We have argued previously that from the Buddhist perspective the self-view is pervasive but ultimately illusory. Meditation helps us to see that our sense of self is a mental construct rather than a truth about what we are. Yet how do we reconcile this claim with the prevailing view of western psychotherapy that selfhood is something that we create or acquire very early in infancy? This therapeutic approach sees us often lacking an authentic view of what we are. It asks how can we improve our lives, how can we live without anxiety and neurosis? How can we confront our fears rather than repressing them or running away from them?
In this view it is as young children that we invent strategies to cope with the physical and emotional distress generated by the sense of helplessness and insecurity that stems from our dependency on others. These defensive strategies are perfectly reasonable from the perspective of the young and largely helpless infant or child. But then they often become habitual and persist into adulthood. Where they do so they become an obstruction to the development of the mature adult, especially to the extent that they impede the formation of relationships that are essential to a fulfilled adult life. Then they become the source of the neuroses that to some degree make our adult lives and relationships more difficult than they would otherwise be.
The psychotherapist Bruce Tift has written a remarkable book on these two seemingly divergent interpretations, Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation (2015). He describes the therapeutic approach as ‘developmental’ and the Buddhist as ‘fruitional’. These approaches are not exactly compatible because they originate from very different perspectives. Yet both in their own way converge on the same problem and in practice offer solutions that are complementary.
The developmental approach begins with the observation that fears and anxieties are founded originally on the fact that as young children we have no control over our circumstances and are dependent on others. What is typically experienced when we encounter the physical and emotional threats to which all children are vulnerable is a state of physical unease. Of course, we are too young to articulate it, even to ourselves, but we learn to push it away, or we acquire strategies to immunise ourselves against it.
In this sense neurosis, psychological pain and fear, is not ‘wrong’, but is an understandable experience for the developing child. Yet when it persists into adulthood the survival strategies adopted as a child prevent us from living life to the full, and in particular prevent us from experiencing the intensity of each passing moment. Tift describes how psychotherapy, or at least the version of it that he practises, aims to bring the adult into a state of ‘embodied immediacy’, an experiencing of all physical and mental sensations just as they are, without analysis or interpretation. A fundamental part of this process is the realisation that we cannot change the past. All that we can work with is the present moment and our current attitude to our past experience.
Of course, Buddhism approaches this problem from the opposite end, and starts with the notion that we are inherently and originally free, and we are so simply because our immediate and transparent experience of the current moment is in itself quite perfect. We don’t need anything else to make our experience complete. But inevitably, if our childhood fears and anxieties, and the strategies adopted in childhood to cope with them, persist into adulthood much of our experience of the present moment will be clouded by those emotions and the habitual defensive strategies developed to counter them. To live fully in the moment we have to surrender our bodies to the intense and often overwhelming experience of that moment, whatever it brings into awareness. But we are often prevented from doing so by our accumulated fears and anxieties.
Tift describes the developmental approach to these issues as involving seven progressive steps. First, we see what habitual patterns have been controlling our lives. Second, we learn to tolerate our worse fears. Third, we learn to accept them. Fourth, we exercise kindness or compassion to our anxieties and fears; after all, they are a part of us. Fifth, we welcome them precisely because they are part of who we are. Sixth, we learn to commit to living with them, even if we have to do so for the rest of our lives. And seventh, we learn to love them. In this way we can come to embrace the whole of our embodied experience, however disturbing and intense it may be. This progressive and unfolding process is representative of the western approach to physical and psychological well-being. But it is not an approach that for the individual is easy or comfortable to adopt.
(Bruce Tift, Already Free, Chapter 1)
The Buddhist, or fruitional approach, on the other hand is at least superficially rather more straightforward. In this you simply practice being in the moment, together with whatever is experienced at that moment. You do not analyse or interpret it. If a disturbing thought or anxiety arises you simply stay with it, are ‘mindful’ of it. This helps to cope with the baggage of the past. But- and this is the critical point- you do this not by thinking such thoughts (‘I am living in the present moment’ or ‘I am without the baggage of my personal history’) but by attending solely to what is arising in the moment. Practising meditation or mindfulness of course helps with this, but ultimately each moment of wakefulness, whether in meditation or not, is to be experienced in precisely this manner.
A critical aspect of this approach is the recognition that for each one of us everything that arises does so in the current moment. Of course, the past has a critical role in shaping how and what we experience, but experience itself can only arise in the present. This observation is a primary fact about human beings, a fact about the way our phenomenal experience arises. But for us to benefit from this observation we have to internalise and experience it. And this is where meditation and mindfulness come in. Through repeated experience of remaining in the present moment in meditation we come to see how that moment is all there is and all that truly matters.
In so experiencing we are not really learning something new, or gaining knowledge; we have lived in the awareness of the current instant from the beginning of our lives. Awareness is always there when we are awake. It is not something difficult that we or our bodies achieve or attain. Nonetheless, we can acquire a deeper and purer experience of this background state of awareness by relaxing into the present moment. In doing so our appreciation of ‘mere’ awareness is enhanced and our preference for individual objects in our awareness reduces.
Tift describes how this approach brings you back to your original ground, your starting point, with a deeper appreciation of the awareness that characterises that ground. Your capacity to be aware of awareness has increased and intensified. He claims, ‘Resting in awareness is resting in a freedom that is not dependent on any conditions.’ There is nothing lacking in the present moment and this realisation allows us to commit fully to our embodiment and to what arises in mind and body, even where it is anxiety and psychological distress that arises from past experience. We agree to stay in the present with whatever is happening. In doing so we are no longer a self or subject located inside the content of our awareness, rather we are witnessing that content within the context of an awareness which is essentially impersonal.
(Bruce Tift, Already Free, Chapter 2)
In this way the fruitional, Buddhist, approach denies that the self has an independent, continuing existence. At any given moment, a moment in which we focus our attention on what is present, the self dissolves. And where our lives are simply a succession of current moments the self cannot have any continuing substance. The developmental approach, on the other hand, chooses to recognise that the self-view is real. It is something that has an evolutionary history in that selfhood favours survival and replication. It has a personal history too in that we unwittingly give it a shape as infants and children, particularly when we try to cope with physical or emotional distress. But as adults we can be free of it.
Thus the developmental view treats the self as if it were real and substantial, and attempts to heal it. It regards psychological suffering as a substitute for experiential intensity. The fruitional view on the other hand treats the self as illusory and repeatedly returns the mind to the experience of the present moment where such intensity of experience is simply what it is. Tift speculates that the developmental approach is about becoming whereas the fruitional one is all about being, about what one is now. But in practice there is a dialogue between the two and either can prove effective in healing a suffering mind.
In both perspectives we begin our lives with the potential to experience everything, good or bad, within the present moment. But as infants we necessarily learn to reject what is ‘bad’ or uncomfortable, designating a part of our experience as unacceptable and to be suppressed. Yet as adults we can return to freedom by learning to accept whatever comes into our experience of the moment. In effect, we make a life journey from freedom, to enslavement, and then back to freedom.
The present moment is characterised by awareness, and Tift regards consciousness or awareness as primary, unconstructed. It is the most basic aspect of our day-to-day and moment-to-moment experience. It is present in each moment of conscious experiencing. Yet at the same time it is our ‘ordinary’ mind, and the real mystery is why we are so often unaware of awareness. He notes, ‘Our very nature is that of an open, never-resolvable stream of experiencing and the always-present awareness of this display. Our very nature is that of freedom’.
Both approaches have the human subject as their focus, and ordinary human sensations and emotions as their concern. Both acknowledge that each of us wants to experience life in freedom. But they recognise that the pursuit of positive experiences over the negative will not achieve this for us, simply because all human lives must contain both. Thus, the key to psychological welfare lies in how we engage with and relate to our experience, not primarily what kind of experience we have. And we can only engage with our experience in the present moment.
(Bruce Tift, Already Free, Chapters 3 and 8)