Spirituality and Psychotherapy:
The Positive Psychology of
Buddhism and Yoga
An Interview with Marvin Levine, Ph.D.
For more than 40 years, Dr. Marvin Levine has been exploring the common
boundaries between Buddhism, Yoga, and current viewpoints in Western psychology. In this interview he
discusses his discoveries, the new research in “Positive Psychology,” and how a synthesis of
the psychologies of East and West can be a powerful tool in self-transformation.
Integral Yoga Magazine: How did you get into Buddhism and Yoga?
Marvin Levine: I was raised as an orthodox Jew. In a typical
teenage way, I grew away from Judaism, but was left with a sense of emptiness. So I started exploring
the Western spiritual literature. A friend gave me a book on the life of the Buddha. The totality of
Siddhartha’s renunciation impressed me. This was not Epictetus (the Greek slave-boy who became a
philosopher) looking for a way out. This was a prince with every promise of power and wealth who gives it
all up. Such a renunciation made me want to know more. I began reading more deeply in the Eastern
IYM: Did you become a practitioner and what is your practice?
ML: I used to describe myself as a weekday psychologist and weekend
orientalist. I read the Bhagavad Gita, some Yoga and Buddhist writings but for a long time did not have a
practice. I started to do a few asanas. They felt wonderful and that is what got me into Yoga practice more
seriously. I have come to see the inner practice of Yoga practice as two-fold. First, it’s the practice
of being in this state of immersion, of focused calmness--a state of serenity. In that state, we are not
troubled by hunger, anxieties, anger--we are not thinking about the neighbor who annoyed us. We are, thus,
practicing being liberated from dukkha (troubled feelings, suffering). In Hatha Yoga, then, we are
totally focused on what we are doing: the breathing, the movement, the relaxing. I call such immersion the
Yogic state. We want to learn to be in this state in whatever we are doing: washing the dishes, getting
dressed, sanding some wood. We want to be immersed in that activity with the same focused calmness. There
is a quote from Swami Satchidananda in the Integral Yoga Magazine. He had a disciple who complained,
“I don’t have time to practice--I’m raising kids!” He replied, “It’s all
practice.” He had such a remarkable flair and succinct way of putting things! I quote him several times
in my book.
The other inner practice is: being nonjudgmental. I had one Yoga teacher who said to all his students,
“You are perfect.” That’s it. If we can only get halfway into the posture, that’s
fine. We don’t judge ourselves. We practice avoiding self-deprecating thoughts. And we avoid prideful
thoughts. If we are secretly proud that we are doing an asana better than everyone else, that, too, is being
judgmental. As with immersion, we want to bring this nonjudgmental equanimity into our daily lives.
IYM: Did your practice begin to influence your professional work?
ML: Early in my career I reacted against behaviorism--a view I felt
was too limited. The State University of New York (SUNY) brought me in because they wanted a new experimental
program that reflected this new emerging cognitive outlook. The psychotherapists in the program also had a new
attitude. Instead of fancy theorizing they emphasized techniques and methods that work, that help people. They
took from us (the cognitive theorists) this idea that unskillful thinking was one root of people’s
problems. They began developing a strategy for getting clients to recognize and to challenge their own
dysfunctional thoughts. Also, theorists like Arnold Lazarus were teaching clients to do imaging and
visualization. In a sense, this new wave of cognitive psychotherapists was teaching meditation!
I was now at SUNY, reading books on Buddhism and practicing Yoga, and learning the clinician’s methods.
One day, like a big flashing insight, I realized: we are all doing the same thing, we are all looking for
techniques to help people. Eastern practitioners and Western therapists are all teaching that the way to an
enduring happiness is through self-transformation. I realized that the Eastern methods and Western techniques
could supplement each other. These traditions happened on two sides of the world, 2,000 years apart. But, they
are both contributing to the common goal of liberating ourselves from dukkha...
|read the rest of this article in the Spring 2006 issue of IY Magazine