Already Free

Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path of Liberation

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Bruce Tift
  • Boulder, CO: 
    Sounds True
    , June
     2015.
     344 pages.
     $12.03.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781622034116.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In his book Already Free Bruce, Bruce Tift, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a thirty-five year clinical practice based in Boulder, Colorado, outlines an integrated worldview, weaving together psychotherapy and Buddhism. This worldview no doubt enables Tift to help many people as a gifted therapist. As a Buddhist chaplain, however, I would not recommend this book to someone seeking therapeutic care. And, as a scholar of Buddhism particularly interested in Buddhist psychology and soteriology, I find Tift’s book problematic in a way which is all too common among the blossoming genre of Buddhist “self-help” literature.

From the Introduction, Tift’s program is clear: to describe and reconcile the “developmental view” of Western psychotherapy (chapter 1) with the “fruitional view” of the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (chapter 2). He then explores dialogue between these two at times paradoxical worldviews (chapter 3).

The developmental view, according to Tift, is “based on the idea that the experiences we have as children … have a profound impact on the rest of our lives” (1), leading to the development of adaptive strategies that later become entrenched maladaptive responses as contexts change. Western psychotherapy is concerned with uncovering, exploring, and incrementally improving these strategies and responses. The developmental view looks to the past in order to discover the subconscious forces behind today’s struggles.

The fruitional view, on the other hand, “takes the position that we’re already free. Nothing needs to change for us to feel complete and at peace except our own perception of reality” (47). This view is based on Trungpa’s exposition of buddha-nature as enabling a basic “workability” to all circumstances. This happens through “a good state of mind that’s independent of external and internal conditions” (47). Using this view, clients work with staying present to their “true” experience, without interpretation or explanation.

Tift acknowledges the apparent contradictions between these two views while also asserting the necessity of holding both simultaneously. The fruitional view provides an antidote to being caught in the notion that current problems are irresolvable because of one’s inability to change the past. The developmental view helps people become more accepting of themselves when they see that the behaviors which plague them now evolved for very good, survival-based reasons when they were young. Tift makes a convincing case that the two views complement one another.

In chapters 4 through 7, Tift demonstrates how the two views can help people coping with two of the largest sources of contemporary suffering: anxiety and relationships. Chapter 8 provides a few closing thoughts and basic overview, and also includes some of the most valuable insights of the book, which, in this reviewer’s opinion, ought to have come sooner.

Unfortunately, the fundamental problems with this book are not in the structure or the topics covered, but in the way those topics are presented and explored. As a teacher, Tift would immediately fail my class for a simple inability to cite sources. While certain prominent names do get a mention and are even quoted, no source to which a reader may refer is listed. The consistent tone convinces me that this is the author’s writing, but the ideas espoused have a long history in both Buddhism and psychotherapy, and their originators deserve more credit than they are given.

Likewise, if the reader were hoping to look up a key term or idea for more information, they may soon be frustrated as Tift freely reinterprets and re-translates basic concepts from both psychology and Buddhism using his own idiom. This begins with the very title of the book, Already Free. Is this freedom in the Buddhist sense of liberation from suffering, or in the psychological sense of self-actualization, or in the American sense of freedom from oppression? Despite an attempted clarification on page x of the Introduction, I was never quite sure. I frequently found myself scribbling technical terms in the margins with question marks. Is the practice of “unconditional embodiment” described on page 76 the author’s take on śamatha, or calm-abiding meditation? Or is it something else?

Finally, the book is based on the assumption that its readers’ psycho-spiritual problems will fall into a relatively narrow range consistent with the cases Tift generally treats and frequently explores in the book: cases of generalized anxiety and relationship dysfunction among otherwise healthy, economically stable, and relatively un-oppressed adults. Therefore, readers with biologically based mental disorders, including some of the most common forms of clinical depression, may find the text unsuited to their needs, which often require pharmaceutical intervention in addition to therapy.

Likewise, I would not recommend this book to readers coping with trauma, which affects a broader swath of society than Tift gives it credit for (finally!) on page 172. Military veterans, police and emergency responders, and the one-in-five women subject to sexual assault in their lifetime all cope with traumas which Tift freely admits he prefers to refer to specialists. His book is “not particularly appropriate for people with a pre-neurotic organization, those who would be called borderline or psychotic, or those with pervasive traumatic organization” (173). These caveats should have come in the introduction and been stated in much plainer language. Would a reader even be able to identify themself based on this one sentence, and know to put the book away and seek help?

I have neglected feminist or social justice critiques due to space limitations, and because I am not the most qualified to offer such critiques. Suffice to say, Tift appeared no more androcentric or privileged than Western psychotherapy or convert Buddhism are themselves.

Overall, my impression is that Tift is a good therapist to the clients he serves in Boulder. He has successfully integrated two difficult and sometimes contradictory worldviews, and come out the better for it both personally and professionally. However, I would not recommend this book to someone seeking more information about psychotherapy, Buddhism, their intersections, or to someone who wanted general help with anxiety or relationships; there are a plethora of better choices already on the market.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Monica Sanford is a Ph.D. student in Practical Theology at the Claremont School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
September 7, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bruce Tift, MA, LMFT has been in private practice since 1979, has taught at Naropa University for 25 years, and has given presentations in the US, Mexico, and Japan. A practitioner of Vajrayana Buddhism for more than 35 years, he had the good fortune to be a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and to meet a number of realized teachers.

Keywords: 

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