Jack Engler, Ph.D., is Clinical Director of the Schiff Psychiatric Day Treatment Center of Cambridge Hospital, and a supervising psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. He has practiced vipassana meditation for many years and serves on the Board of Directors of the Insight Meditation.Society. Jack is also a coauthor, with Ken Wilbur and Daniel Brown, of Transformations of Consciousness, a book that brings together Western psychology and Eastern spiritual practices to offer a “full-spectrum” model of human development. The book represents a watershed in the study of consciousness.
Inquiring Mind: In the book Transformations of Consciousness, you report on several scientific studies of meditation which you have conducted over the past few years. One of the essential issues of your research is a subject at the heart of both psychology and spiritual practice, the idea of “self.” How is the concept of self different for a Theravada Buddhist and a Western psychologist?
Jack Engler: Well, if you look closely, they’re not very different. That may surprise some people. Both Theravada Buddhist psychology and the Western psychodynamic tradition assume that the self is a construct. Neither consider the self to be an entity. That’s very interesting, because experientially, that’s not the way the self is experienced. People assume they are some one, and that some one is a stable and unchanging reference point over time and across different states of consciousness; but in fact, when one investigates it, either scientifically or directly through introspection, the self turns out to be a construction of consciousness, moment by moment. That discovery is one of the core thrusts of Buddhist meditation practice. In Western psychotherapies it’s also assumed that the self is a construct, but Western therapists don’t use this understanding as a therapeutic leverage. The effort of psychotherapy is not to see through the illusory nature of self as a construction of consciousness, but instead, the effort is to modify the self-concept in more adaptive, more realistic ways. So the theoretical underpinnings of the self-concept are very much the same, but it’s used differently in Buddhist psychology and in Western psychotherapy.
IM: Western psychologists often talk about “a healthy sense of self.” That idea seems to refer to a very concrete delineation between self and object; a definite sense of boundaries between yourself and the rest of the world. A psychologist might say you have a healthy sense of self when you feel yourself as a distinct entity. I don’t think the Buddhists would agree.
JE: Sometimes Buddhists criticize Western psychological theory for emphasizing the development of self, but I think they are oversimplifying the case. Ego development is important in Western psychology, but the goal is not to solidify a sense of self. An overly solidified sense of self is a neurotic sense of self. It’s rigid, it’s inflexible, it’s maladaptive. So a Western psychodynamic therapist would work with the ideas, or the images that people have of themselves, and would do two things: One, try to broaden that, make it more flexible, less neurotically rigid and tight, broaden it to encompass wider and wider areas of experience; and two, a therapist would work to bring to the surface some of the hidden, buried, repressed self images so they, too, could be incorporated into the conscious sense of self. But it’s still a differentiated self that’s seen as separate from the object world, though always in relationship with it.
IM: But if someone came to a Western psychologist and said, “There’s nobody home here,” the response would be that this person could use some therapy?
JE: Yes! If someone walked into my office and said (laughs), “There’s no one home here,” I’d say, “You need help!” Because if there were truly no one home, they wouldn’t be seeking help. They’d be enlightened.
IM: What if you met them on the street? Would you assume that they needed help rather than assuming that they were Zen masters?
JE: I would assume they needed help. Believe it or not, this happens, especially in Central Square and Harvard Square in Cambridge, right near my office, where there’s a lot of street people, and sometimes you will get stopped and people will say things like this. They’re almost always pretty clearly disturbed.
IM: You have said, “You must be somebody before you can be nobody.” In other words, in your view, one needs to develop a healthy ego, or a healthy sense of self before one can begin to see it as process, before one can begin to dissolve it.
JE: Yes, because meditation requires a lot of ego strength. For instance, it requires the capacity for self-observation.
This is an extraordinarily sophisticated ability—to be able to take yourself and your mental processes as an object for observation. Someone who doesn’t have a very strong ego structure won’t have that capacity. They can’t both have experience and at the same time make that experience an object of observation. The ability to do that comes out of a long period of complex psychological development.
Also, when it comes to emotional development, a meditator has to have tremendous capacity to tolerate dysphoric affects, or unpleasant feeling-states, or frightening, or threatening, or anxiety provoking, or angry feeling-states. And that capacity for affect tolerance, the ability to experience feelings without acting on them is also a very sophisticated development. Both of those skills are part of healthy ego development. What often happens with people who do an uncovering kind of meditation, like mindfulness practice, or any kind of awareness practice where anything and everything is allowed into consciousness—those opening-up kind of meditation practices will really flood someone who hasn’t developed either the capacity for self-observation or the capacity to tolerate difficult emotional states. They’ll get flooded and overwhelmed. This kind of meditation has the capacity to actually disorganize them.
IM: You mention specifically that mindfulness practice could be harmful to someone without adequate ego development. What about other meditation practices? Are there some that might be useful as a therapeutic tool?
JE: Yes. You know, there are many more types of meditation practice than there are types of psychotherapy. We have been meditating for five thousand years, at least, and psychotherapy has only been around for about a hundred years. And there are meditation practices that can be helpful for people who have not yet really developed a healthy sense of self or attained sufficient ego development. For example, some of the Eastern spiritual teachers I worked with would intuitively hold back from giving mindfulness meditation practice to certain students. Instead they would give them a concentration-type practice, because it would bring about a certain stability and balance and tranquility of mind. They would have them work on that first since concentration practice tends to unify an anxious and scattered mind and suppresses negative mental states.
IM: Among dharma teachers in the East, is there some prescribed way of giving out meditation instructions that takes psychological health into account?
JE: I’m not aware that they have any system, and I don’t think the meditation teachers have any psychotherapy in mind. They simply know that when someone is very agitated and anxious that you first have to settle him down and help him become more organized, and that some of the concentration practices are useful in doing that.
Munindra—a teacher who is probably familiar to many vipassana meditators—would make a kind of initial, informal diagnostic assessment of what a person (a) was looking for, (b) was motivated by, and (c) was capable of handling. When I would have a question about why he was giving a certain practice to a certain student, he always had a pretty clear rationale. But it wasn’t based upon some developmental framework of psychopathology or human development. It was just based upon an intuitive understanding of people’s mental states as they confronted him in the moment, and what he felt they needed.
IM: Concerning the similarities between meditation and therapy, I’ve often thought that setting up “the other” or “the higher self’ as part of my mindfulness practice was like acquiring my own therapist. Here was the factor of mindfulness, the observer within myself, who would be nonjudgmental and who would just sit there and nod as my mental processes played themselves out. And I wouldn’t have to pay this therapist for an hour of sitting and listening to me.
JE: I’ve had a lot of people say that, but I really think that they are two different processes. And I think what is overlooked is the interpersonal nature of therapy. Therapy is basically not about insight or deeper self-understanding in terms of further information about yourself. It’s basically about establishing a relationship with the therapist and working through the issues that arise in the course of that relationship. Sometimes those issues will have to do with insight and sometimes they’ll have to do with other things. But what’s always at stake are the relationship issues, the interpersonal issues. And that’s why meditation isn’t a substitute for psychotherapy. Sitting on your cushion watching your own mind is not the same thing as entering into a therapeutic relationship with someone.
Meanwhile, on the other side—and this I think is really overlooked—it has become very clear to me that meditation is a very sophisticated system of healing. It has cultural and sociological and psychological components. And one of the most important is that meditation, like psychotherapy, also takes place in an interpersonal context. I think a lot of Western students forget that, or they never really learn it in the first place, because meditation has been lifted out of the indigenous cultures and presented to the West as a very private practice. But in fact, as it was classically developed and designed, meditation was an activity done first of all within a sangha, within a community of practitioners. Remember, the third refuge that a Buddhist takes is refuge in the sangha. The community is the context. In psychological terms the community is the holding environment and the facilitating environment in which practice is done.
Another important factor is that meditation is also done in relationship with a teacher. That relationship with the teacher has different meaning in the different Buddhist traditions, but it’s always there. It’s either explicit or it’s implicit. Implicit means you’re either in a relationship with a teacher in fact or you’re in a relationship somewhere in your own mind with a representation of a teacher. So the whole activity—both within a sangha and in the relationship with a teacher—also takes place in what Western psychology calls an “object-relational framework.” And if it doesn’t, as far as I can tell, you don’t make very much progress. In my experience, the practice can take off like a rocket in the beginning, but if it becomes too private, too individual—takes place too much out of the context of shared community life—the practice tends to get stale and very frustrating as the years go by.
IM: That’s very interesting. When you were talking, I had the image of a Zen master as a great psychotherapist: being harsh or tender depending on what you needed at the time. I also thought about therapy and the confessional work that goes on with a therapist. While it may be hard to accept yourself alone in meditation, in therapy you are revealing yourself to someone and being accepted in spite of it.
JE: Right, exactly. And that’s where the healing comes. That’s where the learning comes. That’s where the stuck places get transcended. But it’s always in the context of another person. And in that way it continues human development, which from day one is always in an interpersonal context, always takes place in relationship. That’s why I think it’s important to look at dharma practice from that perspective. We have such an individualist bias in the West, and we’ve learned these practices in a very individualist mode as we’ve transported them from Asia. As a result, a lot of dharma communities in the States aren’t real communities yet. They’re sort of meditation centers or places where people come together for periods of time when they practice. But most Buddhists in this country don’t live a whole shared life together. However, from the Buddhist point of view, not only is practice done in relationships—done within a sangha, done in a relationship with a teacher—but that’s the ultimate realization you end up with; that it’s all relationship. It’s like the diamond net of Indra—at the end the whole universe is nothing but a set of interpenetrating processes, interpenetrating relationships.
IM: That’s a very interesting critique. And even though you tend to keep your psychotherapy separate from your meditation teaching, you find that they converge in many ways, at least theoretically.
JE: Oh, yes. But some people also bring them together in practice. I have a number of friends, particularly in Trungpa’s community, who were trained there as therapists and also as Buddhists, and they tend to bring more practice into their therapy. They might actually meditate with their clients. I suppose you can make that work also; I just choose not to do that.
IM: But in the final analysis, you would say that psychotherapy and meditation are two different disciplines with two different sets of objectives.
JE: Yes. And for confirmation I turn to the founders. In Freud’s studies in hysteria, his first major work in what later came to be psychoanalysis, right there in the beginning he said, “The best I can do is exchange your neurotic misery for ordinary human unhappiness.” That’s not a bad exchange if you’re a psychotherapist. If you can do that much, that’s not bad. And Freud never essentially changed that belief. In contrast, in one of the early Theravada scriptures, the Buddha says, “One thing I aim at and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.” And that’s the difference between psychotherapy and meditation. The one aims at alleviating neurotic misery and making life more functional, more bearable, happier; and the other aims at the complete end of suffering. Most psychotherapists would not consider that to be in the realm of possibility.