Whatever your view of psychology, like it or not, it has entered the mainstream of public consciousness. Only after studying the subject does it become clear just have far academic terms, phrases and concepts from Freud, Yung and others have filtered down into the common understanding of the ‘self’. Listening to Dhamma talks by masters who have no background in psychology it becomes clear just how much even Dhamma has been affected.
For example, some teachers (unnamed) often speak of watching the mind as ‘just allowing’ and ‘not repressing’ ect.. Well, ‘repressing’(aka ‘surpressing’) is a psychological concept that you will be hard pushed to find any reference to in anything over 100 years old. Certainly there is no Pali equivalent, and no sutta that speaks in this way. This does not mean that it is wrong, only that it is a concept from modern psychology that has seeped into Dhamma, for better or worse.
Other ideas such as the ‘ego’have also become mainstream. Somehow, the Pali term Atman has come to be recognised as ‘ego’, thus colouring the concept of non-self. Actually, several mistakes are made here. First, ‘ego’ in Freudian psychology is the rational, reality based part of the mind as opposed to the ‘id’ (pleasure seeking principle) and the ‘super-ego’ (ideals, mostly from our society). In this sense, the ego is something to be developed. Secondly, in Buddhism too, the ego is the rational part of your self, that, when developed, is home to your wisdom. You do have a ‘self’ in Buddhism, it is just not a permanent, unchanging Atman. So yes, in both proper psychology and in Buddhism the ego self is to be developed, and it is an ego that has nothing to do with the sense of self-aggrandizement that the term commonly is taken to mean.
Is the trickle down of concepts born from psychology into Dhamma a good thing? In some instances it surely must be. If you ask most Thai monks if while they were novices they were ever beaten with canes, most will tell you they have. Despite all the teachings on compassion and harmlessness (ahimsa) it was has been standard behaviour to beat children in Thai monasteries, without any sense of contradiction. The world zeitgeist of the present age has long moved against the idea there is value in this behaviour, and this has filtered into Thai temples over the last decade.
Yet there are places where psychology does not belong. Such as the highly lamentable attempt by author David Brazier to psycho-analyse the Buddha, which regrettably resulted in a widely available book The Feeling Buddha. The Buddha attained Enlightenment, and did not endure lifelong torment through losing his natural mother when he was just 7 days old.
Another area psychology does not belong, is in our legends. We all like heros. Fantasies of our whittling day dreams. And few fantasy heros are more iconic than Robin Hood. This figure is so archetypal that even Thais know the story. Yet Hollywood director Ridley Scott makes a very grievous attempt to analyse our Merry Man in a forthcoming film about the legend:
The film will explore the background of the key characters and claim that Robin found a sense of belonging with his merry men because he was abandoned as a child. The Sheriff of Nottingham will be relegated to a bit part and Robin’s true enemy will be the French. “The villain is much bigger, much more important and much more dangerous,” Scott said.
Ok, making the main enemy the French might be a popular move, but giving our man in Lincoln green abandonment issues would have Yung turning in his grave. There are just some areas psychology, especially misguided pop psychology, simply does not belong. Ridley might be a great cinematographer, but he should leave the writing to the writers, as his futile attempt at character study in The Gladiator should have made clear.
Well, you might like modern psychology or you might not. But certainly it is here to stay, and an awareness of it helps to highlight the changing views and constructs of our time.