Sunday, April 26, 2009

Blinded by Enlightenment Therapy

I am of three minds about Zen therapy.

First, I have seen many people helped by meditation. There is scientific data suggesting that meditation works. I am for it.

Second, I admire the honesty of connecting psychoanalysis with Zen practice. It is more honest to see a correlation between therapy and religious practice than to continue to claim that psychoanalysis is a science.

Third, I am most impressed by the fact that by linking Zen to therapy, certain people have convinced insurance companies to pay for what is essentially a religious practice.

These remarks are occasioned by yet another effort to revive psychoanalysis, this time in today's New York Times Magazine. Link here.

The article tells the story of the fateful encounter between Zen Master Lou Nordstrom and a Buddhist therapist, one Jeffrey Rubin.

Here, as often happens, the work of therapy revolves around the concept of abandonment, specifically the therapist's fear that his patient will abandon treatment.

Clearly this manifests a syndrome that inflicts no small number of therapists. I consider it sufficiently prevalent to merit inclusion in the next DSM. I recommend calling it: empty couch syndrome.

The work of therapy involves making the patient feel guilty about wishing to end treatment and thus materially harm the therapist, and allowing him to feel empowered to cure the therapist by staying in treatment forever.

(For the record, given that such a line of interpretation is potentially self-interested, I believe that no therapist should ever use it. Patients have every right to exercise their own judgment,and to continue or discontinue treatment for whatever reason makes sense to them. Therapists should be ethically bound to respect such decisions.)

Anyway, after Rubin convinced Nordstrom that abandoning treatment would be like abandoning himself-- how better to manipulate emotions-- the veils lifted and Nordstrom had "a tearful reunion with" his "narrative."

This caused a "rush of revelations" that convinced him that he no longer needed psychotherapy. He decided that he really needed someone like a social worker-- or a coach-- to help him reconnect with the real world.

Alas, the revelation was too little, too late. And it was short lived.

One night Nordstrom got up to go to the bathroom. Perhaps he was overly thrilled by his enlightenment, perhaps he was trusting his inner light to illumine his house, but he chose not to turn on the lights.

Before he knew it he had tripped on the stairs and fell down, breaking his hip, his pelvis, his sternum, and a few ribs.

Did this mean that he was so thoroughly absorbed in his narrative that he lost track of reality? Was it just a stupid mistake, facilitated by a failure to see that enlightenment does not work on the outer darkness? Or was it a sign that therapy had made him so self-involved that it had shut down his ability to see danger?

None of this appealed to his canny Buddhist therapist. This latter was at-the-ready with an interpretation: Nordstrom had been acting out an unconscious suicide wish!

Lucky for him that he had discovered it before he really hurt himself.

Here Rubin is simply doing what psychoanalytic training taught him to do: turn a stupid mistake into a meaningful experience.

Fortunate fall, anyone.

But Rubin is also telling his patient that the true meaning of the experience is that he must continue therapy.

1 comment:

Karen Maezen Miller said...

And the NY Times fell for it. Unfortunate for everyone who read it.