Psychotherapy East and West

By John Welwood

WHY IS IT SO EASY to see the value of psychological work for Western people, yet so hard to imagine traditional Asian people utilizing the services of a psychotherapist? And why do most of the Eastern spiritual teachers I know have so much difficulty understanding psychological work and its potential value fora spiritual practitioner? What accounts for this disparity?

In presenting my hypotheses about this, I am not trying to advance a full-blown anthropological theory. Nor do I wish to idealize the societies of ancient India or Tibet, which certainly have many serious problems of their own. Rather, my intention is to point out some (admittedly generalized) social and cultural differences that may help us consider how we in the West may have a somewhat different course of psycho spiritual development to follow than people in the traditional cultures where the great meditative practices first arose and flourished.

Some would argue that psychotherapy is a sign of how spoiled or narcissistic Westerners are--that we can afford the luxury of delving into our psyches and fiddling with our personal problems while Rome burns all around. Yet though industrial society has alleviated many of the grosser forms of physical pain, it has also created difficult kinds of personal and social fragmentation that were unknown in premodern societies, generating a new kind of psychological suffering that led to the development of modern psychotherapy.


Traditional Asian culture did not engender the pronounced split between mind and body that we in the West know so well. In giving priority to the welfare of the collective, Asian societies also did not foster the division between self and other, individual and society, that is endemic to the Westernmind. There was neither a generation gap nor the pervasive social alienation that has become a hallmark of modern life.

In this sense, the villages and extended families of traditional India or Tibet actually seem to have built sturdier ego structures, not so debilitated by the inner divisions--between mind and body, individual and society, parent and child, or weak ego and harsh, punishing superego--characteristic of the modern self. The "upper stories" of spiritual development in Asian culture could be built on a more stable and cohesive "ground floor" human foundation.

Early child-rearing practices in some traditional Asian cultures, while often far from ideal, were in some ways more wholesome than in the modern West. Asian mothers often had a strong dedication to providing their children with strong, sustained early bonding. Young Indian and Tibetan children, for instance, are continually held, often sharing their parents' bed for their first two or three years. As Alan Roland, a psychoanalyst who spent many years studying cross-cultural differences in Asian and Western self-development, describes Indian child rearing:

Intense, prolonged maternal involvement in the first four or five years with the young child, with adoration of the young child to the extent of treating him or her as godlike, develops a central core of heightened well-being in the child. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts, servants, older sisters and cousin-sisters are all involved in the pervasive mirroring that is incorporated into an inner core of extremely high feelings of esteem. . . . Indian childrearing and the inner structuralization of heightened esteem are profoundly psychologically congruent with the basic Hindu concept that the individual soul is essentially the godhead (atman-brahman). A heightened sense of inner regard and the premise that a person can strive to become godlike are strongly connected. . . . This is in contrast to the Western Christian premise of original sin.

According to Roland, this nurturing quality of the Indian extended family helps the child develop an ego structure whose boundaries are "on the whole more flexible and permeable than in most Westerners," and "less rigorously drawn."(One telling sign of the difference between child rearing influences East and West is that Tibetan teachers, who traditionally begin compassion practices by instructing students to regard all sentient beings as their mothers, have been surprised and dismayed by the difficulty many American students have in using their mothers as a starting point for developing compassion.)

Growing up in extended families, Asian children are also exposed to a wide variety of role models and sources of nurturance, even if the primary parents are not very available. Tibetan tribal villages, for instance, usually regarded the children as belonging to everyone, and everyone's responsibility. Extended families mitigate the parents' tendency to possess their children psychologically. By contrast, parents in nuclear families often have more investment in "This is my child; my child is an extension of me"--which contributes to narcissistic injury and intense fixations on parents that persist for many Westerners throughout their lives.

Certain developmental psychologists have argued that children with deficient parenting hold on to the internalized traces of their parents more rigidly inside themselves. This might explain why the Tibetans I know do not seem to suffer from the heavy parental fixations that many Westerners have. Their self/other (object relational) complexes would not be as tight or conflicted as for Westerners who lack good early bonding and who spend their first eighteen years in an isolated nuclear family with one or two adults, who themselves are alienated from both folk wisdom and spiritual understanding. Asian children would be less burdened by the emotional plague of modern civilization: ego weakness, the lack of a grounded, confident sense of oneself and one's capacities.

In addition to fostering strong mother-infant bonding, intact extended families, and a life attuned to the rhythms of the natural world, traditional Asian societies maintained the sacred at the center of social life. A culture that provides individuals with shared myths, meanings, religious values, and rituals provides a source of support and guidance that helps people make sense of their lives. In all these ways, a traditional Asian child would likely grow up more nurtured by what pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott called the "holding environment"--a context of love, support, belonging, and meaning that contributes to a basic sense of confidence and to healthy psychological development in general. By contrast, children today who grow up in fragmented families, glued to television sets that continually transmit images of a spiritually lost, fragmented, and narcissistic world, lack a meaningful context in which to situate their lives.

One way these differences manifest is in how people inhabit their bodies. In observing Tibetans, I am often struck by how centered they are in the lower half of the body and how powerfully they are connected to the ground beneath their feet. Tibetans naturally seem to possess a great deal of hara--grounded presence in the belly--which is no doubt a result of the factors mentioned above.Westerners, by contrast, are generally more centered in the upper half of their body and weak in their connection to the lower half.

Hara, the vital center or earth center, is connected with issues of confidence, power, will, groundedness, trust, support, and equanimity. The child-rearing deficiencies, disconnection from the earth, and over emphasis on rational intellect in Western culture all contribute to loss of hara. To compensate for the lack of a sense of support and trust in the belly, Westerners often try to achieve security and control by going "upstairs"--trying to control life with their mind. But behind the ego's attempts to control reality with the mind lies a pervasive sense of fear, anxiety, and insecurity.


Another difference that has important consequences for psycho-spiritual development is the greater value traditional Asian cultures place on being, in contrast to Western cultures, which put more emphasis on doing. Winnicott in particular stressed the importance of allowing a young child to remain in unstructured states of being: "The mother's nondemanding presence makes the experience of formlessness and comfortable solitude possible, and this capacity becomes a central feature in the development of a stable and personal self. . . . This makes it possible for the infant to experience . . . a state of 'going-on-being' out of which . . . spontaneous gestures emerge."

Winnicott used the term impingement to describe a parent's tendency to interrupt these formless moments, forcing children to separate abruptly from the continuity of their "going-on-being." The child is "wrenched from his quiescent state and forced to respond . . . and to mold himself to what is provided for him. The major consequence of prolonged impingement is fragmentation of the infant's experience. Out of necessity he becomes prematurely and compulsively attuned to the claims of others. . . . He loses touch with his own spontaneous needs and gestures . . . [and develops] a false self on a compliant basis."

Traditional Asian families often give the young child plenty of room and permission just to be, in an unstructured way, free from the pressures to respond and perform that Western parents often place on their children at a nearly age. Allowed to be in that way, these children would be more comfortable with emptiness, which we could define here as unstructured being.

But in our culture, which emphasizes doing, having, and achieving at the expense of simply being, emptiness can seem quite alien, threatening, and terrifying. In a family or society that does not recognize or value being,children are more likely to interpret their own unstructured being as some kind of deficiency, as failure to measure up, as an inadequacy or lack. Thus the Western ego structure seems to form in a more rigid and defended way, in part toward off a terrifying sense of deficiency born out of fear of the open,unstructured nature of one's very being.

As a result of this brittle ego having to work overtime to compensate for a lack of inner trust and confidence, many Western seekers find that they are not ready, willing, or able to let go of their ego defenses, despite all their spiritual practice and realization. On a deep, subconscious level, it is too threatening to let go of the little security that their shaky ego structure provides. That is why it can also be helpful for Westerners to work on dismantling their defensive personality structure in a more gradual and deliberate way, through psychological inquiry--examining, understanding, and dissolving all their false self-images, their self-deceptions, their distorted projections, and their habitual emotional reactions, one by one--and developing a fuller, richer connection with themselves in the process.

In sum, to the extent that traditional Asian children grew up supported by a nurturing holding environment, they would be more likely to receive more of what Winnicott defined as the two essential elements of parenting in early childhood: sustained emotional bonding and space to be, to rest in unstructured being. As are sult, these children would tend to grow up with a more stable, grounded sense of confidence and well-being--what we call in the West "ego strength"--in contrast to the self-hatred, insecurity, and shaky sense of self that modern Western people often suffer from.

In discussing Asian child development here, I am speaking of influences in the first few years of childhood, when the ego structure first starts to coalesce. In later childhood, many Asian parents become much more controlling, exerting strong pressure on children to conform and to subordinate their individuality to collective rules and roles. Thus Roland notes that most neurotic conflicts among modern Asians are found in the area of family enmeshment and difficulties with self-differentiation. Indeed, while Eastern culture more generally values and understands being and emptiness, as well as interconnectedness, the West values and has a deeper appreciation of individuation.

Cultivating one's own individual vision, qualities, and potentials is of much greater significance in the West than in traditional Asia, where spiritual development could more easily coexist alongside a low level of individuation.Here is where psychological work may serve another important function forWesterners, by helping them to individuate--to listen to and trust their own experience, to develop an authentic personal vision and sense of direction, and to clear up the psychological conflicts that prevent them from authentically being themselves.

Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman has argued that since Buddhism is a path of individuation, it is inaccurate to characterize this tradition as not promoting individual development. Certainly the Buddha gave birth to a new vision that encouraged individuals to pursue their own spiritual development, instead of depending on conventional religious rituals. In that broad sense, Buddhism can be regarded as a path of individuation. But this is a different model of individuation from the one that has developed in the West. As Roland notes, individuation in Asian cultures was usually limited to the arena of spiritual practice, rather than supported as a general norm.

The Western notion of individuation involves finding one's own unique calling, vision, and path, and embodying these in the way one lives. To become oneself in this sense often involves innovation, experimentation, and the questioning of received knowledge. As Buddhist scholar Anne Klein notes:"Tibetans, like many Asians who have grown up outside Western influence, do not cultivate this sense of individuality."

In traditional Asia, the teachings of liberation were geared toward people who were, if anything, too earthbound, too involved in family roles and social obligations. The highest, non-dual teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism--which show that who you really are is absolute reality, beyond you--provided a way out of the social maze, helping people discover the trans-human absolute that lies beyond all worldly concerns and entanglements. Yet these teachings rest on and presume a rich underpinning of human community, religious customs, and moral values, like a mountain arising out of a network of foothills and valleys below.The soulful social and religious customs of traditional India and Tibet provided a firm human base out of which spiritual aspirations for a transhuman absolute, beyond human relationships and human society, could arise.

Because the traditional Asian's sense of self is embedded in a soulful culture rich in tradition, ritual, and close-knit family and community life, people in these cultures did not lose themselves or become alienated from their own humanness in the way that Westerners have. And since soul--the deep, rich,colorful qualities of our humanness--permeated the whole culture, the need to develop individuated soul qualities never assumed the importance that it has in the West. Never having lost their soul, traditional Asians never had to develop any consciousness about how to find it--that is, how to individuate in a distinctly personal way.

In the modern West, it is quite common to feel alienated from the larger social whole--whose public spaces and architecture, celebrations, institutions,family life, and even food are lacking in nourishing soul qualities that allow people to feel deeply connected to these aspects of life, as well as to one another. The good news, however, is that the soullessness of our culture is forcing us to develop a new consciousness about forging an individuated soul--an authentic inner source of personal vision, meaning, and purpose. One important out growth of this is a refined and sophisticated capacity for nuanced personal awareness, personal sensitivity, and personal presence.

This is not something the Asian traditions can teach us much about. If the great gift of the East is its focus on absolute true nature--impersonal and shared by all alike--the gift of the West is the impetus it provides to develop an individuated expression of true nature--which we could also call soul or personal presence. Individuated true nature is the unique way that each of us can serve as a vehicle for embodying the suprapersonal wisdom, compassion, and truth of absolute true nature.

We in the West clearly have much to learn from the Eastern contemplative teachings. But if we only try to adhere to the Eastern focus on the transhuman,or suprapersonal, while failing to develop a grounded, personal way of relating to life, we may have a hard time integrating our larger nature into the way we actually live.

John Welwood, associate editor of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and a thirty-year student of Tibetan Buddhism. His article "The Play of the Mind" appeared in the September-October 2000 Quest magazine. This article is excerpted from his recent book, Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation (Shambhala, 2000).