Zen Therapy

Can Buddhist teachers and psychotherapists work together to change our minds?

| March/April 2001

The slogan on a T-shirt promoting the New York–based Buddhist magazine Tricycle—'Change Your Mind'—graphically defines what Buddhism, and particularly American Buddhism, shares with psychotherapy. As Anne A. Simpkinson points out in a recent article for that very journal (Summer 2000), 'Both disciplines are committed to the alleviation of mental anguish, and both rely on the individual heart and mind as the essential instrument for transformation.' More and more Americans, including many therapists, are now exploring this common ground, combining therapy and meditation practice. But the trend has its critics. Some wonder if a thought system founded by a militant secularist like Freud is really all that compatible with the spiritual insights that came to Buddha under the bodhi tree. A few are concerned that minds are indeed being changed, but in ways that create more anguish rather than less.

As recently as a decade ago, most Asian teachers had their doubts about whether the two paths could be walked at once, Simpkinson writes. From their perspective, therapy seemed to encourage a fixation on one’s personal story that meditation aimed to dissolve. But a number of thoughtful books in recent years have brought Buddhist insights to therapeutic concerns. And at least one towering figure in the American Buddhist world, Zen teacher Robert Aitken Roshi, has been candid about seeking therapy for his interpersonal problems.

As this complex convergence has gained wider acceptance in theory, a new set of concerns have begun turning up in practice. Simpkinson focuses one such trend: Certain Buddhist teachers who are also therapists have begun working with their spiritual students as clients. 'The increasing numbers of teachers taking on this dual role,' writes Simpkinson, 'are bringing a certain urgency to the discussion of boundaries.'

Of course, the reality, irreality, and permeability of boundaries is one of the great Buddhist questions. To a belief system that sees hard-and-fast distinctions as reflections of a consciousness divided against itself and therefore in pain, the point of drawing a line in the sand is not to exclude but to explore the relationship between the things on either side of the line. So it’s no wonder that many Buddhist therapists are interested in challenging the professional rule that says they must have no outside involvement with their clients. No surprise, either, that they’re also challenging an informal rule (common to many spiritual traditions) that says you ought to get your therapeutic work 'done' before you embark on the exalted quest for spiritual attainment.

Typical of this new breed of teacher-therapist is Tara Brach, an insight meditation teacher and psychotherapist in the Washington, D.C., area. 'Brach takes a position that many consider to be the cutting edge of a new American Buddhism,' writes Simpkinson, 'namely, that emotional healing is . . . part of the spiritual path. It’s neither the underside of the path nor the shadow side, nor must it come before spiritual work.'

Therapist and author John Welwood implies much the same in Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path to Personal and Spiritual Transformation (Shambhala, 2000). While meditation and therapy may cultivate awareness in different ways, they are not incompatible, he maintains. What’s more, advanced Buddhist insights can help suffering therapy clients who are far from having 'resol-ved' their 'issues.'

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