Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Going on Being - Selections

Life at the Crossroads of Buddhism and Psychotherapy


There is a story that has kept popping up in my work over the years that embodies much of what I have learned about how people change. It is a story that has served a number of different functions as I have wrestled with the sometimes competing worldviews of Buddhism and psychotherapy, but it ultimately points the way toward their integration. It is one of the tales of Nasruddin—a Sufi figure who lived around the thirteenth century, who was an amalgam of wise man and fool. I have sometimes identified with Nasruddin and sometimes been puzzled by him. He has the peculiar gift of acting out our basic confusion and at the same time opening us up to our deeper wisdom.

I first heard this story many years ago from one of my meditation teachers, Joseph Goldstein, who used it as an example of how people search for happiness in inherently fleeting, and therefore unsatisfactory, pleasant feelings. The story is about how friends came upon Nasruddin, searching outside on the ground one night, crawling around on his hands and knees under a lamppost.

“What are you looking for?” they asked him.

“I’ve lost the key to my house,” he replied.

They all got down to help him look, but after a fruitless time of searching, someone thought to ask him where he had lost the key in the first place.

“In the house,” Nasruddin answered.

“Then why are you looking on the ground?” he is asked.

“Because there is more light here,” Nasruddin replied.

I suppose I must identify with Nasruddin to have quoted this story so often. Searching for my keys is something I can understand. It puts me in touch with a sense of estrangement, of yearning, that I’ve had quite a bit of in my life, a feeling that I used to equate with an old reggae song by Jimmy Cliff called “Sitting in Limbo.”

In my first book I used this parable as a way of talking about people’s attachment to psychotherapy and their fears of spirituality. Therapists are used to looking in certain familiar places for the key to people’s unhappiness, I maintained. They are like Nasruddin looking on the ground, when they might profit more from looking inside their own homes.

In my next book, I returned to this story obliquely when I described locking myself out of my running car while trying to leave a meditation retreat that I had just finished. I knew I had locked my keys in the car (it was idling away right in front of me, for goodness sake!), but I still felt compelled to look on the ground for them just in case I might somehow be miraculously saved. Being locked out of my car, with it running on without me, seemed like an apt metaphor for something akin to the title of my first book, Thoughts without a Thinker. Something like a car without a driver, or, in this case, a driver without his car. Humbled by my own ineptitude, I felt closer to Nasruddin in my second pass through his story. Rather than seeing him simply in his foolish mode, as a stand-in for psychotherapists looking in the wrong place for the key, I felt sympathy for Nasruddin, allied with him searching in vain for what he knew was not there.

But it was not until some time later, when I came upon the same story in someone else’s work, that I could appreciate it in yet another way. In a marvelous book entitled Ambivalent Zen, Lawrence Shainberg told how this same parable captivated his imagination for ten years. He, too, thought that he understood it. The moral, he concluded, is to look where the light is since darkness is the only threat. But he determined one day to ask his Japanese Zen master (a wonderfully engaging character as described by Shainberg) for his interpretation.

After Shainberg described the story to him, his master appeared to give it no thought, but sometime later the roshi brought it up again.

“So, Larry-san, what’s Nasruddin saying?” the Zen master asked.

“I asked you, Roshi.”

“Easy,” he said. “Looking is the key.”

There was something eminently satisfying about this answer; besides having the pithiness that we expect from Zen, it made me look at the entire situation in a fresh way. Shainberg’s roshi hit the nail on the head. Nasruddin’s activity was not in vain after all; he was demonstrating something more fundamental than initially was apparent. The key was just a pretext for an activity that had its own rationale.

Freud evolved one way of looking; the Buddha discovered another. They had important similarities and distinctive differences, but they were each motivated by the need to find a more authentic way of being, a truer self.

Somebody Vs. Nobody

I had the sense very early of feeling lost and cut off from myself. This feeling motivated my spiritual and psychological search, but it also had the potential to make me feel terrible about myself. In my discovery of Buddhism, I found a method of cutting through the self-estrangement that so bothered me. I found a new way to look at myself.

In the 1970s, there was a saying in Buddhist circles, “You have to be somebody before you can be nobody.” This was a popular statement because of how clearly it summed up a very obvious phenomenon. Many of the people who were drawn to Buddhism were attracted by the ideas of “no-self” and “emptiness” that are central to the Buddha’s psychology. But these are subtle concepts, difficult to understand correctly; in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, for example, monks often study the scriptures that explain them for years and years before even starting to meditate. In the West, people who were suffering from alienation or from spiritual and psychological distress often mistook the Buddhist descriptions for an affirmation of their psychological emptiness. “You have to be somebody before you can be nobody” was a way of telling them that their psychological work of raising self-esteem or creating an integrated or cohesive self had to precede efforts at seeing through the ego. In many cases, this was indeed sound advice; but the categorization of people into the two categories of “somebody” and “nobody” created another set of misunderstandings.

When the Buddha taught, he asserted both “somebody” and “nobody” were mistakes; that the true vision of who and what we are involves looking without resorting to the instinct of intrinsic reality. “Somebody” was the equivalent of clinging to being, while “nobody” was the same as clinging to nonbeing. In either case, the mind’s need for certainty was shortchanging reality. The correct view, the Buddha perceived, lies somewhere in between. The self-centered attitude is as much of a problem as the self-abnegating one. We can be proud or empty; in either case the problem lies in our sense of self-certainty.

Rather than blaming my upbringing, or other people, or instincts beyond my control, this view offered an approach that taught me to work first and foremost with my own reactions to things. When I thought I was somebody I reacted one way, and when I thought I was nobody I reacted another. In either case I was obscuring my own awareness. Removing these obstacles opened me to myself—not as something or nothing, but as a unique, singular, and relational process. I learned to live more in the moment—not putting up a false front and not focusing only on what was expected of me, but in touch with a more spontaneous, creative, and responsive self. Like Nasruddin, I was indeed searching for something. Learning to be, instead of react, turned out to be the key.

Meditation was the vehicle that opened me up to myself, but psychotherapy, in the right hands, has similar potential. It was actually through my own therapy and my own studies of Western psychoanalytic thought that I began to understand what meditation made possible. As compelling as the language of Buddhism was for me, I needed to figure things out in Western language as well. Psychotherapy came after meditation in my life, but it reinforced what meditation had shown me. Change did not come from trying to get rid of my problems or from going into them more deeply. It came from accepting what was true about myself and working from there. In exposing my chronic ways of reacting, psychotherapy showed me where my blind spots were. It sometimes took the interaction with another person to reveal them to me, but the results were similar to what I had glimpsed from sitting on the cushion: As I learned to question my own identifications, I came to be able to live more fully in the moment, and I felt closer to who I really was.

The Here-and-Now

My own experiences in psychotherapy were with two Gestalt therapists in rapid succession, one in Boston when I was going to medical school, and one in New York where I moved after my internship. They were friends, the former having been a student of the latter, and my work with one merged into my work with the other. I used to ask my Boston therapist, Michael Vincent Miller, where he had learned his craft. He seemed so adept at using whatever was happening in the moment to show me how anxiety caused me to clamp down on just the quality of self-awareness that the Buddha harnessed in his process of liberation. He used to tell me about his teacher in New York, Isadore From, whom he said had taught him most of what he knew about Gestalt.

Gestalt therapy is an adaptation of psychoanalysis that focuses on the “here-and-now” of the therapy encounter rather than a probing of the past. Many of its ideas have influenced mainstream analytic thought by now, but its great expertise is in working with the nuts and bolts of the personal relationship between therapist and patient. As developed most precisely in the writings of the sociologist-turned-therapist Paul Goodman in the 1950s, Gestalt therapy focuses on the deficits in ego-functioning that keep a person estranged from both herself and other people. While the emphasis on “ego” at first glance appears to be the antithesis of Buddhism, in actuality this approach requires a kind of meditation in action.

In Gestalt therapy the natural or satisfying thing is thought to be “contact”—contact between one person and another, between an individual and her environment, or a person and his inner world. Life unfolds in a series of meetings between an individual and his surroundings, which take place at what Gestalt therapy has called the “contact-boundary” of experience. This meeting is sometimes disturbed and sometimes not. When it is disturbed, it is usually through some kind of chronic inhibition or restriction that the person puts on herself without knowing that she is doing so. The therapist’s job is to slow things down enough so that it becomes obvious how someone is getting in her own way, in order that she may learn to lift the restriction, if she so desires.

When I was in treatment my therapist often stopped me in mid-stream to ask me to repeat what I was saying and tell it to him. I was always offended to be interrupted, and often felt he was not really listening if he could stop me like that, but over time I came to respect what he was after. Talking to him directly made me more anxious but revealed how difficult it was to relate openly. The point of stopping and doing it over again was to discover how I got in my own way, how I shut myself down without being aware. Once I could see what I was doing to myself, I could start to change. I would not have known how I was avoiding him, or even that I was avoiding him, if he had not stopped me to request that I start over; I would have continued to be caught up in my story and restricted by anxiety without knowing that I was so restricted. Whatever I was saying always turned out to be less important than how I was having trouble saying it.

Freeing the Ego

This is how meditation and therapy began to come together for me. My own therapists were not students of meditation, but this did not stop them from being able to focus on the here-and-now with a precision and discipline that I both admired and envied. They engaged in a way that I was hungry for. Here was a psychotherapy that was not so much a probing of the past as it was a probing of the present. What was getting in the way of my ability to be open, of my ability to communicate, of my presence in the here-and-now? What was stopping me from being myself? Usually, it would turn out to be some notion of how I should be, some image of perfection, some protective sense of embarrassment or shame that caused me to react against the way things actually were. These feelings had led to coping strategies that had taken on a life of their own. It was like assuming a posture that becomes so habitual that it is no longer noticed. I had developed ways of dealing with my anxiety that now ran on without me.

When I would speak to Isadore about something that was bothering me, for example, I would often preface it with a phrase such as, “You know, part of me wishes that I could try that again.”

“You don’t have parts,” he would invariably reply, again skipping over the content of whatever I was talking about to focus on the way in which I was expressing myself.

At first, this sort of comment made no sense to me. I was not even aware of having prefaced my remarks in such a way. “What are you talking about?” I would wonder. “Did I say anything about having parts?” But gradually I began to see how regularly I made use of this kind of language. My tendency to divide myself up into conflicting “parts” was a sign of a distancing maneuver that I was engaged in with my own self. By saying “part of me,” I was subtly pushing away whatever I was feeling, reducing it to a subset or a fraction of myself and endowing it with an absolute identity. In the midst of these subsets I felt unsure and at times unreal. “You are a whole person,” my therapist was trying to tell me, “not a fragment of one.” Being a whole person did not mean having no inconsistencies, but it did mean being able to take responsibility for all of what I was feeling. I could want things that conflicted with each other, but then it was up to me to reach a conclusion about what to do. Splitting myself into parts that were in conflict with each other did not do anything to further my situation, it only tended to paralyze me.

My chronic ways of reacting to new situations came in patterns that had a history dating from childhood. I tended to read situations for signs of rejection and then close myself up to forestall it. I could reach out, but then withdraw very quickly if I thought I would be disappointed. I was an expert at figuring out what was expected of me and giving people what they wanted, but I did not always acknowledge what I wanted. As I began to take possession of myself, exposing those coping mechanisms to the light of awareness, pivotal memories naturally arose that showed where some of that behavior had originated. Anxiety, I discovered, “is a dread of one’s own daring.” But these insights into my past came from attention to the present; they were inadvertent byproducts of a willingness to examine my own fears of engagement. Their recovery, by themselves, was not what seemed to be healing. They were more like icing on the cake, affirmations of an ability to relate with less fear and reactivity.

I remember once trying to explain the Buddhist view of self to Isadore. In Buddhism, there is said to be no fixed, intrinsic identity; only a flow with no one behind it. Isadore had no problem with the Buddhist view. Gestalt therapy also sees the world as a flow; as a continual unfolding, a succession of meeting places at the contact-boundaries of experience. The “ego” is the individual vehicle for carrying out these meetings, but it has no intrinsic identity either. A healthy ego initiates, approaches, makes contact, and dissolves, only to begin the cycle again. A disturbed ego gets in its own way and interferes with healthy contact, perpetuating its own reality at the expense of the interaction. When I was having trouble speaking to Isadore directly, my ego was actually more active than when I learned to relate openly. In those circumstances where my ego did not dissolve, I was left with a sense of deficiency, having failed to accomplish the intimacy or relationship that I was naturally seeking. An ego that gets in its own way never gets to transparency; the result is a person contracted around his own sense of inadequacy. A positive sense of self emerges only when the ego allows itself to melt away.

Therapy showed me, as if under a microscope, how my ego was not free, how it was hung up on feelings of unworthiness that had stymied me for much of my life. By asking me to do such simple things as talk directly, or change my language as I spoke, my therapists put me in a position to stare directly into those deficits, instead of avoiding them. The ego could be undone only by knowing itself. When it did, it was happy to recede. My feelings of lack were windows into my lost potential. When I learned how to take their appearance as an opportunity to make contact instead of an excuse to avoid it, I was well on the way to relief.

Going On Being

In psychotherapy I found an interpersonal parallel to meditation, but it was not until I came across the writings of the British child analyst D. W. Winnicott that I found the raison d’être for such an approach. Winnicott had the theory that put together much of my experience for me. He wrote evocatively of what he called a young child’s “going on being,” by which he meant the uninterrupted flow of authentic self. It was this flow that I recovered, in different ways, from both meditation and psychotherapy. In Winnicott’s schema, there is nothing so precious, or even sacred, as the continuity of a person’s capacity to go on being. If a young child has too much to deal with (Winnicott’s classic examples of early trauma are usually of maternal anxiety or depression), then she is forced into a reactive mode he called a caretaker self that removes her from her own experience, forcing her to cope prematurely with the needs of another. This interrupts the child’s own continuity, producing gaps or breaks that Winnicott liked to call “threats of annihilation.” Such a child is never given enough room to develop a continuous and integrated sense of herself. She is forced into a reactive mode that “cuts across” her going on being.

I felt an immediate affinity for Winnicott’s descriptions. The fragmented sense of myself, in which I was divided into “parts,” seemed to be a result of a process much like Winnicott described. I was good at figuring out what was expected of me, at reading the environment for clues, but I had trouble staying with my own experience. Both meditation and psychotherapy returned a mysterious and invigorating essence to my experience, an intangible quality that was both energizing and enlivening. In meditation, I experienced this as joy or rapture, but in my life it felt more like aliveness or vitality.

Winnicott wrote about this essence in a way that tied a good deal of my experience together. He could speak from the perspective of an infant, a child, a parent, or a therapist, and most of what he said was in agreement with a Buddhist understanding. Going on being does not need to connote any fixed entity of self; but it does imply a stream of unimpeded awareness, ever evolving, yet with continuity, uniqueness, and integrity. It carries with it the sense of the unending meeting places of interpersonal experience, convergences that are not blocked by a reactive or contracted ego. Winnicott supported the obvious sense of an ongoing individual presence, but he was suspicious of a self that was too knowable. The known self is a false one, he would assert, consolidated only for the purpose of managing a malignant environment. And the shadow of that false self is disturbing and oppressive negative space: the emptiness and unreality that can seem even more real than life itself.

Going on being implies an intrinsic but elusive process of self-discovery and self-creation, akin to what in Gestalt therapy is called “creative adjustment,” in which inherited potential flowers into full expression through the active participation of the individual. In most Buddhist cosmologies, the analogy for this blooming of potential is the lotus flower growing in the shallow muck of a pond. Given the right circumstances, the lotus bursts forth in all of its splendor, just as our minds naturally flower if brought out from the influence of reactivity.

Winnicott’s notion of going on being is the Western equivalent of the lotus. As the representation of each individual’s potential, going on being implies the capacity to live in a fully aware and creative state unimpeded by constraints or expectations. Winnicott describes such a state throughout his writing, employing imagery not often found in the language of psychoanalysis. He talks of therapists and mothers in the same breath, as benevolent forces with destructive potential. He warns that well-intentioned interpretations in therapy can be intrusive and might frighten people away, just as he warns mothers to let their babies find the nipple, not to just force it into their mouths. Patients have to find their own meaning in the interaction with the therapist, not just be fed interpretations.

Picking the Lock

In Buddhism, the refusal to be caught in self-certainty is equivalent to the greatest insight of all, that of the “emptiness” of things. In the iconography of Buddhism, in fact, this emptiness (or shunyata) is also represented by the mother, because they both, in a way, make everything possible. If things have no intrinsic or absolute reality, then everything must be relational. Emptiness is like a web or a matrix that makes one thing dependent on another. Understanding shunyata is not a way of negating the reality of things, of withdrawing from the world or claiming that nothing matters. It is not a nothingness or a void. It is a way of reclaiming the sense of going on being that Winnicott extolled. The literal image behind the term of shunyata is that of a pregnant womb: empty, nourishing, fertile, and containing the entire world. Its root is in the Sanskrit word shvi, meaning “to swell,” like a seed or a balloon. Just as Winnicott held up the mother as the exemplar of what the mind is capable of, so do Buddhists see the potential for transforming the mind through the experience of shunyata. The mind can become more womblike, not in the classical Freudian way of hysteria, but along the lines of Winnicott’s theory, able to encompass the individual’s going on being.

I have one more insight into the fable of Nasruddin. It came through a story in a collection of Jack Kornfield’s entitled After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, a discussion of how people integrate their spiritual understandings in real life. Jack tells of a Muslim man who was put into prison for a crime he did not commit. A friend came to visit and smuggled him a present, a prayer rug. The jailed man was disappointed, he did not want a prayer rug, he wanted a hacksaw or knife or something else that would somehow aid his escape. But after some time he decided to make use of the rug, studying the beautiful and intricate patterns as he did his daily prayers. One day he started to see an interesting design in the carpet, a diagram of the internal mechanism of the lock to his cell. He picked the lock and was free. As Nasruddin foretold, looking was indeed the key.

Recovering the ability to go on being is like seeing the blueprint in the rug. We feel cut off, locked out, estranged, or imprisoned, and we yearn for release. We have all kinds of ideas about what will heal, about what we have to do to change. But the major obstacle is that we do not know how to look at ourselves as process. We can only imagine somebody or nobody. Yet neither of these options will bring us to freedom: both imprison us.

Like the man in the jail staring at the floor of his cell, everything we need is right in front of us. We don’t have to change to awaken, we have only to awaken to change.


How to cite this document:
© Mark Epstein, Going on Being (Wisdom Publications, 2008)

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