Psychoanalysis and Buddhism focus on the individual. Both seek to understand his essential nature and help him to grow and mature. At their best, they are tools of self-transformation, helping the individual achieve greater peace and stability.
Religion and Science
Of course, there is a fundamental difference. Psychoanalysis is a branch of science and medicine, while Buddhism is a major world religion. The first was developed by Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist who believed firmly in the European Enlightenment and had nothing but contempt for organized religion. The second began in India some 2,500 years ago and includes a great deal of myth and ritual. As Erich Fromm puts it, “Psychoanalysis is a therapy for mental illness, Buddhism is a way to spiritual salvation.”
Take a closer look, however, and you find that things are not so simple. For a start, Buddhism is as much a science of the mind as it is a religion. The great English novelist and intellectual Aldous Huxley, for example, once remarked on “how much subtler” Buddhist writings on human psychology were than anything in the western tradition. And many psychologists have taken an interest in Buddhist writings. Carl Jung, for example, wrote introductions to several translations of Buddhist texts. Psychoanalysis, on the other hand, possesses religious characteristics. Many now confess their sins and seek forgiveness (or catharsis) from a therapist rather than a priest.
Any comparison must begin with the ego. Many definitions exist, and what a Buddhist means by this word may differ from what a psychoanalyst means. But in essence the ego is that sense most people have of being in control, both of their mind and their body. It is the feeling that something exists behind your thoughts and memories. In other words, the ego is the entity that has those thoughts and holds those memories.
First, it must be stressed that not everyone possesses what psychologists label ‘ego-consciousness.’ A baby, for example, has very little ego-consciousness, neither does a psychotic. More generally, particular societies have lower levels of ego-consciousness than others. Anthropologists would say that the members of an Amazonian tribe, for example, or a traditional African village, have a lower ego-consciousness than the inhabitants of a modern city like London or New York. And historians argue the same about certain historical periods. The ego-consciousness of 13th century Europeans differed from that of their 19th century descendants.
Both the psychoanalyst and the Buddhist seek to transform ego-consciousness in some way. Freud famously summed up psychoanalytic therapy thus: “Where there was Id, there shall be Ego.” In other words, psychoanalysts seek to dominate or tame the irrational – to liberate the individual from the unconscious.
Buddhists would not disagree that ignorance and irrationality cause suffering, but they seek to go beyond ego-consciousness. For them, the ego is itself the problem, keeping people locked up in a narrow, selfish, finite little self, one forever seeking to escape fear and death through power, money, and status.
Freud believed that the individual was driven or animated by a kind of sexual energy he named the libido. The problem with this libidinal energy is that it can become fixated or stuck. The classic example is the so-called Oedipus Complex, in which a boy develops an unconscious attachment to his mother – effectively falling in love with her. Of course, it should be emphasized that Freud is referring to very young, pre-pubescent boys and does not mean love as an adult would understand it. A portion of the child’s libido becomes somehow locked on to an unconscious image of his mother. When he later forms romantic attachments, he cannot consummate his love because his libido remains fixated on his mother. So the goal of Freudian therapy is to redirect the libido to its proper object.
Again, Buddhists would not disagree with this. But their focus is different. In the above example, they would support the analyst as he tried to free the man from his Oedipal conflict. But they would then suggest he moves beyond the libido altogether. Buddhists see the libido as a kind of prison, keeping people locked up in narrow ego-consciousness. And they seek to free the individual by helping him grasp the essential emptiness of the mind. Put another way, they wish to help the individual understand that thoughts are not facts; thoughts, desires and emotions are like clouds passing through an empty sky. The clouds can be small and fluffy, or huge and dark, but beneath them is always the pure, empty sky. This empty sky, say the Buddhists, is equivalent to your true nature, to the true nature of your mind.
Were a psychoanalyst and a Buddhist to enter into dialogue, the first would probably accuse the second of naivety. After all, much of what people say and do is motivated by forces beyond their control. A hypothetical example may clarify this. Imagine a man in his late fifties. Whenever life seems to be going well, he inexplicably messes things up. He has ruined two loving marriages by having affairs with women he neither loved nor desired, and he constantly makes bizarre mistakes when up for promotion, even though he is a good and competent worker. After some intense therapy, this strange, irrational behaviour is traced back to an Oedipal conflict. As a child, he sensed that his mother loved his father deeply but wasn’t interested in her children. He punished her for this lack of love by misbehaving. All his life he has continued messing things up and ruining his life because, at an unconscious level, he is still trying to teach her a lesson!
The problem with the unconscious is that it really is unconscious. No matter how enlightened you may believe you are, something always remains beyond the reach of introspection. Repressed impulses and memories will continue to influence your thought and behaviour. And you can’t reach this material through reason or meditation. The unconscious can only be accessed via hypnosis, free association, and transference, or by analyzing someone’s dreams and slips of the tongue.
To be fair to Buddhists, there is a greater awareness of the unconscious than they are given credit for. What psychoanalysts call the unconscious, Buddhists would describe as “layers of the mental state” and “habitual tendencies.” But they would say that therapy is like stirring up the mud at the bottom of a lake. Recalling repressed material will not bring you peace – only grasping the true nature of the mind will do that.
Freud has often been described as a European pessimist. Indeed, he once remarked that the best an analyst could hope to do was return a neurotic to ordinary unhappiness. And it is true that the goals of therapy are modest. Buddhists are much more optimistic. For them, transformation involves more than mere healthy, but unhappy, functioning. They seek nothing less than inner peace.