Richard Shrobe

Zen and Psychotherapy

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  …From a Dharma talk at Dwight Chapel,
Y
ale University

Q: An issue has come up lately in discussions about Zen meditation practice and psychotherapy which seems to be a different way of getting at the same things.

Do I just sit with something and let it dissolve or is it better to sit and talk about it in a psychotherapy situation?

A: People have often asked me this question. I wondered at first if they were asking just because I’m a psychotherapist. Were they just indulging their intellectual curiosity? It felt counterproductive to me if that was the reason. But I began to realize later on that the question really, in some cases, was: What is the place of my emotional life in Zen practice? Or, is there any place for my emotional life in Zen practice? Of course, practice may have different kinds of leanings or attitudes connected to it. For instance, there is a fierce approach in Zen practice which is about stripping something away and having the courage to have the props knocked out from under you in order to face certain things. This is to fiercely face the rawness of things without any props. On the other hand, some people approach Zen practice from the viewpoint of acceptance, melting, letting go, warm embracing, and appreciation. That has a different flavor and attitude. The direction of the practice is the same in either case, but the nuance is stated differently.

If someone does not have enough confidence in their direction, and in what they need and how they should proceed, they are influenced by messages such as fierceness or openness or warmth. One teacher may say, “Take hold of the big question fiercely and hold it as if your life depended on it. There is nothing more important than this one big question, ‘What am I?’ or ‘Who am I?’ Grab hold of that and do not let go.” That is the samurai-like attitude of fierceness. On the other hand, another teacher might say, “As soon as you raise the question, already that is enlightened mind.” just let yourself be. What am I? Don’t know. That is it!

Zen practice can be therapeutic, but it is not the same as therapy. A lot of therapies deal with shifting around attitudes, whereas Zen practice primarily heads toward wiping everything clean and seeing what is. Sometimes, people need the help of a therapist to talk things out. If what they are holding is very subtle and specific to a “set-up,” a specific limiting way of being in the world, then they might need someone fairly skilled in spotting “setups” and in helping someone to let go at a pace that is workable and reasonably comfortable. They might also need help in facing why they even feel the need for that set-up! That is what psychotherapy is about. There are many kinds of psychotherapy just as there are many different strains of Zen practice.

“Zen and Psychotheraphy” is excerpted from Open Mouth Already a Mistake, by Richard Shrobe