A psychospiritual exploration of intensive dharma practice

PsychoDynamic Zen refers to the ways that intensive meditation practices mobilize the whole of the psyche. This website looks into the complexities, paradoxes, and contradictions often found in this mobilization, and explores some key implications for both Western dharma practitioners, as well as for mental health professionals. Research shows (see our resource page here) that although many similarities exist between Asian and Western psyches, there are also significant differences, especially in terms of the punitive superego. The implications here are vast, and so are the opportunities. My hope is that those interested in the intersection of practices East and West will find something of value in what’s being presented here, and that out of this work there may arise a healthier dharma and enriched perspective of mental health.

For those of you new to this website here’s a little background: I’ve been a Zen practitioner for over 50 years. I’m a Buddhist priest, a Zen teacher, and have been a licensed psychotherapist for almost 30 years now. I came to psychotherapy through the backdoor of Zen, so my perspective is perhaps somewhat non-traditional. Some time ago it occurred to me that in order to become a better dharma teacher I had to become a better psychotherapist, and to become a better therapist I had to become a better Zen teacher. What this boils down to is a deepening recognition of how essential the unconscious is in all systems of change – and in many ways that’s what this website is about.

And although I no longer draw a distinction between spiritual and psychological work – or at least not in the ways I used to – this splitting does offer something of a conventional starting point. The truth is that we don’t really have a psychological self in one place, and a spiritual self somewhere else. Such distinctions, when working on ourselves or with others, are not only artificial, but also profoundly limiting. As human beings we simply strive for freedom, connection, and understanding. Meditation can either help speed up or hinder that unfolding. Meditation itself is actually fairly simple – what arises out of our efforts often is not.

A central unifying point running throughout this work is the fact that the types of meditation leading to deeper, more flowing, more samadhi-like experiences are the same type of practices that mobilize the unconscious. These practices include maintaining a physical stillness, cultivating a silent inner focus, and working towards merging with the practice. They may also include the spirit of inquiry, various compassion-based practices, and the intent of doing something good for ourselves. The longer we sit, and the deeper we go, the greater the mobilization.

In part, mobilization means stirring up hidden feelings, memories, and impulses from the past. It activates unconscious needs and desires – a complicated subject all its own. It goes without saying that this part of the process is similar to what happens in experiential forms of psychotherapy, only in that case the therapist is part of the process. Once mobilized, these buried, painful, and threatening feelings, though still unconscious, become much more active. It’s important to understand that repression doesn’t mean we don’t feel anything, only that we’re not consciously aware of the feelings. We may experience symptoms such as anxiety, and defenses, but not the feelings themselves. This can be a surprisingly difficult concept to grasp. Generally speaking, the more difficult, painful, contradictory, or toxic these experiences may be, the less accessible they become. Paradoxically, the more heavily repressed such feelings and impulses are, the greater the destructive impact they can have on our own lives and, when externalized, on the lives of others.

It’s no secret that Zen practice is about the direct experience of the moment – what that means in terms of the unconscious, however, is a bit problematic. The direct experience of the moment would of course include the direct experience of our feelings, but what if some of those feelings exist only on unconscious levels? What about how we experience our love and compassion, and more significantly, how we experience our anger (or not) – and how do these seemingly contradictory feelings fit together? Another key point here is that the ways we censor ourselves, the ways we shut down our feelings, and the ways we disrupt relationships, are often similar to the ways we obstruct deeper meditative experience. This is how the mind works on both conscious and unconscious levels. When the defenses are more heavily entrenched, in other words more characterological in nature, they may also be the ways we wind up defining our lives.

This whole matter becomes much more complicated because mobilization also includes stirring up the deep healing, intuitive, and compassionate energies of our lives. It’s a package deal. In other words, some of these forces are supportive and healing, while others work to undermine our efforts. Naturally a tension can grow up between these energies, and not surprisingly we often run into the same kind of contradictions in psychotherapy. As therapist David Pollens writes, “What happens in therapy is that people come in asking for help, and then the very next thing they do is they try to stop you helping them. How do we help a person when they’ve told you, in one way or another, ‘Don’t help me’?”

In more intense types of meditative practice, such as during retreats, this can happen internally, and often unconsciously: we may wind up holding back, censoring ourselves, and fighting the wish to go deeper. These mechanisms may be repetitive, persuasive, even compulsive; they may come into being while we’re very young, and without realizing it, we may come to believe that’s who we really are. As someone once said about their life struggles, “It’s not one damn thing after another, it’s the same damn thing over and over again.”

Freud referred to this phenomenon as “repetition compulsion,” and it can be a real killer. How we come to see and work with these subliminal resistances often determines if and how our meditative or psychotherapeutic efforts move ahead. This is a core issue. Wilhelm Reich has written, “If one neglects such character resistances, and instead follows the line of the material, such resistances form a ballast which is difficult, if not impossible, to remove.” Another way of saying this is that as long as we become lost in the symptoms of repression, we will fail to deal with the underlying cause. Uprooting the central cause means working down through layers of repression – and to be clear, it is not our feelings that create the problems, but rather the defenses against those feelings. Feelings are filled with energy, while defenses have to do with the ways we block that energy.

What’s interesting here is that some psychotherapies, like Habib Davanloo’s Intensive Short-term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP), actually depend on the resistances to guide the therapeutic process itself. As Davanloo says, “Resistance is to be welcomed as an indicator that painful conflicts are not merely being approached, but can be brought to the surface and resolved.” It turns out that this approach, properly understood, fits well with meditative transformations as well. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasures.”

We find this same spirit in the teachings of the early Ch’an masters like Ta Hui and Man An, and it has profound implications for the therapeutic process as well. In the words of Andrew Harvey, “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. As Jung said, ‘One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.’”

Andrew Harvey’s reflections serve as a fitting summary of the issues being explored here – and in my experience these insights apply equally to therapy and dharma practice. At times we work in ways that cut off all complications; at other times we are called to embrace whatever it is that arises. At times we hold fast; at times we let go. Each approach offers us opportunities, but at the same time each has its limitations and dangers. Much depends on our understanding of the process as a whole, as well as on our ability to read “communications from the unconscious” and our skill in working with these subliminal messages directly. This is difficult work, and it goes against the current of conventional wisdom. This approach also lies at the heart of our Zentensives, a form of meditative retreats that focus on working with the mobilized unconscious.

Spirituality and the Unconscious:

What’s also true of this approach – and the thorough-going mobilization arising out of it – is that it can help to open us up, in a sense prime us, for touching into deeper spiritual sensitivities. This fundamental point is another core element of this psychodynamic approach to meditative practices, and one often overlooked on both sides of the psycho-spiritual divide. Not always, though. As C.G. Jung wrote, “The unconscious is the only available source of religious experience. This is certainly not to say that what we call the unconscious is identical with God or is set up in his place. It is simply the medium from which religious experience seems to flow.”

In other words, deeper meditative experiences help to open up the unconscious. And working directly with the unresolved unconscious issues that begin to surface through this process can in turn help us to access non-dual, samadhi-like conditions. It’s a bit like one hand washing the other: the more we get into it, the easier it is to lose track of which is which. Resistances can obstruct us, or guide us, or both. Openings can be embraced, or pushed away, or both. As Dick Cavett once remarked, “It’s the rare person who wants to hear what they don’t want to hear.” What’s also true here is that resistances bind huge amounts of energy and as we work through them, that energy becomes available for all kinds of further explorations. Worked with skillfully, this process fuels itself.

Dealing with complexity is an integral part of Buddhist training, which often calls for us to avoid getting stuck in paradox and contradiction. Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” He also said, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Wittgenstein taught that “An entire mythology is stored within our language.” And in The Three Pillars of Zen, Yasutani Roshi is quoted as having said, “So long as the winds of thought continue to disturb the water of our Self-nature, we cannot distinguish truth from untruth. It is imperative, therefore, that these winds be stilled.” And so a central aspect of our ability to enter into deeper meditative states entails learning to deal with our addiction to language without turning to the repression of thought.

Zen Koans:

We certainly don’t have to be religious, or spiritual, to understand what’s being talked about here. Some Zen lineages use koans ­­­­­­­to bring us up against the limitations of our conventional, analytic, and conceptual thought processes. Working with koans can help to free us from the dualistic structures woven so deeply into consciousness itself. For example, there is a koan in the Blue Cliff Record, Yunmen’s Medicine and Sickness Cure Each Other, which addresses the seeming contradictions between resistance and transformation quite directly. As a brief aside here: working through any koan means not just understanding the central teaching points of each one, but also being able to actually demonstrate the core of it. Koans work individually and collectively to help us deepen our understanding and to experientially integrate non-dual levels of awareness into our daily lives.

Effective psychotherapy must also be experiential if it hopes to foster lasting change, and as with the koans, it can also work in unifying ways as well. Mobilization and repression don’t have to be viewed simply as two contradictory forces; because at the same time, they’re also complementary elements of the same dynamic. The intrapsychic tension inherent between them, when held in place, works like a pressure cooker. Davanloo’s videotaped sessions shown how maintaining this inner pressure serves, in his words, “to melt the defenses,” and in doing so, offers one of the most powerful places of insight and transformation. Jung referred to this level of engagement as “the conjunction of opposites,” further asserting that “paradox is one of our most valued spiritual possessions . . .” As with the old nature versus nurture controversy, trying to pull apart psychology and spirituality often creates artificial and self-limiting difficulties. Working with them as a unified whole, however, can open the door to real and lasting change – a point William James wrote about over a century ago in The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Intrapsychic Differences East and West:

What’s relatively new to our present psychodynamic understanding has to do with seeing into the profound differences that exist between Western and Asian psyches. For those who question whether this is true or not, I’d suggest reading Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought. It’s a powerful book, and in it he concludes, “My research has led me to the conviction that two utterly different approaches to the world have maintained themselves for thousands of years. These approaches include profoundly different social relations, views about the nature of the world, and characteristic thought processes….” Nisbett cites study after study, and the evidence is pretty hard to refute. Very briefly: such differences include the ways we pay attention to, conceptualize, and objectify the world; the ways we actually experience our feelings, and whether we hold to an independent or interdependent sense of self. There are many other psychologists and social anthropologists who have also written compellingly in terms of these cultural and mental health differences. What they conclude is that, in general, Asians tend to think, feel, and respond out of a holistic world view, with a strong orientation toward harmonizing and synthesizing. Westerners, on the other hand, tend to see the world in analytic, atomistic, and even oppositional terms. As Westerners, and apparently especially as Americans, this means we experience ourselves as being uniquely disconnected and alone – an underlying condition that has so many seeking relief through psychotherapeutic or spiritual approaches.

Specifically in terms of meditation, a key point here is that when the Asian psyche becomes mobilized, what typically comes upare issues related to shame and honor. For Westerners whattends to arise are self-critical states related to a sense of guilt and unworthiness. Freud asserted, “The ‘unconscious sense of guilt’ represents the superego’s resistance. It is the most powerful factor, and the one most feared by us.”

The sense of shame, once activated, calls for person to make changes in their life, usually by minimizing one’s own self-importance, and harmonizing with others. The forms of guilt associated with the Western punitive superego usually call for shutting down, and a movement towards self-isolation and self-punishment. In terms of meditation, mobilized shame complements deepening practice, while mobilized guilt works against the deepening process. This self-attacking dynamic does not seem to exist in Asia, at least in quite the same way. Years ago, at a meeting of the Dalai Lama and Western Buddhist teachers, Sharon Salzberg asked the Dalai Lama how he advised people to work with the self-hatred that so often came up for students in the West. The Dalai Lama wasn’t even able to understand the question. For him, self-hatred was, apparently, a totally foreign concept.

These intrapsychic differences raise many questions about how we in the West understand and experience dharma practice. A fundamental issue has to do with how we see ourselves. One aspect of this question has to do with whether we are independent or interdependent beings. Another is whether we’re filled with imperfection and a basic sinfulness, or does the opposite hold true? Buddhist teachings grow out of the view, as expressed by the Buddha at the time of his Awakening, that our deepest nature is grounded in wisdom and compassion. How we view our fundamental nature shapes many aspects of our relationship to spirituality. As Einstein said, “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.” Jung has written, “If our religion is based on salvation, our chief emotions will be fear and trembling. If our religion is based on wonder, our chief emotion will be gratitude.” These perspectives represent two fundamentally different views of human nature. For therapists this question also holds strong implications for the nature of the therapeutic alliance itself. Given all this, it’s perhaps surprising that teachings and practices that evolved almost exclusively within an Asian, patriarchal, monastic context can work as well as they do for many Westerners – an intriguing point to be explored more fully at another time.

Henrich and the Evolution of Western Consciousness:

In terms of getting a sense of the larger context for this question, it can be helpful to see how these intrapsychic and cultural differences came into being, along with the evolution of Western consciousness itself. In his recent book, The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Become Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, Joseph Henrich does this for us. Henrich takes us back to the formative years of Western Catholicism, beginning in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, and documents how, over many centuries, the church’s ecumenical councils established edicts that demolished the existing kinship system, and left people with a much more independent, but also disconnected sense of self. WEIRD, by the way, is an acronym for Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic.

When Henrich talks about kinship systems he’s referring to the vast network of relationships that historically held families, clans, chiefdoms, tribes, and states together. These connections extended to a people’s ancient ancestors, real or mythic, and to their gods; they helped to impart a sense of meaning, purpose, and continuity and have evolved side by side with consciousness throughout most of human history. The Sioux Native Americans have a saying that translates as, “A people without history is like the wind on the buffalo grass.” In losing our connections to each other, we lose this connection to ourselves, and to the earth – we lose the sense of wholeness that is our birthright.”

Henrich chronicles how the church implemented these changes through policies relating to incest taboos, marriage prohibitions, rules of wealth and inheritance, sexuality, and about who gets to heaven and how. At the time they were created they were astonishing propositions that went against all existing norms. Today they form the backdrop against which much of Western history can be seen. Henrich shows how these church-based policies, many of which are contradictory to the teachings of Christ, wound up creating a very different type of social structure, and with it, a profoundly different cultural consciousness. Henrich also goes into how these changes were implemented through practices such as confession, excommunication, and anathema – “a solemn ritual promoted in the eighth century in which the soul of the excommunicant was formally handed over to Satan.” He also shows how all of this was held in place by institutionally-justified structures of repression, fear, and guilt.

Throughout the book Henrich maintains an evolutionary perspective on the mutually-reinforcing paths by which this new Western-style consciousness came to take over. He strongly emphasizes how these evolving policies established the foundation for a deep and rich sharing of ideas which, in turn, fueled the commercial, technological, and military advances and advantages that have brought us the amazing growth and prosperity we still enjoy today. This part is breathtaking. Henrich also documents the wealth and power these policies brought to the Church, and further explores the evolutionary forces that shaped our particular belief-systems relating to an all-powerful God.

Henrich summaries all this in the following way:

“Just to be clear, I’m not praising either world religions or big gods. To me, they are simply another interesting class of cultural phenomena that demands explanation. The idea here is that cultural evolution, driven by intergroup competition, favored the emergence and spread of supernatural beliefs that increasingly endowed gods with concerns about human action and the power to punish and reward. These beliefs evolved not because they are accurate representations of reality, but because they help communities, organizations, and societies beat their competitors. While this competition can be relatively benign, involving the preferential copying of more successful groups, it has also often involved the slaughter, oppression, and/or forced conversion of non-believers. These evolving gods have justified war, blessed genocide, and empowered tyrants (see the Bible).”

I should warn you, this is not light reading: the book itself is almost 500 pages long, and is followed by almost 200 pages of research and resources. With a genius for detail, Henrich documents the ways that Western consciousness has evolved out of this collection of policies established by the church, policies he refers to as the Marriage and Family Program, or MFP. These policies, particularly the repressive ones related to sexuality and notions of heaven and hell, have played a central role not only in shaping Western spirituality, but also in formation of the Western unconscious. He reveals how different this evolutionary path has been from all that came before, and how functionally different Western guilt and Asian shame are from each other. The links Henrich quietly establishes between our self-centeredness, our sense of personal guilt, our lack of worth and meaning, and this pervasive aloneness are inescapable. It seems to me that the connections between these historical church policies, and what brings so many people to meditation practice and psychotherapy, are unavoidable.

Intensive Meditation and Complex Emotional Systems:

Buddhist teachings and practices have evolved over the past 2,500 years within the context of many similar, but still different Asian cultures. To imagine that such a spiritual system might be incorporated within Western systems of thought and spirituality without at least some major difficulties, would be a stretch. It’s clear that meditation practices, by their very nature, mobilize Eastern and Western psyches in similar ways, but that the dynamics that arise out of this mobilization are significantly different. Just as Japanese psychotherapeutic approaches such as Morita and Naikan therapy don’t address many of the issues that arise for Westerners, many Westernstyle therapies don’t make a very good fit with Asian forms of personal suffering. Morita and Naikan therapies focus on the need for relationship and the need to harmonize with the whole; many Western-based systems focus on what’s best for the individual. Ken Kraft, a former professor of Japanese studies at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote, ”Western-style therapy barely exists in Japan; the Japanese view the American preoccupation with one’s personal problems as ridiculous. For the Japanese what matters is relationships and the social bond, not the individual ego.” There are strong parallels here that apply to Eastern and Western expressions of culture and spirituality.

It seems to me the more clearly we see how meditation, and particularly Buddhist retreat-style meditation, actually works, the easier it will be to appreciate the significance of these cultural differences. In the 60’s and 70’s when Buddhist meditation was so popular, most of us believed that meditation was all good, and the more you did the better. It seemed to be a kind of magic talisman: if you were practicing, then you didn’t need to do psychotherapy or anything else because the dharma would take care of all your problems. The teaching was: “Uproot the ego, and all will be well.” In a Tricycle interview some years back, one popular teacher said, “I have great respect for therapy, but for most people – I’m not talking about disturbed people – I feel that practice can be a complete path.” Personally I simply couldn’t say that this is true, any more than I would say that psychotherapy provides a complete path – at least not for those of us in the West.

Gradually it became obvious to many of us that meditation wasn’t the complete path we had been wishing for. In the early 1990’s, John Welwood introduced the notion of “Spiritual Bypassing,” which suggested that through practice, we could continue to become wiser and more compassionate, but that our emotionally-conflicted issues could remain untouched. The underlying premise here implies that our “spiritual” and “psychological” selves somehow exist, but are not connected. And it seems that many practitioners still think this is true today. Years earlier, Jack Engler alluded to this same idea as people trying to make an “end run” around their emotional difficulties. Robert Masters, the author of a book on the subject, defined spiritual bypassing by saying, “It is the use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs.”

There are a number of reasons why I’ve taken strong exception to this whole concept. For one thing, it’s simply not how the psyche works. The mobilized unconscious doesn’t pick and choose “good things” like compassion, and avoid others like anger that don’t fit neatly into our model of spirituality. Closely related to this first point is the fact that our difficult issues are rarely connected simply to our “woundedness,” something which conveniently labels us as victims. In my experience, most of the time these difficulties are often connected quite directly to our anger, or more specifically, the repression of our anger and the complex emotional systems linked to it.

No doubt this is another one of those more controversial areas, and certainly one that will need to be addressed more fully in a future posting. For now what I’d like to highlight is that intensive meditation does not selectively stir up some areas, but not others – it works in a global fashion, on whole emotional systems, and that’s both why and where there’s so much potential for change. (Obviously, if we can’t access these issues, it’s much harder to work on them.) Experientially, deeper practice leads to deeper mobilization, which means it works down through more heavily defended layers of the psyche. These layers are largely determined by the intensity of the feelings, and the level and nature of the repressive forces that we experienced during the early years of our lives.

Grief and anger are often joined at the hip, and anger is almost always the frontline feeling most heavily defended against. Anger is also closely linked with self-punitive guilt, which is another key component in our defense against these complex emotional systems. Further, these feelings are closely connected with issues relating to intimacy, and this mixture of complex repressed feelings often holds the key to accessing deeper levels of the unconscious. Many people run into these punitive superego forms of guilt, but continue to heavily defend against the feeling of anger itself. (Though a complex issue, let me briefly note that self-punitive forms of guilt are actually not authentic guilt, but are themselves defenses against actual guilt and anger.) The central point here is that deeper practice in turn, mobilizes deeper layers of the psyche which may include anger. Repressed, but mobilized anger, is a powerful force which can include fiercely aggressive and destructive energies; if we think we can bypass these forces we may well run into trouble.

So backing up a bit, what actually happens in practice, at least once we get beyond the threshold of stress reduction, is that concentration deepens and there’s an intensification of experience on all levels. Food tastes better, birds sing more sweetly, and we feel more alive. In addition to these more specific things, there can be a flowing-like quality that permeates our experience. Everything becomes connected and emboldened. What this means is that if you want to become a more compassionate person, practice the dharma; if you want to become a more sensitive poet or musician, practice the dharma. Similarly, if you want to become a better athlete or warrior, practice the dharma, but also, if you want to be a better thief, or better liar, practice the dharma.

Of course, authentic practice isn’t neutral, it rests on connection and compassion, but I’m guessing you get the idea here. This intensification applies equally to everything, including the shadowy realms of repressed feelings which often includes a mixture of grief, anger, and guilt. It mobilizes the feelings as well as the repressive forces that encase them. These feelings are not experienced directly, but rather are stirred up and then further pushed back down. This inner intensification applies to the unconscious needs and desires we’ve secreted away, and to the destructive forces that may lie buried with them.

Unethical Considerations:

The most compelling evidence for understanding practice in this way comes from the fact that there have been so many high-profile dharma teachers who have acted in profoundly unethical ways. You simply can’t hold to the idea that practice is all good and compassionate, and at the same time acknowledge that there are people, some of whom had been practicing for long periods of time, and supposedly have had the deepest awakenings, who have clearly exploited their relationships with others. Most visibly this includes teachers establishing inappropriate sexual relationships with students, but it also involves many other kinds of control and dominance issues. There are also teachers who have used their positions to break up relationships – behaviors that at least in some instances have unmistakable links to their past, and reveal the truly destructive nature of their unconscious.

Like the canary in the coal mine, such teachers reveal that practice is not simply a great healing force. In mobilizing the whole of the unconscious, intensive practice may also activate unconscious destructive impulses. If these intrapsychic conflicts remain unaddressed, they will seek to find some form of expression. While most practitioners tend to turn such impulses against themselves, those in positions of power are more likely to direct these aggressive energies outwardly, through their relationships. These unconscious re-enactments form the basis of many counter-transference issues.

This, of course, is a great over-simplification. Issues surrounding abuse of power are highly complex and perhaps not well understood by any of us. However, it seems to me we can only hope to begin to understand such behaviors from the perspective of the mobilized unconscious. A central point here is that dharma practice doesn’t create these neurotic structures, but it can and does stir them up – amplifying them in significant ways.

In other words, to the extent that we fail to understand the ways our unconscious dynamics become mobilized, we’ve got a serious problem. As Jung has written, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Some people say that practice speeds up our karma, but another way of looking at it is that practice is stirring up the hidden realms of the unconscious. And because the intrapsychic dynamics peculiar to the Western punitive superego are significantly different from those of the Asian unconscious, it seems to me we will need to evolve a new paradigm for dharma practice in the West, one able to address the whole of the person.

What is concerning here is that there are dharma teachers, often with their own unresolved issues, who may well be working at deeper levels of the psyche than most therapists, but who are doing so with less training, supervision, or grasp of the ethical implications of this process. The good news is that to the extent that we do understand these dynamics, and as practice opens up these shadow realms, all kinds of opportunities begin to present themselves. Certain experiential forms of psychotherapy are beginning to be incorporated into dharma practice in ways that help address these uniquely Western issues.

Historically, Buddhist practices have evolved and adapted according to the needs of people in particular times, places and cultures. These shifts have occurred as Indian forms of Buddhism moved into China, Tibet, Southeast Asia, Korea, Japan and elsewhere. If our intent is to establish a truly fulfilling Western dharma practice, one responsive to the whole person, then we’re looking at the need to make some of the biggest paradigm shifts to date. Because intensive forms of practice can mobilize the deepest layers of the unconscious including, as Jung says, the spiritual realms, and because we now have types of therapy that can work at these deep levels, radically new approaches to working for transformation become possible.


So the question becomes, how can we best access and work with the mobilized unconscious in ways that help to reduce suffering and to open heart-based pathways for a different way of being? At Windhorse, we’ve been developing our Zentensives, which incorporate elements of Davanloo’s Intensive Short-term Dynamic Psychotherapy along with more Asian forms of practice. We’ve found that this approach helps not only resolve, but also transform some of the unique obstructive and destructive elements that Western practitioners run into. It offers us effective ways of understanding and addressing difficulties that strictly Asian forms of practice have not been able to do. 

As with ISTDP, Zentensives hold to the understanding that obstructions that arise in practice – the mindstates, difficulties, and defenses that seem to be getting in the way – actually offer significant opportunities for accessing unconscious material and deepening dharma practice. These retreats, which have been accredited by The Washington School of Psychiatry, are not so much an amalgam of two different approaches, but are something new that reflects the unfolding of the Western psyche as a whole. Zentensives focus on the dynamics of resistance and repression as they arise in retreat-style practice. They are not therapy, but can have great therapeutic effect. They offer a unique type of training with benefits for both dharma practitioners and mental health professionals. Because Zentensives have the potential of addressing these fundamental characterological issues, they have the potential of fostering change in all areas of our lives. 

This article was written by Lawson Sachter, along with Sunya Kjolhede, as part of their ongoing explorations into evolving a new paradigm for dharma practice in the West.


Zentensive Participant Statements:

The following are a few examples of what some people have had to say about their experiences after attending a Zentensive. All accounts are being shared with permission:

“This [Zentensive] was extremely important for me. After you mentioned in dokusan [a private one-on-one meeting] the way that our defenses continually work to divert anxiety, and therefore drive us away from our actual feelings, the whole nature of my practice shifted drastically. I was really caught up in my defenses. In fact, that was the primary thing I was doing in practice: hiding out.   

Very deep, very needed shifts have happened in me since then. It’s painful as hell to face this anxiety and the feelings underneath it, but my life has dramatically improved already (and this only after a few days of practicing in this new way). I’m excited – and terrified – of where this will take me.”  

The following are post-retreat comments made by three therapists:

“The days continue to unfold with richness, time seems slower and more focused, especially in conversations at work with patients, and at home with my daughter and (wife). I am aware of the ‘affect stream’ of my own feelings in the context of a greater sense of spaciousness and inner calm, and find that my movements in speaking and emotional expression seem more attuned to who I am with and what is going on.”  

“When I came home I noticed quickly how my work has changed, my pace, focus, depth, paying notice to the patients anxiety, not having any agenda other than creating a healthy relationship with the patient.”

“In the week following the retreat, almost without exception, all of my psychotherapy sessions were deep and powerful, even sessions with patients I’ve seen for years, who have felt stuck or coasting. I know that the shift in me, the focus, the expansion, opened up something the room for them as well. I feel so grateful for all of this.”


Zen Master Man-an

“If you clearly see the essence, then the objects of the six senses are themselves meditation, sensual desires are themselves the Way of Unity, and all things are manifestations of Reality… If you are wholeheartedly careful of how you spend your time, aware of the evanescence of life, concentrating single-mindedly on Zen work even in the midst of objects of desire, if you proceed right straight ahead, the iron walls will open up. You will experience the immense joy of walking over the Polar Mountain and become the Master within the objects of sense. You will be like a lotus blooming in fire, becoming all the more colorful and more fragrant in contact with the energy of fire.” 

Zen Master Dogen:

“The purpose of Zen practice, if we can speak of such a thing, is a tender heart.”



The content presented here is material that has evolved over many decades – years of attending or leading retreats, struggling through koans, attending conferences, and working with all kinds of students and clients in dokusan and therapy. To be honest, there’s a considerable amount of personal pain that has been at the heart of this work as well. Certainly some of what has been presented is original, but much more of it rests within a much larger collective effort that includes rich contributions from my wife, friends, and colleagues. None of it would have evolved were it not for the pioneering work of Roshi Philip Kapleau, and Habib Davanloo, M.D.


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