12 May 2017


There have been a number of books on a Buddhist approach to psychotherapy, by people such as Brazier (1995),  Epstein (1996), Rubin (1996), Rosenbaum (1999), Magid (2002), Safran (2003), Aronson (2004), Bobrow (2010), Jennings & Safran (2010) and Schuman (2017).  They all fail to make the distinction between first-tier thinking (A is A, etc) and second-tier thinking (A is not simply A, etc).

This distinction is, it seems to me, quite crucial to the practice of psychotherapy,  It is the difference between everyday logic (black/white, right-wrong, true/false, yes/no and so forth) and dialectical logic, where paradox and contradiction are acceptable.  This has been shown to be important in many fields – Hegel, Marx, Wallace, Joachim, Lenin and so forth.  As Mary Parker Follett so memorably put it – “Never let yourself be bullied by an either/or”.

Second-tier thinking is so important in psychotherapy because it is the home of authenticity, the real self, the truly autonomous person and so forth – what Ken Wilber calls the ‘Centaur Stage’ of development.  This is the mental stage where we start to see the world through our own eyes, instead of through the eyes of others.  It was well described by Abraham Maslow, and then further researched by Lawrence Kohlberg, Jane Loevinger, Jean Piaget, Beck & Cowan, Ken Wilber, Susanne Cook-Greuter, William Torbert and Robert Kegan.

In therapy we often find ourselves supporting our clients in the important move from first-tier thinking to second-tier thinking – from always looking to other people for the correct opinions, to seeing through our own eyes and forming our own opinions.  What we often do not understand is how modern this level of thinking really is.  It only really begins in the nineteenth century with people like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.  You cannot find it in Buddhism: for Buddhists both first-tier and second-tier thinking are just part of the gross.  Neither can you find it in the classical thinkers of the East or the philosophers of the West.

Buddhism is rich and valid in its account of the higher states of consciousness, the dharmakaya, the sambhogakaya, the nirmanakaya and so forth.  But for them there is no such thing as a distinction between conventional thinking and autonomous thinking.  It is all part of the gross, the everyday consciousness which has not yet set forth on the path to enlightenment or Nibbana.  There are nine levels of consciousness in Buddhism, but none of them are about authenticity.  Therefore I say that Buddhism is not very useful in the mainstream of psychotherapy or counselling.

Books by John Rowan

Blog Posts


To get in touch with Dr John Rowan, please email inforowan@aol.com.

Dr John Rowan
70 Kings Head Hill
North Chingford
London E4 7LY

Tel: 020 8524 7381