I chose to read the book “Zen and Psychotherapy,” because the concepts of Psychotherapy and Zen are two concepts that I am fascinated with. I have always been fascinated with both Psychology and Buddhism, and how much similarity they both share. The author, Joseph Bobrow, is an American Zen master, as well as a Psychologist/ Psychoanalyst. Because he is a master in both areas, he offers a unique perspective and insight into how the traditions of Psychotherapy and Japanese Zen Buddhism are connected, and how they can compliment each other.
The main thing Bobrow wanted to explore in this book was the interplay of Zen Buddhism and Psychotherapy, and how they both are part of the whole of liberation, whether that is the concept of modern psychological liberation or the spiritual liberation sought after in Buddhism. The author states that human life is “of a piece. We can’t ‘get it together’; it is together. We divide it.” By labeling and dividing each aspect in life, we fail to “capture the rich interwoven fabric of our humanity.” The author states that, in Zen, “our own true nature and the world around us are ‘not two.’” However, he states, “seeing through duality is not the final aim.” One of the main propositions Bobrow offers, is the belief that liberation can be unfolded in practice on two interconnected tracks, represented in this book by Zen and Psychotherapy.
Frequently the author drives the point that there are distinctions between Zen and Psychotherapy. The author states, that although they contain elements of each other and address similar concerns, Zen and psychotherapy are distinctive paths that “challenge and, by virtue of their differences, enrich each other.” The author wants to make the conviction that the positive aspects of each practice can enrich each other “without compromising their distinctiveness.”
Psychotherapy, the author asserts, “promotes emotional growth, integration, resilience, and psychological freedom.”
Zen practice, on the other hand, “helps us to cut though the subject- object and self, and to open to, realize, and put ourselves in accord with our essential nature.”
Essential nature, to me means to see life in a non-dualistic way. Dualistic thinking, in simplified terms, means only thinking about life in an “either/ or” way. For example, seeing things as either good or bad, right or wrong, only. Aaron Beck, one of the founders of Cognitive Therapy, called this Polarized Thinking, and theorized that this type of thinking is the cause of depression, and therefore suffering.
Over 2,000 years ago, the Buddha called this type of thinking “dukkha”, which translates to, “anxiety”, “stress”, or “unsatisfactoriness,” but most commonly simply “suffering.” Basically, “dukkha” is the suffering caused from trying to hold on to things that are constantly changing. Buddhism merely asserts the realization that everything is constantly changing, and to try and hold on to something we can’t control is to suffer.
The Buddha is reputed to have said “I have taught one thing and one thing only: dukkha and the cessation of dukkha.”
Furthermore, non-duality refers to the Sanskrit word “advaita”, which simply means “not two.” It essentially points to the unity and wholeness of life. Similarly, is the concept of “pratītyasamutpāda”, commonly known as “dependent origination.”
Although we think that we are individuals, and that we are separate from each other and the universe, this is an illusion. Everything that has come into being, has done so with the dependence of another. For example, we all come from our parents, who came from their parents, who came from their parents. But a more common example is that of a piece of paper: you cannot say that a piece of paper is just a piece of paper, without the concepts tree, water, sun. If you look at, and think of all the elements that went into making a single piece of paper what it is, you can see that the whole universe is in just one piece of paper. Similarly, with us, also. Thinking we are separate, and mentally applying labels to separate us, is the cause of suffering. Zen merely wants to remind us that we are not separate, and to reconnect us to our essential nature.
What these two practices share are the themes of “healing and transforming human suffering and liberating the deepest human potentials.” If both these practices are utilized they have the potential to create “ a more experience- near, deeper, comprehensive, and representative framework that helps people become freer, wiser, more peaceful, more alive, and more compassionate.” Their interplay, the author asserts, “is important for both fields, especially for all who aspire to live more freely.” The main similarities that both practice share, the author claims, are that both “speak to the relief of suffering, emancipation from mental and emotional constraints, and the freeing of human potential to love and learn through self-knowledge.”
Fundamentally, however, what Buddhism and Psychotherapy share, is the focus on the mind. In the Dhammapada, the collection of the Buddha’s words, the first sentence is commonly translated as, “We are what we think, having become what we thought.” Historically, what psychology has taught is that, because of the unconscious, “we are not in control of even our own self- experience.” Freud said, “The ego is not the master in its own house.” What Buddha proposed was an invitation to further “discover that our house is not what we thought.” Focus on the mind brings into question the aspects of “content and form, structure and process, contained, and container.” More simply, the “what” and the how”, but discussion on such items can obscure the “non-dualistic dimension of who we are and how we impact one another.”
The author’s Zen teacher used to tell him that Zen was “the perfection of character.” Bruce Lee, the famous martial artist, constantly taught that as long as you are alive you should be constantly training and improving yourself. One famous quote of his: “There are no limits. There are plateaus, but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them…A man must constantly exceed his level.” Zen is one journey. Each journey is a way of discovery, “a process of inquiry, self knowledge, and transformation.” One important association is that each path acknowledges, “things are not always what they seem,” and that even our fellows or ourselves are not even what we seem. The author declares that “what is not readily apparent does not lose value, and what does not make sense can be important and valuable.” Each path encourages the use, expansion, and ultimately the “liberation of attention,” and each recognizes the “tendency toward self-deception.” Therefore, each path values truth and awareness.
The author, being Jewish, stated that there is a word in Hebrew, teshuvah, that literally means ‘repentance’ but more accurately refers to an inward ‘turning toward the truth of the moment.’ He states, “As we muster up the energy and resolve, and choose, moment by moment, to attend to what is going on, as we turn toward the truth of what is actually happening, in and around us, our mind, feelings, and bodily sensations gradually settle. Symington calls this ‘choosing the life giver’, an unconscious turning toward inner truth and away from narcissistic self-encapsulation. While this turning toward is a hopeful gesture, it also presupposes faith and both requires and develops the element Bion felt was so central in psychic growth: the capacity to tolerate rather than evade frustration.”
In both Zen and Psychotherapy, when we are suffering, we look for help. The structure of “how we relate to and construct the problem, and how the obstacle’s very existence is sustained by dualistic subject- object split (there is me, and there is my problem) is often ignored,” assumed as part of the cultural and philosophical assumptions we inherit. Psychotherapy and Zen share a commitment to “making direct contact with one’s experience and working with it.” Comparatively, with psychoanalysis, our self-structures are explored and “become more differentiated, pliable, integrated, and less unconscious.” In Zen, one inquires into the “very nature of the structure in which the problem is embedded and through which it is maintained.” It begins by “stopping, looking, and listening- attending closely to what is happening, how we are living, in a different way, and finding a new way to be with our selves and our experience.”
To emphasize the difference between Buddhist spirituality and psychotherapy, the author pointed out that at a Thich Naht Hanh public gathering, 90 percent of the questions seemed more concerned about how to become better able to stand “emotions they found troublesome,” rather than to deeply understand their emotional experience. What the author argued is that, “When we decide to turn away from pain, we may turn away from life as well.” Some argue that the motive behind Psychotherapy is not the cessation of suffering, but merely teaching how to deal with that suffering. “Suffering does not disappear forever. It is rather that our relation to suffering is subverted. Obstructions do not permanently vanish; it is simply that when they arise they no longer obstruct. With understanding of the emptiness, oneness, and uniqueness of the mind comes a sense of freedom and, simultaneously, compassion for all beings.”
What is different about each path is the intention. The intention of psychotherapy is a facilitation of the integration of the personality, particularly that which is unconscious and “excluded from awareness.” The intention of Zen, on the other hand, is the opportunity for fundamental insight. The question asked is “what is the essential nature of one who is born, lives and dies, loves and hates, laughs and weeps? Who is the subject?” The author asserts, “We experience ourselves through our narrations of and reactions to direct experience. We create running commentaries on our lives and then take them as real, as ‘me.’” In Zen, it is the “narrator” that must be fully understood.
In order to truly understand the true self, the author states, “Our most cherished views of self and other, of our very existence, must give way, literally fall away.” Anxiety, the author declares, “usually arises in the face of a turning on its head of basic assumptions of who I am, what I do, and what my relationship with other beings is.” In other Zen traditions, the focus is closely on “emotions as they arise in the body and how amplify some and reject others.” As beneficial as these methods may be, the author argues that, “If conscious introspection alone sufficed to transform the factors that engender individual and collective suffering, then we would have long ago achieved individual as well as universal peace, freedom, and justice.” He goes on to emphasize that “most of what produces anguish is outside the conscious awareness.” He also states that the “capacitiy for self-deception” has never ceased to amaze him.
Traditionally, the author states, religion and psychotherapy have been suspicious of each other, “each tending to view the other as a purveyor of illusion.” Psychotherapy’s discomfort with religious or spiritual experience seems to stem from the belief that it can be “an escape from unpleasant experience”, or worse, “self-deception.” Conversely, spirituality’s discomfort with psychotherapy is that it has the potential to foster self-centeredness, obviously an antithesis of what Zen is trying to promote.
One aspect Bobrow noted that Psychotherapy could borrow from Buddhism is the concept of the Boddhisattva. In Sanskrit, Boddhisattva means “awakened being,” but it also holds the definition of “awakening being,” meaning that it is a person “who is in the process of waking up,” as well as someone who “helps others come to life.” This definition can be extended as someone who “sees deeply, in this very moment, that his own happiness develops in concert with the happiness and liberation of others.” The subtitle of the book is “Partners in Liberation.” I think the author was talking both about the concepts of Zen and Psychotherapy being integrated towards one’s personal liberation. But I also think he was talking about the relationship of the therapist and the patient. In one instance he goes more in depth of his Bodhisattvic beliefs towards Psychotherapy: “I think this may be a hidden element in therapeutic action. Does the patient sense that the analyst is also learning? Not simply that he or she ‘self-discloses, but rather in the everyday work, are the patient and analyst collaborators, partners in liberation, constructing and embodying a way of learning and being together?”
I thought the most important passage from the book was this: “If our self-centered cares, worries, projects, and machinations are in fact what burden, bind, and constrict us, and if our search for safe refuge itself can create imprisonment and turn us unintentionally away from the source of nourishment, what is the antitode? Awareness, awareness, awareness.” Along with awareness, the importance of “letting go” is firmly stressed, as well. The author states, “We are not invulnerable; things are not predictable, there is no ultimate control, we do not and cannot know everything. It is as we uncover and relinquish these notions and the matrix in which they are embedded that we can experience freedom and joy.” The author proposes that with Buddhist practice, and mindfulness, it helps us “enter intimately into the moments of living, no matter what their content, and maintain mindful, nonjudgmental awareness in their midst, even under great strain and anxiety. We develop the capacity to observe and very closely our feelings, thoughts, breath, and bodily sensations, as they are.” The author argues that “letting go” is not getting rid of. It is merely “turning away from the veils of delusion generated by self-centered, protective strivings,” and turning toward and taking refuge in “things as they are.”
One of the important points that Joseph Bobrow made in his book was that the fruits of “Zen practice, psychotherapy, and their interplay, should be made available not only to the relative few who practice or partake directly, but also to the many in the wider social commons.” He thought that both Zen and psychotherapy have so much to offer society at large, that the knowledge they both offer should be readily available not just to the strict practitioners of each practice. Bobrow observed how aspects of Buddhism have emerged from beyond the temple into the “social commons.” In Zen Buddhism, practice does not end in the dojo, but similarly in psychotherapy, “treatment does not end in the consulting room.” Psychotherapy can be integrated into Buddhist practice, and likewise Buddhist practice can be integrated into Psychotherapy. What’s more is that both of these practices can be integrated together toward secular society at large.
Frequently the author delves into deep philosophical and hard to explain, esoteric concepts often associated with Zen, but likewise, the author argues that there are simple truths in both Buddhism and Psychology that can be accepted by everyone. “Delusion is not an abstract philosophical event. Enlightenment is not an aesthetic pursuit. Koan study is not literary interpretation. Delusion is in the particulars, and the particulars have a personal context.” I will reiterate what the author said before, but I think if people saw beyond the veil of the traditions of both Buddhism and Psychology, and recognized only the fundamental truths that both offer, it has the potential to create “ a more experience- near, deeper, comprehensive, and representative framework that helps people become freer, wiser, more peaceful, more alive, and more compassionate.”