A Psychodynamic Merging of East and West
“Our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasures.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
Windhorse Zen Community is offering a new kind of fully-accredited program called a Zentensive Workshop and Retreat* that focuses on the unconscious dimensions of western dharma practice. These programs are intended for advanced dharma practitioners, and mental health professionals interested in the intersection of meditation and psychotherapy. They are being lead by Lawson Sachter who is both a sanctioned Zen teacher and licensed psychotherapist with many decades of experience in each of these fields.
A Zentensive Workshop and Retreat brings together the highly focused and transformative quality of Zen sesshin practice with the penetrating psychodynamic work formulated by Habib Davanloo, M.D.
During a Zentensive we work directly with the underlying dynamics of the unconscious as an experiential aspect of dharma practice itself. Meditating in the midst of these two powerful currents gives us remarkable access to the dynamic forces of the mobilized unconscious, offering a direct way of bringing to light submerged and pain-producing patterns and converting them into understanding and compassion.
Since this process has the power of accessing deep layers of the psyche, it’s not really intended for the uninitiated. However, for dharma teachers and other experienced meditators the combination of deep and sustained meditation, coupled with direct work with the unconscious, opens up ways of addressing many of the underlying obstructive forces unique to western practitioners. For mental health professionals it fosters deep change on both personal and professional levels, allowing our work with others to be more penetrating, compassionate and effective. Participants have reported all kinds of shifts, openings, and even unlockings arising naturally from their efforts.
How does the process work? Putting that into words is no easy matter for a number of reasons: First, this work is highly individualistic, with people coming with richly varied backgrounds and life experience. Secondly, the inherently mysterious nature of the unconscious often makes reasonable explanations difficult to find. And thirdly, Zen practice—and particularly the non-dual, inquiry-based kind—mobilizes the western unconscious in unique, multi-dimensional ways. This means the practice itself stirs the depths of the psyche, and the more deeply we lose ourselves in the breath, attention, or koan work, the more profoundly the repressed zones of the unconscious become activated.
This kind of global mobilization manifests itself through a process we’re calling “co-mergence,” a term pointing to the way creative and compassionate forces, as well as repressed feelings masked by defenses, rise up together. As we enter into this process, a layered quality emerges which at times can include cleansing experiences of grief, remorse, anger, and guilt.
As this unfolding continues, the patterning of “repetition compulsion” may reveal itself; and characterological defenses, which so often fuel the implicit sense of a separate self, may also be resurrected. This can be both deep and difficult work, but the point here is that in fact it does work, often opening up new levels of understanding and liberating great reserves of energy.
Intensive meditation practice heightens our sensitivities on all levels, and activates and magnifies all kinds of buried intrapsychic dynamics. Without skillful processing however, the more heavily repressed material remains stirred up but unresolved, and so people may wind up getting both better and worse at the same time.
Practitioners sometimes get lost in critical patterns of self-blame, and to the extent that the practice itself gets hijacked, and used in the service of repression, various kinds of psychic dead-zones can become institutionalized. No doubt many people have left practice, often blaming themselves, because they didn’t understand what was happening or how to proceed.
For others, a real splitting can occur—something I believe we’ve seen play itself out in the lives of a number of high-profile dharma teachers, often manifesting itself through a kind of 'Jekyll and Hyde’ existence. As Jung put it, “That which we do not bring to consciousness appears in our lives as fate.” Unfortunately, especially when someone is put in a position of authority, they may well inflict their own split-off and unresolved issues onto others.
Most significantly, Zentensives involve a way of working that grows out of the understanding that repressed feelings, mindstates, and defenses actually offer significant opportunities for deepening one’s understanding and practice, and that problems persist when they continue to be denied or avoided. In other words, suppressed, unacceptable feelings, and the defenses that encase them, can be worked with—not as a psychological construct but as direct experience. This is, however, a challenging approach, one that becomes possible only when a person has some understanding of their own unconscious processes, coupled with a willingness to work appropriately with and through whatever arises.
Underlying this approach are at least three key conditions, each of which has significant complexities and depths that will only be briefly mentioned here:
The first is the reality that few people in the West come to practice without having been through their share of disruptive experiences.
The second, and perhaps most controversial, is the assertion that the mobilized western unconscious has a range of self-crippling and self-punitive features that differ significantly from those found in the East. Over the centuries Asian practices have undoubtedly evolved in ways that work to address the shame-based underpinnings of the Asian psyche. We’re just beginning, however, to see the complex ways in which the sinful and guilt-based dynamics of our own cultural psyche are unconsciously playing themselves out in relationship to western dharma practices.
The third essential point is that it has only been in the past 30 or 40 years that effective, psychodynamically-based ways of working with the mobilized western unconscious as a seamless aspect of practice have been evolving.
Before Davanloo began to develop his Intensive Short-term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP), gaining access to the deeper levels of characterological change was not an easy matter. In 1940 Freud wrote, no doubt with great frustration, “For the moment we must bow to the superiority of the forces against which we see our efforts come to nothing.” Similarly, but from a more spiritual perspective, the Indian master Sri Nisargadatta wrote, “Our small attachments can be burned away by spiritual experience and understanding. Our deeper attachments must be lived, and their fruits, both sweet and sour, tasted fully.” Eknath Easwaran, a professor and spiritual teacher who came from India but spent most of his life in the U.S., wrote: “Samskaras are the key to character, but their root is deep below the level of conscious awareness. We see what they do, but we have very little control over the forces themselves.”
New psychological discoveries, however, offer fresh hope for bringing about real change on these deep levels of the psyche. Based on Davanloo’s meta-psychological understanding, and his range of experiential interventions, we can work much more directly with these obstructive forces in ways that open and transform them. What’s unique in Davanloo’s approach is the awareness that the greater the crystallized resistance, the greater the potential for change. As Rainer Maria Rilke said, “Our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasures.” In other words, the thicker the walls, the greater the treasure. To put it another way, obstructive states can be seen and worked with as passageways rather than as impenetrable barriers.
Andrew Harvey has written in Dialogues with a Modern Mystic:
“The alchemists knew this great secret - that if you did not bless and accept fully everything that was most painful and dark in you, you could never attain the conjunction of opposites, the sacred marriage, the philosopher’s stone, because final wisdom can only flower from transformation of everything in the psyche, the bringing up into the light of spiritual consciousness and the releasing there of everything hidden in the dark depths of the unconscious. As Jung said, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but my making the darkness conscious.”
When we begin thinking in terms of a “psychological” self and a “spiritual” self, we easily create false distinctions and abstractions that muddy the waters of our essential nature. In the words of a Ch’an master, “it’s like brushing aside waves to look for water.” What we can now do is work with the issues arising out of meditation practice and recognize the ways they are so often mirrored elsewhere in our lives. This includes finding ways of seeing into and resolving the unconscious conflicts that are the stuff of repression.
To my mind, there’s something artificial about holding to some linear framework that says we have to do our “psychological” work before or outside of our “spiritual” work, as if these existed in parallel universes. Our lives are all of one piece; they are clearly not a series of theoretical constructs. Zentensives work with the material at hand, as it emerges; and this approach inevitably leads us to the realms of our inherent freedom and compassion.
*Note: Zentensives are fully accredited advanced trainings, good for 30 CEs, including 2 for ethics, and open to anyone interested in exploring the role of the mobilized unconscious in Zen practice.
There are fully accredited programs designed for those interested in experientially exploring the role of the mobilized unconscious during intensified Zen practice.