Loy on Leifer: "Becker & Buddhism: Anger, Aggression and Violence"
by David Loy
Newsletter Lecture Review
Ed. Note: This review of Dr. Ronald Leifer's May 11th Seattle University lecture was made possible by an audio-tape of the occasion sent to him in Japan.
Ron Leifer was a colleague and friend of Ernest Becker when they were both graduate students at Syracuse University in the late '50s. Both were students of Thomas Szasz, and afterwards both lost their academic positions at Syracuse in the backlash against Szasz's anti-psychiatry critique.
Leifer became a psychotherapist and, later, a Tibetan Buddhist. In 1997 he published The Happiness Project: Transforming the Three Poisons That Cause the Suffering We Inflict on Ourselves and Others (Ithaca: Snow Lion), which presents his psychological understanding of Buddhism. This lecture summarizes many of the insights developed at greater length in that book.
Leifer explains what he has learned from Buddhism to supplement what he learned from and with "Ernie" about our human nature. According to Leifer, Becker's first book Zen: A Rational Critique criticized Buddhism without fully understanding it; had he lived long enough, Ernie too would have come full circle back to a deeper appreciation of the synergy between Buddhist teachings and psychotherapeutic insight.
The tape begins with biographical reminiscences about their early days together. It goes on to summarize Becker's early work on the Oedipus complex, which he reinterpreted as a more general description of the socialization process whereby "baby-kings" become adults. Children cling to Mom and react against Dad's discipline because they naturally want their desires to continue to be instantly satisfied. In order for a socially-viable self to develop, however, that desire for immediate gratification must be sublimated into a future-oriented ambition.
Leifer supplements this with what he has learned from Tibetan lamas about our suffering and desires. As in The Happiness Project, he focuses on the first two "noble truths" of Buddhism: the truth about our suffering, and the truth about the cause of that suffering, which is basically desire.
Our problem with these truths is not that they are too esoteric or complicated, but that they are too simple. The people who come to him for help suffer because they are unable to accept the three facts (or "stains") of existence: that life involves suffering, that everything is impermanent, and that nothing has any "essence" or substantiality.
Each of these entails its own particular form of suffering: we suffer because we try to avoid suffering (our anxiety and worries), because we try to hold on to something stable (which changes even as we grasp at it), and because we try to construct a fixed identity for ourselves (usually in relation to a rejected "not-self," but such antithetical bonding gives rise to racism, nationalism, etc.). We try to deny and repress these truths, but reality has a way of breaking through our belief systems.
More precisely, the cause of our suffering is the three poisons or defilements: passion (desire), aggression (aversion), and ignorance (failing to notice what's happening). Our tragedy is that we cannot live without happiness projects (which we hope will yield all the things we desire), but these projects are themselves the cause of our suffering (because desire implies a sense of deprivation). Happiness cannot be found in the external world, for it can be achieved only by transforming our minds. The Buddhist solution is not really desirelessness but "opening ourselves" by letting go of that which we cannot have, which generates inner joy and equanimity. In particular, we must open up to the pain in our own hearts, which opens us up to others' pain as well (compassion).
Anger and aggression arise from frustrated desire, and can be addressed by getting in touch with the feelings of helplessness and vulnerability they mask. Leifer offers sharp criticisms of the pharmacological paradigm that understands depression and anxiety as being due to biochemical imbalances in the brain. Drugs may occasionally be necessary, but the basic problem is a spiritual (or existential) one which therefore needs to be approached in a spiritual way. The medical model prevalent today is really an ideology that is used to justify a form of social control.
The question period that followed expands on many of these points and also reflects on the un-civil nature of contemporary society, which Leifer sees as anomic and disintegrating because it aggravates desires that cannot deliver the happiness they promise.
Not all Buddhists will recognize Leifer's demythologized Buddhism as their own. He has nothing to say about rebirth or nirvana or the eightfold path. What Leifer offers, though, is perhaps the most insightful account yet of a psychologized Buddhism purged of the supernatural and distilled into a wisdom that speaks very directly to the fundamental problems of our times. I have restricted myself to summarizing the lecture because, as another Buddhist Beckerite, I want to underscore its message. I've already made several copies of the tape for Buddhist friends of mine.