On “Looking into the Eyes of a Master”

Tricycle_buddha_head_pilar-489x204Pilar Jennings PhD. recently wrote a piece for Tricycle that generated many thoughtful comments online. In “Looking into the Eyes of a Master” Jennings examines the student-teacher relationship in American Buddhism, and the ways in which teachers are people, too.

Jennings is a relational psychologist, lecturer at Columbia University, and author, and will be part of the Enlightening Conversations event Opportunities and Obstacles to Human Awakening, on May 9-10 in New York City. The following is Polly’s contribution to the conversation kicked off by the comments on Jennings’ article.

For more than four decades, I have practiced both Buddhism (as a student of Roshi Philip Kapleau in Zen and of Shinzen Young in Vipassana, and also of two Tibetan teachers for Phowa) and psychoanalysis (I am a Jungian analyst, but have training in relational and inter-subjective approaches). I have been a student and a patient, and am an analyst and a mindfulness teacher now. In my many experiences, I have come to see clearly how the human mind is fundamentally unconscious, discontinuous, dissociated, and difficult to manage, much less master.

Buddhism has helped me see this fact with compassion and equanimity, and psychoanalysis has helped me see it with interest and concern for myself and others. Because we humans are largely unconscious of our desires and motivations, we can come to see ourselves and know our motivations only through engaged interaction with thoughtful and responsible others. Our deep uncertainty about ourselves should lead us to a profound modesty about our pronouncements and a commitment to honest, responsible, and thoughtful relationships with those whom we teach, help, and serve— and those who teach, help and serve us— in our search for truth and love.

Pilar Jennings wisely points out both the need to idealize, and the dangers of idealizing, our teachers (and by extension, our analysts). In such an endeavor, the idealization splits reality and fantasy or confuses reality with fantasy. And yet, we also need the fantasies of total relief from suffering, and from our own personal flaws, in order to begin to get help in this highly imperfect and anguished world.

The unfolding of our knowledge of ourselves as individuals, and in relationship, is not a straightforward spiritual path, and its objective is not exactly reachable, only approachable. When Zen Buddhism first came to North America (largely in the person of D. T. Suzuki), it was in dialogue with psychoanalysis, especially Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, and Carl Jung. Now, when many American Buddhist centers have celebrated their 50th birthdays, we find that Buddhism and psychoanalysis need one another in a new way: we need to figure out how to make the healthiest use of idealization, power, relationships, truth, and compassion in the service of human awakening.

I hope many of you who are in this conversation will join Pilar Jennings and me, along with 14 others, at a groundbreaking conversational conference (among panelists and with the audience) in which no formal papers will be presented. We will be talking about Opportunities and Obstacles in Human Awakening. Among the panelists are renowned Zen teachers, writers, psychoanalysts, artists, psychologists, and thought leaders and we are coming together to continue the kind of conversation that has begun here. Please join us on May 9-10, 2014, in New York City.