The following is an interview from "What Is Enlightenment" Andrew Cohen's magazine.
Andrew Cohen/Transpersonal Psychology
Noted transpersonal psychologist, meditation teacher and author John Engler, in an essay, "Becoming Somebody and Nobody: Psychoanalysis and Buddhism," writes: One has to be somebody before one can be nobody. . . .The attempt to bypass the developmental tasks of identity formation and object constancy through a misguided spiritual attempt to "annihilate the ego" has fateful and pathological consequences. This is what many students who are drawn to meditation practice and even some teachers seem to be attempting to do. What is needed, and what has been missing from both clinical and meditative perspectives, is a developmental psychology that includes the full developmental spectrum. . . . Both a sense of self and a sense of no-selfin that orderseem to be necessary to realize that state of optimal psychological well-being that Freud once described as an "ideal fiction" and the Buddha long before described as "the end of suffering" and the one thing he taught.
An Interview with Andrew Cohen and Francis Vaughan noted Transpersonal Psychologist. The "WIE" stands for Andrew Cohen's magazine, What Is Enlightenment.
WIE: You acknowledge in your books the traditional absolute distinction between the goal of psychology, which is to strengthen, heal and empower the ego, and the goal of spirituality, which is to diminish, dissolve and transcend the ego. And you address it by saying, as you did earlier in this conversation, that psychology is an expedient teaching, and not ultimately true, but that it's a necessary groundwork that leads to transcendence. But what would you say to the criticism that the therapeutic paradigm cannot fundamentally lead to anything more than more of the samethat nothing intending to strengthen the ego could ever lead to the destruction of the ego? And that perhaps what Jesus said about the fact that one cannot serve two masters may apply here?
FV: Well, I would say that we don't serve two masters. Ultimately, if we're using Christian language, we're all always serving God.
WIE: Is that really true, though? Can we assume that we are all always serving God?
FV: I would hope that would be true for me as long as I think I'm separate. I don't know if it's true for other people. That depends on how they interpret the feeling of being a separate self.
In the therapeutic effort, we've observed that a strong ego is easier to transcend than a weak one. That's substantiated. It's supported by some of the early psychedelic research, for example. People who had the most problem transcending the ego were the ones with a weak ego. I remember Swami Radha speaking about people who came to her ashram. Some people had to get over being too invested in their strong egos and some people had to deal with weak egos. So I don't think that strengthening the ego is necessarily an obstacle to transcendence. On the contrary, it can be a stepping stone to transcendence. It doesn't always lead in that direction, but it can. Let me give you a metaphor for the ego. The weak ego is like a frail canoe on a raging sea. And a healthy ego is like a fishing boat that goes out onto the ocean and brings back nourishment to the shore. And an overdeveloped ego is like an ocean liner on a duck pond, really out of touch with the depths. The healing work in psychotherapy is not just about strengthening the egoat least in the transpersonal context. It's more about, I would say, making friends with the limitations of ego.
WIE: What do you mean, exactly?
FV: That means that the ego becomes a good servant. You have it; it doesn't have you. It doesn't run your life. It serves a purpose. It's like the Sufi saying: "Trust in God and tie your camel."
WIE: Obviously what you're saying makes sense in that not everyone is going to be suited to the arduous nature of spiritual work. But in terms of the fundamental motivationpsychotherapeutic work, the work to heal, empower, strengthen, bolster your separate sense of self, your identity, your personal boundaries, all of that, that's a movement in one direction. And the work of spirituality is to smash that into smithereensisn't it? It obviously may be appropriate for some people, at some times, to do therapeutic work. That can have a place. But when someone says, "Okay, I'm interested in real spiritual pursuit now," he or she should then know that this is a fundamentally different thing that they're setting out to do, wouldn't you agree?
FV: Yes, it's different, but I don't agree that the spiritual work is about smashing the ego. It's about transcending it. And to transcend means to include, means to simply include it in a larger view. Everyone is in some sense engaged in the process of waking up. And different people are at different stages along the way. Hopefully we all are beings of friendliness and compassion. Hopefully we can help each being to move to the next stage of realization, wherever they are. If we have the privilege and the opportunity of deeper realization than someone else, maybe we can help them to wake up a little bit.
I think the most succinct statement comes from Zen master Dogen, who said, "To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things."
WIE: Do you mean the Self with a capital "S"?
FV: You start studying yourself wherever you are. If you're identified with the little "s," then that's where you start. The study of the little self takes you through to experience the big Self. To me, that says that everything is part of the path. The work is really waking up, and we start from where we are. As a therapist I make every effort to meet each person who comes into my office where they are. And in that, I try to get a sense of what their experience is like. I try to really listen, really empathize, really enter their world space, and then see as best I can what would facilitate their moving to the next stage.