Chapter 10: Fromm – Humanistic Psychoanalysis

Part 3: Personality Theory in Real Life

The ancient practice of mindfulness, which is associated with Buddhism but also has roots in other spiritual practices and religions, has become an important and fairly common psychotherapeutic technique (see, e.g., Germer, Siegel, & Fulton, 2005; Richards & Bergin, 2000; Sperry & Shafranske, 2005). There are also some interesting connections between the practice of Buddhist mindfulness and those who established feminine psychology. At the end of her life, Karen Horney went to Japan to study Zen Buddhism with the renowned Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki and Janet Surrey, one of the founding members of the Stone Center. Surrey has been practicing mindfulness and working to synthesize Buddhist practices with relational-cultural approaches to psychology for over 20 years (Surrey, 2005). Surrey is also on the faculty of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, and she teaches seminars on the use of mindfulness in conjunction with relational-cultural therapy.

Since Horney became interested in Zen near the end of her life, she wrote very little about it. Indeed, most of what is recorded is in the book, Final Lectures (Ingram, 1987), which was published by Douglas Ingram many years after Horney died. However, her close friend and colleague, Erich Fromm, also worked with Suzuki. Fromm mentions Yoga and Buddhism often in his books, and Suzuki and Fromm (along with another colleague) co-authored Zen Buddhism & Psychoanalysis in 1960.

Horney equated Zen mindfulness with living fully in each moment, with wholehearted concentration (Horney, 1945, 1950; Ingram, 1987). Fromm knew Suzuki at the same time as Horney, but the two men really got to know each other when Suzuki spent a week in Mexico in 1956, and Fromm then visited Suzuki in New York. In 1964, Fromm wrote to Suzuki that every morning he read a passage on Zen or something by Meister Eckhart (a well-known Christian mystic). In addition, Fromm was interested in Kabbalah and Sufism, as well as other spiritual approaches to understanding people (Funk, 2000). Fromm examined many of these diverse perspectives in books, such as The Nature of Man (Fromm & Xirau, 1968) and Psychoanalysis and Religion (Fromm, 1950), and he drew interesting connections between the physical activities of Yoga and Wilhelm Reich’s somatic psychology (Fromm, 1992). He was by no means an unqualified supporter, however, suggesting that some self-proclaimed gurus can do more harm than good when seeking to serve their own selfish interests (usually in order to make money; Fromm, 1994).

In their work together, Suzuki provided a brief overview of the essentials of Zen practice, which focuses on living life. Fromm, for his part, identified ways in which Zen principles appeared to be compatible with psychoanalysis. He considered psychoanalysis to be the Western parallel to Zen, since Zen arose from Indian rationality and abstraction mixed with Chinese concreteness and realism, whereas psychoanalysis arose from Western humanism and rationalism. Fromm described the Western world as suffering from a spiritual crisis, resulting from a change in the pursuit of the perfection of humanity to the pursuit of the perfection of things (e.g., technology). Since we have lost our connection to nature and to ourselves and our communities, we have become anxious and depressed. Psychoanalysis was developed to help us deal with these anxieties, as an alternative to the flawed ways in which we had been dealing with them in the past: religion (according to Freud). As described very simply, Zen Buddhism also seeks to resolve human anxiety, simply by doing good and avoiding evil. In Freudian terms, doing good results from knowing oneself, and one can only know oneself through the process of psychoanalysis. Then, a person can act in accordance with reality rather than being influenced by unconscious, repressed, and dysfunctional psychological processes. Therefore, Fromm considered the essential nature of psychoanalysis to be compatible with Zen (Suzuki, Fromm, & DeMartino, 1960), a perspective supported more recently by Mark Epstein in his comparison of Buddhist meditation and psychoanalysis, Thoughts Without a Thinker (Epstein, 1995).

Fromm used Zen perspectives to reform his views on psychoanalysis and development. He considered the development of the individual to be a re-enactment of the development of the species (i.e., ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny). Prior to birth there is no anxiety, and following birth we must deal with anxiety. We can try to deal with our anxieties by regressing to our earliest state, or we can attempt to complete the process of birth, which Fromm described as a lifelong process. “Birth is not one act; it is a process. The aim of life is to be fully born, though its tragedy is that most of us die before we are thus born. To live is to be born every minute” (pg. 88; Suzuki, Fromm, & DeMartino, 1960).

Fromm does not suggest that this is easy, but it is possible. However, which method is to be preferred: psychoanalysis or the practice of Zen Buddhism? That would appear to be a personal matter, since both psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism aim toward the same goal.

Just as love is considered an essential element of being Christian, compassion is essential to Buddhism. In The Art of Loving, Fromm (1956) noted that a person cannot love themselves if they do not love others. Thus, love and compassion are intertwined; one must love and care for all people, indeed for all things, to be fulfilled. Zen teaches this peace in many ways, even sword fighting and archery become art when performed by a Zen master. Fromm acknowledged that a Zen master of sword fighting has no wish to kill and experiences no hate for his opponent. Although a classic psychoanalyst might insist that the sword master is motivated by some unconscious hatred or anger, Fromm says that such a psychoanalyst simply does not grasp the spirit of Zen. Likewise, citing Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery again, Fromm notes how archery has been transformed from a military skill into an exercise of spirituality, or in non-spiritual terms, a form of playful violence (as opposed to aggressive violence; Fromm, 1964, 1973).

This is a color photo of a sculpted archer. The archer is dressed as Robin Hood, and he is in position to shoot his arrow.
Image Source: DavidReed. Retrieved from Pixabay at Licensed under CCO.

Thus, the practice of mindfulness, the art of love, and compassion, all play similar roles in helping people to be aware of who they are and of their relationships with others. In addition, they encourage and support a genuine desire to be connected to others, and to maintain healthy interpersonal connections, even in such diverse activities as eating breakfast, going to work, or practicing archery.


Text: Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.