Zen PsychoDynamic Inquiry

Our small attachments can be burned away by spiritual experience and understanding.  Our deeper attachments must be lived, and their fruits, both sweet and sour, tasted fully.
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

Zen PsychoDynamic Inquiry (ZPDI) and Zen Dynamic Psychotherapy (ZDP) are evolving inquiry-based processes which integrate aspects of Davanloo’s Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP) with the psychic fluidity that arises naturally through zazen. These complementary modalities, when joined, offer significant ways of working directly with some of the unique obstructive forces that arise for many Western Dharma practitioners. At the same time joining these approaches offers a powerful, therapeutically-oriented path for those interested in facilitating work towards deep and rapid access to the unconscious. In other words, they help us see into and resolve those “deeper attachments” mentioned above – attachments which so often have unconscious roots.

Both Zen PsychoDynamic Inquiry and Zen Dynamic Psychotherapy are based on Davanloo’s metapsychology of the unconscious. They both utilize the ways that mindfulness forms of meditation help clarify and pressure defensive structures, but even more so, they rely on the ways that non-dual practices, ones that dissolve our reliance on conceptual forms of thought and our whole sense of self, help speed up access to the unconscious.1 They both also utilize Dr. Davanloo’s methodology, at least at times, so drawing a sharp line between them is not always easy.

Zen Dynamic Psychotherapy includes an ISTDP-based system of therapy. It may focus on what might be considered ‘traditional’ therapeutic goals, issues that arise in our lives, or on those that are creating difficulties in Zen practice but not giving way to traditional forms of Zen training. With Zen Dynamic Psychotherapy, it’s most helpful if the therapist and Dharma teacher share a common grounding.

Zen PsychoDynamic Inquiry often begins with a focus on those obstructive issues that arise in the midst of practice, and expands from there. A key difference between these two ISTDP-based ways of working is that Zen PsychoDynamic Inquiry includes Inquiry Work2 which is conducted as an intensified element of practice itself, rather than something that’s gone through in order to help practice. As a whole, this work includes one’s involvement on the mat, in dokusan, and with the Inquiry. In this way Zen PsychoDynamic Inquiry works on the levels of both Realization and Actualization, and as such involves working through unconscious dynamics as they manifest themselves in formal practice, in our lives and relationships, and from the standpoint of the precepts.3 With this perspective there can be a fuller sense that the work is being done not just for oneself, but also for the sake of others.

With traditional forms of psychotherapy there’s often a specific issue to be worked through, and particularly with ISTDP, the intent is to resolve the difficulty as quickly as possible. Zen PsychoDynamic Inquiry can begin with a similar intent, and later wind up including issues that arise as practice deepens, and/or as more of the unconscious reveals itself. People may be involved in the Inquiry Work for longer or shorter periods, and some people even find it helpful to work in blocks of time, with periods of consolidation between. Another difference here is that psychotherapy is often colored with a kind of negativity – there’s the implication that if a person is doing it, “there must be something wrong with them.”  Therapy doesn’t have to assume that’s the case, but especially because this Inquiry Work is really engaged in as practice, it clearly has a very affirming directness to it.  Additionally, for those who are in some way professionally interested in this Dharma/Psychotherapy interface, ZPDI can be broadened in ways that complement a person’s ongoing work with others.

Another significant point is that Zen PsychoDynamic Inquiry is grounded in the faith of our inherent wholeness, in our fundamental wisdom and compassion. In a similar vein, Dr. Davanloo speaks of the need to uphold the greatest respect for the patient, and concurrently, the greatest disregard for the defenses. With ZPDI there can often be the paradoxical tension between what a person believes must be true about themselves, and their feelings about who they think they are. Zen doesn’t have any specific belief structure, and, of course, the historical Buddha wasn’t a god; but in speaking of his teachings he said, “Not good deeds, nor good karma, nor merit, nor rapture, nor visions, nor concentration, nor insight.  None of these are the reasons I teach; but the sure heart’s release, this and this alone.”

Formal Practice

In terms of formal practice, Zen PsychoDynamic Inquiry is especially effective in addressing the self-defeating forces that can arise at various points in Zen training. These include the places where we fall into self-critical and self-loathing judgments, where we hold back, become detached, or can’t seem to get beyond a superficial level of involvement. It also can work in areas where there’s a resistance to intimacy, a fear of really opening up – not only with another person, but in terms of our practice itself. As the walls come down we experience a greater openness, and a flowing quality of life. A third significant area has to do with addressing conscious and unconscious difficulties that can arise in the teacher/student relationship. Working at this level deepens the strength and freedom of this powerful relationship; a force which in ISTDP is referred to as the Unconscious Therapeutic Alliance (UTA).

We could also say that Zen PsychoDynamic Inquiry is about seeing into ‘who we are not,’ by helping us dis-identify with those deeply ingrained, characterological defenses that are so often ego-syntonic. Not long before experiencing a kensho in sesshin, someone I was working with in therapy suddenly burst out with, “But if I’m not my defenses, who am I?” This insight/question greatly fueled his whole zazen practice, and no doubt contributed to the changes he was soon to go through. By uprooting these hidden patterns deep reserves of energy are released, and we begin to shake up that rigidly held sense of who we think we are. As the Indian sage Sri Nisargadatta said, our greatest freedom is “not freedom of the self, but freedom from the self.”

Final Thoughts

Zen PsychoDynamic Inquiry has been evolving over the past 10 or 15 years, and in many ways is continuing to both define and refine itself. The potential for incorporating ISTDP-based work more closely with intensive forms of meditation, devotional and loving-kindness practices, dokusan and extended forms of dokusan, personal retreats and group work, is wide open. Our unconscious dynamics permeate much of our lives; by resolving hidden conflicts we discover greater strength and clarity — and our hearts open. Of course, incorporating such ways of working won’t make Zen practice easy, and this exploration of unconscious pathways is not meant to imply the possibility that all obstructive states will miraculously be resolved. But there are areas, particularly related to the guilt-based aspects of this “Western” self, where such work can unquestionably help.

Although many kinds of intrapsychic issues do become more transparent with practice, there are clearly some that arise in the West that traditional forms of training simply do not resolve. Trying to bypass them rarely works because, as the gods did with Sisyphus, the unconscious calls for us to re-live them time and time again. As an anonymous person once commented, “It’s not one damn thing after another, it’s the same damn thing over and over again.”4

Whether we call this kind of inner work “spiritual” or “psychological,” (or come up with an entirely new term), it’s often intense because it refuses to shy away from our own dark and threatening energies. In my experience it is above all deeply affirming because it helps us actualize a more grounded and encompassing spirituality, and return to our most fundamental freedom and compassion.

  1. I write more about the difference between mindfulness practices and non-dual practices in my article Mindfulness Practices and Beyond, available at http://windhorsezen.org/2012/09/mindfulness-practices-and-beyond.html  []
  2. This Inquiry Work is an aspect of Zen PsychoDynamic Inquiry which combines the intrapsychic focus of therapy-like interactions within an extended dokusan-like context. []
  3. The Sixteen Precepts constitute the Buddhist ethical guidelines, many of which focus on relationship. []
  4. “Repetition compulsion” is the term Freud coined for this need to repeat painful situations in our lives; he believed it to be an expression of our “will to mastery,” Davanloo has demonstrated that it is most often a part of the punitive structures. For some, it can be one of the most limiting and pain-producing forces that operates in their lives. []