Psychoanalysis, Yoga, Mindfulness
Updated: Sep 13, 2019
Someone on reddit recently asked about whether Vipassana is complimentary to psychotherapy.
I have some mixed views on this.
Vipassana is a very intensive form of meditation that requires a week long training in which you are required to forgo any conventional wordly stimulation such as reading, physical exercise, sex or conversation. Meditation sittings are long and subsequently physically painful. I know a number of people have undertaken it and it's gruelling. The general idea is to build a reflective mind, to be able to more closely observe and subsquently tollerate pain. Some people with chronic pain go through it to try and manage symptoms, I don't know anything about the efficacy of this.
My relationship with meditation practices is as follows. I have a regular secular yoga practice and find this complimentary to psychotherapy as it helps to reflect on embodied experience. I also practice non asana meditation which is helpful for reflecting on the constant activity of mind and it's movements. I also practice various forms of breathing techniques which I find helpful in maintaining a presence in the here-and-now as well as a method to help regulate my heart rate and remain calm. I have found this important when working on inpatient wards when surrounded by challenging and threatening behaviour. I would also add for many inpatients who are very dissociated from their body secular yoga, mentalizing practices and mindfullness can be a good way of reconnecting to somatic experiences. (see the work of Graham Music)
However there is the potential with all meditative practices to bolster a neurotic tendency and/or one of omnipotence.
Psychotherapy is a dyadic practice and the transformation that takes place within it is unique, my concern with esoteric practices is that they can encourage a huge defensive splitting as the subject feels they can simply overcome their psychological issues through strength of will. This can have negative consequence when it is found not to be the case. Also they can encourage obsessional tendencies with an oblique goal orientated approach to altered consciousness. There is often a promise of 'enlightenment', this directly touches peoples wish for a magic cure (as well as generating a false reliance on an authority to deliver it through faith). Enlightenment as advocated in esoteric traditions is to transcend materialism, many say to see reality how it is. There is a specific metaphysical claim lodged in it. By and large psychoanalysis is materialist but not in a reductionist way (this is a big topic so i'll stop here).
The promise of an ultimate reality can obscure what is obviously real.
I will say that I have no doubt that people have reached enlightened or altered states however to do so requires a huge ascetic undertaking, years of constant practice and a total withdrawal from the world. It is not something most people can or should try and achieve. Also very intense regular ritual practices can potentially generate psychosis. They also deny reality testing.
On top of this the guru tradition is incredibly problematic with its power structures and advocation of dependency. The phantasy of a withholding other who has the answer to an obscure secret is often used to abusive effect. There are a lot of grifters and charlatans and there can be lots of very fringe theorising, a promotion of parapsychology, cult like structures and religious dogma.
I have done some brief training in secular mindfulness and people were discouraged from participating if they were suffering from depression, I think in part because the instructor was not psychotherapeutically trained.
There is a huge industry around yoga, mindfulness and wellness. Much of this can be healthy as it is a focuses on self care and a recognition of mental health problems. Though often implicit is a message of free will and self reliance. You can do it if you just work harder! Zizek has a critique of western Buddism along these lines.
There is an ideological message of a self administering magic cure, it reinforces an alienation and individualisation. It is worrying as it can shame people into thinking their own mental health issues are something which they can solve alone, that they are exclusively the masters of their own destiny and that simple magic cures exist for very complicated deep psychological issues.