Carved by Experience Vipassana, Psychoanalysis, and the Mind Investigating Itself Karnac, 2017

Carved by Experience book cover

How does the tendency to crave pleasure and reject pain shape our lives? How does it affect the way we perceive reality, and how is it related to the emergence of suffering, its experience and transmission? Can we live free of this tendency, beyond the pleasure principle?

Carved by Experience approaches these questions by examining the psychoanalytic concepts of projection and projective identification in the light of early Buddhist thought. It looks at the personal and the interpersonal, at theory, meta-theory, and everyday life. It observes how the mind’s habits mold the human condition, and investigates its ability to free itself from their domination. It explores the potential of this liberation: to be in touch with reality as it is and live a less reactive, more ethical life.

This is a powerful and important book. It reads like a work into which the author has poured her life. Michal Barnea-Astrog combines rigorous scholarship from two different fields and builds a discourse between them. She writes with clarity and lucidity that often becomes poetic. I have spent my lifetime as a psychiatrist and Vipassana meditator, and yet I found myself educated by every page. Barnea-Astrog has written a book that is both a psychotherapeutic textbook, and an intimate testament.

Paul R. Fleischman, MD, author of Wonder: When and Why the World Appears Radiant, and recipient of the American Psychiatric Association’s Oskar Pfister Award for his contributions to the study of psychiatry and religion

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First, I examine the projective nature of our perception and experience of reality. I look into some of the subjective characteristics of our viewpoint: how it is formed, and how it consolidates into self-perpetuating patterns that come to rule our inner as well as interpersonal lives.

The discussion then moves to the relationship between our projective tendencies and the ways in which we pass our suffering on to others. I consider the fluid and relative nature of the boundaries between one mind and another, and the traffic of mental materials across them – thus demonstrating how we continuously constitute each other, and how interdependent, conditioned and not-isolated we are.

"This book is the product of original and pioneering research in the fascinating articulation between Buddhism and psychoanalysis. Avoiding the simplifications all too often marking this field, Michal Barnea-Astrog introduces a new perspective: The potential held by the cross fertilization of the Buddhist notion of mutual arising and the psychoanalytical notion of projective identification. In an engrossing and extremely readable analysis inspired by these two major theories of the psyche – ostensibly as far apart as east and west – Barnea-Astrog brings them into dialogue. She introduces new ways of looking at individuals, their relations with themselves, with others and with the world and new types of work with the discontents of our lives and the mind's possibility of deep healing."

Prof. Jacob Raz, The Department of East Asian Studies Tel Aviv University, author of Yakuza, My Brother, Return Trip to Tokyo, Zen Buddhism: Philosophy and Aesthetics, Thus I've Heard: Zen Writings, and more.

Finally, I go on to explore the alternatives proposed by psychoanalysis and Buddhism, respectively, to the misery-generating way of being ruled by splitting and projection. Following other writers in the field, I refer to the integration of the depressive position, to evenly suspended attention, reverie, containment, and other states of mind and mental qualities that psychotherapists aspire to cultivate. From the Buddhist side, I consider mindfulness (sati) and equanimity (upekkhā), and describe the sought-for mental attitude as the middle path between fuelling and suppressing. I show how all of these counter, in different ways, the subjugation to the pleasure principle and the need to expel the unwanted and the unbearable. Vipassana meditation is considered as a kind of "fasting of the spirit" (Hart, 1987), and the difference between mental digestion (through reverie) and eradication (through sati and upekkkhā) is drawn.

Video: Inside and Outside: Psychoanalytic and Buddhist Reflections on Interconnectedness

The following questions arise consequently: To what extent do psychoanalysis and Buddhism each view it possible for mental life to be free of projection? To what extent does each strive to unshackle the mind from the tyranny of the pleasure principle? In other words: How profound is the change one can attain in this context?

Personal stories accompany the ideas and support them. These are the stories of long time Vipassana students and teachers of various ages and walks of life, who were kind enough to share with me, in a series of interviews, their vicissitudes on the Buddhist path. Some of the profound mental processes they have undergone are offered in the form of simple vignettes, examined from a perspective resting on both psychoanalytic and Buddhist terminologies. I take a close look at the special role played by body sensations in the complex fabric of the human mind, and at the manner in which Vipassana meditation harnesses this aspect of experience to investigate suffering and dissolve it.

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"Michal Barnea-Astrog has written a creative, well-researched book that deepens our understanding of both Buddhism and psychoanalysis. It is an invaluable addition to the literature, and elegantly demonstrates what each tradition can teach us about suffering, growth, and the nature of the human mind."

Axel Hoffer, MD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, Training and Supervising Analyst, Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, and author of Freud and the Buddha: The Couch and the Cushion

All along, the existential paradox to which we humans are subject emerges, namely, that we have no other instrument for studying ourselves than our own shrouded minds; and it is only by means of those minds that we can subvert the subjective point of view that obstructs them and unravel the conditionings in which we are captured.

"This excellent book offers new thoughts about some major issues in psychoanalysis and presents a fresh perspective on psychoanalytic thought, as well as in-depth knowledge on early Buddhism, in simple and lucid language. This is a truly innovative book – original and highly important."

Esther Pelled, PhD, recipient of the Sapir Prize for Literature, and author of Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: About the Capacity to Know; Raising Goodness All Around: Buddhism, Meditation, Psychotherapy; Widely Open Underneath and other books.