Zen as self-help

Neo-Freudians, Buddhist Modernism and Emotion Management in 1950s America


  • Josephine Selander ETH


Karen Horney, Zen Buddhism, D. T. Suzuki, Erich Fromm, emotion management, psychotherapy


Since the last two decades, mindfulness has been one of the most prominent techniques to regulate emotions in psychological therapies. A prevailing practice that constitutes mindfulness is Zen Buddhism, initially presented to North American and European publics by the Japanese Buddhist reformer, D.T. Suzuki. Previous historiographic research has shown the connection between Zen Buddhism and psychotherapy. Nevertheless, this article adds the perspective of emotion management by looking at the psychoanalysis-Zen merge through the lens of History of Emotions. The study investigates how Karen Horney and Erich Fromm, who belonged to the freely associated group of ‘neo-Freudians’, moved away from Freud’s ideas on a biologically based psychology towards implementing thoughts derived from Zen Buddhism into their theories. By using the concept of ‘economy of emotion management,’ I argue that new methods on how to handle emotions were formatted in the 1950s with Suzuki’s Zen as a prerequisite. Moreover, I propose that the neo-Freudians used approaches from Zen to design self-help techniques in order to control and steer emotions. The study suggests, lastly, that these methods in emotion management, formulated by Horney and Fromm, had complex links to social criticism, where the function of the techniques slithered from embracing emotions as an act of individual autonomy to instead controlling emotions to learn loving.