Buddhist Practice on Western Ground
Reconciling Eastern Ideals and Western Psychology
Harvey B. Aronson, PhD Shambhala Publications 2004, $14.95/£10.99p/b, 253pp
Ever since the mid-1970s, when Buddhism began to be popular in the West, it has encountered a western culture moulded to a considerable extent by the psychotherapeutic traditions that have evolved here over the past century. The meeting of these two cultures - Buddhism (with its deep Asian religious and cultural roots) and western psychology - produces its own insights as well as a unique set of misunderstandings. We may therefore be grateful that someone as well-versed in both fields as Harvey Aronson has spent more than 25 years wrestling with these issues, struggling to find his own reconciliations between both worlds of thought - worlds that he so highly values.
Aronson himself was inspired to take up Dharma practice by an encounter with Ram Das in 1964. He went on to obtain his PhD in Buddhist studies and, as a practitioner, studied under a succession of Theravadin and, later, Tibetan luminaries. In 1978, while living with a group of fellow Buddhists and working hard to qualify for tenure as a professor of Buddhist studies, he suffered a debilitating series of panic attacks. And, failing to address his underlying tendency to anxiety by other means, he turned to psychotherapy.
This helped him to see that underneath the altruistic love he strove to cultivate through meditation were feelings he was avoiding, especially those involving disapproval, disagreement or conflict. Having lived a life of previously muted emotion, the psychotherapeutic process gradually opened him to 'a complete symphony of feelings - vibrant, alive and rich with meaning'.
Aronson is now an experienced psychotherapist as well as a Buddhist teacher, and his respect for and deep knowledge of the worlds of Buddhism and psychotherapy shines through his book. Always avoiding easy, premature syntheses, he gives due weight to each, showing where they intersect and where they differ in their approaches to the mind. A book of this substance marks a significant milestone in the maturation of the encounter between Buddhism and western culture. It clarifies much that might otherwise be confused and I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who is trying to teach, or practise, the Dharma in the West today.
Kulananda's latest book is Mindfulness and Money