Jack Engler interview “You have to be somebody before you can be nobody”
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Jack Engler “You have to be somebody before you can be nobody” Extract of interview with Andrew Cohen http://www.enlightennext.org/magazine/j17/engler.asp?page=2 AC: You felt that people were trying to avoid facing certain parts of themselves by focusing their attention exclusively on enlightenment and spiritual practice? JE: That's right. So the intent of my statement was to address that issue. But then, in that article, I tried to elaborate it further in terms of a linear developmental model. I wouldn't do that in the same way today because now I think our spiritual life and our psychological life are much more interwoven. I think the statement still has value in the way I originally meant it, but I would take it out of this tight psychological model of human development where we first have to develop a sense of self and then we will be able to see through the illusion of self. AC: So in other words, development doesn't have an absolute or rigid structure. You're saying now that the strengthening of the ego in the positive sense—as this organizing principle—and the questioning of its ultimate validity could occur simultaneously? JE: People who are doing a lot of spiritual practice and who don't have much experience with therapy think that therapy somehow inevitably strengthens self-grasping or ego. But my experience with therapy, when it's successful and done well, is that it does just the opposite. It doesn't bring you to the point of seeing through the inherent illusion of seeing yourself as a separate entity, and it doesn't bring you to the kind of total freedom that spiritual practice promises. That's clear. And it doesn't pretend to. But if it's done well and it's successful, I think it really does relativize the way you hold yourself. You don't hold yourself so tightly and you're not so wedded to concepts of who you are. It begins to loosen up all your fixed ideas of self and in that way can contribute to growth in spiritual practice also. So I don't see one as tightening the ego and the other as loosening it. I see them both working in the same direction. And I see it much more as an interweaving of personal work and spiritual work. It's just that therapy doesn't take it to the depth that spiritual practice does. AC: Could you please explain what you mean when you say that our evolution, for lack of a better word, is a combination of personal and spiritual work? What do you mean by one, and what do you mean by the other? JE: Well, personal work has to do with our own individual life history, our own individual narrative, and whatever unfinished business we're carrying from that. It has to do with personality and social functioning, relationship issues, work issues. These issues come up in Buddhist mindfulness practice—and probably from time to time in all practices. The different traditions work with them in different ways, and some don't work with them at all. Zen doesn't, for instance. And that's fine for the goals that Zen sets itself. The ultimate spiritual goals don't have to do so much with personality and personal functioning. They have to do with liberation from all those deep-rooted causes of suffering in the mind—in all of our minds. These universal causes of self-generated suffering—fear, greed, anger, self-deception, shame, doubt—get filtered and expressed through personality and personal history, but they exert an influence at a level prior to their elaboration in individual behavior. They are universal; they're not unique to any one particular individual. But facing universal issues means facing personal and particular issues. As I've understood it in my own work and as I've seen it in clients who come to me for therapy as well as students in the meditation hall, it basically means, in the simplest possible way, facing whatever we haven't been able to face. Spiritual practice demands that we do that in one way, and personal work and therapy demand we do it in another. To the extent that anything hasn't been faced, it's going to continue to plague us and cause problems for ourselves and others. AC: Absolutely. JE: So, in a general way, that's how I understand the interweaving of personal and spiritual work. It's continuing to uncover the blocks, the resistances, the ways in which we cause suffering to ourselves and others. (...) AC: Okay. But my whole point is that the absolute or liberated perspective provides a completely different context in which to view and have a relationship with every aspect of our humanity. JE: You see, a lot of the Indian practitioners I met when I was doing research in Calcutta had suffered extreme trauma in their lives, just like many Western students. Really bad stuff. And some of them had reached pretty deep levels of enlightenment. No one claimed or presented themselves as having completed the path, but they had attained fairly deep levels. But it was clear that even with the shift occurring that you described, there was still a lot of personal suffering in their lives that they were going through and that had not been addressed—and was not getting addressed. And we see that in a lot of Western students and Western teachers. They've had their kensho experiences, their enlightenment experiences, and they're going down like flies. They're still misbehaving, sometimes outrageously so. They're still engaging in a lot of misconduct around—what else?—money, sex and power. So there's still a lot of personal work to be done. The only alternative position I think you can take is: Do more practice! Get more deeply enlightened. Go to the end of the path, and then none of this will ultimately be a problem for you. Well, I suppose that's a defensible position. In principle that's what should happen. I've just never seen it. Maybe I just don't know people who've gone to the end of the path. There ain't too many of them around. AC: That's true. JE: Even in the case of very deeply enlightened teachers, there is a lot of meshuganah [crazy] stuff that they can be involved in. AC: I know. And that creates a lot of doubt about the possibility of any kind of transformation that can express an attainment or stabilization in a perspective that is absolute. JE: I guess the only thing you can say is that, short of full and complete freedom, there's personal work to do. And you either do it or you don't. AC: You said earlier that in the deeper levels of spiritual practice and experience, there is a transcendence or a letting go that occurs on a deeper level than that of the personality. It's a level that you said was universal. JE: Right. AC: So don't you think we could say that ideally, from a certain point of view, if that letting go was occurring on the deeper or more universal layers of being, automatically there would be a liberation from the compulsive fixation on the personal—because in that experience of deeper letting go, there would be a simultaneous recognition of the ultimate unreality and emptiness of the personal fixation and all the suffering that it creates? JE: Again, it just doesn't seem to work that way. If you look at what the Theravada Buddhist tradition, for instance, claims happens when one has gone to the end, then yes, what it describes as the final outcome of spiritual practice is that all forms of selfgenerated suffering end, including personal suffering. But one of the things I've always found very credible in the Theravada tradition is that you don't get full freedom all at once. It comes by stages or increments. There are four different experiences of enlightenment. And the earliest stages are still compatible with a lot of personal meshugas [craziness] and ways in which we can still create problems for ourselves and others. So the ground shifts, and the relationship to self and to experience shifts. But it doesn't shift completely and all at once. In these four experiences of enlightenment, the path to each is basically the same, but what's different are the "fetters" or the samyojanas that are extinguished in each enlightenment experience. These fetters are the root sources of inner suffering, and a different set of fetters is extinguished in each one of the four enlightenment experiences —extinguished irreversibly, permanently, according to the testimony of practitioners. No therapist, incidentally, would ever claim changes in therapy are irreversible! The progression in extinguishing these fetters fascinates me as a psychologist. The first set of fetters that are extinguished are basically cognitive in nature—what a cognitive psychologist would call "maladaptive cognitions" or "core beliefs." In extinguishing these misguided beliefs about who we are, our basic understanding and perspective changes. But simply extinguishing basic beliefs and assumptions doesn't automatically shift the underlying motivations, impulses and emotions that can still drive us to act in ways that create suffering. Cognitively, we may relate to our experience differently, yet we can continue to act in the same neurotic ways. Not to the same extent, perhaps, but basically we can still find ourselves acting in unskillful ways that create a lot of problems. The second set of fetters reaches deeper into the psyche, into the affective or motivational bases of behavior. Motivations, impulses and affects are much more difficult to shift than cognitions and beliefs. The last set of fetters is extinguished at the fourth and final stage of enlightenment. The core of this group is called mana or "conceit." This is a remnant of the tendency to compare self with others—the root of narcissism. The last fetters really have to do with rooting out the final residues of narcissistic attachment to self from the mind. And that's more difficult to shift than the affective or motivational bases of behavior. The same progression happens in therapy. Cognitions, beliefs, perspectives change first. Core drives, motivations and impulses are much harder to change. Hardest of all to change is narcissistic investment in the self. So when you say that ideally the realization of emptiness should free one from personal neurotic problems, I don't think it's that simple. I think the shifts take place in stages. What the tradition describes and what we've learned in therapy are exactly the same progression. That shift doesn't take place all at once. I was reading something the other day in Philip Kapleau Roshi's book Zen Dawn in the West. A student asks him a similar question about kensho, and Kapleau replies, "Kensho doesn't eliminate character. If anything, kensho makes character failings more obvious." He's talking about his own experience and his experience with his students. But he's also talking about the first experience of kensho. The Zen tradition has always said there can be little kensho and great kensho. The opening can be small or it can be large, but it's still just a first glimpse of enlightenment. My teacher, Anagarika Munindra, used to call it "a little bit of enlightenment." That first glimpse doesn't shift everything. AC: My last question is: Do you think that the Buddha would have been a better teacher if he had undergone psychotherapy and had Western psychotherapeutic training? JE: Oh, how to answer that? The answer is no. The Buddha did both spiritual and personal work for eons, if you believe the stories. So what we see in this one lifetime is just a teeny tip of the iceberg of what went into his realization. And how much you want to conclude from that is risky. But he wasn't addressing directly the kind of problems that people bring into therapy. People would bring those kinds of problems to him occasionally, their different kinds of unhappiness. But the level on which he addressed them was very different than the level on which a therapist would address them. AC: But my question is, do you think the Buddha would have been a better teacher if he'd undergone psychotherapy and had Western therapeutic training? Transpersonal theory suggests that the Eastern enlightenment teachings presume a certain level of psychological health and development or ego strength as a prerequisite for spiritual practice, and that the Eastern teachings don't really have any knowledge or understanding about the earlier stages of childhood and ego development. The criticism is that the Eastern teachings alone are insufficient to address many of the emotional and psychological needs that a lot of people have because they are simply not taken into account. So if this is true, we could say that obviously in the Buddhist teaching, this dimension of ego or self-development isn't really addressed. Are you saying that in spite of that, you feel that the Buddha wouldn't have been a better teacher, that there was nothing missing from his teaching? JE: If the Buddha had been born in Brooklyn, like all enlightened teachers these days, it would seem to be a prerequisite. If he had been born in Brooklyn, then I would say that if he had some experience of psychotherapy, it would probably help him to teach Western students! But he was a man of his time and his culture, and that wasn't necessary. Those personal issues were handled by other roles in the society—whether it was shamans or rainmakers or midwives or whoever. It wasn't that there was no one around to address them.But the Buddha himself had no need for psychotherapy. Not everybody needs psychotherapy. God help us!