NCSPP

Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology

POTENTIAL SPACE: Blair J. Davis, MA

EXAMINING EGO: COMPARING MINDFULNESS AND PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

The past few decades have seen the growing acceptance of mindfulness in psychology. As used in the West, "mindfulness" refers to a nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Though the melding of mindfulness and psychoanalysis has not yielded many structured clinical approaches, theorists such as Jack Kornfield, Mark Epstein, and Jeremy Safran have compared and contrasted these traditions. How can the psychoanalytic clinician use mindfulness? To misquote a popular saying, "WWFD?" ("What would Freud do?"). 

Mindfulness and analytic schools of thought regard two important but related concepts, the self and the ego, in quite different ways. The self is commonly defined as a cognitive and/or affective representation of one's individual identity. Kohut conceptualized the self as a construct created through early experience, one that is adaptable but with a static core. His view departed from Freud's concept of the ego ("the I"); Freud originally equated the ego with a sense of self but later declared, "The ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world ... The ego represents what may be called reason and common sense ..." (The Ego and the Id, 1923). Psychoanalytic therapy is wedded to the Western cultural belief that healthy development requires emergence of an autonomous, individuated self. Thus, clinician and client alike often equate health, happiness, and success with strengthening the self through separation from others, individual action, and independent achievement. 

Mindfulness, on the other hand, is interested in cultivation of the "no-self," the Buddhist tenet that the self is impermanent and insubstantial -- and that this can be a good thing. Buddhist psychiatrist Mark Epstein has noted that many people have become estranged from themselves and their experience of the present moment and points out the importance of seeing the ego as a transient entity, "arising and passing away moment to moment [and having] no inherent reality." In Epstein's view, "the happiness that we seek depends on our ability to balance the ego's need to do with our inherent capacity to be." Whether or not we subscribe to a Buddhist philosophy, this is a concept we may want to keep in mind when working with clients who are struggling with issues of self and the emptiness of living without feeling connected or present. In the words of Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, "Life is one. We do not need to slice it into pieces and call this or that piece a self."

Blair Davis, MA
IMPULSE Staff Writer