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What Can the Positive Psychology of Buddhism and Yoga Teach the West?

I was going through my files recently and found this book review originally published in Anthropology of Consciousness in 2002. Seems as pertinent as ever, more than a decade later.

Being Arising: A Review of Going on Being by Mark Epstein and The Positive Psychology of Buddhism and Yoga by Martin Levine.

By Jeremy P. Hunter, Ph.D.

The cultivation of human happiness has long captivated human imagination. The recent emergence of the Positive Psychology movement within mainstream Western psychology is only the latest iteration of this millennia-long search. Though we’ve been told of Plato’s assertion that “the unreflected life is not worth living,” what is less obvious is the means by which one engages in this reflection. In other words, as any positive psychologist will tell you, we are a society with few methods for cultivating “the good life.” In response to this dissatisfaction, a growing number of people have sought possible solutions in the positive psychological systems of South Asia.

Asian contemplative traditions are essentially psychologies concerned with the bottom line of personal existence, subjective experience. These inherently practical methods emerged out of a context where body and brain were never split; where philosophy didn’t stray too far from the concerns of daily life; and where systematic practices for change, rather than mere theoretical exercise, play a central role in the creation of virtue. The Asian explorers of the internal world focused directly on the quality of experience and developed methods of training attention to systematically transform it.

Since the exploratory dabblings of the 1960s counter-culture, Western understanding of these practices has ripened in the ensuing decades. As practitioners mature and skilled indigenous teachers emerge, the relevance of these “inner technologies” becomes more apparent. As a result, notions of practice have shifted from a fringe interest to a nearly mainstream position in the culture. To talk about meditating or doing yoga is far less likely to elicit a blank stare of quiet suspicion; to be “mindful” of something no longer sounds so weird. It could be that the same impulse that informs current interest in positive psychology has also has stimulated widespread enthusiasm in methods like mindfulness meditation and yoga. As the latest iteration of positive psychology blossoms into the culture, it was only a matter of time before these two impulses intersected. Two recent books Going on Being by Mark Epstein (whose original subtitle invoked Positive Psychology) and Marvin Levine’s The Positive Psychology of Buddhism and Yoga provide a vision of how each system may learn and be strengthened by the other.

While the two volumes differ in style and tone, they share a common thread of being written by a Western professional who has immersed himself in Asian contemplative practice and grapples with how to best hybridize these two worlds. Levine, a well-respected cognitive psychologist, and Epstein, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, have produced works that draw upon the strengths that each system has to offer. They offer the possibility of a new type of science, where the strengths of a western scientific model meshes with the Asian concern for one’s interior life. (See also Varela, Thompson and Rosch’s The Embodied Mind.)

Levine’s book is the more straightforward of the two. It is intended as an introduction to the basic theories and practices of Buddhism and Yoga, both monumental topics in and of themselves, with an eye to practical application. (Among other things, there are sections that draw upon both classical texts and modern research on dealing effectively with anger or how to speak with empathic assertiveness as “right speech”.). For a reader interested in the basic ideas of both Yoga and Buddhism (which are not entirely analogous, but the author focuses on the helpful similarities), Levine’s book is a welcome companion. He walks through the core insights found in the Four Noble Truths, which are fundamentally empirical and not metaphysical in nature, and the Eightfold Path, characterized as a daily methodology for happiness. It is also helpful for those who might find Pali/Sanskrit terminology off-putting, since Levine offers clear definitions and also relates them back to English/Western referents and research findings. The book’s tone is of a genial uncle passing along wisdom gleaned from years of study and practice. Along the way, he splices in personal reflection and poetry which warms the text.

Epstein’s book, his third, is a more textured and layered work. The title comes from British child analyst D.W. Winnicott whose notion of “going on being” refers to the flow-like notion of being immersed in one’s own experience, also an essential concept in Buddhism. The book is a more personal narrative of the author’s journey to his own experience. His struggles and discoveries ground the teachings in a Western context, making the dharma more familiar and relevant than if they were gleaned from a foreign source. It becomes easier to see how the lessons of this positive psychology may be relevant to a modern, post-industrial lifestyle. Along the way, he gives a history of Buddhism’s contemporary flowering in the West, nuanced insights drawn from his clinical practice, and suggests where psychotherapy and Buddhism both coincide (both search for personal authenticity) and can learn from the other (Buddhism’s meditative methods offers a way out of the cycles of personal suffering). Epstein’s sensitive writing packs in many subtleties that require multiple readings to fully grasp.

Essentially both authors point to the fact that Western psychology, perhaps with the exception of Csikszentmihalyi, has yet to fully grapple with the insight brought forth by both objective neuroscience and the Asian contemplative traditions: the lack of a solid, fixed self. The difficult concept of “no-self” stands in contrast both to the nihilistic interpretation of the Existentialists and to the reification (some would say deification) of the self in mainstream psychology. A nihilistic self lacks meaning, while reified one lacks flexibility. With the latter, one is constantly accepting or rejecting things that “aren’t me,” in the meantime, life passes by. While in the former, the life that passes by possesses little significance.

In essence, both the meaningless and reified selves are obstacles to experiencing freedom. People talk about political freedom, economic freedom, social freedom, and sexual freedom, but perhaps the most essential freedom, the one that girds them all, goes unrecognized and uncultivated: psychological freedom–the freedom to choose one’s stance and one’s response. This is not the freedom from morality or social responsibility that might have initially attracted the counter-culture, but freedom from the psychic sources that cause suffering. It is also not B. F. Skinner’s idea of freedom, the freedom to be conditioned into any role, part or position, but rather a freedom from conditioning itself. The solution is a “middle path” between meaninglessness and meaning-construed-too-tightly. The self of “going on being” is not a fixed, hard identity but one grounded in reality, buoyed on a stream of experience, evolving and responding to life as it unfolds.

The path to this state of awareness emerges through the systematic training of attention to phenomena with clarity and cultivating an acceptance of the way things are, including one’s self. Again, this is not a defeatist, apathetic stance, but a matter-of-fact discernment of life as it is. Only by dealing with things as they are, can one hope to change them.

Nearly 100 years ago, William James, after hearing a Harvard lecture by Buddhist teacher Anagarika Dharmapala, predicted that “This is the psychology everybody will be studying twenty-five years from now.” However, that project was detoured through the land of the unconscious by way of a rat’s maze. Given that social science has often disregarded the science of the positive, perhaps taking to heart Freud’s remark, “the best psychoanalysis can do is to return the patient to the more normal level of human misery” a practical psychology of the positive now seems long overdue.

Anthropology of Consciousness
Volume 13, Issue 2, pages 61–63, September 2002