"On Practices and In Theory:
Mapping Psychoanalysts’ Approaches to Buddhist Traditions in the United States"
For nearly a century now, psychoanalysts have shown an increasing interest in Buddhist teachings and practices. In the last decade or two, religious studies scholars have begun to turn their attention to this phenomenon. However, contrary to current scholarly depictions, psychoanalysts (and psychoanalytically informed clinicians) in the United States have approached Buddhist traditions in a wide variety of ways. Written from my dual vantage as both practicing psychotherapist and religious studies scholar, my historical and ethnographic research aims to map the diversity of clinicians’ approaches to Buddhist teachings and practices.
This paper explores the clinical insights that can be gleaned from the fuller description of these activities provided by my study. I claim that such a perspective first offers clinicians a greater awareness of the options available to them for their own practice. Psychotherapists who are knowledgeable of the broad range of approaches their colleagues have taken to Buddhist teachings and practices can make better informed choices about which fits best with their own sense of purpose as clinicians. Though largely unmentioned in current religious studies scholarship, psychotherapists’ choices about how to relate to Buddhist traditions are motivated by multiple, sometimes competing, commitments. Some prioritize the need to reduce the symptomatology of their patients and will incorporate particular Buddhist practices into therapy because they believe they are effective. Others are invested in preserving the integrity of the Buddhist traditions they participate in and are concerned that they might contribute to the medicalization of “culturally appropriated” practices. I ultimately argue that a more accurate mapping of these dynamics illuminates how important it is that psychotherapists’ bring, indeed, “mindful” awareness to their decisions about how to organize their commitments, and consequently, how they approach Buddhist traditions.
Ira Helderman, PhD, LPC is a licensed professional counselor in full time private practice and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in Peabody College’s Department of Human Development Counseling at Vanderbilt University. Ira has previously worked in a variety of clinical settings including the Vanderbilt University Psychological and Counseling Center, the Psychiatric Hospital at Vanderbilt, and Cumberland Heights Addiction Treatment Center.
Ira received his PhD in “Religion, Psychology, and Culture” from Vanderbilt University’s Graduate Department of Religion. His academic research investigates how psychotherapists and psychotherapeutic frames shape contemporary religious activity in the United States. Ira’s current book project, entitled Prescribing the Dharma: The “Religious” and the “Not-Religious” in U.S. Psychotherapists’ Approaches to Buddhist Traditions draws on historical analysis, ethnographic observation, and original interviews with formative published psychotherapists to map the diversity of ways that clinicians have related to Buddhist teachings and practices. Ira has published some of his initial findings in peer-reviewed journals like The Journal of the American Academy of Religion and has presented his work at national and international conferences.
6:30 – 7:00 Wine and hors d'oeuvres
7:00 – 8:30 Presentation and discussion
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