Thursday, August 14, 2008

Patrick Lee Miller - Psychoanalysis as Spirituality?


Patrick Lee Miller, at The Immanent Frame, posted this interesting article on "Psychoanalysis as Spirituality." He argues that psychoanalysis, like spirituality, allows us to know who we are, organize our lives in service of our needs and desires, and that this allows us to be more creative and compassionate in our lives.

He is essentially arguing against Charles Taylor (A Secular Age), who denies that psychoanalysis is a genuine spirituality. Taylor comes from a Christian perspective in his rejection of psychoanalysis.

Here is the crux of Miller's argument with Taylor (which is actually quite long and detailed):
The hermeneutic delves into the unavoidable, deep psychic conflicts in our make-up. But these have no moral lesson for us; the guilt or remorse points to no real wrong. We strive to understand them in order to reduce their force, to become able to live with them. On the crucial issue, what we have morally or spiritually to learn from our suffering, it is firmly on the therapeutic side: the answer is “nothing.”

This is the nut of Taylor’s criticisms of psychoanalysis as a spiritual source, but it is just an elaboration of the second of those canvassed above: even if analysis involves a conversion, a growth in wisdom, a new, higher view of the world, this wisdom will be an effect rather than a cause of the therapy. After all, he thinks, there is nothing morally or spiritually to be learned from our suffering itself. Taylor discounts psychoanalysis as a spiritual source because whatever growth of wisdom occurs in it is not among “the hinges of healing.” A spiritual source, in sum, must change someone by some new wisdom it generates in those who step into its waters.

This seems to me a very good definition of a spiritual source. Accepting it, then, we should count psychoanalysis as a spiritual source only if a growth in wisdom is among the causes of the transformations it effects.
I'm not a Christian, but I reject psychoanalysis as a true spirituality as well, for quite different reasons. And in making this argument, we'll ignore the fact that there is very little resembling traditional Freudian psychoanalysis still being practiced.

My argument against is based in the fundamental goal of psychoanalysis -- stabilizing the self. While I think this is crucial to any "true" spiritual development, it is only a beginning point, after which we will want to transcend the concerns of the relative self as we seek more expansive and less egoic experience in our practice and lives.

Wisdom (which is generally rational) also should be distinguished from spirituality (generally trans-rational), which I think Taylor gets and Miller does not. Of course, this all depends on how we define spirituality. In this case, I think we are talking about practices that offer a technology of transcendence.

Buddhism and Suffering

Taylor is arguing that psychoanalysis converts "sin" into "illness," and that sin can be transcended through submission and faith, illness cannot:
The therapeutic suffers from three related problems, he argues, all reducible to a shift from the notion of sin to the notion of illness. First of all, Christianity sees sin as a normal condition with a certain dignity, since it is the preference for an apparent, albeit illusory, good. By contrast, in illness there is no apparent good, only “pure failure, weakness, lack, diminishment.” Secondly, whereas Christian redemption is achieved by conversion, therapy’s “healing doesn’t involve conversion, a growth in wisdom, a new, higher way of seeing the world; or at least, these are not the hinges of healing, though they may be among its results.” Thirdly, whereas the Christian conversion from sin, like the original fall into it, must be freely chosen, illness and then its cure may arise without any choice at all. “The original fall,” when it is a fall into illness, “is entirely in the nature of compulsion, or modes of imprisonment.” In sum, Taylor argues that secular humanism’s effort to rehabilitate the body and everyday life ends with the therapeutic triumph denying it a dignity it once had. “What was supposed to enhance our dignity has reduced it,” he concludes; “we are just to be dealt with, manipulated into health.”
Miller attempts to refute these arguments point by point. But in the end, as quoted above, Miller contends that our suffering offers no moral or spiritual lesson for us, which, to me, confirms Taylor's rejection of it as a spirituality.

Perhaps, as a Buddhist, I am biased. In Buddhism, suffering is the foundation of the path toward enlightenment (however one wants to define that ambiguous term). Dukkha, which is often translated as "suffering," is the truth of our relative existence -- the central idea of Buddhism:

The Buddha discussed three kinds of dukkha.

  • Dukkha-dukkha (pain of pain) is the obvious sufferings of :
  1. pain
  2. illness
  3. old age
  4. death
  5. bereavement
  • Viparinama-dukkha (pain of alteration) is suffering caused by change:
  1. violated expectations
  2. the failure of happy moments to last
  • Sankhara-dukkha (pain of formation) is a subtle form of suffering arising as a reaction to qualities of conditioned things, including the
  1. skandhas
  2. the factors constituting the human mind

It denotes the experience that all formations (sankhara) are impermanent (anicca) - thus it explains the qualities which make the mind as fluctuating and impermanent entities. It is therefore also a gateway to anatta, selflessness (no-self). Insofar as it is dynamic, ever-changing, uncontrollable and not finally satisfactory, unexamined life is itself precisely dukkha.[5] The question which underlay the Buddha's quest was "in what may I place lasting relevance?" He did not deny that there are satisfactions in experience: the exercise of vipassana assumes that the meditator sees instances of happiness clearly. Pain is to be seen as pain, and pleasure as pleasure. It is denied that happiness dependent on conditions will be secure and lasting.[6]

Dukkha is also listed among the three marks of existence, and the Buddha taught with his first three Noble Truths that it exists, has discernible causes, of which there is an account, and that there is a path for release from it. The final Noble Truth is his path.[7]

Dukkha is often seen as our best teacher, the experiences in our life that can point us toward the cessation of suffering. As such, it has incredible moral and spiritual value, and is not in any way void of meaning.

Which Definition of Spirituality?

Psychoanalysis certainly can remove some of the obstacles to a more spiritual experience of our lives, but as Ken Wilber has pointed out (in Integral Psychology), the Freudian approach tends to deal with issues of development in the first two or three stages of our lives (basically up to age 8). This period of life is essentially pre-egoic, lasting up to the beginning of a more solid an rational ego structure.

If you read the Freudian and neo-Freudian literature, they are dealing most explicitly with the traumas of early childhood (attachment, early trauma, object relations, and so on), when the ego is raw and in its early formation. They are not dealing with post-existential issues at all (even the Jungian approach only works with the existential).

Spirituality can have four definitions, according to Wilber:
In Integral Psychology, I suggest that there are at least four widely used definitions of spirituality, each of which contains an important but partial truth, and all of which need to be included in any balanced account: (1) spirituality involves peak experiences or altered states, which can occur at almost any stage and any age; (2) spirituality involves the highest levels in any of the lines; (3) spirituality is a separate developmental line itself; (4) spirituality is an attitude (such as openness, trust, or love) that the self may or may not have at any stage.[20]
For the most part, I think we have been talking about spirituality as a separate developmental line, or possibly, the highest level of any and all lines. Taylor and Miller might be talking about two different things, which could be part of the disagreement (without reading Taylor's book, I cannot be sure of this, but it's my suspicion).

It's an interesting article, but I think he fails to make his case that psychoanalysis is a true spirituality. I'd be curious to hear if anyone else agrees or disagrees with Miller's arguments.


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