The Resurgence of Imagination

Psychoanalysts can learn about empathy from Eastern traditions.

By Sudhir Kakar​

Our times seem poised to witness the resurgence of the romantic vision of human life, a view that underlines the importance of the spiritual by conceiving of life as a quest. In such a view, there are many obstacles and difficulties along the way, but if the seeker persists, then he or she will be rewarded by a union with a higher power, or the Spirit. In contrast, the rationalist vision is skeptical of all higher powers and exalted aims of life and likes to show that all gods have clay feet. The romantic vision emphasizes an intimate connection between humankind and universe, between self and not-self, while the rationalist insists on an enduring separation between the two. He looks down at the romantic view as a scientifically wrong and philosophically confused reaction to the objective rift between mind and nature. For the rationalist, the romantic is engaged in a futile and regressive revolt against the “bad news” of the Enlightenment: Separateness.1

As a broader intellectual and social current, the romantic resurgence is more characteristic of Western societies than of most non-Western ones where the romantic vision never lost its ascendancy over the rational. Or, to put it more accurately, the Ur-romantic vision of non-Western societies generally remained oblivious to separateness and thus differs from the Western post-Enlightenment romantic sensibility which has been struggling to overcome the rift even as it has remained exquisitely aware of it. In fact, with the spread of modern scientific and technical education in the non-Western world, the movement seems headed in an opposite direction as educated professionals in these countries enthusiastically embrace the rationalist vision of Western Enlightenment. This trend is perhaps most visible in China. To a lesser degree, it also holds true for modern India, where the romantic view, including its excrescences of occultism and superstition, still holds considerable sway over the Indian imagination.

It is instructive to remember that even in the West, in spite of the attacks by the rationalists and the scientific and technological successes of the post-Enlightenment world, the romantic vision did not completely disappear but continued to persist in embattled enclaves. In philosophy, one can think of Kant versus Hume, in science, of Einstein versus Watson. In my own discipline, psychoanalysis, Sándor Ferenczi and Jung and, more recently, Heinz Kohut, can be said to represent the romantic position against a rationalist Freud. In anthropology, the divide cuts through each anthropologist. The participant anthropologist, identifying with and often idealizing the culture he is studying, struggles against the empiricist and detached observer within himself, seeking a balance which, depending on his life experience, is apt to be skewed in one or the other direction.2

I am, of course, aware of the oversimplification involved in the use of such binaries as romantic and rational. The romantic and the rational are not necessarily oppositional. A complex mind will be guided by both visions, the romantic one enlivening and lending a “poetic” sensibility and sentiment to reason, while the rational vision guards against the sentimental excesses to which the romantic is all too susceptible. Since differentiation precedes integration, it may well be that the Enlightenment’s project to differentiate itself from its past by rejecting romanticism is due for a revision that will begin to integrate the two views.

What are some of the signs of this romantic resurgence? Recent developments in social neurosciences and evolutionary psychology highlight an innate altruism in human beings, and seem as supportive of Rousseau’s view of man as intrinsically good, a “noble savage,” as the research that leans toward Hobbes’s darker vision of man as basically self-centered. I will not go into detail about the now-familiar research which suggests that empathy—and altruistic behavior that is motivated by empathy—may be wired into our brains. I will only emphasize here that the call of the great Homini religiosi of the world to place primacy on empathic altruism in social life may indeed not be a utopian dream but an evolutionary reality. Even economic theory, based on the premise of Homo economicus acting rationally out of self-interest, which used to be as uneasy with altruistic behavior as was sociobiology with its belief in the “selfish gene,” is becoming more uncertain about its basic assumption.

My own discipline, psychoanalysis, has also been deeply suspicious of altruistic behavior. Just as sociobiology allows a limited altruism in the animal kingdom—more in the sense of self-sacrifice that benefits the kin group rather than empathy driven human altruistic acts—psychoanalysis, too, exempts the “proto-altruism” of maternal and paternal caretaking3 from its general view that altruism essentially rests on a pathological base. Otherwise, altruism, when it is not driven by psychotic delusions that lead to bizarre acts of self-sacrifice, is regarded as a subcategory of masochism. In psychoanalytic thought, altruistic behavior in the individual is usually a defense against his strong aggressive strivings and envy, and is also a superego-driven need to suffer and be a victim. Even in less conflicted cases, psychoanalysis tends to view altruism as the by-product of a “healthy narcissism” that is essential for mental well-being, maintaining that a person can love others only if he first loves himself. For a psychoanalyst, a person acting on the Golden Rule and doing good is nevertheless deriving a secret narcissistic satisfaction from being a do-gooder.

But what if this dichotomy between narcissism and altruism is false? It can be argued that altruistic empathy and egotistic prudence are not in conflict but are complementary to each other. Doing good to others is also doing good to yourself. In other words, acting on the Golden Rule, present in various forms in all the world’s religions, may be vital not only for an individual’s spiritual progress but also for his psychological happiness. Research increasingly shows that this is not only a moral exhortation but an empirical fact.

The quickening of the altruistic impulse is also evident in the wider social arena. The flourishing of NGOs, including some on a global scale, such as Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, and Amnesty International, and the unprecedented rise in charitable giving that is not limited to one’s own community but embraces the whole of humanity, are some other signposts on this road.4

In Western societies (and in Westernized enclaves of non-Western societies around the world), there is also a widespread and very visible quest for “authenticity,” a notion closely associated with Rousseauian romanticism. As the anthropologist Charles Lindholm has shown, the search for personal and collective authenticity has become omnipresent in modern life. Indeed, in such diverse areas as art, music, religious life, or even in travel and cuisine,5 it is what we look for. In Western art, of course, the romantic impulse did not weaken as much as in other areas. Metaphysical questions maintained their significance for artists from Wassily Kandinsky to Francis Bacon, from Joseph Beuys to Damien Hirst. Kandinsky believed that painting represented “pure art in the service of the divine.”6 As is evident from the catalogue of the exhibition Traces of the Spiritual, that began in Centre Pompidou in Paris and is currently in Haus der Kunst in Munich, to touch, “refine and enrich” the “soul,” the “spirit,” has become a central concern for many artists today.

What are the implications of the romantic revival and the probable integration of the romantic and rational for the preeminently Western discipline of psychoanalysis? Let me begin to answer this question with an anecdote.

I gave the orthodox psychoanalytic view: A mature person should be able to hate, but also be capable of transcending hatred. “No, No!” the Dalai Lama exclaimed.

In 1994, I was honored with an invitation from the Foundation for Universal Responsibility, which was set up by the Dalai Lama from his Nobel Peace Prize award, in order to have a dialogue with His Holiness in New Delhi. The subject of the dialogue was Buddhist and Western psychology and I, as a psychoanalyst, was asked to represent the viewpoint of Western psychology.

What I remember most vividly about the dialogue is an exchange when the topic of hatred came up. I gave the orthodox psychoanalytic view: There is something wrong with the person if he cannot hate. There is also something wrong if the person cannot stop hating. A mature person should be able to hate, but should also be capable of transcending hatred.

“No, No!” the Dalai Lama exclaimed. “This is not true of Buddhist psychology.”

He then proceeded to tell the story about his friend, a spiritually advanced lama who was incarcerated in a prison in Tibet and tortured by the Chinese. After many years, the lama managed to escape and reach Dharamshala, the home of the Dalai Lama in India.

“How was it?” the Dalai Lama asked his old friend about his long years of imprisonment.

“Oh, twice it was very bad,” the lama replied.

“Were you in danger of losing your life?” the Dalai Lama expressed his concern.

“No. Twice I almost hated the Chinese!”

Of course, the psychoanalytic gloss on hatred applies to a Tibetan as much as it does to a Westerner. And yet the aspect of Buddhist psychology, which the Dalai Lama had brought into the discussion, introduced the spiritual into the purely psychological.

Spirituality, like culture, has many definitions. Originally, spirituality and mysticism were terms created by elite nineteenth-century Western intellectuals, poets, and scholars, mostly of a Whitmanian or Emersonian orientation, and then later became part of a variety of Quaker, theosophical, human potential, and New Age lineages. I am not quite comfortable with these terms myself, but will use them because they are current in English language discourse. For me, the spiritual incorporates the transformative possibilities of the human psyche: total love without a trace of hate, selflessness carved out of the psyche’s normal self-centeredness, a fearlessness that is not a counterphobic reaction to the fear that is an innate part of the human psyche. Yet spiritual transformation is not a once-and-forever achievement, even for enlightened spiritual masters and saints. It remains constantly under threat from the darker forces of the psyche. One is never not human—”Twice I almost hated the Chinese.” For me, “spirit” is not the “luminous cloud” of the mystic that floats ethereally in mysterious regions of the human stratosphere, but one that swirls among the crags of human passions—above all, desire and narcissism.

A spirituality that does not take into account and engage with the complexities and dynamic nature of the psyche will fail to touch people who are not incurably romantic. It will remain experience-distant rather than experience-near. Equally, a psychology that refuses to recognize the potentialities of the psyche, of its possible extension into the realm of the spirit, a psychology which contents itself with Freud’s healing offer of replacing hysterical misery with common unhappiness, does not provide enough emotional sustenance to modern man.

To describe the relationship between the spirit and the psyche, I must take recourse to metaphors which comprehend the body, psyche, and spirit as intimately related entities with fuzzy boundaries that flow into each other. I envision the psyche as a large lake. The waters of this lake are warm, heated by the energy of sexuality, aggression, and, above all, narcissism, that comes pouring in from the surrounding earth and the body, and keeps the waters in turbulence. Ripples can become waves which may assume frightening proportions. At the bottom of the lake, there flows the cool stream of the spirit, its water fed by the subterranean spring of loving connection, which is kept apart from the upper layers by the difference in temperature between the two. Spiritual adepts dive often and deep into this stream, although there is perhaps none among them who does not also dwell in the shallower reaches of the lake, sharing the joys, sorrows, and circumstances of our common humanity.

We ordinary mortals are not cut off from the spiritual stream. The cool water often surges up to the surface in trickles, though rarely in a flood. These are perceptible moments of elation felt in the presence of nature, the thrill felt in front of a work of art, the ineffable intimacy with the beloved after the sexual embrace when the bodies have separated and are lying together side by side, or the moments of communion between the mother and the baby on her breast. There are many other such minor epiphanies, fleeting moments stamped with the seal of eternity, which may escape our conscious awareness because we expect the spiritual to be an exception rather than a rule in human life.

The spiritual quest, except for those rare people who have set their sights on the summits of spirituality, is not so much a search but a re-cognition of the many instances when the spirit touches the psyche. The touch may be barely noticeable, like the wing of a butterfly whispering against the cheek. The quest is not to catch and hold the butterfly, which will die and become desiccated if captured. The challenge is to be aware of the spiritual moments as we travel through life, to look around and see again with the innocent eye. There is a story about the Zen monk who had been meditating for many years in a cave. When he became old and felt the approach of death, he expressed his desire to finally visit the fabled valley of flowers of which he had heard so much when he was a child. “It is beyond that yonder range of mountains,” he was told. The monk started climbing, his gaze fixed on the mountain peaks. When he reached the top of the range, he asked another monk going in the opposite direction how far the valley of flowers still was. “Look behind you,” he was told. When he looked back, the monk found he had walked through the valley of flowers without seeing it.

An invaluable ally for “seeing” is imagination, which the romantics have always considered to be the basis of reality. Today, we usually think of imagination as the ability to make images, although the capacity to access and elaborate on early memories is equally important. Indeed, it is a complex and often a playful combination of the two which characterizes a bold leap of imagination. As we now know, the area of the brain activated in remembering the past and visualizing the future is the same.

Imagination, which in the words of the psychoanalyst Gilbert Rose “propels one beyond prosaic reasonableness into a less tangible world of emotions, dreams, suggestions, and impressions where there is no rigid separation between self and not-self,”7 is not opposed but complementary to reason. Even the eighteenth-century English poet John Keats, that most eloquent partisan of imagination, visualized a smoothly working partnership between the two as an ideal, holding that a truly complex mind would be “one that is imaginative and at the same time careful of its fruits” and would exist “partly on sensations and partly on thought.”8 The enemy of imagination is not reason but its overbearing, overcritical form that disparages the illogical and the incongruent, smothers spontaneity and feeling, banishes the poetical, excludes all tendencies toward symbol and metaphor, and acknowledges the primacy of only the statistical and the quantifiable. If the pathological form of imagination is delusion, then that of reason is obsession.9

But imagination also has a spiritual dimension; the English poet Samuel Coleridge called it “primary imagination,” and John Keats called it “unitive imagination.”10 A spiritual more than a psychological category, primary imagination has been viewed by romantics as the basis of reality. Kant held it to be the basis for all productive knowledge. Einstein agreed when he asserted that “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”11 Writers and poets have concurred with this judgment, explicitly attributing this mysterious source of their creativity to the “spiritual.” Saul Bellow, in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, articulates the position of many elite intellectuals and creative writers on the problematic nature of spiritual realities.

The sense of our real powers, powers we seem to derive from the universe itself, also comes and goes. . . . We are reluctant to talk about this because there is nothing we can prove, because our language is inadequate, and because few people are willing to risk talking about it. They would have to say that there is a spirit, and that is taboo.12

Even V. S. Naipaul, that most rationalist of writers who values the conscious, thinking mind so much that he speaks of his detestation of music (widely regarded as the most spiritual of art forms)—calling it “the lowest art form, too accessible, capable of stirring people who think little”—admits that “when the work is good I am not responsible.”13 He tells his biographer that in such a phase “the material seemed to be given to him from nowhere” as he moved into that “determined stupor” out of which great books are written.14

In nineteenth-century India, Mirza Ghalib, the great Urdu poet, had no such difficulty: Aate hain ghaibse ye / mazamiin khyal mein / Ghalib sareer e khama / navaye sarosh hai (“My thoughts come to me / From somewhere Beyond / When Ghalib is attuned / To the music of the stars”).15 Artists have called the spirit their Muse, and it is a rare artist, whether agonistic or atheist, who does not believe in the existence of the Muse or does not have his own magical techniques of invoking and controlling it.16

Perhaps the most passionate advocate of the spiritual basis of imagination was Keats, who went beyond the psychology of imagination—the use of condensation, displacement, symbolism—into its spiritual dimension by highlighting the imaginative process as a union between the knower and the known. In his description of this “unitive” imagination, he writes, “No sooner am I alone than shapes of epic greatness are stationed around me” and “according to my state of mind I am with Achilles shouting in the trenches, or with Theocritus in the Vales of Sicily.”17 Likewise, Gustave Flaubert, while writing Madame Bovary, confides to a friend, “It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating. Today, for instance, as a man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode into a forest of an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them close their love-drowned eyes.”18

I would call the spiritual dimension of imagination connective rather than unitive, with the latter constituting an end point of a spectrum, accessible only to individuals with extraordinary spiritual gifts. Just as an altruistic act is spiritual only if there is a vision of love behind it, imagination is spiritual only when it is connective. Connective imagination is not only limited to literary works and creation of images in painting and sculpture, but is the essence of many religious forms. I am especially thinking of Tibetan-Buddhist and Hindu Tantra, which have the visualization of the deities and the devotee’s union with these mind-created forms as their central spiritual practice. Here, let me mention only one of the many tantric techniques, nyasa, in which a Tantric visualizes the goddess and then interjects her into the various parts of his body by touching them. The imaginative world created by the Tantric is not the personal one of the artist (nor is it the world of the psychotic), but instead it is both shared and public. It is based upon, guided, and formed by the symbolic, iconic network of his religious culture.

Another example of religious practice where connective imagination manifests itself is in the daily ritual puja of an orthodox Hindu who gets the gods to dwell in the various limbs and parts of his body before he begins to chant his prayers. This is also true of the Muslim namaz or the Catholic Mass. Indeed, a great attraction of religious practices may well lie in the opportunity they afford the believer to release and exercise his capacity for connective imagination.

Connective imagination, then, is not only the basis of much great art and some visions of science and philosophy, but is also the underlying principle of many religious rituals and spiritual disciplines. Perhaps the time has come that connective imagination also receives serious attention in psychological disciplines concerned with the apprehension of the world and, in its form as empathy, as a singular mode of understanding other human beings, assumes its rightful place at the head of the psychotherapy table. But is the romantic veneration of imagination universal, or is it limited to the Western world? Here, I will only discuss traditional Indian thought with the caveat that I am not a scholar of Indian philosophical systems but merely a curious student.

My major impression is that Indian thought shares the Western romantic belief in the omnipotence of imagination, but that it has regarded this fact with ambivalent feelings. The Nyaya and Advaita schools both agree that we live in an imagined world and, as the great seventh-century philosopher Shankara put it, we are wrapped in this imaginary world as a moth in its cocoon.19 Shankara even argued that dreams are real because they have real effects on waking life; a man bitten by an imaginary snake can die from the imaginary venom.20 The spiritual goal of both of these schools is a direct, or nonconceptual, perception of reality (nirvikalpa pratyaksha), which is only possible at birth, since reality becomes veiled by the operation of imagination as life takes hold and changes our apprehension of the world into a conceptual perception (savikalpa pratyaksha).

Imagination, then, is a hindrance to reaching the spiritual goal of life and needs to be combated. In other words, the status of imagination in Hindu thought has varied with the corresponding status of Maya, of which imagination is an integral part. In Vedic times, when Maya was viewed as the creative power of the gods and defined as “incomprehensible insight, wisdom, judgment and power enabling its possessor to create something or to do something, ascribed to mighty beings,”21 the status of imagination was high. Gradually, as Maya came to mean illusion, the power of imagination remained beyond doubt but, as we saw from Shankara’s views, it began to be seen as inimical to spiritual strivings.

A radical increase in empathy, claimed by spiritual adepts, is a part of their heightened responsiveness toward the animate and inanimate worlds.

Let me now turn to empathy, the “feeling into” another person, which has been the object of a good deal of ambivalence in psychoanalytic literature, an ambivalence that has perhaps to do with what Freud, in a letter to Ferenczi, called its “mystical character.”22 The Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of empathy seems unabashedly “mystical” when it defines it as “the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.” Although empathy constitutes the foundation of psychoanalytic work, essential for gathering data in order to do analytic interpretation, its connection to poorly understood unconscious processes in the analyst has surrounded the concept with a degree of unease in psychoanalytic discussion. Its general usage in psychoanalysis as one person’s capacity to partake of the inner experience of another through unconscious attunement skims over the underlying mystery of the process. In other words, how does our normal non-empathic state, a state of self-experience with thoughts which are usually self-related,23 change into a state where we can transcend the boundaries of the self to share the conscious and unconscious feelings and experiences of another self? Even the analyst’s psychic state that is conducive to the operation of empathy—namely, his evenly suspended, free-floating attention—when examined closely seems to belong as much (if not more) to the meditative practices of spiritual traditions as to a “scientific” psychoanalysis.

Consider Freud’s description of this psychic state:

Experience soon showed that the attitude which the analytic physician could most advantageously adopt was to surrender himself to his own unconscious mental activity, in a state of evenly suspended attention, to avoid as far as possible reflection and the construction of conscious expectations, not to try to fix anything that he heard particularly in his memory, and by these means catch the drift of the patient’s unconscious with his own unconscious.24

The increasing psychoanalytic ambivalence toward the phenomenon of empathy seems to have its origins in Freud’s changing views toward it as he aged. In an earlier, healthier period, Freud had been sympathetic to the operation of such occult phenomenon as telepathy and thus, presumably, to the nonrational, intuitive aspects of empathy. By 1927, though, he was taking a much more unambivalent stance on behalf of positivist science:

The riddles of the universe reveal themselves only slowly to our investigation; there are many questions to which science today can give no answer. But scientific work is the only road which can lead us to a knowledge of reality outside ourselves. It is once again merely an illusion to expect anything from intuition and introspection; they can give us nothing but particulars about our own mental life, which are hard to interpret, never any information about the questions which religious doctrine finds it easy to answer.25

With hardening attitudes toward the “occult” in the wake of Freud’s distancing from it, empathy, too, became an object of suspicion since there were no satisfactory criteria that distinguished it from telepathy in the analytic situation.26

This unease with the mysterious nature of empathy has led psychoanalysts increasingly to stress the rational aspects of empathy. Even Heinz Kohut, who believed that the mere presence of empathy in the therapist was curative by itself, struggles to retain allegiance to psychoanalytic orthodoxy in such statements as “healing comes through empathy . . . an analytic cure can occur only through interpretations.” He calls the analyst’s understanding and explanation the higher form of empathy.

The psychoanalytic ambivalence toward empathy is absent in Eastern spiritual healing traditions. In interviews with seeker-patients, and in reading their accounts, what I found most striking about the healing encounter in the spiritual traditions is the seeker-patient’s conviction of being profoundly understood by the guru. In case after case, sometimes even in the first encounter, we hear reports of how the guru saw deep into the patient’s heart, looked into the innermost recesses of her being, and the effect this understanding had on her. An understanding, conveyed through words, played a minor role in this healing discourse. “I did not understand but I came away with the words alive within me” is a typical reaction.27

Like analysts, spiritual teachers, too, differ among themselves in their innate empathic capacities. Yet because their meditative practices are designed to weaken rigid boundaries around the self, not in an uncontrolled regression but in controlled de-centering experiences, a spiritual discipline seems to open the doors to an empathic responsiveness that can extend to a high degree of identification with another person. Analysts, too, may have these “transcendental” moments during an analytic hour. But these do not follow from being part of a rigorous training explicitly designed to foster a fluid self. A radical increase in empathy for another person, claimed by spiritual adepts, is a part of their heightened responsiveness—empathy in its widest sense—toward the animate and inanimate worlds. In the Homini religiosi, this empathy is also translated into a heightened metaphysical openness toward the Divine.

In their empathic identifications, analysts can perhaps never go as far as a few spiritual teachers are reputed to have done. In describing the late Indian Ma Anandamayi as a “spiritually realized” person, for instance, a devotee explains: “It means you have no personal center. The center of the realized person is everywhere. She can identify with whoever comes in contact with her. She becomes yourself and has your problems at the very moment and can help you from inside.”28 Another disciple describes her this way: “She had no sense of ‘I’ or ‘mine’ and often simply mirrored the emotions of those around her; she seemed to have no desires of her own, so the incentives to her behavior took shape out of the wishes of her companions.”29 Here, Anandamayi approaches the ideal of the spiritual master described in almost all the Eastern traditions. In the Sufi tradition, for instance, the sheikh’s “own bodily form has been annihilated and he has become a mirror; within it are reflected the faces of others. . . . If you see an ugly face, that is you; and if you see Jesus and Mary, that is you. He is neither this nor that, he is plain; he has set your own reflection before you.”30

The reflecting mirror ideal of the spiritual guru, then, is quite different from the classical psychoanalytic ideal of the analyst as a blank screen. The analyst’s self is hidden, unlike that of the spiritual master which often appears to be absent. Anandamayi, like some spiritual teachers, but unlike many analysts, can accompany the psychotic or borderline patient to the land of prepsychological chaos.

Hindu spiritual traditions give detailed descriptions of the process that augments empathy to a point where there is no affective obstacle to an identification with another’s experience. A complete empathic knowledge of another person, they claim, involves the activation of a normally dormant “higher” faculty or consciousness. In Yogic practice, for instance, reason, imagination, memory, thought, sensations have first to become sufficiently quiet for the higher faculty of Buddhi to become active and to know itself as separate and different from the lower qualities.31 Buddhi is the Yogic analog of psychoanalyst and mystic Wilfred Bion’s “sense organ” of psychical qualities that responds to the broadcast of a “sender” and dwells in the domain of the inner world. Psychoanalysts, Bion maintained, need to screen out the noise of sensible life so as to become more receptive to other messages from the psychical world.32 This receptivity leads to the expansion of preconscious communication channels and a greater capacity for retrieval from the depths of the psyche.33

From a spiritual viewpoint, the chief obstacle to an analyst’s empathy is his phenomenal, sensual self. Fueled by the senses, the sensual self prevents the emergence of Buddhi. The meditative practices of the Eastern spiritual traditions are directed precisely toward the reduction of noise and glare produced by the sensual self. Thus, although empathy is common to both spiritual healing and psychoanalytic cure, the concept itself veers toward its spiritual pole in the former case and toward its rational, intellectual pole in the latter. If we concede the spiritual teacher’s claim, supported by personal testimonies of spiritual adepts over the centuries, that the activation of Buddhi is accompanied by an extraordinary increase in his empathic capacity, then it follows that some kind of spiritual training, such as the Buddhist Compassionate Meditation, may significantly enhance an analyst’s potential for empathic identification. Such a training not only contributes to a greater ease with the setting aside of ego functions, making one less defensive against the anxiety of “drowning,” but can also expand the analyst’s potential for deep empathy.

Yet another way of increasing our empathic capacity may be a constant and conscious practice of compassion until it becomes an ingrained way of approaching all living beings. To be consequent in the practice of compassion is not an easy task. The Dalai Lama, who has been meditating for at least three hours every day for more than 50 years, tells the following story about himself. In Dharamshala, where he lives, there are many mosquitoes. When the first mosquito alights on his bare arm, his thought is, “Fine, my friend, you must also live. Have your meal of my blood.” With the second one, he is a bit irritated. When the third one comes buzzing to the dining table, he squashes it flat. The Buddhists believe that your thoughts when you are dying have a huge effect on how you are reincarnated in your next birth, pure, spiritual thoughts ensuring a higher form of consciousness in the next life. “When I am dying,” Dalai Lama says with his trademark smile, “I will make sure that my bed is covered with a mosquito net.”34

For psychotherapists, then, the augmentation of their empathic capacity is of signal importance. This is true even if one does not regard empathy as a primary curative agent, as Kohut does, but is still prepared to concede that it is indeed a very significant tool for gathering data in the treatment situation. After all, even the most sophisticated interpretation in psychoanalysis can only be as good as the data on which it is based. Empathy, and the meditative state that underlies it, may well be the sluice through which the spiritual enters the consulting room, where the art and science of psychoanalysis flow together in the practice of psychotherapy. This is not to suggest that psychoanalysis should lose its distinctive character by an indiscriminate borrowing from Eastern spiritual traditions. Psychoanalysis itself can be viewed as a singularly modern meditative praxis, unique in its emphasis on being a meditation that is joint rather than individual. Yet in the spirit of Freud’s legacy of openness to other disciplines (Freud recommended the study of anthropology, folklore, and mythology to the budding analyst), analysts need to remain open to the possibility that an Eastern meditative discipline could become a part of their training if, as claimed by its practitioners, it demonstrably contributes to an enhancement in empathic capability. The traditional Freudian suspicion of the spiritual domain, and the cultural pride in psychoanalysis as a uniquely valuable product of Western civilization and imagination, should not come in the way of such borrowings.

Perhaps only a few, rare saints can reach the summit of connective imagination, expressed in the Upanishadic ideal of “he who sees all beings in his own self and his own self in all beings.” Most of us can consider ourselves fortunate if we can catch a glimpse of the peak from the base camp of an all-encompassing compassion. Personally speaking, I am keenly aware of the power of human passions of desire, aggression, and narcissism to shape our beliefs, thoughts, and behavior, and equally conscious of our supreme human capacity to deceive ourselves about our motives. As a result, I will be satisfied to reach the starting point of this spiritual expedition, namely, a wide-ranging tolerance which the late philosopher Ramachandra Gandhi defined, minimally, as giving the benefit of doubt to others.35 If one wants to go anywhere spiritually, tolerance is a good place to start.


  1. See David Klugman, “Empathy’s Romantic Dialectic: Self Psychology, Intersubjectivity and Imagination,” Psychoanalytic Psychology 18 (2001): 684-704.
  2. Charles Lindholm, Culture and Authenticity (Blackwell, 2008), 141-142.
  3. Beth J. Seelig and Lisa S. Rosof, “Normal and Pathological Altruism,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 49 (2001): 933-959.
  4. In a talk at the conference “Emerging Images of Humanity,” the Fetzer Institute and Eranos Foundation, Ascona, August 5-11, 2007, the religious scholar Ursula King called these organizations part of “the global quest for spiritualities.”
  5. Lindholm, Culture and Authenticity.
  6. Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1910).
  7. Gilbert J. Rose, Necessary Illusion: Art as Witness (International Universities Press, 1996), 58.
  8. Cited in Stanley A. Leavy, “John Keats’s Psychology of Creative Imagination,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 39, no. 2 (1970): 176.
  9. Ibid., 174.
  10. Ronald Britton, “Reality and Unreality in Phantasy and Fiction,” in On Freud’s “Creative Writers and Day-dreaming,” ed. Ethel Spector Person, Sérvulo Augusto Figueira, and Peter Fonagy (Yale University Press, 1995), 94.
  11. The Expanded Quotable Einstein, ed. Alice Calaprice (Princeton University Press, 2000), 10.
  12. Cited in James A. Knight, “The Spiritual as a Creative Force in the Person,” Journal of the American Academy Psychoanalysis 15 (1987): 365.
  13. Cited in Patrick French, The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul (Picador, 2008), 403.
  14. Ibid., 389.
  15. Personal communication from Abid Hussain, Shimla, September 14, 2007.
  16. Knight, “The Spiritual as a Creative Force in the Person,” 368.
  17. Leavy, “John Keats’s Psychology of Creative Imagination,” 178.
  18. Gustave Flaubert, cited in Alfred Margulies, “The Empathic Imagination,” Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis 21 (1995): 516.
  19. Personal communication from Anand Paranjpe.
  20. Shankara commentary on the Vedanta Sutras 2.1.4, cited in Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities (University of Chicago Press, 1984), 286.
  21. Jan Gonda, Four Studies in the Language of the Veda, cited in O’Flaherty, Dreams, Illusions, and Other Realities, 118.
  22. Isle Grubrich-Simitis, “Six letters of Sigmund Freud and Sándor Ferenczi on the Interrelationship of Psychoanalytic Theory and Technique,” International Review of Psycho-Analysis 13 (1986): 271.
  23. George Satran, “Some Limits and Hazards of Empathy,” Contemporary Psychoanalysis 27 (1991): 739.
  24. Sigmund Freud, “Two Encyclopaedia Articles” (1923), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Hogarth Press, 1953- ), vol. 18, 239.
  25. Freud, “The Future of an Illusion” (1927), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 21, 31-32.
  26. Charles Rycroft, review of Psychoanalysis and the Occult, ed. George Devereux, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 35 (1954): 70-71.
  27. Pupul Jayakar, J. Krishnamurti: A Biography (Penguin, 1987), 8.
  28. Lisa Lassell Hallstrom, Mother of Bliss: Anandamayi Ma (Oxford University Press, 1999), 98.
  29. Ibid., 26.
  30. William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi (State University of New York Press, 1983), 145.
  31. Sri Aurobindo, “Yogic Sadhan” (1911), in Sri Aurobindo: Archives and Research 10:1 (1986): 55-83.
  32. James S. Grotstein, “Wilfred R. Bion: The Man, the Psychoanalyst, the Mystic. A Perspective on His Life and Work,” Contemporary Psychoanalysis 17 (1981): 501-536.
  33. Stefano Bolognini, “Empathy and the Unconscious,” Psychoanalytic Quarterly 70 (2001): 447-471.
  34. The Dalai Lama, in a workshop on Buddhism held in New Delhi, December 21-23, 2006.
  35. Ramachandra Gandhi, “Two Cheers for Tolerance,” India International Centre Quarterly 34, no. 1 (Summer 2007): 146-151.

Sudhir Kakar is a psychoanalyst and writer who lives in Goa, India. His most recent book is Mad and Divine: Spirit and Psyche in the Modern World (University of Chicago Press, 2008). This talk, delivered on October 14, 2008, was part of the Center for the Study of World Religions lecture series “Rethinking the Human.”

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