Zen Therapy

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
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.’

How Buddhism and psychotherapy can complement each other is
relatively easy to show. But what about the grittier issue of
Buddhist teachers wearing therapist hats? Some teachers and
therapists are wary of any situation that combines two roles with
such a high potential for transference–the client or student
becoming fixated on the teacher/therapist and replicating family
patterns and pain with that authority figure as the focus. These
critics warn that the impact may be too much for any one person, no
matter how gifted, to handle. ‘There’s conflict of interest at a
very deep level,’ Robert Aitken told Simpkinson. ‘Nobody really
understands what transference is. . . . It’s different for every
student and must not be monkeyed with. I don’t think any of us know
how to handle transference in these two dimensions. It’s like
riding two horses at once.’

In true Buddhist fashion, many of the two-horse riders hold that
this very problem is an opportunity. As Simpkinson puts it, it
provides a ‘double-strength ‘messy’ compost with which to fertilize
growth.’ For them, the issue is not to create rules that keep
therapy and practice safe in the abstract, but to rely on the
teacher’s wisdom and the student/client’s frankly expressed sense
of what feels right for him or her to maintain a complementarity
between the safety that therapy needs and the fearless facing of
life-as-it-is that Buddhism demands.

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