Mobilization of the Unconscious

Ad astra per aspera1

Mobilization of the Unconscious refers to that profound and pressured disquiet that builds internally as the defenses weaken and repressed material becomes activated, but before the feelings themselves break through to consciousness. It’s a time of growing agitation and vulnerability, with one part struggling to censor and hold back, while another wishes to break free. This kind of inner mobilization can come about in a number of ways: with psychotherapy it occurs as the result of systematic pressure to the defenses; during intensive Dharma practice it happens as the cognitive processes lose their grip and the sense of a separate self begins to weaken.

Within the therapeutic context, as the unconscious becomes increasingly mobilized so do the defenses; as each new layer of defense is stripped away anxiety increases and so another, often more primitive defense moves into place. When the layers of defense become exhausted the underlying feelings are worked with in ways that help them break through into consciousness; because the feelings are revealed, the defenses and anxiety fall away. (Once the thief has escaped there’s no need to lock the door.) The formerly unconscious material often passes through in waves, with the first surge of feeling opening the way for the next and the next. This emptying out process, which Davanloo refers to as “draining the pathogenic zone,” leads to relief and insight, forgiveness and caring.

Intensive Zen practice also mobilizes the unconscious, not infrequently dredging up mindstates and patterns that are disruptive to the practice. In spite of our best efforts, we can feel cloudy, superficial or disengaged, and as we move deeper, all kinds of self-critical thoughts and judgmental mindstates can arise, combined with various kinds of projection. These illusory states can seem real and compelling, and are sometimes referred to as makyo. As the the practice moves to still deeper levels, it can open, sometimes quite dramatically, to those disturbing bedrock characterological structures that make up so much of our implicit sense of self, and can reveal that sense of ‘how we are in the world.’ These unsettling states are sometimes linked to very early unresolved relationships, and because of their singular nature I’ve begun calling them ‘Dragon Gate Makyo.’ As with so many areas of practice, these types of difficulties are disruptive, but at the same time they signal the fact that the practice is working, that the upper layers are getting stripped away revealing the next layer to be worked through.

While traditional forms of practice have some limited ways of dealing with the unique disruptive forces of the Western unconscious, these methods don’t work for everyone, and in my experience, they don’t get to, or resolve, the core emotional issues. ISTDP offers a more practical and refined approach, one that can uproot at least certain difficulties unseen and untouched by traditional practice2. It not only gives us ways of understanding and working through the defensive structures themselves, it gives us the potential for accessing the underlying unconscious material directly.3  From a psychotherapeutic perspective the primary focus is on experiencing as deeply as possible the unconscious feelings. From a practice-based perspective we could say resolving unconscious issues has to do with aspects of both Realization and Actualization.

  1. A rough road leads to the stars []
  2. I do know of a few cases where someone trained in ISTDP did experience unlockings during a retreat. Though I’ve seen all kinds of powerful emotional insights arise naturally, I’ve never seen anything like a true unlocking happen if a person was not well-versed in the workings of the unconscious — that’s not what traditional practice is about. []
  3. In seeing through a defense it loses its power and falls away; it’s a bit like seeing through a magician’s trick, once we see how it’s done we lose interest — but there’s always another trick. By uprooting the core emotional issue, that which drives the defense in the first place, we can gain lasting relief. []