Thursday, August 26, 2010

Therapy, Meditation, and Medication

Having written such a personal book as The Therapist’s New Clothes, I'm always fascinated to hear the different perspectives readers bring to it—and thus what they take from it. One who contacted me read the book from the standpoint of a mother, and related deeply to the struggle to keep my depression “separate” from my relationship with my young son. A friend who’s a painter said it gave him insight about perception and reality, and that he’s sharing this with his students. Such comments often help me expand my understanding of the story I tell. So I was thrilled to have a chat with fellow writer Stephanie Golden, who has written about psychology, including her fabulous book about women and self-sacrifice, Slaying the Mermaid, and is a practitioner of Buddhist insight meditation. She also has a blog, Writing Craft and Practice. I recommend a visit!

Many years ago, she says, she underwent Jungian analysis. We talked about how meditation and therapy interact and intersect:

“For me analysis only went so far. Once I learned all the stuff about myself through analysis I still had to learn how to let go of it so it wasn't any longer affecting how I lived. That's what insight meditation did for me—or I should say, is still doing. The key is that the meditation practice is not intellectual, it's experiential. The insights are intuitive, not conceptual. It takes time and effort to develop the skills to have these experiential insights.

“One basic difference is that in insight practice you learn not to identify with thoughts or emotions (as in, "I'm such an anxious person") so that they don't define you. The conceptual structure behind this--which has to do with the question of what is the self or ego--is too complicated to go into here, but I do feel that one problematic effect of therapy is that when people learn they have some specific issue, they identify with it and turn it into who they are.

“Another point is that the goal of meditation isn't the same as the goal of therapy. It's not to get rid of psychological problems, although that's often a side benefit. It's to clear away the veils in the mind that prevent you from perceiving a more ultimate, transcendent, or absolute level of reality. Though I know people who got into it because they were looking for calming, stress reduction and so on, but then got hooked and stayed. And meditators also turn to therapy to develop more understanding of themselves. So bottom line, Buddhism and western psychology attach different meanings to the concept of 'self' but meditation and therapy can be complementary. Depends on what each person is drawn to.”

At different points when I was, shall we say, less than well, I tried meditation; I was game for anything that promised inner peace. It never worked. I either got horribly restless or felt my discomfort magnified a zillion times. I recently came across a quote from Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist who has explored the nexus of Buddhism and therapy, in an article in Tricycle:

“When depressed people try to meditate, a major part of their meditative energy is going into fighting depression. Instead of letting it take them forward, they are using their meditation as an attempt to self-medicate. The bulk of their energy may go into obsessive ruminations or attempts to process emotional pain that feels stuck. They are facing a gradient that is too steep.”

This so precisely articulated exactly what it was like. In the Buddhist spirit, I can retrospectively feel compassion for that pain-wracked soul who could sit (if barely) but never be still. Maybe I’ll give it another go sometime. But right now I don’t feel the pull.If you look carefully at this photo, you'll see not just our Thai peppers, but also a walking stick.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Busy with summer reading (and writing). Be back soon...