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Schouborg, Gary, Nitin Trasi, and Morgan Zo Callahan (2000).

"Enlightenment, Depression, and Psychotherapy" (online exchanges).



Enlightenment, Depression, and Psychotherapy

(online exchanges)


Gary Schouborg

Nitin Trasi

Morgan Zo Callahan


Jonathan Reams quoted de Mello's statement that both the enlightened and the unenlightened may experience depression, but the enlightened do not identify with it. This is a good starting point from which to see the importance of focusing on the goal of pursuing enlightenment the better to understand it. The Buddha's goal seems to have been to reduce suffering.


Alternate states (to follow James Austin's terminology) may serve various aims: reduce suffering, eliminate *all* suffering, escape ordinary material reality, gain insight into ultimate reality, access special powers such as psychokinesis, explore unusual experiences much the same way that travelers explore different lands and cultures. My contention is that a good starting point for exploring the nature of enlightenment or any other alternate state is to identify what an alternate stater hopes to achieve *in ordinary terms* by attaining that state.


The relevance of ordinary, everyday life is the following. First, it is the perspective from which presumably most of us are operating while currently reading this posting. Second, it is from that perspective that we must therefore decide whether or not to pursue alternate states; therefore, even if the alternate is promoted as superior to our present state, the promoter must bridge the credulity gap by explaining how the alternate state is superior to our current, ordinary one, which explanation must at least partially involve ordinary terms. Third, differentiating the expected benefits to be derived from various alternate states is prima facie a promising way to distinguish among the various paths. Consider de Mello's statement in the opening paragraph.


Although de Mello's language of "identification" is ubiquitous in the mystical literature, I have seldom seen it explicated, and never adequately. Do individuals who do not identify with their thoughts and feelings think or feel differently from those who do identify? I would suggest the following differences.


There are at least three contributors to depression. The first is helplessness: I am depressed because I have failed to achieve some goal and see no way in which I can succeed; I feel bad and am unmotivated to do anything about it. Self-loathing may add to my torment: I am not just in a depressing situation, but I *deserve* to be; I have not just failed, but I *deserve* to fail. The third contributor puts the final nail in the coffin: this situation will last forever; it will never go away; I can never be happy again. Depression therefore involves three topics for belief: cause, self-evaluation, and duration. Different depressions have different mixes of the three. In the most extreme depression, the most intense forms of the three feed on one another.


(1) Concerning cause. I can reduce my depression the more I can distance myself from my belief that I have failed and cannot correct the situation. Thus, I might be able to discount my suffering by telling myself that these are only feelings, that I am just in a bad mood, that I am mistaken about or exaggerating my failure or inability, or that my brain chemistry is awry. There is no *reason* for me to be depressed.


(2) Concerning self-evaluation. I can reduce my depression the more I can distance myself from my beliefs of self-worthlessness. Remedies are similar to those indicated to fight beliefs concerning cause.


(3) Concerning duration. I may also reduce my suffering if I can believe that it is only temporary. A light at the end of the tunnel gives me hope. Again, remedies are similar to those indicated to fight beliefs concerning cause or self-evaluation.


To identify with my depression is to be unable to think of myself unrelated to it. Thus, I cannot think of any successes I've enjoyed, of things I can do to better my situation. I cannot imagine abandoning this goal in which I've failed and adopting another in which I can succeed. I cannot see anything worthwhile or lovable about myself. I cannot imagine myself ever being happy again; this depression is eternal.


Now as I understand it, vipassana is a formal technique designed, among other things, to reduce my identification with suffering such as depression.


Thus, insight into the *impermanence* of conscious experience directly undermines contribution 3, duration. Even if my depression lasts interminably, mindful attention to it reveals different colorations coming and going, with more temporary respites than one might otherwise imagine.


Insight into *no-self* is often interpreted ontologically, to infer that there is literally no self there. However, I find it more useful to do as I believe the Buddha did: finesse the ontological issue and treat the concept of no-self functionally. That is, who I am can never be captured by any particular belief or set of beliefs. I am therefore more than whatever self-loathing belief may possess me at the moment. I thus refuse to identify with my self-loathing (contribution 2 to depression). It is just a feeling, which does not adequately express who I am.


Insight into *avoidable suffering* shows its cause (contribution 1 to depression) to be lack of insight into impermanence and no-self. That is, we cause ourselves otherwise avoidable suffering by identifying with any particular attribution we make of ourselves and by imagining that any particular experience lasts.


Intellectually, these truths are obvious and believing them only slightly lifts our depression, if at all. Vipassana is a formal technique for spending quiet time with ourselves, so that we can directly experience these three truths within our own consciousness. That is, we directly experience the impermanence of our inner experiences as well as the intangibility of our selves; we also experience how our beliefs in permanence and in a well-defined self causes suffering. With these three insights, our illusion of permanence and of a definable self disappears. With this contributor to our depression gone, our suffering is at least reduced and possibly eliminated.


Note that there is nothing here that suggests that all forms of depression can be completely eliminated. For example, if my depression is organically induced, enlightenment does not provide an organic cure. However, it can reduce my suffering by undermining the painful beliefs induced by the organic condition. As de Mello says, I do not identify with my depression.


Finally, the preceding is set within the framework of the goal of enlightenment to reduce suffering. Relative to that goal, we can distinguish vipassana practices from others that might at first blush seem the same -- e.g., hypnogogic dissociation, where one's attention is drawn away from suffering. In contrast, vipassana directs one's attention to the suffering and its roots. We can thus distinguish two different means to reduce suffering -- turning away from pain versus directing one's attention to it -- and assess their relative effectiveness in doing so. The context of an identified goal helps reduce ambiguities in descriptions of relatively intangible and unfamiliar processes involved in alternate states.




Nitin, you wrote:


> I would define the vipassana technique as the volitional practice of

> mindfulness (to be clearly distinguished from the occurrence of spontaneous

> mindfulness or vipassana after Enlightenment).


Is the only difference that pre-E mindfulness is volitional (chosen and consciously directed) and post-E mindfulness is spontaneous (non-volitional, habitual)? I think that is the case, though the skill and consistency of the spontaneous would be greater, just as one is more skillful once one has developed the relevant habits.


> Exactly as you have quoted Dogen's "No

> mind, no body." No subject-no object. Therefore, who is to observe what?

> Observation happens.


"Observation happens" has a certain usefulness in helping overcome clinging, but as a description it is inadequate to the experience, which is that *I* (and other individuals) am doing the observing. The issue is what account of that *I* is adequate and thus serves enlightenment. "Observation happens" is a draconian cure for an understanding of *I* that is self-absorbed. If one is self-absorbed (clinging), the solution is not to deny any self at all (e.g., observation happens) -- that would be a reaction formation -- but to move to an account of self that is functional (enlightened). We must go beyond a false dichotomy between self and other to an understanding of self in relation to others.


Now in fact, this is what Nitin does in his book. However, he obscures his point by mistakenly tying his position to a denial of the homunculus theory of self, which is a red herring. For it addresses a theoretical issue about human agency and the relationship between body and consciousness, whereas enlightenment is concerned with the practical issue of clinging.


The Theoretical Issue.


The homunculus theory says that to account for human agency and consciousness we must posit a self that is housed in the body. For example, what accounts for the "I" when I say that I am writing this sentence is a self (I) housed in the body. Only *I* experience my consciousness, from within my body; others, on the outside, do not. Since *I* am conscious, *I* am writing, and *I* am not my body, there is an understandable tendency to conclude that *I* (self) am a reality (homunculus) housed in my body.


The problem with any homunculus theory is that it is a pseudo-explanation: it is outside any explanatory web. All explanations fit into a network; they cannot operate in isolation. Thus, if I say that my car moves because there is a little man under the hood who pushes it, the root problem is not that we could look under the hood and see that no little man is there. In fact, we can never prove a negative. If we looked under the hood and did not see anyone, I could claim that there are many little men pushing the pistons. And if you insisted on the role of gasoline, I could then say there are many little men pushing molecules around causing fuel explosions that push the pistons. And so forth, ad infinitum. So the problem with my homunculus theory is not that it can be decisively refuted. Its problem is that it is purely ad hoc. In contrast, my referring to the engine, the pistons, the gasoline, etc. refers to a whole web of realities and explanations that work together.


Nitin rightly rejects the homunculus theory of self for an account that refers to the *I* as the body-mind unit. That is, when I say that I am writing this sentence, I am not referring to some self within my body that is the agent; I am pointing to a body-mind unit that we all call Gary. Gary is not some non-material agent housed in a particular body; Gary *is* the body-mind unit itself. This account ties into a whole web of explanations from physics, chemistry, biology, and behavioral sciences.


Where I disagree with Nitin is his saying that Enlightenment involves seeing that the homunculus theory is wrong. One can be theoretically obtuse enough to hold the homunculus theory and still be Enlightened. Similarly, one can think of self as the body-mind unit and still be unEnlightened. The reason all that is possible is that Enlightenment is independent of that theoretical issue. Instead, it is concerned with clinging.


The Practical Issue of Clinging


What Enlightens me is not understanding that the homunculus theory is wrong and why. What Enlightens me is anicca, anatta, and dukkha -- awakening to the transitory nature of experience (anicca), the fact that no concept or set of concepts captures all that *I* am (anatta), and seeing within my own experience how my failing to grasp anicca and anatta leads to suffering (dukkha). Within this framework there is plenty of room for a functional, non-clinging notion of *I*. One does not have to create a defensive reaction formation that denies *I* entirely by insisting on artificial statements like, "Observation happens" (though admittedly, such phrases can be heuristically helpful).


In my previous email, I showed how this framework helps us see both the nature of depression and the means of not identifying with it. We can also apply the framework to Nitin's following analysis.


> I would put it thus: Identification (or attachment) is being concerned because

> and simply because of the feeling of "me" and "mine." (What you would call

> "clinging").


Two initial points. The feeling of me and mine can exist or not exist independently of whether one supports the homunculus theory or denies it. What is salient for Enlightenment is the nature of that feeling. Clinging arises when "me" or "mine" are taken absolutely. Non-clinging occurs when they are understood within the framework of anicca, anatta, and dukkha. We cannot operate in practical, daily living without reference to me, mine, you, yours, they, and theirs. The question is whether we are going to understand these concepts absolutely and dichotomously, or as interrelated realities.


> For example, being concerned about an unrelated handicapped or

> sick person is not attachment,


It might be, if I identify with her in an absolute way.


> but when that person is a close relative, the

> additional concern is based on attachment (because he is "my" relative).


Not necessarily, if I don't identify with her in an absolute way. Of course, I agree that the closer the relative, the more I am likely to so identify.

> Similarly, the Enlightened person has no self-image, no image of himself as

> "an Enlightened person" who must conform to certain predefined criteria or

> live up to certain standards. He has no expectations from himself, like for

> example that he should not be depressed. He lives spontaneously, lightly, like

> "a dry leaf in the wind." If he happens to be depressed, he is not concerned

> in the sense that he has no idea that "I should not be depressed" though other

> people may entertain such expectations of him because they have very different

> ideas of how an Enlightened person "should" behave. Nor do these expectations

> of the other people bother the Enlightened one.


Exactly, because the Enlightened one sees that she is not identical to (anatta) any particular image or expectation.


Now to the Psychotherapy Issue


> Enlightenment is for the well-balanced,

> psychologically mature individual, and if one is not such, then

> psychotherapies may be needed to bring that about. In the context of

> Enlightenment, all techniques, all therapies serve to bring one to a certain

> preliminary stage from which one could perhaps (if one is so inclined)

> conceive of Enlightenment.


What is the nature of that preliminary stage? Why is it a necessary pre-condition?


> Some degree of tranquillity could certainly be said to be a pre-condition,

> though it would be wise not to be too dogmatic about setting any preconditions

> for Enlightenment.


If we should not be too dogmatic about it, then the door is opened for the possibility that, at least in some cases, a highly neurotic person could benefit from embarking on the path to Enlightenment without benefit of psychotherapy. What would such a case look like? Nitin himself provides some examples following.


> Two of my colleagues both psychiatrists, one also a senior Vipassana teacher

> at the Igatpuri institute, have done research on this. As far as I know,

> vipassana can be a useful adjunct to treatment in minor neuroses in receptive

> patients. It may be used to give the practitioner an insight into his own

> neurosis. It has also been tried in more severe cases. An experiment was also

> conducted in Tihar Jail in India where hardened convicts gave a very good

> response.


> There was also a report on the practice of mindfulness in relation to

> psychotherapy in the American Journal of Psychiatry, I think a few years ago

> (1995?). I will try to get you the exact reference. And an American

> psychotherapist Mary Ciofalo was writing a book on how she used the

> understanding of Advaita in her sessions with patients to great advantage. I

> have met the lady when she was in India but I have not seen the book yet.


Several books, perhaps most notably Kabat-Zinn's, have spoken of mindfulness in the service of various kinds of psychological dysfunction.


Morgan wrote:


> When I did need deep body-mind work, many opportunities

> were given me as a recreation therapist(at Agnew State Hospital) for 2

> years' paid "in-service" at Esalen. I especially benefited from Gestalt

> therapy where important "unfinished" situations would emerge and be dealt

> with. The therapy would make my conflicts obvious(some from childhood

> traumas) and facilitate some process of completion. I was asked to act out,

> move, emote, be aware of bodily reactions, to express feelings, be willing

> to touch and be touched, thus releasing those "buried parts of me" that took

> up so much psychic energy. The basis was that the truth will make one free,

> so that I'd say to the therapist what I might say to my mother, my lover, if

> only I could speak the truth of my feelings, free of being found out. I also

> benefited from body therapies such as rolfing and Feldenkrais movement where

> I experienced kinesthetic feedback and deeper experiential understanding of

> my particular patterns so I could, in a sense, let go and re-organize my

> nervous system in its orchestration of body mechanics. From the

> institutional setting of Agnew Hospital, I'd go to weekends at Esalen

> enjoying the hot tubs and massages by the ocean's breeze as well as

> participating in therapy groups. What were the benefits/results? I didn't

> feel so controlled by my need to please and the resentments underneath. I

> could say no as well as yes to projects without agonizing. I could more

> comfortably be a lover and an enjoyer as well as an activist. As Freud said,

> therapy changed my neurotic suffering into ordinary human suffering.

> How compare with vipassana? If that's even possible, being only a novice

> student who just happens to have the bug to do inner work in meditation. For

> me there's no competition between therapy and meditation. One may or may not

> require either. Further what is often called "meditation" seems to be more

> of a therapy, especially as meditation is often advertised: "Learn to

> concentrate," "Be relaxed," "lose Stress," "Be fully alive,"....

> Contrast this with a Buddhist thangka with the meditator having her/his head

> cut off!


> It seems to me meditation goes beyond therapy and has more universal,

> general, unconditional purposes (namely to end suffering) than the

> particular orientation of therapy. Meditation is experiencing totally in all

> areas of life, being present. Its purpose, if it can even be stated, is to

> completely release us from suffering (not just reduce it) through

> understanding reality and finally a state of mind that is free of "ignorance

> about the nature of the self." Therapy addresses unique forms of suffering

> by revealing underlying emotional-organic patterns. I don't think my human

> development ever ends and so I don't see a total resolution of all my

> psychological influences. Yet, at least as a possibility (exemplified in the

> rare lives of "enlightened ones"), in vipassana there may be a final

> resolution of all separation from "ourselves" and the "world."

> Well, Gary, all this just shows me that I need to practice.

> Take good care, Morgan


This is wonderful, Morgan, both in getting personally acquainted and in exploring the relationship between vipassana and psychotherapy. Several things occur to me in reading your account.


First, I don't see why highly neurotic individuals couldn't be Enlightened. They just wouldn't identify with their neurosis. True, obsessive-compulsives couldn't do concentrative meditation, because they couldn't free themselves of their preoccupations. But why couldn't they see their obsessive-compulsive impulses for what they are -- passing experiences -- with which they refuse to identify? We've all (?) agreed with de Mello that Enlightened individuals can be depressed. Why can't they be obsessive-compulsive? And how about having self-hating thoughts? Why can't those with self-hating thoughts be Enlightened, but not identify with the thoughts? That would be the difference between being a self-hater and being a person with self-hating thoughts that are "just hang-ups".


If Enlightenment and neurosis can coexist, at least in principle, then vipassana has different goals from psychotherapy. Vipassana aims to help individuals not identify with any of their thoughts and feelings, including their neurotic ones. Psychotherapy concentrates on trying to eliminate or cope with neurotic ones. Vipassana is therefore concerned with how we are with, or relate to, our thoughts and feelings. Psychotherapy is concerned with what thoughts and feelings we have and what we do about it.


In this framework, vipassana and psychotherapy are interactive and complimentary. We distinguish the two for historical reasons as well as emphasis. However, the two should be in the tool bag of both gurus and therapists. To help clients eliminate or cope with their thoughts and feelings, it is often beneficial for the therapist to help them stop identifying with those thoughts and feelings. Therefore, we can find many therapeutic techniques that overlap with vipassana practice. On the other hand, it will usually be very difficult for beginning vipassana students to understand and practice if they are highly neurotic. So the guru must help then to eliminate or at least cope with their thoughts and feelings.


Since this is an age of specialization, it will usually not be desirable that the same guide address both the spiritual and the psychological needs of the individual. There are usually advantages to focusing on one area or the other. Still, in the individual, the two needs are constantly interacting.


Thanks to Nitin and Morgan for pushing me further in this direction. This is the clearest I've gotten to date about these issues, thanks to you and also knowing that you others are listening. Hope y'all find this useful as well.