Archives for the month of: September, 2012

From a Tricycle magazine interview in 2004:

Many teachers who were in that first generation of Western students feel that they do not embody the teachings to the same extent their Asian masters did. Can you say something about that? It’s one thing to teach the practice. It’s another thing to embody it deeply in our own lives. Our Asian teachers were the heirs of twenty-five hundred years of lived tradition and practice. We didn’t grow up with the dharma in our bones like they did. We bring a lot of personal history, self-doubt, self-judgment, and ambivalence to practice. We have to work through a lot on the way, unlearn a lot. Our Asian teachers encountered the dharma with a depth and a breadth that’s going to take us more than this first generation to catch up to.

Where does that leave us? I was talking with Joseph [Goldstein] the other day about Munindraji and about the real sense of loss we feel, for him as a person and as a teacher, and perhaps more importantly, as an inspiration for Western dharma. He got us started. He was the root teacher for a number of us, and it feels like a core piece in the mandala is missing now. We’re on our own. How are we going to manifest the dharma? It won’t be the same way he did, or Dipa Ma did. Munindra actually welcomed that difference. He had a kind of divine playfulness that refused to become codified or standardized. He and Dipa Ma never believed in a one-size-fits-all practice. They rarely taught retreats. They taught each student in an individualized way. They had a great trust in us, as well as in the dharma. They didn’t worry about it becoming corrupted or dumbed down.

As Buddhism becomes more and more integrated into Western culture and Western idioms, we’re moving away from the classical forms of the practice and its traditional goals, anyway. That’s both scary and exciting, a challenge and an opportunity.

Can you give me example of what you mean? Western teachers don’t talk as much about enlightenment now as they did thirty years ago when they first started teaching, nor do they emphasize it. True, there are risks in encouraging students to practice for enlightenment. Enlightenment can be objectified as a goal to be striven for and obtained. It can be embraced unconsciously as a narcissistic ideal. But at the same time, there’s a risk that we will lose the depth and potential transformative power of practice if we aspire to anything less than the end of suffering for ourselves and all beings. We’d be repeating what has happened again and again in Buddhist cultures: enlightenment gets deferred to a future birth because people stop believing they are capable of it now—“in this very life,” as Sayadaw U Pandita says.

If you ask most Buddhists in Southeast Asia, including monks, if they are practicing for enlightenment, most would look at you oddly. Or they’d say, “No, it’s not possible for me, at least not in this lifetime.” They don’t embrace enlightenment as a realistic aspiration for themselves. It’s Westerners who have gone to Asia and have taken up the aspiration for enlightenment in this lifetime and brought it back.


In a 1986 article comparing the therapeutic aims of Psychoanalysis and Vipassana Meditation, Jack Engler reached the conclusion that “you have to be somebody before you can be nobody.” In this Engler means that one has to achieve a stable sense of self, a solid and secure psychological ego before one can benefit from Insight, or Vipassana, meditation and even from the attainment of Stream Entry (the first stage of awakening in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition).

As a clinically trained meditation teacher, Engler noticed that some of his students exhibit a “lack of cohesive, integrated sense of self” (p. 33) that likely stems from issues in early childhood. This lack of an integrated sense of self makes insight meditation difficult, if not impossible. These students represent the far end of a spectrum of identity development but even students who are not this far out on the spectrum are suffering from issues that Buddhist psychology is not aware of and is not prepared to deal with. While Insight meditation appears attractive to people in this situation, it is not necessarily helpful.

Engler claims that Insight meditation just like psychotherapy is an “intervention designed to set ego and object relations development in motion again from a point of relative arrest” (p. 48). This new point of arrest is recognized by Buddhist psychology (and not Western psychology) because it has a different point of view. While Western psychology looks at the pleasure principle as a basic drive, Buddhist psychology recognizes that the pleasure principle is driven by faulty understanding (ignorance, avijjā). Through the practice of meditation one can recognize this basic misunderstanding and gain freedom from desire.

In Therapeutic Aims (1986) Engler points out that since Buddhist psychology does not recognize the self-pathologies described above, it is necessary to deal with those pathologies before attending to meditation. This is a “phase-appropriate” (p. 49) model of psychological well being that includes both psychotherapy and meditation, each dealing with issues in its appropriate domain.

In a interview published in spring 2000 with Andrew Cohen for What is Enlightenment magazine (now, EnlightenNext magazine) Engler presents a more nuanced position:

“…in that article, I tried to elaborate it further in terms of a linear developmental model. I wouldn’t do that in the same way today because now I think our spiritual life and our psychological life are much more interwoven. I think the statement still has value in the way I originally meant it, but I would take it out of this tight psychological model of human development where we first have to develop a sense of self and then we will be able to see through the illusion of self.” (p. 2)

In this interview Engler still holds that Insight meditation, specifically deeper practice (for example, on retreat), requires certain ego-strength – the capacity and willingness to face difficult experiences that come up during this kind of practice. He warns of the danger of spiritual bypassing – the use of spiritual practice to avoid real-life problems and difficulties – but no longer holds to a rigid linear process. In fact, Engler goes as far as saying that meditation and psychotherapy support each other!

While it is often said that psychotherapy strengthens the ego and therefore is an impediment to meditative insight Engler sees meditation and psychotherapy as having similar aims but working at different levels. Both meditation and psychotherapy, according to Engler, move us in the same direction, that of a freedom from grasping. Psychotherapy done well relativizes the ego, loosens our beliefs and fixed ideas of self and thus supports our meditation practice.

I was recently (and briefly) introduced to James Marcia’s theory of identity achievement which describes the formation of identity during adolescence. According to Marcia, during adolescence (or in other times of identity crisis) we have the chance to choose between different occupations and beliefs. It is a time to explore and eventually commit to an identity. The result of this process is one of four identity states.

  • Foreclosure – results when a commitment is made without real exploration. This could be by defaulting to the easiest choice or through reactionary rebellion.
  • Identity diffusion – unwilling to explore or commit, one becomes socially withdrawn and un-engaged.
  • Moratorium – this is identity limbo. Often, a transitory state.
  • Identity achievement – having undergone a crisis, explored options and made a commitment one’s identity is now solidly owned and defined.

People often go through moratorium – achievement cycles a few times in life. Often prompted by changing phases of life or by external circumstances. At this point there is the risk of falling back to a previously held position or remaining stuck in one that no longer serves. Spiritual practice is another such cause, I believe, that can bring about an identity crisis leading to a temporary state of moratorium. It is easy at such a time to fall back into a state of foreclosure (for example, clinging to a ‘spiritual’ identity) or even diffusion.

It seems quite clear to me that Identity Achievement is required for spiritual practice to be a healthy and effective process. How identity status is affected by spiritual practice, however, is another question. Is identity achievement different in one who has seen through the veil? How? Do we need a fifth identity state for that?

“…our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential formas of consciousness entirely different. We mau go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite type of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question – for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determina atitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality.”

— William James, The Varieties of Consciousness: Observations on Nitrous Oxide (c. 1880-1910?).

“A philosopher who is content merely to know about the ultimate Reality – theoretically and by hearsay – is compared by the Buddha to a herdsman of other men’s cows. Mohammed uses an even homelier barnyard metaphor. For him the philosopher who has not realized his metaphysics is just an ass bearing a load of books. Christian, Hindu and Taoist teachers wrote no less emphatically about the absurd pretensions of mere learning and analytical reasoning.
The Perennial Philosophy and its ethical corollaries constitute a Highest Common Factor, present in all the major religions of the world. To affirm tis truth has never been more imperatively necessary than at the present time.”

— Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (c. 1944).

“Mind, not consciousness, is characterized by intentionality and, what’s more, there is, to use Franklin Merel-Wolff’s words, an authentic philosophy of consciousness without an object. It is this implicit distinction that was underlying the original stirrings of the transpersonal movement without humanistic psychology – a sense of the transintentional nature of Being, the underlying fabric, space, or ground from which all that is human plays.”

— Roanld S. Valle, The Emergence of Transpersonal Psychology in Existential-Phenomenological Perspectives in Psychology (1989).