What’s different here?
But first, why not read further?
If you’re already inclined to take up a Dharma practice, or beginning a therapy like ISTDP, I seriously suggest not reading about it on this website (or elsewhere) – just find a good place, and a qualified person to work with, and let the process take over. It’s often easy to mistake the idea for the experience, and Zen and ISTDP are essentially experiential, not theoretical, teachings, so why add on layers of thoughts and expectations? With both therapy and Dharma practice, it’s much less complicated if the experiential side is worked with first, and then when appropriate, working with the cognitive aspects to further clarify and support what’s been revealed.
However, if you’ve already been involved with the either of these processes, and it feels that some explanations might offer some direction, then the next question is why bother with this site when there’s already such an overload of writings about Buddhism and psychology? Why waste your time?
On a quick read through you’ll find this site presents a cursory overview of Buddhist teachings, Zen practices, and the unconscious, and on that level it fits reasonably well with the more generally accepted views of Dharma practice and psychotherapy. John Welwood has been writing about this melding power for many years; on his website he has the following:
All psychological problems are at root spiritual issues – symptoms of disconnection from our deeper nature. Conventional psychotherapy rarely addresses this disconnect from our being that is at the root of all emotional distress. Spiritual practices, on the other hand, often bypass, and thus fail to transform, the conditioned patterns and unconscious identities that arise from our personal history. Yet when we bring psychological and spiritual work together, then each approach can complement and enhance the other, creating a new synergy that increases the growth potentials in each. We then find that every emotional issue or difficulty provides its own kind of spiritual opportunity. It shows us where we are cut off from ourselves, and thus becomes an entry-point for developing and embodying deeper, hidden resources. Thus awakening needs psychology just as much as psychology needs awakening.1
The over-all perspective presented on this site is the same, but I think it will be found that in certain areas this site builds on previous views, and in others takes quite a leap; all of it grows out of my years of experience as a Zen teacher and therapist. These writings certainly place greater importance on the unconscious dynamics that can arise in the midst of practice, and the great potential in these changes from a therapeutic perspective. It also places much more significance on the differences between the Eastern and Western psyches, and differentiates the cognitive and affective aspects of intensified practice. I think most people will also find that this site presents some positions that call into question some of the more generally accepted views. A few such issues are briefly presented below:
Are We All Victims?
Both psychotherapeutic and Dharma-based writings and teachings have placed great emphasis on the need to “Heal the Inner Child;” to cultivate compassion for oneself and others; and to be understanding and forgiving. Of course there is great value in this work, but at the same time there’s the danger of reinforcing the view that we’re simply victims, perhaps even damaged in some way – a view which colors our experience of life, and most significantly, may serve to obscure deeper, and darker, aspects of the psyche.
ISTDP really finds its power and effectiveness through the ways it addresses our most heavily defended feelings, feelings which often include deep, conflicted, layers of anger. In other words, though it’s possible to use anger as a defense against other feeling, primarily it is an elemental force that must be worked with directly. Dr. Davanloo’s work shows that it’s often the complex layers feeling related to unconscious anger and rage that fuel the sense of unworthiness, and our self-isolation; and fuel the patterns of self-sabotage. Many Dharma practitioners struggle with these painful mindstates which can arise with compelling force during intense periods of Zen practice, and I don’t think we’ve come to understand ways of resolving them in their depths.
Because Buddhist teachings speak of anger as one of the three “poisons,” and its toxicity is addressed specifically in the Ninth Precept2 the question becomes how do we work with it? Some teachers talk about cultivating compassion, others about seeing through the ephemeral nature of feelings, but these approaches don’t address the unconscious. Unfortunately, simplistic approaches to this issue easily become translated into various forms of ‘spiritual’ repression, (an area I unfortunately lingered in for some years). More will be said about this whole issue in future postings, but for now would emphasize that a central distinction has to do with differentiating between ways of working with anger as it arises in the present moment, versus finding ways of dealing directly with long-buried and unexperienced layers of existing anger. This is not to say that everyone who practices has deep reservoirs of repressed rage, or of grief, but my experience leads me to believe that this is a significant, and significantly overlooked area – especially for Western practitioners. Obviously these can be very difficult areas to work through skillfully, and someone really needs appropriate training before attempting such work with others.
Mindfulness and Beyond
Another area that may be controversial has to do with really looking at the differences between various forms of dharma practice, particularly with regard to dualistically-based mindfulness practices versus non-dual practices.3 Each of these approaches has its strength, but they really are different in certain fundamental ways. Dualistically based practices: ‘witnessing,’ ‘observing,’ ‘labeling,’ ‘choiceless awareness,’ and so forth, are very grounding; they help lower stress, help us to be less reactive, and clearly foster a greater sense of presence. Non-dual practices strip away protective sheaths, leaving us more vulnerable; we might say these types of practices do more to open up this ‘intrapsychic’ Pandora’s Box, it helps let the wild things out. These practices can be more challenging on many levels, and exactly because of this, can also foster deeper kinds of change on both psychodynamic and practice-based levels.
Enlightenment as Experience
Another controversial area relates to how we understand the term Enlightenment. On this website this term is used in a fairly specific way, and relates to accounts that can be found in The Three Pillars of Zen, in William Miller’s Quantum Change, throughout the history of Zen, and in numerous non-Buddhist accounts as well.4 Elsewhere the term “enlightenment” has also been used in a more generalized, conceptual way; it can be found in numerous writings, and extensive listings can be found on the Internet. It’s my understanding that the Buddha’s teachings, and those of so many of the great masters, grew out of the sudden and profound experience of selfless freedom, one which transcends explanation, yet which many have experienced over the centuries to one degree or another.
And finally, there are numerous significant questions related to if and how we actually deal with these issues in the context of practice. Are psychological issues different from spiritual issues, do teachers have to become therapists, how much should a teacher know about a student, what kinds of boundaries need to be maintained, and so forth? It’s no secret that many teachers do give life-counseling, and other forms of psychotherapeutic advice to their students – sometimes helpfully, but sometimes not. I know my own teacher, with the best of intentions, made some huge mistakes; and some of the advice I’ve read coming from Dharma teachers I’ve felt was not only misleading, but in some cases, actually dangerous. For reasons cited elsewhere, I firmly believe finding ways of working with psychodynamically-based life and practice issues is one of the most significant areas we will have to work though as the Dharma enters Western culture.
Returning to John Welwood’s work, in a recent Buddhadharma article he was asked, “Are we in some ways, though, asking our teachers to be therapists?” to which he responded:
I think in the future there will be spiritual teachers who can work both with the cutting through methods of meditation and the unpacking methods of what I call a more horizontal approach – the vertical approach being the cutting through, like the sword of prajna that just cuts through to the essence. Unpacking involves bringing to light unconscious patterns.5
It seems this is one hopeful approach that may help address the gaps left by the cultural and intrapsychic differences between East and West; and hopefully other culturally-specific approaches will arise that will help smooth the way for this joining of two worlds.
- www.JohnWelwood.com [↩]
- We use the following version of this Precept at Windhorse Zen Community: “I resolve not to indulge in anger, but to practice forbearance.“ [↩]
- See Mindfulness Practices and Beyond, available at http://windhorsezen.org/2012/09/mindfulness-practices-and-beyond.html [↩]
- Such as William Blake, Flora Courtois, Ramana Maharshi, Sri Nisargadatta, Bernadette Peters, Theresa of Avila, Walt Whitman etc. [↩]
- Welwood, John, Grace Shireson and Andrew Holecek, “Heal the Self, Free the Self” Buddhadharma, Summer 2012. [↩]