Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Learning from Experience: Bion's Concept of Reverie and Buddhist Meditation: A Comparative Study

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Learning from Experience: Bion's Concept of Reverie and Buddhist Meditation: A Comparative Study

Article excerpt

The author argues for a common denominator between Bion's view and the Buddhist view of mental development. In both thought systems, mental growth is synonymous to learning from experience. The author closely examines Bion's concept of attention and compares it to mindfulness, a major factor in Buddhist meditation. In both doctrines, attention must be isolated from other mental processes in order to attain learning from experience. The author compares reverie to the state of mind of equanimity. She argues that enhancement of the ability of reverie, or improving the inner container such that it can hold any content while unmoved by desire, is the purpose of Buddhist practice. Both view the mind as capable of transcending its own restrictions and 'the capacity to know anything' as attainable through disciplined practice.

Keywords: learning from experience, attention, reverie, mindfulness, equanimity, Buddhist meditation


In the past decades Buddhist teaching has been recognized as a source for enriching insights about the human consciousness. Efforts have been and continue to be made to integrate Buddhist wisdom and even to assimilate it into the psychotherapeutic inventory. Among those efforts are those directed towards the applicative aspect, such as the incorporation of meditation into the treatment of a wide range of mental disorders (Miller et al, 1995; Robbins, 2002; Segall, 2005; Teasdale et al, 2000; Kabat-Zinn et al., 1992), and others, which refer to the subject from a more theoretical aspect (Engler, 1981). Some studies (Brazier, 1997; Ornstein, 1972) examined the experience of Buddhist practice, and (Epstein, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1998) attempted to translate Buddhist vocabulary and practice into modern psychoanalytic terminology, decoding the riddles of the Eastern treasure of knowledge and turning them into comprehensible models of thinking for those helping humanity in modern times.

In this essay, I hope to contribute to the theoretical understanding of the Buddhist path as a means towards mental growth. At the core of this work stands a comparative analysis of a selection of Bion's concepts and Buddhist principles, with the hope that certain Buddhist ideas, as well as Bion's apparently enigmatic views, may be elucidated through a systematic comparison.

Until recently, some of Bion's concepts were considered 'somewhat mystical' (Mitchell and Black, 1995). Some of those 'mystical' ideas were clarified through the contribution of writers such as Eigen (1981) and Grotstein (1981, [internet], 1998). In the present study, I have chosen to ignore the later concepts, among them the concept of O, and examine Bion's 'Theory of thinking' which preceded its later evolution. This essay focuses on the concepts developed predominantly in Elements of psychoanalysis (1963) and Learning from experience (1962) with merely a brief glance at his later works Transformations (1965) and Attention (1970).

I. Bion's object-relations theory of mental growth

Bion's writings have frequently been described as mystical. This description has not been used favorably; rather it has served as a means of mitigating the reader's frustration when trying to decipher his complex theories. This same phenomenon occurred in the early days of Western research of Eastern philosophy: it too was dubbed 'mystical', exempting the scientific community from a serious examination of its understandings, while simultaneously generating a romantic fascination amongst researchers. In the past few years, psychoanalysts have ceased to be intimidated by 'mystical' elements. Theorists in the psychoanalytic field have been engaging with Bion's theories regarding the human mind and mental development with less skepticism. The same can be said about Buddhist epistemology, which has become an established resource for mental development for many psychoanalysts and psychotherapists (Magid, 2002; Welwood, 2000), starting with Jung (1938) and Suzuki et al. …

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