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Working with Defence Mechanisms from the perspective of Buddhist Psychology

Updated: Feb 6


Understanding defence mechanisms makes sense if we have self love, need for self love and wish to grow. For others, it is just a way of being. There is a utility in the use of defence mechanisms we employ in order to deal with a variety of difficulties in life. The development of these mechanisms have utility for the development of a healthy ego which is a precursor to survival, individuation and in the long run maturity. They serve a function and are part of the coping process.

There are roughly speaking 16 defence mechanisms, (S.Freud, A. Freud, Burgo, J.) divided in a hierarchy of primitive to those that lead towards psychological maturity. The primitive defense mechanisms are: denial, regression, acting out, disassociation, compartmentalization, projection, reaction formation and aim inhibition. The next in the hierarchy are: repression, displacement, intellectualization, rationalization , and undoing. The ones that tend to lead toward maturity are sublimation, compensation and assertiveness.

Each mechanism has a functional utility in the short run and is not meant to be a point of definition in our evolution. This means that there is a vision to see that life is an ever growing dynamic process requiring us to navigate it with awareness. Differentiation of response is not something acquired if the patterns are habitual. Life truly lived is organic in nature and its pace and rhythm and response of evolution is unique for each.

There are scales to human maturity. The brain development in humans has been angulated to meet the demands of basic survival. This is the reptilian part of our brain. This part works on the instinctual level of aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual displays. Its location lies in the forebrain . Then comes the limbic brain. The structures of the limbic system arose early in mammalian evolution and were responsible for the motivation and emotion involved in feeding, reproductive behavior, and parental behavior. The location is in the septum, amygdalae, hypothalamus, hippocampal complex and cingulate cortex. Finally, the cerebral neocortex part- found uniquely in higher mammals, specifically humans, confers the ability for language, abstraction, planning, reasoning, impulse control and perception. It is the last part of our evolution that differentiates us as higher order of species.

This sets the stage for human beings to reach levels of maturity and with this awareness unknown to other species.

What does it mean to be a higher order of species?

This is not a readily explored area. The emphasis is to live a successful material and perhaps a spiritual life. Generally speaking, the word spiritual has many different definitions and does not come clear for most of us. Nonetheless, what is acknowledged is that we have an obligation to balance the material with the spiritual. This is one of the commonalities amongst all religions.

And this is perhaps the purpose of understanding the need to work with defence mechanisms.

Higher order species perhaps would entail being able to not just live a life of comfort but also to be able to tackle life situations with increasing dexterity and skill. And yet sadly so, this is not how the world is today or has been since written history. Understanding the workings of our defences would alleviate conflicts and lead to an equipoise and negotiation and dialogue and compromise. Yet this is not how this higher species operates. Individuals grow and learn and mature but maturity in societies is not readily seen. What is evident is that maturity is not the end goal of this higher order species.

People who have grown are always the people with a multifaceted vision of life and who have a willingness to drink from the fountain of life with utmost humility. Humility implies the willingness to work with oneself and one’s processes including one’s defence mechanisms. These people are simply not limited to any religion.

Buddhism is essential a comprehensive system of understanding the mind. As such it is a psychology at the very start leading to higher levels of consciousness that result in all forms of freedom from psychological suffering to understanding the nature of reality. For those of us who undertook the training to study our own mind, through Insight Meditation, the basic principle in Buddhism and in Buddhist psychology, is to see how unruly and impulse driven this mind is. Taming the mind is a process of a life time. This entails working with our primitive defence mechanisms with awareness, honesty and integrity, through pause, restraint and redirection and slowly through different levels of nonidentification and in changing the foreground of existence back to itself which is essentially of all phenemona and hence of ego and self and the baggage of defenses.

The essential understanding emerges that there is nothing to gain or lose as we are inherently a process in the ground of being. Solidity of self constructs keep us well protected through our defences without ever understanding that we are a process of flow and our seeing capacity lends us to increasing levels of awareness and differentiation in order to know ourselves as a process of energetic flow rather than a self needing constantly protection through its defences. It is the illusion of self that keeps us sequestered from knowing our essence and in order to truly prepare the mind to know the unknowable, one can not possibly work on planes of ignorance which is where defence mechanisms are employed. The basic survival demands mechanisms will always be there but with greater awareness, skills can be developed to put on what mask for what purpose and when to let go. The insight practices bring about greater levels of awareness, receptivity and differentiation in action and response. The practice, if done with deep sincerity, can lead us into this process of consciousness, wisdom, maturity and eventually freedom from suffering. In this respect, Buddhist work essentially far exceeds the work of any Western psychological model in existence as it frees us even of our biology to bring us back to our primordial home of consciousness.

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