Buddhist Practice as Existential Therapy

Buddhism as an existential Practice

What if Buddhism could be seen as, essentially, an existential practice?  In other words, it asks questions like: “what is this thing that I am?”, “what is it that I am doing here?”, or, as Heidegger might have put it, “why am I even here at all?”.  From an existentialist perspective, the most interesting aspect of being human is the nature of consciousness: We experience the world in a way that we are able to be aware of the very fact that we are experiencing it.  This leads to complicated questions, such as: “What does it mean to be human?”; “Who or what in the end is doing the actual experiencing?”; and “What informs how we interpret the experiences we have?”  Our “way of being” in the world is particularly defined by our times.  As Heidegger suggests, we are thrown into a world not of our own making (especially the culture, language and traditions we are born into) but the world itself is not of our own design.  It is not easy to escape these, but it is certainly worth reflecting on how we have been shaped by the ideas about reality that we have grown up in.  Rather than let these ideas about reality be taken for granted and unexamined, the various Buddhist traditions serve as very deliberate methodologies for understanding how we exist in the world.  One of the most effective methodologies for this is Vipassana – the origin of what is now known as the Mindfulness Movement.

Imagination, Memory & Self

It is, perhaps, important for me to clarify here that I approach Buddhism as a secular practitioner and practicing psychologist.  This leads me to some cautionary notes about how Buddhism is often interpreted:  We often misinterpret the aim of meditation as a modality for freeing us from thought.  Psychologically speaking, this is both unwise and unlikely.  Thought is based on our inherent capacity for symbolic representation.  It is based on our ability to imagine.  We cannot live without imagination.  Without imagination, we have no means of conjuring up memories of the past or propelling versions of ourselves into the future.  Dementia is arguably not just a failure in memory, but underlying the loss of memory is a failure in the capacity for imagination.  Without imagination we cannot put together a version of ourselves that we present to the world as a means of getting on with the task of living.  It could be said that what we call a “self” is a felt sense of who we are, where we are and what it is that we are doing here – at any given moment in time.  It is this felt sense of self that is the needle with which we thread ourselves through time.  If the self is the needle, then our memory and imagination serve to thread this self through time.  Without these basic faculties – imagination, memory, and self – conscious experience loses coherence.  Individual moments only have meaning to us when we are able to thread them together.  However, over time the self becomes more than a feeling – it becomes an idea (or even a story) about who we are.   Our sense of self finds consistency along the patterns it weaves (habitual ways of being) as we thread our experiences into a story about our lives.  It is through this process that we start to have a sense of coherence about ourselves in relation to the world (and people) around us.  But it is also through this process that we inevitably build a fiction about this thing that we are.  We hold on to the idea of this thing that we are – an “I”, and a “me”, and all that is “mine” – as we anxiously try to preserve or defend it.  Without the faculties of imagination, memory and a feeling of self – we fear the loss of all sense of time and place.  We risk feeling fragmented. We become potentially incoherent to ourselves.  


Buddhism heeds against holding on to the story we have for who we are, the “self”, too tightly.  From a Buddhist perspective, through becoming anxiously bound to the idea of who we are we become potentially ignorant to certain “truths”, chief of which being our own impermanence.  

Self as Fiction

We are forever at risk of taking ourselves too seriously, of pulling the thread too tight around ideas of who we are and what we believe is really going on in our lives and, therefore, of restricting ourselves from the myriad of possibilities that life has to offer. We become entrenched in habitual emotional reactions through habitual ways of being in the world. We decide that “this is just who I am” when “who I am” is arguably a collection of patterned thoughts and behaviours that are loosely founded on an original temperament and largely shaped by the world that has been thrust upon us.


This thread (the storyline we develop in order to achieve a sense of coherence) of who we are and what we are doing here, can be easily disrupted by events in our lives, both good and bad. We could fall in love, we could lose a lover, or we could be diagnosed with cancer.  Such events can cut through this thread causing our lives to feel abruptly redefined. Covid19 has been no different to this.  For anyone paying attention, it has brought into question our environmental, social, political and economic ways of being in the world.


Buddhism teaches us that this “self”, that I achieve things with in the world, is a fiction. What I would like to emphasise is that it is somewhat of a necessary fiction. The artistry of Vipassana lies in taking this sense of self just seriously enough (through observation of it) and yet appreciating it as a fiction at the same time, through the ongoing process of “letting go”.  As Mark Epstein suggests, the problem is not that we think we are real but that we think we are “really real”. 


If the self is a fiction, then what can we rely on? Buddhist practice encourages a reliance on “pregnant emptiness” of the present moment. It is here that refuge is to be found from our own inevitable neurosis. What makes it difficult for us to find refuge in the present is that our capacity for imagination means that we are forever losing ourselves to ruminations of the past or projections into the future. But I am not convinced that we are meant to do away with these faculties altogether – to give up on our imagination or to completely discard the self. To do so would mean to go deliberately mad. I believe that our task is to try and bring an ‘alertness’ to the process of how our imagination incessantly moves between past, present and future – reifying a sense of self.  Rob Nairn encourages an “impartiality” to this inevitable process as we bring awareness to it.  In this way, the practice of Vipassana helps bring us alive to the role that imagination plays in the formation of our reality. Over time, through the regular practice of Vipassana we are able to observe how thoughts and feelings shape our reality.


This is where the true therapy lies: Through ongoing practice, we come to realise just how much we are constantly rehashing the past or rehearsing the future. We seem to incessantly project a version of self into an imagined future. It is, arguably, a misinterpretation to treat these activities as a taboo or as getting it all wrong. The objective is compassionate awareness rather that critique and striving to “get better” at it. Thoughts, worries, memories, planning, rehearsing…are all tendencies essential to our cognitive functioning. It is more helpful to approach these tendencies with gentle caution rather than self-degradation:  To become an object to ourselves that we can observe with relative “equanimity” (a word Stephen Batchelor seems to prefer to Rob Nairn’s “impartiality”). 

Losing ourselves to habitual thinking

This tendency, to lose ourselves in thoughts, is particularly problematic when it is the means through which we find escape from Dukkha – “the perpetual unsatisfactoriness of existence”.  When we talk about “the present moment”, we are not just talking about the sound of crickets, the wind in the trees, or the increasing ache in my back as I attempt to stay upright while meditating.  We are talking about thoughts and feelings that are presently flavouring my experience of reality.  In Buddhist psychology, thought itself is a sensory experience and it is out of our own reactions to these thoughts (grasping or aversion) that our true suffering is born.  Part of the therapeutic value of Buddhist practice lies in sifting through our own neurosis – getting a felt sense of what is “real” versus what we have “imagined” as real.  The therapeutic outcome lies in identifying how reactive and habitual thought patterns colour our reality (often in ways that perpetuate suffering).  In Buddhism, the present moment is simply the most reliable place to be.  It is where it is all really happening and, therefore, it is the place to go if we are to attempt understand anything about what it is that we are.     


Thoughts can be very sticky; once they arrive, they set off habitual chains of further thoughts, feelings and behaviours.  This leads to patterns over time that form grooves in the mind.  Much like the flow of water erodes soil, these grooves are self-perpetuating.  We arrive at a place where these patterns seem to have the better of us, as if we are watching ourselves on automation.  It could be argued that habitual experiences like depression, anxiety and addiction are formed, or at the very least perpetuated, by these patterns.   For this reason, there can often be something very freeing to surrendering to the moment.  With enough practice it relinquishes us (even if momentarily) from the hold that these habitual patterns (of thought, feeling and behaviour) have on us.

The Existential Lesson of Covid19

Another way of talking about “Dukkha” is, as Mark Epstein would put it, that which is “hard to face”.  From an existential perspective, an inevitable conflict arises when we try to avoid certain “givens” to our existence.  Irvin Yalom, probably the most prolific author on Existential Therapy, summarises these “givens” as: death; freedom; isolation; and meaninglessness.  These are the anxieties that we tend to push aside in our everyday living. It is these same anxieties that Covid19 has very starkly brought into the foreground.  We are all geared, to some extent, towards ensuring our own survival.  We are inclined towards the preservation of self.  Even for those of us who are privileged enough to still be healthy, have work to keep us busy and food on our table; the idea of our own mortality lingers in the background of our everyday lives. Like the hum of the fridge in the kitchen at night – fear of our own death is there, even when we don’t pay too much attention to it. However, both Buddhism and Existentialism would argue that paying conscious attention to this anxiety opens us up to the possibility for new ways of being. It opens us up to questions like: What are the things we need to accept? What are the deeply ingrained habits we could possibly change? What does it mean to be alive in our time? What are the things that we have come to realise that we most value? What have we been taking for granted? What are the things that we are unnecessarily attached to?


The global pandemic has made degrees of isolation familiar to us all. Isolation, of any kind, serves as a confrontation with self. Buddhist practice can be described as a means of “going into oneself in order to get beyond oneself”. This is ideally what isolation facilitates. However, in a society that so highly values consumerism, we are particularly geared towards avoiding our own interiority (and the inevitable feeling of aloneness, even when we are with others); there is always something outside of ourselves that brings the hope that we will feel different or better about ourselves.   Stephen Batchelor has been exploring the existential basis of Buddhism since his earliest work, Alone with Others.  He emphasises the two basic dimensions of existence – “having” and “being”.  The central concern is that “as long as the notion of having predominates, our being remains empty and superficial”.  We are under the illusion that the accumulation of “things”, be they objects, relationships or knowledge, can provide us lasting satisfaction at the demise of learning how to be with things as they are.        


Unfortunately, isolation alone can achieve very little. If anything, it can make the fear of our own thoughts and feelings all the more daunting.  As a therapist, I have witnessed people gradually come undone during the 2020 “lockdown”.  Despite alcohol bans in South Africa, most of my clients have self-medicated on alcohol more than ever.  In his most recent work, The Art of Solitude, Batchelor draws on the work of Montaigne, a French philosopher who had no contact with Buddhism but who chose a life of relative solitude. “Retreat into yourself, but first of all make yourself ready to receive yourself there. If you do not know how to govern yourself, it would be madness to entrust yourself to yourself. There are ways of failing in solitude as in society”.  How do we make ourselves ready to receive ourselves?


French chefs talk about “mise en place” – “everything in its place”. Before they produce a meal, they make sure that they prepare a place for everything. We need to do the same when it comes to solitude; when it comes to the act of “going into ourselves” there is a need to prepare a place for solitude. This is where the method of Vipassana (and the model it proposes for how the mind works) may be helpful. Vipassana prepares a place for us in the present moment.  Solitude, in the end, is not limited to the act of retreating into hermitage.  Even in the presence of others and especially when we truly go into ourselves, we can feel a particular isolation.  I can never truly access your experience and you can never truly access mine.  Therefore, to some extent, we are always experiencing somewhat of a solitude.  Being ready to receive ourselves requires a certain amount of courage to savour the underlying and perpetual feeling of solitude that we usually avoid through focusing on “things” outside of ourselves.  It requires a shift from a focus on “having” to an openness to “being”.


There is great value in going into isolation with a particular attitude:  Batchelor quotes Montaigne as saying “That is why it is not enough to remove oneself from people, not enough to go somewhere else. We have to remove ourselves from the habits of the populace that are within us.  We have to isolate our own self and return it to our possession. We carry our chains with us; we are not entirely free. We keep returning our gaze to the things we have left behind; we fantasize about them constantly.”  When we isolate ourselves, we do not necessarily completely free ourselves. The opposite seems true: worlds within us; the griefs from our pasts; the longings for our future; and ways of being that have grown to size within us come to meet us.  As the poet, Don Maclennan put it in, Grieving:

Why do we persist inhabiting old rooms
in houses where we grew to size,
enacting dramas in the attic or the music room
with its dusty bookcases and faulty piano?
You’d think our greatest gift was consciousness,
something to hold us cleanly in the here and now.
But you have grown to size inside me –
that’s why losing you hurts so much.

Don Maclennan

When we embrace solitude, we are not only confronted with the fear of loss of an outside world; we fear a loss of the worlds within us. Even when these are sometimes painful worlds – they are still familiar ones.  We hold onto their familiarity.  Albert Camus wrote that “In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.” But simply turning away from it is not sufficient.  We need to recognise how the world we have grown to size in has actually grown to size within us.  When we go into ourselves, we find the voices of our parents, past lovers, the media, patriarchy, capitalism and many more – some of these voices we no longer even recognise.  We risk mistaking them for our own thoughts.   

This is where the practice of meditation serves a similar function to therapy.  It helps us discover answers to questions like “What are these thoughts and feelings based on?” However, in meditation, we do not attempt to answer these questions with the thinking part of our minds. We answer them by simply observing our own thoughts while holding the question in mind. While therapy might be focused on change, meditation is preferenced towards “embracing things as they are” as Batchelor would put it, and then bringing awareness to how we react to things as they are.  The practice is to have a questioning stance without ever really settling on a fixed answer. 

Perhaps we could say that Covid19 has been the equivalent of Siddhartha leaving the palace:  A moment of existential anxiety when our eyes are opened to the true nature of things, particularly how our lives are connected through our shared potential suffering. There are many responses to this; one being to run back into the seclusion of our palaces (or our gated communities) and find solace in our usual pleasures; the other is to continue to venture into what it means to be alive in our times and not to turn away from the existential “givens”. The difficulty with this is that when we attend to the experience of “being in the world” it brings into sharp focus that there are somewhat incomprehensible aspects to our existence – it doesn’t ever fully make sense. Why are we here in the first place and does the universe even care?

Even if, on closer contemplation, our own existence might seem rather strange to us; it is important to carve out some sort of purpose without taking ourselves too seriously. Covid19 is a stark reminder of what David Hume wrote: “The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.”  Perhaps the Covid19 crisis poses the inevitable question: Now that we realise how precarious our existence is, what do we choose to do with it?

Since birth, we are thrust into a world not of our own choosing. We need to understand our own response to this aspect of our existence and how our responses continue to shape who we are. As we struggle to let go of a world that has grown to size within us, what freedoms can we find in our reactions to the world around us? Vipassana is a method of letting go of the things that have become deeply habitual to the mind.  It is the courage to explore our existential freedom.  Existential freedom is perhaps best captured by Sartre’s proclamation that “Existence precedes essence”.  We are thrust into a world not of our own choosing; become aware of ourselves; and are compelled to make choices.  Every choice we make represents the possibilities of (wo)man – what we think a human should be.  There is no essential blueprint for who we should be.  Rather we hang on to arbitrary identities and man-made ideas. Therefore, once we let go of these stories for who and how we should be, there is some anguish to this freedom because “In fashioning myself, I fashion humanity.” 

A brief note on Secular Buddhism as Psychotherapy

Although it can be therapeutic, Vipassana is not so much a therapeutic tool but a means of practicing a philosophical approach to life.  It is a means for us to practice coming to terms with how things actually are, rather than how we might fear, crave or imagine them to be.  Stephen Batchelor stresses that this is not necessarily a complacency or a resignation to how things actually are.  Once we have come to terms with what is actually going on (within us or in the world around us) we make room for new possibilities; new ways of being and thinking in the world that are less dictated by habitual reactivity –  we prepare a place for existential freedom.       


Vipassana is an attempt at deepening our inherent capacity for conscious experience.  Although consciousness remains somewhat of a mystery there is perhaps nothing that mystical about it. I can recall first hearing Rob Nairn (retired professor in criminology) lecture on the topic more than 20 years ago.  He conveyed Vipassana as a succinct and pragmatic philosophy of mind.  This brief lecture served as a foundational reference point for understanding the mind and was often a means to refuting some of the theories I was exposed to while studying psychology.  Buddhist ideas were a particularly helpful vantage point in my tendency to refute diagnostic thinking:  We all suffer from the same thing, the human condition.  As Samuel Beckett claimed, “You’re on earth, there is no cure for that.” 


Vipassana practice is also somewhat of a departure from western psychology in that it relies more on direct experience of the mind than theoretical ideas of mind.  Vipassana attempts to know the mind experientially rather than theoretically.  In this way it provides the foundation for any mindfulness practice – “direct experience”.  As Rob would emphasise, mindfulness is “knowing what is happening, while it is happening”.  Leaving us with a task that is alarmingly complex in a simplicity that starkly contrasts to how we go about most of our everyday lives. 


“Existence is a flame which constantly melts and recasts our theories”, R.D Laing.

These ideas will be more thoroughly explored on an intensive retreat at The Buddhist Retreat Centre, Ixopo, from the 13th – 15th November with an additional exploration in Buddhist Psychotherapy from 15th – 18th November. To book, click here.

Days to Go

2 thoughts on “Buddhist Practice as Existential Therapy

  1. Colin Reply

    Outstanding piece, Jason. Beautifully articulated. I loved it. Thanks for doing what you’re doing.

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