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The Couch and the TreeReview - The Couch and the Tree
Dialogues in Psychoanalysis and Buddhism
by Anthony Molino (Editor)
North Point Press, 1998
Review by H. Kimball Jones
Jul 4th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 27)

In the introduction to his very ambitious book, The Couch and the Tree, Anthony Molino notes that in 1995 there were only 23 articles or books listed in the computer catalog of a major American university on the topic of "Buddhism and Psychology." Hence the publication of this book of 30 quite varied essays on the dialogue between Psychoanalysis and Buddhism.

Anyone who is at all interested in the interface between psychology and religion will doubtless find this book interesting, if at times a bit cumbersome and uneven. If you have no knowledge of either Psychoanalysis or Buddhism, it may leave you more confused than enlightened, since none of the essays are designed to define the basic tenets of either discipline. But if you have at least a cursory knowledge of both disciplines, then you will find much to feast on in this large and varied volume.

The implied question at the core of the book is, "What do Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism have in common and in what ways do they differ?" The 30 essays in this collection, which cover a period from 1923 until the present, offer varied, and sometimes conflicting, responses to this question. The first section, entitled "Foundations", includes 12 essays that demonstrate the evolution of the dialogue between Psychoanalysis and Buddhism from 1923 until 1979. While this section is interesting both for its content and its historical relevance, the analysts who are included here represent very different schools of psychotherapeutic thought which cannot all easily be included under the rubric of "psychoanalysis": e.g. Franz Alexander, Karen Horney, Erich Fromm, C.G. Jung and Takeo Doi (writing on Morita Therapy). The one thing these authors have in common is having been trained in psychoanalysis, having practiced psychotherapy, and an interest in Buddhism. But they manifest vast differences in their approaches to the psyche which colors their views of Buddhism and Buddhist practice. For example, Jung sees the Buddhist search for enlightenment through the somewhat reductionistic glasses of his understanding of the Collective Unconscious, seeking to find the all-encompassing "Self" while Alexander sees it rather simplistically as a "regression to intrauterine life," typical of early psychoanalytic thought.

In my opinion, the best essay in this first section is by Erich Fromm, who in a very lucid and fluid fashion demonstrates a clear grasp of the concept of living "in the moment", free of obsessions and narcissistic distractions, as central to the Buddhist concept of Enlightenment as well as to good mental health.

The second, longer section of the book, entitled "Contemporary Researches" is comprised of subsections, each containing three essays, on the topics of "Meditation," "Biography", "Critical Perspectives," "In Practice," "Theoretical Reflections," and "The Couch and the Tree." To comment in detail on the myriad essays in this section would be beyond the scope of this review or the expertise of this reviewer. The quality of these essays is uneven, covering a continuum from overly simplistic and reductionistic to incisive and ocassionally brilliant. Those essays which stuck out to this reviewer as being particularly whorthwhile are the following:

  • Mark Epstein comparing the experience of Nirvana in Buddhism to the "oceanic feeling" of basic narcissism as described by Freud.
  • Nina Coltart (as interviewed by Anthony Molino) sharing her wisdom on the importance of freedom from ego-centeredness in both Buddhism and Psychoanalysis.
  • Adam Philips, in his unique provocative fashion, suggesting that Buddhism and Psychoanalysis cannot easily be fit into any one mold.
  • Michael Eigen using case studies to demonstrate both the helpful and limiting aspects of Buddhist Meditation when viewed as the primary path to growth and enlightenment.
  • Gereon Kopf comparing and contrasting the transference that occurs in Jungian analysis with the relationship that occurs between a Zen Master and Disciple.
  • Anthony Molino discussing the parallels and divergences between Lacan's view of the "alien ego" and the Zen view of self (or more accurately, non-self).

The best is saved for last, and if one were to read only the last sub-section of the book, entitled "The Couch and the Tree", one would find this collection of essays to be both interesting and enlightening. In the first chapter of the last section Joseph Bobrow, who arguably has written the best essay in the book, points out with clarity and wisdom how the dialogue between Psychoanalysis and Buddhism has tended to get bogged down in the question "Is there a separate 'self' or 'ego'?" rather than focusing on the more important issue of discerning how the self (however understood or defined) relates to itself, to others and to the world. His point of view seems to be based largely on existentialist philosophy, which, with its emphasis on the significance of the present moment seems most compatible with Buddhist thought.

The second essay in this section is an excellent discussion of "Paradox" by John Suler in which he describes the importance to both Buddhist Enlightenment and Psychotherapy of the inescapable paradox of "finding" oneself only by "letting go" of self. This theme is echoed in the final essay, by Polly Young-Eisendrath, who discusses the importance of suffering as a precursor to growth and self-understanding rather than as something to be avoided at all cost or summarily covered over by quick fixes or irresponsible uses of medication.

In sum, there is much to be gleaned from this ambitious volume. Given the diverse analytic perspectives represented, it might better have been entitled "Dialogues in Psychotherapy and Buddhism," since the clinical perspectives presented are not clearly or uniformly psychoanalytic. But that is a small matter. Read selectively and carefully, this book is a welcome compendium on a dialogue between two very rich traditions that continues to be central to our understanding of the inescapable relationship between psychotherapy and spirituality.

H. Kimball Jones is a Pastoral Counselor who has a full-time practice in psychotherapy for the Psychotherapy and Spirituality Institute on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. While he was trained in Psychoanalytic Theory at the Blanton Peale Graduate Institute in New York, he did his doctoral dissertation on Jung's Theory of Shadow and Evil for the Program in Psychiatry and Religion at Union Theological Seminary. Dr. Jones is both a Methodist minister and a practicing Buddhist, having been a member for several years of the Korean Won Buddhist Temple in Manhattan.


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