Psychotherapy Tips

Psychotherapy east and west alan watts

Vastly underrated and tragically out of print, _Psychotherapy East and West_ is Alan Watts’ greatest work, and is one of the greatest works of psychology/philosophy of the twentieth century written in English. This book is also an ideal introductory course to the psychology of Carl G. Jung. Anyone who wants to read Jung should read this first (even though it came later) because it encompasses all of Jungs key concepts in an ultra-concentrated yet remarkably readable form. That is not to say that Jung is unreadable, because he most certainly is a great, easily translatable writer. But Alan Watts had the advantage of writing in English, and for this reason I believe _Psychotherapy East and West_ is THE ULTIMATE introduction to psychology for the Anglo-American reader. It represents the new wave of fusion psychology/philosophy/religious Asian cusine. No longer should all these fields be separated. Alan Watts and Carl Jung together have succeeded in combining the fields of psychology, philosophy, theology, and anthropological mythology. This is the new wave of generalized spiritual enlightenment which is also unbiased, critical, sceptical and truthful. It has spawned such other great authors as Julian Jaynes and Terrance McKenna. The best thing about this new kind of psychotherapy is that it is not cold and pretentious with regard to religion, but is tolerant and advocating of any type of belief system which enhances people’s well being and mental health. Because it is nevertheless rigorous in uncovering the truth, it resembles Eastern Buddhism. Keep in mind that Buddhism makes no firm and unverifiable claims regarding the existence of God or an afterlife; it is simply a stategy for living one’s life in the most enjoyable way possible, and _Psychotherapy East and West_ does an excellent job in making this way of life accessable to Americans. This book is the ultimate alliance of belief, spirtuality, psychotherapy, and mental well-being on the one hand, and truthful, critical philosophy on the other. It does not wish to insulate people from spiritual crises and keep them suspended in naive belief, but introduces us to a new wave of spiritualism that is hardened by scepticism and impervious to doubt. While some philosophy might pride itself on debunking unverifiable beliefs, it does not provide a solution to man’s broken and neurotic psychological condition due to his lost spirituality. _Psychotherapy East and West_, on the other hand, is respective of truth, critical and sceptical, yet provides firm answers as to how we can avoid the neuroses and depression that might result from an upending of our spiritual beliefs. Unconditionally recommended. One of my top five books of all time, of any genre.

Vastly underrated and tragically out of print, _Psychotherapy East and West_ is Alan Watts’ greatest work, and is one of the greatest works of psychology/philosophy of the twentieth century written in English. This book is also an ideal introductory course to the psychology of Carl G. Jung. Anyone who wants to read Jung should read this first (even though it came later) because it encompasses all of Jungs key concepts in an ultra-concentrated yet remarkably readable form. That is not to say that Jung is unreadable, because he most certainly is a great, easily translatable writer. But Alan Watts had the advantage of writing in English, and for this reason I believe _Psychotherapy East and West_ is THE ULTIMATE introduction to psychology for the Anglo-American reader. It represents the new wave of fusion psychology/philosophy/religious Asian cusine. No longer should all these fields be separated. Alan Watts and Carl Jung together have succeeded in combining the fields of psychology, philosophy, theology, and anthropological mythology. This is the new wave of generalized spiritual enlightenment which is also unbiased, critical, sceptical and truthful. It has spawned such other great authors as Julian Jaynes and Terrance McKenna. The best thing about this new kind of psychotherapy is that it is not cold and pretentious with regard to religion, but is tolerant and advocating of any type of belief system which enhances people’s well being and mental health. Because it is nevertheless rigorous in uncovering the truth, it resembles Eastern Buddhism. Keep in mind that Buddhism makes no firm and unverifiable claims regarding the existence of God or an afterlife; it is simply a stategy for living one’s life in the most enjoyable way possible, and _Psychotherapy East and West_ does an excellent job in making this way of life accessable to Americans. This book is the ultimate alliance of belief, spirtuality, psychotherapy, and mental well-being on the one hand, and truthful, critical philosophy on the other. It does not wish to insulate people from spiritual crises and keep them suspended in naive belief, but introduces us to a new wave of spiritualism that is hardened by scepticism and impervious to doubt. While some philosophy might pride itself on debunking unverifiable beliefs, it does not provide a solution to man’s broken and neurotic psychological condition due to his lost spirituality. _Psychotherapy East and West_, on the other hand, is respective of truth, critical and sceptical, yet provides firm answers as to how we can avoid the neuroses and depression that might result from an upending of our spiritual beliefs. Unconditionally recommended. One of my top five books of all time, of any genre.

Before he became a counterculture hero, Alan Watts was known as an incisive scholar of Eastern and Western psychology and philosophy. In this 1961 classic, Watts demonstrates his deep understanding of both Western psychotherapy and the Eastern spiritual philosophies of Buddhism, Taoism, Vedanta, and Yoga.

He examines the problem of humans in a seemingly hostile universe in ways that question the social norms and illusions that bind and constrict modern humans. Marking a groundbreaking synthesis, Watts asserts that the powerful insights of Freud and Jung, which had, indeed, brought psychiatry close to the edge of liberation, could, if melded with the hitherto secret wisdom of the Eastern traditions, free people from their battles with the self. When psychotherapy merely helps us adjust to social norms, Watts argued, it falls short of true liberation, while Eastern philosophy seeks our natural relation to the cosmos.

Psychotherapy East & West
Alan Watts’ book Psychotherapy East & West was first published by Pantheon in 1961. It has just been reissued by New World Library, which is becoming one of my favorite spiritually oriented publishers. I was invited to re-read it and if I wished to write a review.

I read it. And, absolutely, I would like to share some thoughts.

New World’s publicity folk wrote a pretty good summary of what the book offers.

“Before he became a counterculture hero, Alan Watts was known as an incisive scholar of Eastern and Western psychology and philosophy. In this 1961 classic, Watts demonstrates his deep understanding of both Western psychotherapy and the Eastern spiritual philosophies of Buddhism, Taoism, Vedanta, and Yoga. He examined the problem of humans in a seemingly hostile universe in ways that questioned the social norms and illusions that bind and constrict modern humans. Marking a groundbreaking synthesis, Watts asserted that the powerful insights of Freud and Jung, which had, indeed, brought psychiatry close to the edge of liberation, could, if melded with the hitherto secret wisdom of the Eastern traditions, free people from their battles with the self. When psychotherapy merely helps us adjust to social norms, Watts argued, it falls short of true liberation, while Eastern philosophy seeks our natural relation to the cosmos.”

1961 was a pivotal year in the conversation between (Zen) Buddhism and Western Psychology. It was most importantly marked by the publication of Eric Fromm & D. T. Suzuki’s Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. But, once again, Suzuki’s discipline Alan Watts did the old teacher one better, writing a much more readable and inviting book on the same subject. And significantly Watts wasn’t simply an interpreter, he put his own stamp onto the project.

Alan Watts wrote in his preface to the book, “Wonderful as I have found them, I do not believe that the Eastern disciplines are the last word in sacrosanct and immemorial wisdom such that the world must come and sit humbly at the feet of their masters. Nor do I feel that there is a gospel according to Freud, or to Jung, in which the great psychological truths are forever fixed.” He wasn’t interested in simply presenting the obvious parallels “between Western psychotherapy and Eastern philosophy.” Rather, he wanted to address the differing approaches of engaging the mind in east and west principally as a “jolt” for both sides of the equation, sparking new directions of inquiry.

Alan Watts youngAmong his key assertions were that the disciplines of “Buddhism, Taoism, Vedanta, and Yoga” vastly more resemble Western approaches to psychotherapy than to Western religions, writ large. And he then proceeded to catalog the whys of his thesis. Today this position is a common place in some circles, and certainly has led to a vast and growing literature. But, in 1961 this was still an idea germinating barely beyond a seed planted only some twenty or thirty years before and found in reflections scattered around, such as C. G. Jung’s commentary on Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the Daoist alchemical text, Secret of the Golden Flower, and, actually, Watts’ own 1940 contribution, The Meaning of Happiness.

This would become a vital aspect of the Buddhist dialogue with Western culture, and birth some very interesting and widely influential perspectives. It also has created what can fairly be called a new Buddhism, one that is not completely congruent with the historical faith in any of its traditional forms. This mightily Western psychologically oriented Buddhism might today even be the most popular form of the faith among Western converts.

And of course this has been met with criticism. The Western born Theravada monk Bhikkhu Bodhi in an interview cited at Wikipedia, warns:

“What I am concerned about is the trend, common among present-day Buddhist teachers, of recasting the core principles of the Buddha’s teachings into largely psychological terms and then saying, “This is Dhamma.” When this is done we may never get to see that the real purpose of the teaching, in its own framework, is not to induce “healing” or “wholeness” or “self-acceptance,” but to propel the mind in the direction of deliverance – and to do so by attenuating, and finally extricating, all those mental factors responsible for our bondage and suffering. We should remember that the Buddha did not teach the Dhamma as an “art of living” – though it includes that – but above all as a path to deliverance, a path to final liberation and enlightenment. And what the Buddha means by enlightenment is not a celebration of the limitations of the human condition, not a passive submission to our frailties, but an overcoming of those limitations by making a radical, revolutionary breakthrough to an altogether different dimension of being.”

Alan Watts

This is important. And it raises some interesting questions beyond the defense of a traditional religion as it moves to a new culture. There is always a dialogue between a missionary religion and the faiths already in that place. Islam encountering Hinduism in India birthed the Sikh faith. Buddhism entering China birthed the Zen schools. But, while one of the more interesting dynamics this time is that while there is a rich dialogue between Buddhism and the religions of the West, particularly Christianity, this time it was different. The main encounter, one could argue, has been between Buddhism and Western psychology.

Something dynamic has birthed here in the West. And this book stands quite close to the beginning of that whole project. The first two sentences of Psychotherapy East & West read, “If we look deeply into such ways of life as Buddhism and Taoism, Vedanta and Yoga, we do not find either philosophy or religion as these are understood in the West. We find something more nearly resembling psychotherapy.”

It had been more than thirty years, probably closer to forty since I last read this book. What surprised me was how fresh it remains. Of course he lacks any reference to the now enormous literature both scientific and speculative of this emergent psychological, mostly Buddhist influenced spirituality. But, the book shows us a lot of the roots of this approach. Watts’ encyclopedic citations of the range of the existentialist, humanistic, and positivist writers flourishing at the beginning and middle of the twentieth century together with his selective approach to Eastern, and particularly Zen Buddhist literature feels a tsunami rushing over any questions or hesitations.

As I read I felt, yes, yes, this is true. Fortunately, one has to put the book down. And as I did I could see that while he offers genuine insights, he is also a master story teller, and his narrative weaves a web that can entrap as well as illuminate. So, fair warning on that. For me as I re-read him and reflected a little I saw how much I am indebted to Alan Watts, and how much, perhaps, he had ensnared my thinking at a critical juncture in my life. This is not completely a blessing.

On the one hand without Watts, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have embarked on my own investigation of Zen. While on the other hand I had to do a lot of unlearning in order to find what was actually being taught me by my Zen mentors and guides.

Of course he cuts in two directions in this book. Even as he “corrects” Buddhism through his humanistic, existential psychology, he “corrects” psychology through his wide ranging reading of Eastern texts, most obviously Buddhism. So, he could criticize Carl Jung’s use “of ‘unconscious’ on the one hand an of the content of the liberation experience on the other is too narrowly psychological.” So, he attempted to thread a rather tight needle. And, what is surprising for me is how well he did it.

So, who would profit from reading this book today?

Well, me. I not only found myself covering territory that I thought I’d discovered on my own, but that in fact Watts had pointed me toward some forty odd years ago, and which I gradually found for myself. I also found some warnings. Knowing how his life would play out I found myself noticing the narcissistic tendencies presented as a libertarian sort of awakened perspective, which given full reign turn out to be pretty destructive.

That red flag noted, even as Watts always was a tad too facile, a bit too sure of his own perspective, he also saw into something and he shared it with the world. And, this book stands as a monument to the man, his thinking, and his gifts, both for good and ill.

So, for that, I think I can recommend this book to those interested not only in the foundations of the Buddhist and Western psychological conversation, but the actual lived experience of that dialogue. he shows us both the promise and the dangers.

As I read I felt there was genuine wisdom in this book, and on full display that eclectic spirit willing to find the authentic wherever it presents that I think points true. Today for those wanting to explore the depths found within the meeting of psychology and Eastern perspectives, specifically, most specifically Buddhism, there are a host of authors I’d recommend rather than Alan Watts. As practical invitations I think of Tara Brach, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Daniel Goleman, Liz Roemer, and Marsha Linehan. For more theoretical and scientific approaches, I think of James Austin, Richard Davidson and Alan Wallace. And specifically weaving Zen Buddhism and Western psychology together in a healthy and balanced way, very much I think of Barry Magid.

That said, Alan Watts and particularly this book, Psychotherapy East & West is worth reading, or, for some of us, re-reading. He is lucid, he is inviting, possibly he is seductive. Alan Watts’ vision of a spiritual psychology is an invitation into a world at play, where God is playing peek a boo with himself, herself, itself.

Here we’re invited into that play in the fields of the Lord.

Me, I think there’s more to the project. But, for the parts he goes for, there are few as good as Alan Watts in presenting it.

Absolutely worth a read.

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap