Zen Practice, Psychotherapy, and the Spiritual Unconscious

Lawson Sachter

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light,
but by making the darkness conscious.”

C.G. Jung

Organizational Overview:

Section I presents an introduction to the unconscious processes brought to the surface through intensive forms of meditation, and so has relevance for psychotherapists and practitioners alike. This section also explores the ways in which fundamental differences between Eastern and Western psyches affect people’s experience and understanding of dharma practice. It also looks at the ways that this perspective calls into question the widely accepted notion of “spiritual bypassing.”

Section II introduces a type of psychotherapy developed by Dr. Habib Davanloo called Intensive Short-term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP). This experiential therapy is designed to give us direct access to the unconscious, and so has relevance for our lives and dharma practice in the West. This section also begins to look at the crippling role of guilt in Western culture, and the terrible impact repression and self-sabotage can have in/on our lives.

Section III offers a more in-depth examination of the intrapsychic dynamics that inform an ISTDP-based approach to psychotherapy. It includes descriptions and diagrams to help clarify some of the key points underlying Davanloo’s metapsychology of the unconscious, and begins to present an expanded paradigm for dharma practice in the West.

Section IV includes some personal reflections about experiences I went through many years ago, and how they have affected my understanding of the Western dharma and the whole field of psychotherapy.

Section V starts with a brief summary of some of the main points covered up to that point, and then touches into some of the broader relational insights that have arisen out of my work with others in therapeutic settings and during our Windhorse Zentensive Retreats. This section also looks at how I came to see dharma practice as the fourth point on the Triangle of Person – and how this insight led to a richer, more unified view of working with the depths of the unconscious in the midst of intensive meditative experience.

Section VI explores the ways a more unified psycho-spiritual approach can help open us up to deeper levels of the psyche. Even on more cognitive levels, a simple understanding of the Triangle of Conflict can help bring clarity and focus to many of our experiences in meditation. The more fully this kind of understanding becomes integrated into our experiential understanding, and the more attuned we become to our own internal signaling systems, the smoother the meditative experience can be.

Section VII takes a deeper look into some of the central dynamics addressed in the course of the ISTDP process. It also explores the ways in which this intrapsychic work may offer a more embracing paradigm for dharma practice in the West. Finally, it touches into the possibility of expanding and applying psychotherapeutic skills to assist people in accessing deeper, non-dual states of being within the framework of sustained meditation practice.

About the Author:

As a bit of personal background, I’m a Buddhist priest, sanctioned Zen teacher, and licensed psychotherapist. For the past 25 or 30 years much of my work has been involved in exploring ways of bringing these threads together. For more complete information click here. (or go to https://psychodynamiczen.org/about-us/ )


With much gratitude I’d like to thank my Zen teacher, Roshi Philip Kapleau, for the decades of support and training I received from him; and also Dr. Habib Davanloo for my psychotherapeutic training. I would like to acknowledge that this article has been written with considerable help from my wife, Ven. Sunya Kjolhede. Sunya was also sanctioned and ordained by Roshi Kapleau; together we co-direct a residential training center, Windhorse Zen Community, Inc. located just outside of Asheville, NC. My heartfelt thanks, also, to Lani Banner, for her consistent support and the significant contributions she’s made throughout the writing process.

I’d also like to say that the ideas presented in this article find their actual expression in our Zentensive Retreats. Zentensives are meditation-based trainings that have been accredited for all mental health professionals by The Washington School of Psychiatry. These retreats are tailored for dharma practitioners and psychotherapists interested in working on the unconscious dynamics that arise out of intensive forms of meditation. For more information please click here (or go to https://psychodynamiczen.org/training/)

Financial Support:

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to ask you for your financial support. If you find something of value in this writing, and would like to contribute to our ongoing efforts, please go to:

If you are interested in finding out more about our Zentensives, please go to:

With much appreciation,
Lawson Sachter

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Copyright © 2022 by Lawson Sachter

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