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Psychoanalysis and Tantra: Towards a Healthy Self

I spend a lot of time thinking about what people need from each other in order to feel connected, cohesive, and resilient.  Buddhism, historically, has not taken a developmental view of how we reach a healthy baseline of functioning in work, community membership, play, etc.  Its focus has instead been on how to take someone at an average level of functioning and move them towards an ideal -- Englightenment

Several researchers have used a particular psychoanalytic theory to understand how practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism in the US experience either benefit or harm from the practice of tantra and their relationships with a guru. In this first of two installments, I'll outline Heinz Kohut's theory and the research of Daniel Capper.  In the second installment, I'll review the work of Pilar Jennings. 

First, the theory.  Heinz Kohut pioneered his own school of psychoanalysis (Psychoanalytic Self Psychology) when he observed again and again that the behaviors and subjective states of people with significant narcissism seemed to disprove prevailing psychoanalytic theories about how a healthy sense of self is created.  He contributed three game-changing ideas to psychoanalysis: he viewed neurosis as being a deficit of certain skills and qualities, which could be obtained later if they weren't obtained in childhood; he shifted the frame of analysis from "a sick patient being analyzed by a healthy, opaque analyst" to "a relationship in which certain needs are being met by an empathic other"; and he identified three types of relationships (or three functions within a relationship) that provide something necessary for developing a healthy sense of self. 

These three types of relationships are pivotal and seem to be more universal than many of the upper-middle class, Eurocentric values expressed in earlier analytic theory.  Kohut stated that we need (1) someone to mirror back to us our good qualities and successes: "Look at you!  You did it!  You're such a smart girl!" This helps us develop basic self-worth and self-esteem, without which we may feel our worth is conditional or feel that we are worthless altogether.  He also stated that we need caregivers or other adults who we can (2) idealize -- people who have qualities that we don't yet have but that we wish to develop.  As kids we often need someone stronger than ourselves to help us handle what we cannot: "I know it's scary/bad/painful, but we'll get through it." In enough quantity, we can internalize this kind of talk and provide it to ourselves in order to cope with overwhelming situations. This fosters resilience.  Finally, he stated that we need others whom we can relate to as peers in some way.  He called this idea (3) twinship, and he understood it to provide a sense of connectedness and perspective as a counterbalance to feelings of alienation, freakishness, and a sense of being alone. 

Daniel Capper2 did ethnographic fieldwork in the late 1990s, essentially immersing himself at a Tibetan Buddhist center for months at a time observing the interactions between practitioners and their guru.  He also gathered extensive narratives from the practitioners on how they viewed their relationship with the guru and their path.  He found that practitioners there were quite up-front about their idealization of their lama, but that the effects of that idealization contradicted earlier analytic caricatures of religious devotion as encouraging eternal dependence on a surrogate parent.  These studies concluded a priori, that practitioners had pre-existing, pathological dependence needs. 

In his 2004 article Devotion to Tibetan Lamas, Self Psychology, and Healing in the United States1, he wrote of these American Vajrayana practitioners: "The psyche becomes reoriented to form a coherent arc concerning the values the disciple shifts from an external locus, in the form of the lama, to an internal locus, reflecting a transformed and coherent idealizing pole of the personality." (p. 65).  That is to say, the idealized lama becomes a strong, internal core of ideals from which to act.

In effect, Tibetan Buddhism can be thought of as an elaborate system designed to help the practitioner internalize the idealized qualities of the lama.  He acknowledges that while the system is not foolproof, “[his] observational data support their self-reported experiences of increased personal autonomy arising from increased feelings of self-esteem, improved interpersonal relationships, improved vocational satisfaction, and an increase of meaning in their lives” (p. 66). By slowly absorbing the valued qualities of the lama, Capper argues that the guru-student relationship in North American Tibetan Buddhist centers has the essential ingredients of the therapeutic relationship aimed for in Self Psychology. 




1. Capper, D. (2004). Devotion to Tibetan lamas, self psychology, and healing in the United

States.  American Journal of Pastoral Counseling, 7 (3), 51-71.

* thumbnail image of Heinz Kohut retrieved at http://www.roebuckclasses.com/people/images/kohut.jpg

2. You can check out his book here: http://mellenpress.com/mellenpress.cfm?bookid=5160&pc=9

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thank you

Thanks, Kate. I did study Erkison some, but other than clinical hypnosis, it wasn't especially emphasized as a clinical base, although I do work with children, so I come back to Erikson, Piaget, Vygotsky, and John Bowlby from time to time.

What Kohut said about the development of the self through these relationships, including mirroring, is that we need these things externally in sufficient quantity before being able to give them to ourselves. It would be harmful to always have perfect others to give these to us because then we wouldn't need to internalize them. When the others around us fail to provide, we "transmute" the internalization from an outside person to an inside quality. But all of that depends on having our core worth valued, being protected by strong others, and finding peers in the first place.

I think kids need more praise! More "you're awesome"'s. We don't need to intentionally provide a failure of empathy. We'll fail to provide anyway at some point because we're not perfect parents or friends.


Hi Paul,
All of this is fascinating to me and totally in line with stuff I've been thinking about lately. The developmental thinker I've been drawn back to lately is Erikson, with his theory of developmental crises. Do you work with his ideas in psychotherapy training?
The thing that popped out to me most immediately in this piece was Kohut's idea that children need mirroring for their achievements. There is an insidious strain of parenting advice/fearmongering these days that I hear about in my online Moms' group: this idea that somehow it's harmful to praise a child, that they won't "own their accomplishments." It's good to hear that there's work out there that counters this is a way that makes perfect sense....at least it does to me as a teacher, mom and former child!
Thanks for the post, and I look forward to the next in the series.

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