Salvation Hits the Couch

Buddhism had been known in the United States since the mid-Nineteenth Century, but really came into its own with the return of Pacific War vets who had spent some time in Japan. (The creation of Red China insured that Chinese Buddhism would not be generally available to the Western World for some time.) One of the aspects of Buddhism that attracted post-War interest is that it is based more in psychology than in theology. Buddhism—at least in the Zen form that came back with those vets—is about practice, not theory. The practice is learning to watch one’s own thoughts and the realization that these thoughts can be changed.

Zen Buddhism might have remained just another exotic thing that came back from the war, something like samurai swords, if not for what was already beginning to happen in Western thought—the suspicion that religion and psychology are more or less the same thing, working the same ground. Monotheist religions can give you salvation; psychology can give you . . . self-actualization. And this idea was coming from different directions at the same time—not only humanists were making the argument. Reformed Rabbis agreed. As did many mainline priests and preachers. And then there was the capitalist angle taken by Norman Vincent Peale with his bestselling ideas about positive thinking.

Take for example the work of the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a survivor of not one but four of the Nazi death camps. Frankl said, “We give suffering a meaning by our response to it.” Yep: that’s Buddhism. Frankl condemned what in the death camps had been called “give-up-itis.” In the death camps, Frankl realized that those who had the best chance of survival were those who found meaning in the suffering and kept on going. Furthermore, Frankl didn’t push a particular path to meaning. The meaning is personal. Again, a bit like the difference between duty and responsibility—a personal choice made without being pointed in a particular direction by outside authority.

Buddhism had long drawn a distinction between suffering and pain. Pain is what happens to you—it can’t be avoided. Wounds happen. But suffering is what you think about the pain. “This is happening to me because . . .”  “This always happens to me because . . .” “You are doing this to me because . . .” All of that is negative meaning making. Those are ways of catching a bad case of give-up-itis.

“Salvation” is a hackneyed word. Better to ask, “What will save me?” “What is the source of my suffering and what can give it meaning?”

It’s a truism in looking at prospective seminary students to wonder if they are recent converts to Twelve Step programs. Or newly divorced. Or have recently encountered some other trauma. Are these people signing on to be Karl Jung’s “Wounded Healers.” I’m certainly not saying that’s a bad thing. It’s a natural human thing: Here is my wound; here is my suffering; where is the meaning? Then: How can I help others who have been through what I’ve been through and worse?

And here’s the biggest paradox of it all: just as meaning and responsibility are choices arrived at from individual lives, they are about sharing. Sharing with other human beings.

Isn’t it amazing that—no matter what may happen to us—we can be confident that there are people who will take care of us? This is confidence in the human spirit. It is a religion (if you will) not of victimhood and suffering but of creativity and compassion.

By Vicki Nunn (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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