Tricycle Magazine – Winter 2018:
“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.
The Zentensive-A Psychodynamically Oriented Meditation Retreat for Psychotherapists by Goldberg and Sachter
Published and Unpublished Letters to the Editor
Adam Gopnik’s recent article, “What Meditation Can Do for Us, and What It Can’t,” reveals how our modern Western cultural attitudes tend to reduce Buddhism to a weak parody of itself. Rather than seeing the Buddha Way as an ancient wisdom tradition--rooted in direct, personal experience and offering access to the deepest levels of the human mind and heart--many now seem to need to downplay or discount its transformative power and mystery, wanly promoting it as a ten-minute-a-day exercise that can help us become “less irritable.”
Authentic Buddhism offers a teaching and practices that can wake us up to our highest potential, reconnecting us to the sacred nature of all life, and to our own inborn capacity for caring and compassion. Over its 2500-year history, this very practical path has evolved many different forms in accord with the needs and psyches of people in various cultures and times, a dynamic process now underway in the West. We need to be vigilant not to allow this, too, to be steamrolled by our culture’s fierce drive to commodify and trivialize whatever appears in its way.
The Buddha Way is neither a superstitious religion, nor is it just another therapy to help us be a bit happier and more congenial. Rather, real Buddhist practice offers a powerful antidote to the hatred, violence and profound sense of separation and isolation that is destroying lives and consuming the planet.
Sunya Kjolhede and Lawson Sachter
Co-abbots of Windhorse Zen Community
I was deeply sorry to hear of Michael Stone’s tragic death. Although we never met, and I know little about his dharma work, his teachings and presence clearly had a powerful impact on many people and he will be greatly missed.
The reported circumstances of Michael’s death have brought up for me some longstanding concerns about common, possibly dangerous, misperceptions of dharma practice. These reflections grow out of decades of work as both a Zen teacher and psychotherapist.
First, it seems vital for people to be aware that intensified forms of practice can and do mobilize the whole of the psyche, including the repressed unconscious. In other words, at the same time that our dharma work can open the gateway to caring and compassionate energies, deep practice also taps into the darker strata of the mind. This multidimensional unfolding, which we’ve been calling ‘co-mergence,’ may include feelings and mindstates related to repressed anger, sexuality, and trauma. Contrary to the usual view, my experience is that traditional forms of intensified practice stir these things up without resolving them in their depths.
If we understand the nature of unconscious repression, this intrapsychic fluidity holds rich potential for positive transformation. But if these unconscious forces are not worked through skillfully, practitioners may wind up getting stuck at various points, or else caught up in endless repetitive cycles. In a similar vein, Dr. Willoughby Britton has written about the ways people doing dharma practice may find themselves getting sucked down into some very dark depressive realms.
The second thing I’d emphasize is that intensified practices can further destabilize certain pre-existing conditions. Many people realize this holds true for psychotic, schizophrenic, borderline, and fragile-type conditions. What is less well known is that these same cautions apply to certain emotional, biochemical, and neurobiological conditions that can manifest themselves through manic, depressive, bi-polar, and paranoid-type states. Although these conditions can certainly be worked with, in my experience they all call for a special measure of understanding and training. When these destabilizing potentials wind up mixing with the forces of the repressed unconscious, also mobilized through intensified practices, particular care is called for.
In terms of Michael’s struggles with what was an apparent bi-polar disorder, intensified practice can certainly make the highs higher, but then at the same time the lows may become much lower. As was said, I know little about his personal dharma work, but if he was practicing more intently in the hopes that it might help certain depressive states, that very practice may have made things worse – much worse.
So it seems to me that practices that go beyond stress reduction and mindfulness are best undertaken with teachers who have some measure of intrapsychic understanding. Intensive practices can go remarkably deep, and this openness and vulnerability must be worked with carefully. What’s becoming increasingly clear is that because the Western psyche is different in so many ways from the Asian psyche, and because of the uniquely self-punitive nature of the Western superego, more inclusive understandings and approaches to this dharma work may not only be helpful, but essential.
Windhorse Zen Community
This one was written in response to an article by C.W. Huntington in Tricycle magazine:
We’re concerned that the recent article on dharma practice and psychotherapy by C.W. Huntington fails to adequately address the unconscious dynamics that so often manifest themselves as obstructive forces in the midst of formal practice and our everyday life.
Perhaps it’s true that as long as practice remains on more superficial levels, it isn’t so difficult to draw distinctions between a psychotherapeutic approach and dharma work. Our experience, however, has been that the deeper we go, the more difficult it becomes to disentangle one from the other.
What we’ve found is that penetrating, non-dual practices activate the whole of the psyche, and in this process bring our unresolved issues closer to conscious awareness. As this happens, the influence of these forces becomes magnified such that we experience the consequences of this mobilization, but without dealing with the underlying causes. As Carl Jung wrote, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Some may call it karma.
We’ve also seen that deepening practice not only stirs up these forces, it’s also often used to push them back down. Mis-using practice in this way comes at a real cost—both to ourselves and others—and is no doubt part of the dynamic playing itself out through the unethical behaviors of so many spiritual teachers.
Since these unconscious dynamics are often linked to early disrupted attachments, they inevitably affect our practice, on the mat and in our relationships. As long as practice fails to address the whole of the Western psyche, it will, at best, be of only limited value. We feel it’s imperative to continue to find ways to understand and work with the unique features of the unconscious in the midst of practice, so that this Western dharma will be more effective in relieving suffering and awakening the heart of the bodhisattva.
Lawson Sachter and Sunya Kjolhede
Co-abbots, Windhorse Zen Community