of two minds

A bit of synchronicity to report. Right after posting the last entry about the death of the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, my wife said I should look at the NYTimes Book Review section. The front page article on yesterday’s copy carried the title, “Of Two Minds.” It was a review of a new book, The Zen of Therapy, by Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist, contrasting two apparently opposing practices: psychotherapy and Buddhist meditation. I have not read the book, so what I write here is based on the second-hand report by the reviewer.

Here is a key excerpt from the review:

Buddhism’s critical insight, though, is that those personal stories are just stories, as opposed to nonnegotiable, objective reality; that the selves to which they occur are much less substantial than we tend to assume — and that freedom lies ultimately not in understanding what happened to us, but in loosening our grip on it all, so that “things that feel fixed, set, permanent and unchanging” can start to shift.” The goal [of therapy], in a refreshing counterpoint to the excesses of a certain way of thinking about therapy, isn’t to reach the state of feeling glowingly positive about yourself and your life. It’s to become less entangled with that whole question, so that you get to spend your time on more meaningful things instead.

Reading this through the lens of the divided-brain-model, I see a different message. “Personal stories” is Epstein’s reference to the inner world of the left hemisphere. Since therapy tends to focus on the patient/client, the contents that are discussed would be naturally only those that appear relevant to the “self.” The rest of the “story” that is stored there pertains to everything else that has been experienced and abstracted. There is a story about work, church, poker, getting out of bed, and so on.

The reference, near the end, to “more meaningful things” points to actions run by the right hemisphere. Meaning can be found only in such actions that depend on being connected to the world and acting in accordance with what is out there. Meaning is about how well the actions fit the immediate circumstances in a holistic, not instrumental, way. The reviewer quotes Epstein as naming “kindness” as showing up in such meaningful acts. Kindness is an archetypal empathic action. It reflects an understanding, a one-time story, of what is over there, right now. The left hemisphere may be asked for help in delivering the act, but only as a resource. The apparent contrast between traditional psychotherapy and meditative practices that Epstein writes about disappears when the “two minds” in the ironic title are understood as metaphors for different the way the two hemispheres work.

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