspired to explore how we might relate to our basic vulnerability and still remain happy. In his 84,000 ensuing teachings, he emphasized that despite the pain we would invariably endure, happiness was our most basic birthright.

Psychoanalysis, in contrast, first developed in Europe just over 100 years ago. Sigmund Freud, its founder and steadfast protector, lead a radically different life from the young Siddhartha. At an early age, Freud knew the pain of loneliness and struggle and went on to suffer the traumas of anti-semitism, two world wars and the loss of a child. It is not surprising that his approach to healing would posit a basic conflict inherent to the human condition. Freud believed that much like the warring world that raged around him, within our own psyches was another kind of battlefield of raging instincts that constantly seek expression. His was a more pessimistic view: that the best we can do is find ways to sublimate our sexual and aggressive urges and settle for "common unhappiness." Yet, he brought to light the impact of the unconscious, and the ways in which we can live with less suffering and more integrity if we accept the truth of what is in our unconscious.

The interest in how Buddha Shakyamuni's approach to wellness might converge with Freud's, began more than 60 years ago. In the 1950s, psychoanalysts including Karen Horney and Eric Fromm wrote about their growing interest in Zen Buddhism, and its more hopeful vision for how people might come to genuinely enjoy their lives, despite the pain of loss and the power of desire. In the intervening years, many more therapists and Buddhist teachers joined in this conversation, exploring the tools of each path, and seeking creative ways to bring them together.

Such theorists point out that each tradition has something unique to offer and limitations to overcome. Psychoanalysis has been extremely useful in helping people understand how their earliest experience of relationship influences their sense of self and their approach to interpersonal relationships. It has respected the importance of early childhood and the particular ways in which each individual will respond to his or her caretakers. The downside of this self-centric process, say its critics, is the solipsism that can result from too many years of parsing personal struggles.

Theorists interested in how Buddhism and psychotherapy might work together, have suggested that this very solipsism is powerfully challenged in Buddhist practice. Buddhism takes a more universal view of our human struggles, suggesting that all of us, regardless of our caretakers or personal traumas, can be helped by remembering that everything changes, including our most entrenched struggles and vexing relationships. It's simply the nature of reality. So too, we depend upon each other for everything -- our food, education, healthcare, companionship. According to Buddhist thought, none of us can get through this life, or achieve abiding happiness, alone. So it makes sense to treat each other with genuine care, knowing that we share the same wish to be happy and free from suffering.

Today, these two paradigms are mixing minds and ideas through an expanding population of Westerners who want to understand the influence of their own personal history, while not getting too caught up in it. In this way, Buddhism and psychoanalysis have begun to cultivate a true partnership that seems to be ushering in wellness on a new scale.

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