Psychoanalytic and Buddhist Reflections on Gentleness Sensitivity, Fear, and the Drive Towards Truth Routledge, 2019

Psychoanalytic and Buddhist Reflections on Gentleness book cover

Not a few people move in the world feeling like a delicate being who strayed into a coarse reality. This experience – more or less conscious, more or less overt – is an ongoing undercurrent of their lives. It amounts to an existential condition in whose light, and on whose basis, all the rest is built: their sense of self, their sense of others, and the relations between them

This book explores gentleness as a way of being and mode of existence. It looks into the unique position of those I call “gentle people”, as well as certain gentle layers of the psyche in general, as they meet the world. It is aimed at gentle people and at those who live with them: parents, partners, friends, educators and therapists who wish to understand gentleness and hold it in a slightly different manner.

A beautiful book exploring the role, fate, and possibilities of gentleness in life. Professor Barnea-Astrog draws from psychoanalysis and Buddhism and a rich reservoir of resources that play a role in our makeup. She discusses difficulties we face and supports us in our quest for opening to the call of existence, its mysteries and hopes. A long-overdue caring, thoughtful, and detailed study of the importance of gentleness, its challenges and gifts”.

Michael Eigen, The Challenge of Being Human

Elaine Aron (1996; 2002) wrote about the highly sensitive person and the highly sensitive child. Michael Eigen (2004) wrote about the sensitive self. Aron identified a category, defined and characterized some aspects of the experience of those who share it, and offers support and guidance. Eigen delved into the depths of the psyche, studying less conscious, dynamic aspects related to sensitivity. It is the latter domain that I’m more interested in here, even though it too, branches out into our everyday conduct. (Sensitivity is unquestionably part of gentleness, but it doesn’t make up the whole of the picture, as I suggest in the book). I approach the subject through the perspective from which I daily observe the inter- and intra-psychic spheres: a composite of Buddhist and psychoanalytic thinking, nourished by academic research as well as by my experience as a Vipassana meditator and as a therapist and trainer of the Hakomi Method. As concerns Buddhism, I refer to ideas from the Pāli canon texts and the manner in which they are applied in Vipassana meditation. With regard to psychoanalysis I mainly look to object relations and the independent school.

Through this lens I observe the quivering core of gentleness and the way it points to the quivering core of being. I explore the inherent pains and beauty of gentleness, the struggles and opportunities it holds. I consider it as a manifestation of the ethics of those who aspire to sharpen and clear their tools of sensitivity: in their attitude toward experience – their own and others’ – and in their ability to investigate reality or truth.

Barnea-Astrog’s choice to study ‘gentleness’ as a phenomenon and consider it in a way hitherto unattempted in psychoanalysis is astounding. Her book offers a rich, profound yet simple and accessible lexicon of psychoanalytic and Buddhist insights and their interrelations, which enables us to understand gentleness as an existential substrate and avenue to a unique experience of being in the world. The author’s personal manner of writing, interspersed with clinical vignettes and illustrations from both western and eastern wisdom, allows for an exciting and instructive, intimate and dreaming associative reading experience. In tumultuous and violent times, this book not only illuminates but also holds out the relief of gentleness.

Merav Roth (PhD), Chair of Post-graduate Kleinian Studies program, and of the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in Psychoanalysis, the Sackler School of Medicine, Tel-Aviv University. Author of "Reading the Reader - A psychoanalytic perspective on literature" (Routledge, 2019).

In Chapter One I examine the relationship between these feelings and the perceptual-sensory-conscious gap which gentle people often face in relation to their primary environment, and which also affects the latter’s capacity to offer good-enough holding and containment. Eigen (2004) points out how responsiveness to sensitivity – sensitivity to the other’s sensitivity – is the groundwork of ethics. From here on I draw a first distinction between sensitivity and gentleness: I propose to think of mature gentleness, of which sensitivity is a part, as a mental achievement and a value, and suggest how life’s injuries, in the presence of the right support, may transform into a connecting tissue: between a person and herself, and between herself and others.

In Chapter Two I present the Buddha’s teachings, as they appear in his discourses and applied in Vipassana meditation, as a way leading from the coarse to the subtle. I approach the question of what happens when a person’s gentleness confronts crude social values, and discuss self-destructiveness as an expression of that person’s effort to live in a world whose dictates rip sensitivity apart (Eigen, 2004). I consider the importance of the Buddha’s complete eight-fold path, including its ethical aspect, given the current popularity of “mindfulness”; and I discuss nonviolence as an inherent, indispensable feature of truth.

bird illustration

In Chapter Three I explore when, and in what way, the materials of our sensitivity – the painful and the pleasant –serve as vital elements supporting the growth of the personality and spiritual development, and in which conditions they obstruct them. I ask: How much pain does it take to move us to act towards liberation from our misery generating patterns? When, and in what circumstances, does pain get in the way of this process, entangling and holding it back? How much pleasure – and of what type – is needed for the psyche to develop in a healthy manner, so it has the strength for further growth? When and in what circumstances does pleasure interfere, shroud and block? I describe the challenge of holding an infant, so sensitive to small nuances, well enough; and the value of the sheer work of attunement and adjustment.

Chapter Four investigates the possibility of feeling at home in the world – for the gentle person and for us all. I contemplate the relations between life’s inherent processes of arising and decay, and the element of distance and separation; as well as the relations between this element and dread. Referring to Bion’s notion of F in O alongside the Buddhist term Sadhhā (trust, devotion or faith), I describe clear-eyed faith as a scientific state of mind receptive to truth. My questions, consequently, are the following: How may we employ the sense of catastrophe, the cement that holds together personality (Bion, 1970; Eigen, 1985), as a sign pointing in the direction of what in Buddhist terms is called “the three characteristics of existence” (impermanence, suffering, and non-selfhood) and as enabling knowledge? And how can those who have had to hold themselves by themselves, surrender soberly to non-illusive objects of faith, find shelter in truth and commit themselves to complex processes beyond their control?

With great caution, going on tiptoe, I look into the potential connections between a primary experience of insufficient holding and the difficulty to surrender and trust – expressing themselves in the ability to focus and control one’s attention in meditation. I discuss the circumstances that may enable us – phenomena that form and fall apart in a universe that forms and falls apart – to feel safe in a mental space of not-knowing, and to feel held without clinging.

In recent years, the psychoanalytic-Buddhist dialogue has been converging from a general comparative discussion into a more focused examination of certain phenomena. Michal Barnea-Astrog’s book is a profound and important addition to this new direction. Attentively and meticulously, the author considers this dialogue and sketches its contribution to our understanding of gentleness as a “developmental achievement”. Her book is written with sensitivity and wisdom and demonstrates, often poetically, how ‘gentleness of mind nurtures the gentleness of action, and gentleness of action nurtures the gentleness of mind.

Yorai Sella (PhD), clinical psychologist. Co-director, Demut Institute, and lecturer at the Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University of Jerusalem training programs for Psychotherapy. He is an associate at the Tel Aviv Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, a Tai Chi trainer and a student of Zen Buddhism.

The fifth and final chapter of this book probes the role of the mental environment in creating conditions that either attack gentleness or support its maturation. I consider attention as the habitat of the mind’s materials, and look into how its qualities together make up an inter- and intra-personal domain with certain features that either assist or undermine processes of healing and growth.

To begin with I touch on the important role of the attentional environment in the process of re-consolidating memory, whereby a memory that arises in the here-and-now absorbs some qualities of the present state and reconstitutes itself in their light. I define a system of three factors which together determine the mind’s relations with its environment: features of the environment itself; the extent of a person’s sensitivity to them – that is to say, his conscious-perceptual-sensory resolution; and the extent of his vulnerability – namely the interface between his mind’s reactive substrate and his ability to be in touch with reality, to see it clearly and to remain sound in the face of experience, even where it is difficult.

flower illustration

Next I continue with the gentle person’s sense of aesthetics and his high sensitivity to measures of harmony and discordance, something I connect with “the true contemplative”, who is always in tune with the “even” (sama) and the “right” (sammā) (Bhikkhu, 2006). I mention two types of accuracy, anxious and balanced: The first is entailed by a fear of disintegration, and distorts the ability to tell reactive-illusive discordance and harmony, from the discordance and harmony that are in tune with universal goodness. The second is a type of accuracy which does not involve the utilitarian self, with its greed and anxiety, and which enables a clear view of reality’s traits. Marina’s case bears out how a delicate attentional environment makes it possible to work with subtleties, opening the zone of emotional processing to the most delicate, faintest mental layers which in different circumstances would probably have stayed concealed.

In this book Michal Barnea-Astrog beautifully describes the experience of gentleness that some of us carry throughout the life cycle. If you have sensed and learned to protect yourself from the too-much-ness of life, you will find yourself in this book. With skill and sensitivity, Barnea-Astrog offers a way to understand and appreciate this gentle nature and the many developmental challenges that accompany it. Using psychoanalytic theory and Buddhist spiritual teachings, she offers the reader a rare glimpse into a way of being that can be supported and nurtured in family systems, communities, and intimate relationships of all kinds. This is a timely book that encourages us all to find our gentleness within and offer it to a world in need of an ethics informed by a tender and open heart.

Pilar Jennings, Ph.D. Psychoanalyst, lecturer, and author of To Heal a Wounded Heart.

The final part of Chapter Five deals with the connection between non-clinging and the ability to move with the waves of experience in the therapeutic space, during meditation, and in general. Here I draw a distinction between instrumental and non-instrumental states of mind. The first category is based on attachment to hoped-for results; the second reflects a mind that is aware of the uncertainty bound up with the infinite complexity of processes, but also recognizes the supreme importance of the mental action itself: it therefore aims for accuracy regarding its own actions, without clinging to an outcome over which it understands it has no control. Non-instrumental states of mind are the fruit of non-ignorance, non-desire, and non-hatred. They calibrate the extent and quality of effort invested and support a non-dualistic, non-violent approach.

In the brief Epilogue I offer some reflections on the place of this conditioned subjective phenomenon, myself, which exists in the flow of events in time and space. Enveloped by and filled with a sense of I-ness, it fears disruption and does all it can to endure. At the same time it is aware of its impermanence and attempts to investigate it, holds out a hand to the other who, just like her, struggles to be enveloped and endure.

Read excerpts from the book