Bruce Tift brings thirty-five years of clinical practice in psychology to his new book, Already Free, to offer the reader a fresh perspective on both the psychological sciences' approach to wellness and the Buddhist path to overcoming suffering. What results is a deeper understanding of what both traditions have to offer, and a comprehension too of the limits of each alone. In this book, Tift is bringing an acute awareness of, for the sake of gaining freedom from, deeply embedded conditioning that orients our adult behaviors, whose origins he locates in strategies developed in childhood for coping with overwhelming experiences. Tift sees these originally adaptive behavior patterns maladaptive for adult situations, leaving people feeling like powerless "problematic" people--like the children they were when they first applied these strategies. Much of what makes people feel anxious and depressed they blame on others around them or on external circumstances of their lives. They feel they are victims in their own drams, without freedom, and this lack of freedom shows up as a "stuck" feeling; their lives lack freshness, spontaneity, expansiveness, contentment, completeness, and open-heartedness. Tift reveals to us in Already Free how Western psychology and Buddhism diversely approach understanding and resolving these feelings. He applies both in his clinical practice to glean the most from two distinct philosophical worlds.
Western psychology, explains Tift, addresses people's ill being from the point of view that there exist actual "problems" in our sense of ourselves and in the external world that need to be addressed in order for well-being to blossom.. So the goal is to strengthen or improve the client's sense of self, build their ego, and find ways to improve the circumstances. On the other hand, Buddhism focuses on how people relate to their circumstances, rather than to the circumstances themselves, inviting a shift in perspective that permits us to fully relate to our experiences just as they are, embracing the messiness of the human condition and learning to work with our circumstances, rather than against them.
Tift sees these two differing approaches arising from contradicting logics and contradicting views of the nature of the human person. The West, since Descartes' cogito ergo sumexacerbated by the existentialist orientation critical to the development of a capitalist world of competing laborers and consumers, has human beings as individual, separately arising selves, competing for their place in the scheme of things--for jobs and for social status based on levels of consumption. The East tends to view human beings as instances of pure consciousness or awareness, not enveloped by, but entangled in, the world--what Thich Nhat Hahn calls "Interbeing"; nobody exists independently of other existing things, but just as it takes non-flower elements--cloud, soil, farmer's labor and a thousand other contributing factors--to bring to manifestation a single flower, so am I too made of non-me elements--ancestors, earth, water, sun, trees that clean the air we breathe, and on and on. Since we are entangled with the elements that enable our manifestation as a living being, these are both life-giving and a source of struggle, not merely struggle from which we must learn strategies to effectively retreat.
The Western and Eastern views also rest on diverse grounding logics. The Western psychological tradition sees their patients as sick, pathological, problematic, while the psychologist is framed as the well one. This logic is what Tift says caused him to drop out of a Ph.D. program in psychology after the first year: he was disillusioned with this way of viewing patients as ill, waiting to be cured of their problems. After travelling about the world, Tift found himself ultimately in Nepal, where he met up with the Tibetans in exile and developed his love for Buddhism, which he nurtured upon his return to the United States, joining his teacher Chӧgram Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of the Shambala tradition that brought Buddhist to the lay community of the West. In this tradition, Tift encountered a sophisticated understanding of the nature of the human mind, a view that emphasized human potential, rather than their frailties and pathologies, and a program of practical techniques for working with difficult experiences. He much preferred the logic of Buddhism that appreciates the mixed nature of everything, seeing nothing really wrong in the constant flux of life that scares us, but a mixture of pleasant and unpleasant in everything. So the point in this tradition is not to cure the problematic person and erase all the ills from the external circumstances of life; the Buddhist would think this impossible in any case. The point is to learn how to work with what life serves us and learn to get the most out of our circumstances, relating to our experiences more skillfully, not losing sight of the blue sky because of the clouds that pass by. Coming to this broader perspective is called "waking up" or becoming enlightened or free, hence the title--there is nothing to achieve; we are already there at every moment. We simply have to learn to see the whole picture and let the sunrise back into our sky.
Buddhist nun from the same (Shambala) tradition often states, "You are perfect just as you are!" while Suzuki Roshi, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, adds, " . . .and you could use a little work." These two aphorisms together seem to approximate Tift's approach to healing his troubled clients: he calls upon the Western psychological tradition, which he calls the "developmental" view, to help clients to improve their sense of themselves and to strategize to improve their life circumstances, as well as to locate and work with their inherited (from childhood) patterns of behavior that are presently proving maladaptive. He turns to the Buddhist approach, which he names the "fruitional" view, to open more varied possibilities for his patients to relate to their lives just as they are, by shifting their perspective from what is wrong to how to work with what is and also appreciate the good things available to them, unblended by the "problems."
In this book, Tift first analyzes the two views, then reconfigures our idea of anxiety and struggle as a natural aspect of the human condition. Human lives are messy! Then he explores how all this applies in relationships, a primary site of struggle, because intimacy brings two messy lives in uncomfortable proximity and people come to apply their childhood coping strategies to navigate their discomfort. They see problems in their circumstances and project the blame for those problems onto their partner, creating codependent partnerships that allow both parties to always delay taking responsibility for their own happiness and for facing their childhood fears as adults. Tift closes the study with practical strategies for working with our difficult emotions and our challenging circumstances, giving abundant examples from his practice of how things go well or ill.
This book was a thoroughly enjoyable read. It will appeal to those of us enamored with the Eastern tradition, while leaving a place and a function for Western psychology to ply its trade--but not on its own. His assessment of the faulty logic and view of human nature prevalent in the West is nothing less than brilliantly explained, so that any educated reader can glean the best from both traditions. Psychologists would do well to read this book so they may follow his lead and enrich their practice with fruitional strategies for well-being.
© 2015 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, Ph.D. (Philosophy), Professor, North Carolina A&T State University.