Tuesday, July 2, 2019

‘I Do Not Exist’: Pathologies of Self Among Western Buddhists

‘I Do Not Exist’: Pathologies of Self Among Western Buddhists. Judith Pickering. Journal of Religion and Health, June 2019, Volume 58, Issue 3, pp 748–769. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10943-019-00794-x

Abstract: This paper presents a clinical case involving a patient suffering ‘depersonalisation’ who had a psychotic episode at a Buddhist retreat. Recent writing on possible psychological risks of meditation has discussed problems of depersonalisation associated with misunderstandings of the Buddhist conception of non-self (anātman) and emptiness (śūnyatā). Drawing on the work of Winnicott and Bion, this article helps us to realise some of what is at stake in the failure to achieve and maintain an effective sense of self. What does Buddhist talk of non-self really mean? What conditions enable a creatively engaged and meaningful relational life, a sense of aliveness, human flourishing and a capacity for alterity?

Keywords: Depersonalisation Derealisation Non-self (anātman) Emptiness (śūnyatā) Self Alterity Nihilism Jung Bion Lévinas Winnicott


Eve 1 arrives for her first session. I hear the gate open, close, then silence. I go to open the door in welcome, but intuitively hold back. There is a tentative knock so quiet that I would not have heard it if I wasn’t already waiting by the door. I open it. Eyes downcast, she says very diffidently, ‘well, … here I am’. Once inside she sits on the edge of the couch. Like a marionette puppet with no puppet master to hold her up, she crumples into the cushions. Her face has a haunted, hollowed out look, covering profound anguish. Over the course of our analytic journey, her opening phrase ‘well, … here I am’ becomes something of a mantra, transmitting as yet unrealised potential. Like the ‘initial dream’ which encapsulates the patient’s psychological predicament, this simple phrase says it all. When she first came to see me, Eve was not ‘well’. She had not been psychologically ‘born’, so she was not yet ‘here’ on earth. She felt that she was no more than an amoeba-like semblance of pre-life with no form, no substance, no past, no future, no sense of on-going being. She was skinless and porous—the emotional states of others passed through her like the tides of an ocean. She was not ‘here’. There was no ‘I am’, no ‘I and thou’, no ‘we’, let alone any sense of being alive, real, interconnected with the world of others, let alone creativity, a sense of meaning, direction, or joie de vivre.

When, as a young adult, Eve found her way to a Tibetan Buddhist retreat, she initially felt great relief. Here was a philosophy that made sense of her states of non-being. Yet, due to excessive application of ascetic and meditative practices, Eve had a psychotic episode and was hospitalised. On discharge, she was advised to seek on-going psychological treatment. She sought me out as a Jungian because Jung, unlike Freud, did not dismiss spirituality.

Check also Potential negative consequences of mindfulness in the moral domain. Simon Schindler, Stefan Pfattheicher, Marc-Andre Reinhard. To appear in the European Journal of Social Psychology, January 2019, https://www.bipartisanalliance.com/2019/01/other-consequences-of-mindfulness-in.html

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