Book Reviews – Winter Edition

A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World

By Daniel Goleman

Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015

272 pp, £12.99

Reviewed by Kelly Hearn

ISBN 978-0-553-39489-4

 

The Dalai Lama has long been a rock star in my mind…at least since I first read The Art of Happiness, a 1998 collaboration he did with the psychiatrist Howard Cutler. That book served as an introduction to me, and I suspect many other westerners, of both Buddhist philosophy and the relevance of the Dalai Lama’s personal and spiritual outlook to our own personal happiness. In the book, the links between Buddhism and western cognitive psychology are clear – namely that happiness is determined by one’s state of mind (and related ‘mind training’) rather than by external conditions or events.

But I confess even I was a bit surprised to see him as a LITERAL rock star, making an appearing at Glastonbury this last summer, and more recently on stage at the O2 in London. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been. The Dalai Lama is tied as most popular leader (with Obama) among Americans and Europeans according to a 2013 poll. He commands nearly 12 million Twitter followers (vs Obama’s 4m), a significant endorsement by popular culture. Amazon lists close to 100 books penned by the Dalai Lama himself, and 369 titles including those about him by all authors. Given that his message of compassion is remarkably simple and consistent, one wonders what more there could possibly be left to say on the subject?

In the book, the links between Buddhism and western cognitive psychology are clear – namely that happiness is determined by one’s state of mind (and related ‘mind training’) rather than by external conditions or events.

Enter the latest title, A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World, written by Emotional Intelligence author and internationally-known psychologist Daniel Goleman in honour of the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. The book is based on a series over conversations and observations over their 30 years of friendship. In the text, the Dalai Lama explains how to cultivate inner compassion then turn this energy outward.  Here again, the connection between inner and outer compassion seems to have already been covered in The Art of Happiness series, in a sequel entitled The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World. And yet, given even a cursory look at the state of international conflicts and rampant tribalism (‘us vs them’ thinking) still alive and kicking, the message clearly hasn’t sunk in. From this perspective, another attempt at it is most welcome.

 this process entails taking responsibility for managing our own minds and emotions by lessening the power of destructive emotions and fostering more positive modes of being

smiley lama‘The most important thing I hope readers will come to understand is that…change will not take place because of decisions taken by governments or at the UN. Real change will take place when individuals transform themselves guided by the values that lie at the core of all human ethical systems, scientific findings and common sense,’ so states the book’s core message up front in the book’s introduction. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the Dalai Lama has acted on this belief for decades. But before we can take action in the outside world, locally or internationally, he asserts that we need to engage in ‘Emotional Hygiene’ at the personal level. Simply put, this process entails taking responsibility for managing our own minds and emotions by lessening the power of destructive emotions and fostering more positive modes of being (cognitive behavioural therapists applauding everywhere). Only by cultivating this inner self-mastery are we then equipped to see it as a ‘universal ethic based on the oneness of humanity (transpersonal therapists join in the applause) and best expressed as compassion for all.

In reading the sections describing this process, I was reminded of two quotes from other great spiritual leaders:

‘You must be the change you want to see in the world’ – Gandhi

‘What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.’ – Mother Theresa

The book, and the quotes, provide a powerful antidote to the helplessness we feel while ingesting a continuous diet of bad news. The Dalai Lama points out that the media is quick to inform us of the problems, but short on detail regarding what we can do to improve things. ‘Start at home, with the self,’ all three leaders seem to be saying. This is something we all can do, although too often these days, it seems, we are quick to instead point our attention and efforts at what’s wrong with ‘others.’ However, as the Dalai Lama and any psychologist worth her salt would caution, most of the negatives we perceive ‘out there’ are wrong, mere mental projections. We sort ourselves out, we take the projections back. As Carl Jung said: “The best political, social, and spiritual work we can do is to withdraw the projection of our shadow onto others.”

If there is one word synonymous with the Dalai Lama’s ethos, most people would agree it is compassion. However, this is sometimes mistaken to be compassion exclusively for others. As is made perfectly clear in Goleman’s book, compassion does not just imply sympathy or charity for someone else. ‘You need a word in English,’ the Dalai Lama told a group of psychologists, ‘ “self-compassion.” To cultivate genuine compassion we need to take responsibility for our own care and have concern for everyone’s suffering, including our own.’ This particular point is one that comes up frequently in my interactions with clients who put their own needs aside in favour of care-taking others. These individuals (and perhaps western society in general) are locked into a way of thinking that self-care is somehow equated with selfishness. But how can we extend to others what is lacking in ourselves? ‘Give from the overflow, not from the well,’ one wise supervisor once advised me. So many of us don’t attend to keeping the well full; perhaps we do need that word in the English language after all.

The links between western psychology and Buddhism are obvious on the page.

The links between western psychology and Buddhism are obvious on the page. As Goleman writes, ‘Both approaches use the power of reasoning to understand and heal the mind; both encourage attitudes of acceptance and compassion. The cognitive therapy technique of talking back to self-defeating thoughts (rather than believing them and acting accordingly) seems straight out of the Dalai Lama’s playbook.’ It is no wonder that he had an immediate rapport with Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy, when the two met.

If there is one criticism I have of the book in this area, it is that it is short on practical details. Anyone already engaged in meditation or spiritual practice may nod her head in agreement, while others who are newer to the concepts may be left wondering how to affect this process. (Pema Chodron and Tara Brach’s books are far more detailed in this respect, and so recommended if this is what a reader is after).

If the first parts of the book are dedicated to an attention inward, the latter half shifts it outward. The chapter ‘Economics as if People Mattered’ argues for ‘positive capitalism,’ or a system where ‘you move forward but also make it possible for others to move forward too.’ A theme, no doubt that resonates in the shifting political landscape where social inequality features prominently.

If there is one criticism I have of the book in this area, it is that it is short on practical details. Anyone already engaged in meditation or spiritual practice may nod her head in agreement, while others who are newer to the concepts may be left wondering how to affect this process.

Further chapters explore the link between inner compassion and extending this to those in need, including the earth and needed environmental action. Acknowledging the many serious problems in the world, from conflict in the Ukraine to the Middle East to Africa, the Dalai Lama asserts ‘all these are man-made troubles due to emotions out of control. Self-centeredness, us-and-them thinking, and hatred.’ Once again, the ‘answer’ comes back to the individual. In fostering an emotional state of compassion, we move from a warrior-like society to a more peaceful one at the worldwide level. And if self-compassion derives from self-dialogue, worldwide compassion calls for broader dialogue, not violence. ‘Invariably, violence creates more problems than it solves. The only way to solve problems is not by the use of force but by talking.’ I was reading this part of the book while watching the first Republican Presidential candidate debates in the US and found it to be a striking contrast with the ‘war-mongering’ attitude of the 15 men on stage. (Witness Mike Huckabee’s comment, ‘The purpose of military is to kill people and break things.’ Wince. I couldn’t help but think 15 copies of Goleman’s book should be sent out, stat.)

If the Dalai Lama’s vision of dialogue over violence seems hopelessly idealistic in light of the current political realities, he counters by saying that he takes the long view. He doesn’t expect change in his lifetime, and encourages us not to expect it in ours. Still, he has hope for the next generations. And advises us to ‘plant the seeds’ to foster this change happen, even if we’re not around to witness the fruition. Once again, he harkens back to the theme of the individual, in what becomes almost a refrain in A Force for Good: ‘If you want to change the world,’ he says, first try to improve – change within yourself. ‘That will help change your family. From there it just gets bigger and bigger.’ Critics may argue the book, and this message, is repetitive. That the viewpoint has been packaged, and better, in earlier books. All of this may be true. Still, I am hopeful this latest installment may just expand the audience, and in doing so gather momentum for what seems to be the most thoughtful, compassionate, sensible way forward.



 

Fundamentals of Psychoanalytic Technique – A Lacanian Approach For Practitioners

By Bruce Fink

W. W. Norton and Company, 2007

301 pp £15.99

Reviewed by Nick Opyrchal

ISBN – 13: 978-0-393-70508-9

 

 

Lacan has long been a psychoanalytic theorist who has fascinated me – firstly owing to the brutal criticism that he has attracted from the more orthodox sections of psychoanalysis and philosophy, and secondly owing to the unbridled enthusiasm for his work that I had encountered in the writing of popular-yet-manic Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek and certain sections of continental academia (Zizek is even a qualified Lacanian analyst). Characters that arouse such bipolar reactions always interest me as I find that usually they contain challenges to established orthodoxies which are worth considering in depth.

Unfortunately, when it comes to studying something in depth you need to be able to read it in a way which allows you to make sense of it. In this regard we are a bit under-equipped in the English speaking world for Lacan. His work is famously (and deliberately) obscure –  for instance he declared that he meant for his most famous book ‘Ecrits’ to be read as a mystical text, with no set meaning behind it – which is infuriating for a first time reader looking for a coherent system from which to understand his psychoanalysis.

Characters that arouse such bipolar reactions always interest me as I find that usually they contain challenges to established orthodoxies which are worth considering in depth.

bruce fink bookImagine my surprise then when I encounter Bruce Fink’s offering, which not only presents Lacan’s work in a readable and easy-to-understand format, but also includes guides on how to apply it practically in a therapy session. Whereas most other work on Lacan is more philosophical and seems designed for someone who has already penetrated the various puzzling algebraic ‘mathemes’, understands the difference between the ‘symbolic’ the ‘imaginary’ and the ‘real’ and knows the ‘four discourses’ , Fink’s work instead starts at ground level. He assumes little to no knowledge of Lacanian analysis and seems to aim the book more at an integrative practice, I found this especially useful and appreciated the effort to explain the core concepts while drawing parallel to other psychodynamic practices to help the reader to understand how Lacanian analysis differs.

Much of Fink’s book challenged my dogmatically held views on psychotherapy and this was what I valued the most in his writing. All assertions were backed up through his considerable experience as an analyst and theoretical justifications were provided based on Fink’s obviously detailed knowledge of Lacanian theory which made these challenges worth considering at the very least.

if we (the therapist) seek to understand the client by imposing our own experiences on them then we miss the ‘otherness of the other’.

for example it was interesting to see the way in which Lacanian therapy does not employ ’empathy’ in the sense of trying to find an experience in the life of the therapy practitioner that helps us to understand what it must ‘be like’ for the client. The idea being that if we (the therapist) seek to understand the client by imposing our own experiences on them then we miss the ‘otherness of the other’. I found this especially useful and relevant to client work and Fink’s description of the analyst ‘imagining’ themselves in place of the other helped me to understand the Lacanian ‘Imaginary’ stage in practice.

According to Fink, emphasis in Lacanian practice is instead on intently listening to the discourse of the client in order to hear moments in which the repressed announces itself – drawing heavily on Freudian techniques such as slips of the tongue, double meanings or half finished sentences in order to identify where the unconscious lies hidden. I found this a useful reminder- although these are fundamentals of Freudian psychoanalysis the emphasis on the discourse is noticeably different than (for instance) a Winnicottian perspective. In fact Fink takes many other therapeutic perspectives to task throughout the book; especially around the current emphasis on the therapists countertransference and projective identification which is dismissed by Fink as justification for psychotherapists who have not done enough personal work of their own, allowing them to ‘blame’ it on the client and to claim near mystical powers of empathy and understanding of the clients ‘repressed stuff’. There is a constant checking of the narcissism of psychotherapeutic practitioners which I actually really liked throughout the book, although some of the concepts clash with my training in transpersonal psychotherapy.

Lacanians use endings as a form of punctuation, to encourage work between sessions by ending on a particularly charged insight

Finally I also got to hear a practitioners explanation of the variable length session – this was one subject which seemed beyond the pale for many psychotherapists, who rigidly stick to the boundaries of the 50 minute ‘therapeutic hour’. Fink highlights firstly how the length of session varies between countries anyway, before then going on explain that Lacanians use endings as a form of punctuation, to encourage work between sessions by ending on a particularly charged insight and that this might take more rather than less time than a conventional session. I appreciated the idea of the ending of the session being a therapeutic tool in itself and not simply a way in which practitioners could charge more for less time.

In conclusion I would heartily recommend ‘Fundamentals of psychoanalytic technique…’ primarily for the challenges that it applies to the more conventionally established Anglo-American schools of therapy. Fink points out that although relatively unknown as a therapeutic method in the UK there are more Lacanian practitioners in France, Spain and South America than any other type. It is about time that we had an English language introduction to practical psychotherapy in this modality.

 

 

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