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Zen and Psychoanalysis

Zen and psychoanalysis are each profound disciplines of self-exploration and transformation, and each has its own complex history, methods and rituals. Each has its own loyal and accomplished practitioners whose lives have been immeasurably enriched by their respective disciplines and who are sure of their system's underlying truth. The transformations they have experienced in their own lives have offered convincing validation of their practices. And yet, precisely because of the depth of those self-validating experiences, each is in danger of imagining itself to be complete unto itself, of processing unique insights into human nature that are unavailable to anyone who has not undergone their own particular rigorous disciplines, and of being in no need of outside input or correction.

But neither discipline has enjoyed unalloyed success. Zen has become increasingly neglected in its countries of origin and the relevance of what traditionally has been a monastic discipline to modern life has been seriously questioned. Its transplantation to the West has been marred by repeated sexual and other ethical scandals that have called into question the nature of the enlightenment experience of teachers who have engaged in these forms of misconduct. Psychoanalysis, though offering rich hermeneutic insights into the nature of the unconscious mind, has had its clinical efficacy repeatedly challenged, first by allegedly more efficient, problem-focused forms of psychotherapy, and most recently by psychopharmacology and research in neurophysiology. And more and more psychoanalysts themselves seem to be turning to one form or another of meditation practice, or returning to their Western religious roots in search of a spiritual dimension not addressed by analysis. So each, whether it likes to admit it or not could use some outside help!

Having trained and practiced as both a psychoanalyst and a Zen teacher, I have experienced the joys and limitations of each practice in my own life for several decades now. I hope that by now I can speak to my fellow practitioners on each side of the aisle in a language they can understand about what is going on in the other. In what follows, I will try to briefly outline what I think each can gain from dialogue with the other.

Speaking first as a psychoanalyst, I'd say psychoanalysis needs Zen to remind it not to try to compete with the hard research-based sciences. What is unique about psychoanalytic inquiry and the kind of answers it provides does not properly fit into the category of science. Science investigates the sorts of questions that can be answered by finding new facts. These questions take a form like: Is there life on Mars?How old is the earth? What are the causes of cancer? We know what these kinds of questions are asking and we know what an answer would look like.

But philosophy in general, and psychoanalysis and Zen in particular, address an entirely different kind of question. When we ask ourselves a question like How should I live? the answer isn't going to come from research. Discovering new facts about the brain will not help us when we try to weigh the competing values of love and family life versus professional commitment, or when we ask how should I balance personal happiness with social responsibility, or what is the meaning of happiness or freedom or justice or duty? The most pressing concern of our times, the problem of conflict, does not look like a problem of knowledge at all. Is there really some new fact, either at the level of psychology or biology, that once we discover it, will make the problem solvable? The development of empathy and compassion is not reducible to the discovery of new information about ourselves or one another.

Perhaps most fundamentally, research will not help us when we ask Who am I?Zen, in particular, also challenges us to ask how the meanings of these words will change if I no longer refers to a separate fixed entity we also sometimes call our self and that we always define in opposition to some separate other.

Science can't properly address or answer these questions. They are resolved only by exploring and deconstructing the concepts and categories of thought that are used to formulate them. So I'd say Zen can help psychoanalysis re-align itself with philosophy in the open-ended investigation of these kinds of basic questions to which we all have to come to our own individual, personal answer. Being told what is going on in my brain when I ponder, Who am I? will not answer my question.

Even though psychoanalysis can be an effective treatment for a wide variety of emotional problems, Zen can also remind psychoanalysts that our practice is not reducible to solving problems. An anxious young monk once asked Kodo Sawaki Roshi if Zen practice could make him as confident and fearless like his teacher. Sawaki retorted, Absolutely not! Zazen is useless! That uselessness is grounded in the realization that fundamentally there is nothing to gain, that nothing needs fixing. This realization is what makes Zen a religious practice - not the temples or robes or rituals. This is a strong claim and one that lies at the heart of lay practice, so I think that it bears repeating: It is the realization of no gain - and of no self to gain anything - that makes Zen a religious practice. I remind my American students of this religious aspect of Zen when they are tempted to see meditation as another form of therapy, or the zendo as a kind of spiritual gymnasium or health club. With Zen practice, we step outside of our usual realm of questions and answers, problems and solutions, off the endless treadmill of self-improvement and instead experience the completeness of our life as it already is. Psychoanalysis has the potential to be similarly grounded as an open ended, non-goal-oriented experience of our moment-to-moment mind as it is. Americans are addicted to progress and self improvement; Zen and psychoanalysis can offer them the radical alternative of no gain of leaving everything just as it is.

Now, I'll speak from my perspective as lay Zen teacher in America. Despite the profound transformations that can result from so-called enlightenment experience, I do not believe that Zen has all the answers to all the problems of the human condition and that psychoanalysts must simply defer to Zen's greater wisdom and longer history. Zen needs psychoanalysis as much as psychoanalysis needs Zen.

Above all, Zen needs psychoanalysis to keep it emotionally honest. The danger of emotional dishonesty - or I might say ignoring emotional reality- can come from a number of directions, of which I'll mention just two. First, meditation practices that aim at cultivating samadhi, or states of clear thought-free concentration, all too often end up fostering emotional dissociation and avoidance - rather than engage and work through the manifestations of fear, anxiety, anger and self centeredness as they emerge. Meditation can create an oasis or bubble of clarity or calm or concentration that simply excludes all the messiness of our everyday emotional reality. Under the illusion that we are cultivating a higher spiritual self we merely end up avoiding what is emotionally painful. I have seen this take place at every level of practice from beginning students to what I had imagined were seasoned teachers.

Secondly, Zen students, especially those who have had some realization, are in grave danger of imagining that they now are seeing reality directly, just as it is - without acknowledging all the ways that unconscious processes and organizing principles continue to operate, both on a personal and cultural level. Zen practice offers profound insights, but it also may have terrible blind spots, especially where it comes to our emotional life. We may remain oblivious to the ways in which we have used practice in collusion with our personal, often neurotic pursuit of autonomy, emotional invulnerability or the attempt to purge ourselves of the longings and desires that leave us open to suffering. We may remain oblivious to all the ways that our reality is an idiosyncratically American or Japanese, male or female reality. There is no surer way to remain unconscious of our personal and cultural blinders than to imagine we have hit upon a technique that has removed them once and for all.

Both psychoanalysis and Zen are comprehensive systems of meaning and practice that are used to thinking of themselves as occupying the pinnacle of self-understanding and self-awareness. Each can fall prey to imagining that they alone have all the answers. What could be better for both than to encounter their cultural doppelganger and have to face how they look in the mirror of the other?