Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Magid: Abandon the pursuit of happiness

Barry Magid helped audience members explore the kind of connections Buddhism can have to psychology and issues of emotional wellbeing.

In an age devoted to self-help and self-improvement, when everyone is testing different routes to happiness, the most powerful, effective means to a happy life may be to simply do nothing at all.

Barry Magid, author of Ending the Pursuit of Happiness: A Zen Guide, and a Zen teacher, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst practicing in New York City, offered this and other insights about the path to happiness and how the union of psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism can play a role during his lecture in Sinclair Lab Tuesday afternoon.

Magid’s talk was the latest in a series of events designed to educate the campus community prior to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s visit in July.

Wearing a miniature symbolic monk robe given upon ordination, Magid helped audience members explore the kind of connections Buddhism can have to psychology and issues of emotional wellbeing.

Perhaps most notably, Magid urged people to put an end to self-improvement.

“After our futile efforts to transform our ordinary lives into idealized ones, we may discover that leaving everything alone is itself transforming,” he said. “It is very hard not to turn meditation into a spiritual gymnasium where we get ourselves mentally and spiritually in shape; it is hard to do nothing at all.”

But leaving the mind just as it is may ultimately be the most emotionally and spiritually rewarding thing we can do, he said.

This is not to say that people shouldn’t delve into their thoughts and fears though the practices of meditation and psychoanalysis—after all, Magid is a practitioner and a proponent of both.

“I realize that all of this may sound really negative, but what I am trying to do rather than tell you what meditation is is tell you all the things it isn’t,” he said.

Magid pointed out the dangers of avoidance and disassociation that meditation can foster.

“Rather than help us engage and work through fear, anxiety, anger, and self-centeredness, meditation can unfortunately create an oasis, a bubble of clarity, calm, and concentration that simply excludes all the messiness of everyday life,” Magid said. “Under the illusion that we are cultivating a higher spiritual self, we merely end up avoiding what is emotionally painful.”

So instead of using meditation as a means of avoidance, Magid said we need to accept that we are not sitting there to get away from everything, but rather to face all the things we want to avoid.

“The Americanization of Zen”

With his dual background in Zen Buddhism and psychoanalysis, Magid also discussed the relatively recent cooperation between his two practices, which he referred to as “the Americanization of Zen.”

“When I started my own Zen training, psychotherapy was routinely dismissed by many Zen students and teachers alike as being comparatively superficial in its effects,” he said. ‘Working with emotion and practice was considered a watered-down version of the real thing.”

Over the years, however, Magid said this attitude has changed.

“Many of the current generation of American Zen teachers are themselves trained in some form of psychotherapy,” he said. “More and more, there is no clear line being drawn between what draws people to practice Zen or any type of meditation and what causes others to seek therapy.”

In fact, Magid said, these two disciplines can work together as sort of a yin and yang of spiritual and emotional exploration.

“In my own life, Zen and psychoanalysis have been practiced in tandem for over 30 years,” he said. “Each continues to challenge the form and enrich the perspective of the other, and teachers as well as students increasingly partake in and depend on both practices in their own lives. After all, we are all in the same business of coping with suffering and finding out what it means to be fully human.”

Magid said that in some ways, the practices of psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism rely on each other.

“In particular, Zen needs psychoanalysis to keep it emotionally honest,” he said. “Although Zen offers profound insights, it can also leave terrible emotional blind spots. Psychoanalysis forces us to take a good hard look at the emotional, social, and cultural challenges we face.”

On the other hand, Magid said psychoanalysts need Zen to help realize their practice’s true nature.

“Even though psychoanalysis can be an effective treatment for a wide variety of emotional problems, Zen reminds psychoanalysts that our practice is not reduceable to solving problems,” he said. “To be true to itself, psychoanalysis must try not to compete with the hard, research-based science. What is unique about psychoanalytic inquiry is that the answers it provides would not properly fit into the category of science.”

“The Amish of the mental health profession”

Although, as a psychoanalyst, he clearly appreciates the abstract power of his profession, Magid knows all too well the skepticism that surrounds the practice’s relevance.

“I realize that for most people, it is not exactly what they think of as a cutting-edge discipline compared to things like brain research; I have been told that psychoanalysis is the Amish of the American mental health profession,” he said. “But I think there is something very distinctive about the way psychoanalysis proceeds that distinguishes it from a lot of other forms of therapy.”

While science investigates questions that depend on discovering new facts for their answers—such as “Is there life on Mars?” or “What are the causes of cancer?”—psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism address entirely different types of questions, such as, “How should I live?”

“Discovering new facts about the brain will not help us when we try to balance love and family life with professional commitment, or personal happiness with social responsibility,” Magid said. “Seen in this way, the most pressing issues of our time, such as social injustice and international conflict, do not look like problems of knowledge at all.”

Overall, Magid said, people who use both Zen Buddhism and psychoanalysis for self-improvement would be happier with the outcomes if they changed their expectations. The practices shouldn’t been seen as routes to ultimate happiness or enlightenment; rather it’s the journeys themselves that may be the answer.

Both psychoanalysis and Zen are grounded as open-ended, non-solution-oriented experiences. Psychoanalysis basically asks us to look at what our mind is doing moment to moment, Magid said, which isn’t so different from watching our thoughts come and go with meditation.

“The main difference is that psychoanalysis also asks, ‘Just where did you get that idea?’” Magid said.

Both practices may offer a welcome contrast to our fast-paced lives.

“As Americans, we are addicted to progress and self improvement,” Magid said. “The psychoanalytic method, almost as much as Zen Buddhism, goes against the grain of our modern life—what we do is deliberately slow; it asks us to sit or lie still and spend long hours immersed in our feelings and to enter into a view of life that is process- rather than goal-oriented.”

And it is within these practices themselves that we may find an end to our suffering, he said.

“Everyone who comes to therapy or meditation comes because they feel something is wrong, so they want it fixed,” Magid said. “It turns out the search itself may embody the very imbalance we are trying to correct.”

Magid said this doesn’t mean we can’t ultimately be happy or enlightened, adding, “We will just get there by way of very different routes than we imagined, routes that may not look anything like what we expected when we started out.”

The Dalai Lama’s visit will include a series of teachings as well as a sold-out, half-day public lecture on July 13. The five-and-a-half days of teachings, sponsored by the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in Washington, N.J., will take place July 10-15.

All of the events will take place in Stabler Arena on the Goodman Campus.

For the latest information on the Dalai Lama’s visit, check out Lehigh’s Dalai Lama Web site.
Photo by Douglas Benedict

Story by Elizabeth Shimer Bowers

Posted on Thursday, March 27, 2008

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