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Zen and Psychotherapy


In the room the women come and go

Talking of Michelangelo.

-- T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock





To practice Zen is to study oneself.  And to study Zen is to study with a teacher. So, what’s the difference between Zen practice and psychotherapy? When I began to get to know my fellow Zen students, I was surprised to discover that so many of us were in the therapy business. But it made sense. Zen and psychotherapy have a kinship. Most people come to psychotherapy because they are unhappy in their lives. Most people come to Zen practice for the same reason. There are some spiritual seekers, but they don’t last long unless they are willing to face the demons of their unhappiness. Everyone is looking for happiness. Not everyone is willing to do the hard work.


At one point, I was hiding from my demons. I tried psychoanalysis initially with the thought that it would be a valuable part of my training as a psychotherapist. I quit as soon as a demon appeared and didn’t restart until my life threatened to fall apart.


Most people show up in the zendo or the therapist’s office because the pain in their lives has become intolerable.  Most quit when the pain has been relieved. Therapists have found a way to think about many of these quitters as “successes.” We call them “short-term supportive therapy patients,” something like that. 


The same people pass through the zendo. At the painful end of a romance, they may become quickly and almost fanatically devoted to the practice. They are first to the zendo whenever the altars need cleaning. Then a new romance enters their lives, and they are gone. In my early days as a Zen student, I recognized the parade. There on my cushion, I was sitting with T.S. Eliot.


I was enthusiastic. I wanted to bring these two aspects of my life together, my new Zen practice and my work as a psychotherapist. Early on, even before he had formally accepted me as a student, I asked Roshi Bernie how to do this. He told me not to worry about it, to just do my Zen practice, that the Zen practice would take care of integrating Zen into my psychotherapy practice, into all my life.


I have continued my Zen practice and to study myself, but I gave up my private therapy practice. I was 55 years old when our daughter Morrigan was born, a gift of fatherhood which by that time I’d concluded was not happening in my life. At the time Morri was born, I was seeing private patients on Saturday mornings and a couple of evenings a week and I was still working full-time for the state. If I continued on that schedule, I would miss Morri’s childhood.


But as Freud would have said, this decision was “overdetermined.” I was also questioning the psychotherapy practice model in which I’d been trained, for instance, the 50-minute hour. Were my patients getting more in their “hour” than Zen students were getting in 10 minutes or less? So often patients were waiting for the last ten minutes or the last 10 seconds to bring up the burning issue. I had done the same thing so often in my own analysis. So why not just begin with the final 10 minutes? I knew the answer. It didn’t work economically for the therapist, didn’t fit the insurance companies’ reimbursement model.


Therapists need to make a living. This observation poured oil on the fire of my discontent with fee-for-service therapy. I’d been to the private practice seminars and lectures and knew the professional rationales. I was doing it, but I was never happy about it.


I worried too about the ethical issues of “dual relationships,” the conflicts which arise when a Zen teacher/psychotherapist plays two roles in a person’s life. But it was time with Morri which was decisive. I gave up my therapy practice but over the years continued to exercise my therapy chops. As we built our charter school network, much of my job was to pass on to the next generation of school leaders what I brought to the table. I invited rising leaders to join me for “difficult conversations” with students, parents, and staff. Often, they remarked that I was using “therapist” skills that they didn’t have. When I reflected, I could see what they were talking about. As a Zen teacher, I saw something similar. My responses in dokusan also drew on my therapist experience.


It is now almost 26 years since I gave up my private practice, and the question still comes up.  “What’s the difference between Zen practice and psychotherapy?” The thought arising is that the two practices rest on opposing premises. Psychotherapy assumes there is something wrong with the patient that can be fixed through therapy. Insurance underscores that assumption. The therapist who doesn’t put a diagnosis on the patient won’t get reimbursed. 


Zen practice is based on the contrary premise, first articulated by the Buddha, that all people including patients are perfect just as they are, flaws and warts and all. They just don’t know it. Suffering arises from this lack of awareness. Zen practice is about opening the student’s eye to that awareness. Does the teacher-therapist see students as flawed or as perfect just as they are? Can this contradiction be resolved by talking about the identity of relative and absolute? It’s worth a try. Can we say that from the point of view of the absolute, everyone is perfect just as they are, while from the point of view of the relative, we are all flawed? 


This is not a theoretical question. Sitting in the interviewing room or therapist’s office, I am looking across at another person, sitting in a chair or on a cushion. Am I looking at someone who’s perfect just as they are? Am I looking at someone who needs to be fixed? Is the ability to hold both views simultaneously what Zen is referring to as the identity of relative and absolute?


Even if I can do it, what is the experience of the person sitting across from me? Can the person facing me feel that I am seeing both their perfection and their flaws? This is more problematic. People come to us feeling bad about themselves, whether or not they are aware of it. They come with enormous sensitivity to what therapists call “narcissistic injury.” To be seen as flawed is “more of the same.” To be seen as “perfect just as you are” has enormous healing power. 


Even if the therapist can hold both views simultaneously, can both be expressed at once?  I know what it feels like to be looked at in each of these ways. It doesn’t feel the same. When we are feeling bad about ourselves and face a world of positive and negative messages, we often hear only the negative. To hear seemingly contradictory messages from the same person can be crazy making.

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