Buddhist Teachers and the Abuse of Power:
A Psychodynamic Exploration of Dharma Practice
(Full article available here)
April 17, 2019
Although posting this article on unethical dharma teachers today is in some ways premature, it is also long overdue. The paradigm of practice presented here is the culmination of several decades of work integrating a psychotherapeutic perspective within the evolving Western dharma. To give some background, an earlier version of this article was privately reviewed by a number of other writers in the field. It has clearly benefited from certain stylistic suggestions they made, but the dharma-related psychodynamic understandings, for better or worse, have grown out of my own practice, teaching, and psychotherapeutic work of many years.
A core element of this article is the conviction that the dynamics of repressive dharma practice apply equally to those who suffer depressively from their dharma work, as to those who abuse others from a position of power. Strange as it may seem, from a psychodynamic perspective each of these outcomes is to be expected. The real impact of unskillful forms of dharma work, however, is most clearly revealed when we look into the dysfunctional lives and relationships of those who have practiced longer and presumably had deeper experiences. If we fail to understand how teachers could act in such unethical ways, we most certainly fail to understand the hidden dynamics of practice itself.
This article deals with the impact intensive meditation has on the whole of the psyche. In particular, it focuses on the ways deep, sustained practice mobilizes unconscious forces relating to repression, narcissism, transference and counter-transference, as well as splitting, the functioning of the punitive super-ego, the impact of being placed in a position of power, and more. This means that if, and how, a person works with these potent forces in the midst of practice is crucial. Do we open ourselves to these experiences, or lean back into our habituated modes of repression? And if we do open ourselves, what skills will be of value?
As will be clear to some, much of my understanding of the unconscious has grown out of the pioneering work of Dr. Habib Davanloo. His unique contributions to the field of psychotherapy hold particular relevance for the Western dharma. In this most recent article I’ve done my best to present these complex issues as a coherent whole, and in ways that will hopefully will be accessible to both professionals and non-professionals alike.
If you explore this site further you’ll find more writings on working with the unconscious in the context of dharma practice. Our Zentensive retreats, fully-accredited periods of intensified meditation-based training, have been dealing directly with these issues for many years. They focus on cultivating the skills that help us engage with creative and destructive forces as they arise in the midst of practice. These retreats offer a style of collective practice that takes advantage of the potent ways the deeper strata of the mind become mobilized through dharma practice, especially for those of us in the West.
Posted April 17, 2019 – on what would have been my mother’s 105th birthday.
refers to a style of dharma practice that places a premium on the mobilization of the unconscious, an often overlooked feature of intensified meditation. When worked with skillfully, these mobilized energies can help us see into hidden forms of resistance that create so many complications in our formal practice and in our lives as a whole. More importantly though, this kind of inner work helps us to access the deeper healing and compassionate currents flowing through us all.
Based on more than two decades of exploration, Windhorse Zen Community now offers Zentensive Workshops and Retreats®, programs specifically designed for those who feel drawn to exploring the depths of the rich intersection between meditation and Western psychology. Zentensives offer fully accredited training for mental health professionals interested in discovering more about the ways the unconscious functions and reveals itself. Equally so, these programs offer dharma practitioners an opportunity to gain insight into these often ignored or misunderstood dynamics as they arise in the midst of meditation—dynamics that inevitably exert a profound influence on our practice and relationships.
The fact is, the more deeply and directly we enter into these realms, the clearer it becomes that we do not, in fact, have two minds, one “psychological” and one “spiritual.” Instead we find that these largely artificial distinctions fall away, and a more encompassing paradigm for deep levels of change emerges. Based on this unfolding, Zentensives offer an experientially-based approach to the unconscious, one guided by our moment-to-moment internal experience.
differ from traditional Zen retreats in that one works explicitly with these intrapsychic dynamics as they arise, and within a framework that clarifies much about the Western psyche and the role of the superego. By holding to this inner silence within the structure of a strong psychodynamic perspective, Zentensives take advantage of the openness and fluidity that naturally come about as the discursive mind quiets down.
The underlying spirit of Zentensives is one of inquiry, though not of the usual sort. Through long conditioning, most people grow up believing that understanding is gained through the intellect, and that understanding ourselves relates to the ways we think about and analyze our lives. Though this may be valid up to a point, our experience has been that it is out of engaged forms of meditation that our deepest experiences, insights, and compassion actually arise. The spirit of unconditional presence and inquiry is worked with in various ways throughout a Zentensive—and it is the non-verbal aspects of this process that add a dimension that’s often difficult to describe.
As our inner silence deepens, we come to see more clearly into the repression-based ways of thinking and feeling that cycle through our lives—habit patterns that inevitably exert a powerful impact on all that we do. Our more gradual realizations and sudden insights into these embedded energies can lead to significant characterological change, which in turn fosters more focused and sustained meditation.
For many practitioners, these mutually-reinforcing processes can add a whole new dimension to practice; for mental health professionals, these openings can also have real value in terms of one’s work with others. What also naturally emerges from this kind of work is a heightened sensitivity to the ways we are all interconnected—with each other, and the world. Because of this, Zentensives place considerable emphasis on the ethical imperatives arising out of practice, which are particularly relevant when we work closely with others.
Zentensives draw from a wide range of both ancient Buddhist teachings, and contemporary psychological and neuro-biological research. Thus these workshop-retreats offer a uniquely integrated opportunity for working on the edge, and for entering into territory that can be compelling as well as challenging on many levels. As Andrew Harvey has written, “The alchemists knew this great secret - that if you did not bless and accept fully everything that was most painful and dark in you, you could never attain the conjunction of opposites, the sacred marriage, the philosopher’s stone, because final wisdom can only flower from transformation of everything in the psyche, the bringing up into the light of spiritual consciousness and the releasing there of everything hidden in the dark depths of the unconscious. And as Jung said; ‘One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but my making the darkness conscious.’”
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- “The Mind’s Dragons,” Sunya and Lawson’s most recent article is linked here, and is also available in the Winter 2018 edition of Tricycle Magazine.
- Read the professionally-journaled research article about Zentensives.
- Read additional relevant published and unpublished Letters to the Editor
- More information on Three-day and Five-day Zentensives.
- Learn more about our teachers Lawson Sachter, Sunya Kjolhede and our board.