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The Unavoidable Filters of Spiritual Practice

Posted Aug 26 2008 4:29pm
Jack Engler kicks off the recently published anthology, Buddhism and Psychotherapy Across Cultures , with a punchy essay entitled "Promises and Perils of the Spiritual Path." In it, he makes the assertion that,

"[W]e cannot help but assimilate our approach to Buddhist practice [this applies to any spiritual practice] into our preexisting emotional patterns, some of which are inevitably maladaptive. Assimilation is inevitable. It unavoidably affects not only our work and relationships but the way we understand, practice, and experience Buddhist teaching."

He later speaks about the unavoidable multi-determined nature of behavior: our choice of spiritual path, spiritual practice, spiritual teacher (not to mention therapist) is a confluence or combination of desires and intentions. Pure desire for transcendence comes along with, say, the desire to find an perfect mother figure (when our own real mother failed dramatically). Attachment to a strict teacher can mirror both our intuition about the need for discipline, and our unfinished psychological business with our own very worldly father. "[H]ealthy motives are typically interlaced with one or more other motivations, other meanings practice can have for us, which reflect our fear of change, our fear of freedom, and our grasping at self to allay our anxiety."

So below is Engler's list of the 10 major ways in which spiritual practitioners "bend" their understanding of truth (as in, how light bends in distinct ways when projected through certain lenses). But, as Engler writes, "We need to be aware of them, not as personal faults or failings, but as the irreducible 'impurities' that need to be refined in the fire of practice."

1) A quest for perfection and invulnerability . Enlightenment can be imagined as a heaven-sent embodiment of a core Western narcissistic idea: a state of personal perfection from which all our badness, all our faults and defilements, have been expelled, a state in which we will finally become self-sufficient, not needing anyone or anything, above criticism and reproach, and above all, immune to further hurts or disappointments. Practice can be motivated in part by this secret wish to be special, if not superior: enlightenment will finally elicit the acknowledgement and admiration that have been lacking. Because narcissistic issues are so pervasive in character

development and across every level functioning, this is usually the most important of the ten issues.

2) A fear of individuation . Fears, conflicts, and felt doubts and deficiencies—around assuming responsibility, being assertive and competent, living our own life and making our own choices—can be avoided through a defensive pursuit of an idealized “egolessness" or “selflessness.”

3) Avoidance of responsibility and accountability . The Buddhist goal of freeing oneself from egocentric needs and desires can rationalize our avoidance of anxiety-producing situations: making decisions, accepting responsibility for them, and taking charge of our life.

4) Fear of intimacy and closeness . A stance of “nonattachment” can rationalize fears of closeness and the anxieties associated with intimacy: fear of feeling exposed, vulnerable, humiliated, shamed, hurt, rejected, or abandoned. It can rationalize feeling of estrangement and loneliness. It can absolve us from fears and conflicts over sexuality.

5) A substitute for grief and mourning . Significant personal loss often brings people into practice, but practice itself can be used defensively to avoid the persona issues and feelings associated with real loss. Mindfulness can be practiced in a way that either dissociates the important affects of mourning—anger, confusion, withdrawal, sadness—or acknowledges them only from a safe distance. Or they can be neutralized through escape into no-self. The longing for reunion with the loved one can be displaced onto the quest for mystical oneness and union.

6) Avoidance of feelings . The labeling of aversive emotions “defilements” or “unwholesome” in Buddhist practice can lead to thinking the goal is not to feel any disturbing emotions, and then feeling guilty if you do. Western practitioners often have a problem with anger and its derivatives. And earnest and sincere Vajrayana student started therapy with me with the request that I help him get rid of his anger, that is, collude with his attempt to avoid facing it.

7) Passivity and dependence. Fear and denial of anger, competitiveness, and self-assertion (often masked by a passive-dependent or passive-aggressive style) can be mistakenly viewed as the practice of egolessness and detachment from personal desire. Passivity can also be used to rationalize the fear of disagreeing or taking an independent stance. Codependency can be mistakenly seen as compassionate service.

8) Self-punitive guilt . Desirelessness and nonattachment can become the arena for acting out underlying feelings of unworthiness and guilt, as well as super-ego needs for punishment. “Needs are bad, and I’m bad for having them.”

9) Devaluing of reason and intellect . The emphasis on immediate, nonverbal experience in meditation, and the axiom that “those who speak do not know, those who know do not speak,” can justify the histrionic defense of “having experiences” without reflecting on their meanings. It can also seem to promise resolution of

obsessional rumination by saying, “Don’t think, “and thereby reinforce the defensive avoidance of thinking to block self-understanding. On the contrary, “Do not dislike even the world of senses and ideas,” the Hsinhsing ming (Song of Faith) says, and “Indeed, to accept them fully is identical with true enlightenment.”

10) Escape from intrapsychic experience . By trying to “let go” of all aspects of psychological selfhood, we can justify the suppression or repression of anything that arouses anxiety or insecurity, and anything that may stimulate self-awareness. States of Samadhi that have the power to suppress perceptions, thinking, imagery, and aversive emotions can be used to keep the mind relatively free of unwanted thoughts and feelings, substituting “bliss” instead.

(Resources: Engler interviewed on simliar topic here ; Buddhism and Psychotherapy book description .)
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