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.