Zen and the Unconscious

A New Paradigm for the Western Dharma

The Buddha’s Awakening, and all the teachings that grew out of that singular experience, deeply affirm the intrinsic and compassionate freedom of our own deepest nature. This is not a truth that comes to us through [our usual kinds of] knowing, but rather one that we can must confirm through direct, personal experience. If it were simply a matter of words and explanations, that would be one thing; but we’re talking here about transformations that leap beyond the realm of thought, transformations that work through the conscious and unconscious layers of our being.

To me, the most interesting history of Buddhism is not so much the evolution of its ideas and verbal teachings, as fascinating as that may be. What I find most compelling is the ways the actual practices have changed and evolved to enable people in different times and cultures to transcend the twists and turns of the deeply conditioned mind of duality.

Now, as we continue the work of adapting Buddhist practices within the context of our own western ways of being, we are becoming increasingly aware of the marked differences between our traditional Asian counterparts and ourselves.  We are learning that in some significant ways our western psyches function quite differently from those forged in an Asian culture. These differences are vast, particularly in terms of the unconscious, and so new understandings and approaches, perhaps even a whole new paradigm for dharma work, may be coming to light.

For the first couple of decades of my practice I believed that traditional Zen meditation, or zazen, would somehow heal all wounds: if you wanted to be a better person, meditate. Actually I still believe that’s true for most people, most of the time. But I’ve also discovered that the deeper you go, the more complicated it can become. We now know that people can get stuck in ways that traditional forms of practice don’t seem to address. And there are those who went through long training, and supposedly had significant experiences, but who seemed to be anything but well put together. This is especially true for those so-called teachers who have treated their students in ways that were profoundly unethical, doing great harm to them and their families and to the dharma as a whole.

At first, trying to get a handle on all of this was like trying to deal with an iceberg: you see something above the waves, while at the same time aware that most of it remains out of sight. Sometimes it’s more like catching a glimpse of a shark’s fin. So the underlying question that has been coming up for me for some time now is, how clearly do we understand what’s really going on? What are the driving forces that actually fuel so many of the issues that interfere with, distort or seriously disrupt our deepening dharma work, and is it possible to uproot them?

What has become most compelling for me throughout this exploration is the realization that Zen has the potential for mobilizing incredible depths of the psyche—a truth with implications for all aspects of practice. In other words, this global mobilization works to intensify and magnify the whole of our being, and to empower all aspects of our character, whatever they may be.

A real turning point in my understanding of all this came during one particular fall sesshin (Zen meditation intensive) in the early 90’s. At the time, I was in school to become a psychotherapist, and had begun “training therapy,” which was designed to help me get a taste of what a client might experience. Having practiced Zen for almost 20 years, and having completed my formal koan work, I was quite unaware of any significant issues in my own life. But then, during the sesshin itself, and in a totally unexpected way, things happened that triggered my unconscious, resulting in two sudden and powerful experiences that radically transformed my practice, and changed my life. The first experience was connected to repressed grief over my father’s death many years earlier, the second to a lifetime of repressed rage. These experiences, or “unlockings,” opened a window into a new way of working, and have led me to an entirely new understanding of the nature of practice itself.


The material on this website has grown out of those experiences, as well as the subsequent years of more formal psychodynamic study, and all that my students and clients have taught me. This article focuses primarily on the ways that intensified forms of practice—particularly non-dual, inquiry-based Zen practices—stir up not only unifying and compassionate energies, but also disruptive and punitive ones from the depths of the unconscious.

There is no question that intensified forms of practice may trigger a range of highly complex issues that in turn can limit and obstruct the process of going deeper. At the same time, it is vital to recognize that the same process that activates the obstructive forces can also bring forth the will and disciplined resilience that has the power to transform these impediments into something else entirely. It all depends on how clearly we understand these dynamics and how skillfully we can work with them.

What has become clear to me in more recent years is that the problematic states that arise in practice can be worked with in the midst of practice, and as practice—seeing them not so much as obstacles, but as doorways, blessings in a sense. These are issues that begin coming to the surface through practice, not ones that are created by it. If worked with skillfully, the whole deepening process helps give us access to those very dynamics that keep us not only from going deeper but also from realizing, and living out of, our freedom and compassion.

But to work in this way there must be an understanding of the true dynamics involved. Repression inevitably does a number on practice, and fuels much of the loneliness so many people experience, and contributes to many of the other personal and relationship difficulties that arise.

Without doubt, the forces of the punitive unconscious underlie much of the pain that we inflict on ourselves and others. If we don’t open up to what’s really happening, if we aren’t willing to work with the shadow side of the psyche, then the dominance of these constricting, and often destructive, forces is assured.

One thing that seems really important to emphasize is that practice doesn’t create these pain-producing dynamics, it merely stirs them up, and then once that happens they don’t just fade into the woodwork. What’s been referred to as “spiritual bypassing” would of course be a convenient way of dealing with all this. In my experience, however, the unconscious does not work that way: you can’t stir things up and then just wish it hadn’t happened.

Originally I believed as I was taught, that when the “self” dropped away, we’d be “washed clean,” and wouldn’t that be great? Now I see that although further practice, and even realization, can help with many of our personal struggles, traditional forms of practice by themselves simply don’t get to or resolve the core psychodynamic issues. What’s more, without care, some of the more problematic characterologically-based dynamics can become even more empowered.

The following, then, is meant as a brief exposition of what can happen as practice touches into the deeper recesses of the mind, and especially when it stirs up the more threatening and aggressive forces of the unconscious. What’s covered here is simply meant to provide an overview of some of the potential problems; it isn’t meant to imply that everyone has deep, unresponsive issues.  Some of us do, some of us don’t—but it’s the rare person who doesn’t have at least something to hide.

Paradoxically, it’s often the painful and unresolved intrapsychic conflicts in our lives that help bring us to the mat—the more toxic the issue, the stronger the push. Although some of these conflicts may find resolution through practice, deeper layers may simply be activated, functioning outside of our awareness, often in disruptive ways. What we’ll see throughout these writings is that this understanding makes possible a more focused and layered approach to practice, giving us the freedom to work directly with whatever arises, and at whatever depth feels appropriate.

In reading what follows it’s certainly possible that some people will feel the language is just too psychological, but this can’t be helped. Just as the English language fails quite totally, and often in misleading ways, when it tries to express a number of the most fundamental dharmic principles, Buddhism also lacks any kind of adequate terminology for addressing the true dynamics of the mobilized western psyche. So with these cautions, here goes…

For most people in the beginning, meditation helps to calm the mind, quieting mental and emotional turmoil and allowing a certain internal spaciousness to emerge. We re-learn to open up, be more present, and relax on many levels. However, as the more superficial levels of awareness begin to fall away, and we start to move beyond the camouflage of thoughts and concepts, previously hidden levels of the psyche naturally begin to reveal themselves. As this happens the practice itself becomes much more of a multi-dimensional process, one that helps strip away some of our more closely held assumptions about ourselves and the world. As we go deeper, much more than that may happen as well. It goes without saying that deep and sustained practice is often not easy.

At times this work can be psychically regressive, stirring up old layers of thought, memory, and feeling. We become much more present to the past, reliving earlier events such that we feel we are both here and there at the same time. More potent are the ways that intensified forms of meditation dissolve away layers of the repressive barrier so that conscious, pre-conscious, and unconscious realms all become mobilized, and so more focused and charged.  This is what I call “rattling the cage of the unconscious,” and it can be both powerful and disturbing. The deeper we go, the greater the mobilization, and because there is a global quality to the way this process occurs, it can touch into virtually every aspect of the psyche.

In other words, this process of mobilization arouses not only the more creative and compassionate forces within us, but it simultaneously activates a range of dynamics that may be related to developmental difficulties, the whole spectrum of characterological disruptions, trauma-based issues, as well as the many layers of previously repressed needs, feelings and impulses.

I’ve been referring to this dual unfolding as “co-mergence,” and see it as a unique psycho-spiritual process that unleashes and evokes forces that are often paradoxical and contradictory. As one part wants to open, another responds by shutting down; as one part wants to move ahead, another wants to hold us back; and sometimes, as one part moves towards kindness, another reaches back into anger.

So co-mergence refers in part to the ways in which intensive dharma practice simultaneously touches into deeper levels of selflessness, and at the same time activates layer upon layer of previously repressed material. When we see into this process clearly, we discover that it’s not the feelings that bind us, but rather the unconscious patternings—the defensive structures arising on conscious and unconscious levels—that we use to avoid them. The mobilized forces of repression, and the corresponding defenses, constitute some of the most powerful and disruptive resistances connected to deepening practice, and so can profoundly impact both the realization and actualization of this truth.

Though perhaps not commonly understood, openings and kensho experiences can actually speed up the mobilization of these repressed states, as can the misuse of meditation practices to repress, rather than see through, the ego-identity. Such repression only further empowers these punitive dynamics, which may have bio-chemical and psychodynamic precursors as well, and in some cases may call for special attention. To be sure, such complex and challenging situations do not apply to the vast majority of practitioners. Since the process of mobilization is the same, however, regardless of where one falls on the “psychoneurotic spectrum,” it may be helpful to have a sense of how this process may affect those suffering from more intense forms of intrapsychic conflict.

Our work in this area is to free ourselves from such conflicts and entanglements. As long as these core issues, which almost always have ties to the earliest years of our lives, remain unseen and unresolved, they are free to repeat themselves. As Carl Jung wrote, “That which we do not bring to consciousness appears in our lives as fate.” Or as Christ put it, “If you bring forth that which is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth that which is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

Some people claim that practice “speeds up your karma,” and from the perspective of the mobilized unconscious, that certainly could be true. The renowned quantum physicist Richard Feynman once said, “To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell.” Clearly, what’s being written about on this site is not new stuff, but hopefully it offers a measure of insight into some of the more entrenched difficulties practitioners come up against, as well as some understanding of the shameful behavior of certain so-called teachers who have done so much damage to this emerging western dharma.

In this article, what’s being referred to as “mobilizing the unconscious” is a complicated process on many levels. It’s not simply like the draining of a lake where more and more of the previously submerged material is revealed. Rather, this quieting of the mind, coupled with an increasing emotional vulnerability, can actually trigger a whole range of intrapsychic interactions. During retreats, as the upper layers of thought quiet down and our conventional repressive forces begin to lose their effectiveness, previously buried feelings and impulses start to get stirred up. Some, like caged animals, really want to be turned loose. This deep mobilization drives anxiety on conscious and unconscious levels, which can be both painful and threatening. Our natural response is to resist the whole thing.

As the psyche continues heating up, further layers of unconscious anxiety are mobilized; these become channeled through different pathways, each potentially creating its own set of difficulties. Although this channeled anxiety operates primarily outside our awareness, it nonetheless activates a range of defenses whose function is to help lower anxiety and to cope with hidden feelings and impulses. Intensified forms of practice continually add fuel to the fire, so deepening practice includes deepening cycles of activation and repression. As upper level defenses are stripped away, still deeper levels of anxiety become activated; this in turn calls for deeper, and sometimes more malignant and primitive defensive structures. The more heavily loaded the unconscious, the more disruptive the defenses will be. And the elusive paradox is that all this can be happening because the practice is working, because the psyche is becoming more open and fluid, and we are touching into deeper levels of the mind.

During periods of intensified meditation, these issues may in some cases arise as makyo—illusory experiences that appear to be real but are actually the byproduct of one’s sustained efforts. More superficial makyo usually manifest on a sensory level; people may see or hear things, for example, that are not actually there. The more difficult states to deal with, however, are those that can take over our awareness without us realizing it: entrenched and compelling mindstates arising directly from the mobilized unconscious.

This multi-dimensional unfolding in many ways parallels the intrapsychic mobilization described in Dr. Davanloo’s many teachings on the metapsychology of the unconscious. The intricacies of his Intensive Short-term Dynamic Psychotherapy, or ISTDP, have been spelled out in far greater detail through his writings and years of teaching than can be touched on here in this website. Coincidently, Davanloo’s original research began in the 60’s and 70’s, and so in many ways parallels the arising of Zen and other forms of Buddhist practice in the West. His work has opened up a whole new understanding of the rich fluidity and healing potential of the mobilized unconscious, and his research has formed the basis for a range of new psychotherapies that work deeply and transformatively with the western psyche.

Davanloo’s psychotherapy works in and through the direct experience of the moment. What we’re discovering, particularly in our Zentensives, is that the spirit and methodology of this approach can be woven seamlessly into the practice in ways that address the unique unconscious dynamics so many struggle with in the West—dynamics that are all too often overlooked or unrecognized, but that often slow up or completely derail the practice.

Although trauma, intimacy, and a range of developmental and sexualized issues can run deep, in my experience the most common dynamic that Western practitioners struggle with during extended practice is one that manifests itself as the sense of a deeply personal unworthiness. This sense of a lack of self-worth, of being unloved or unlovable, may rise up in compelling ways, often through various kinds of distancing and other types of self-sabotaging thoughts and actions.

While under its spell we may totally censor our feelings, surrender our will, and lose touch with our true aspiration. For some, this negativity may even hijack the practice itself: rather than being healing and affirming, it may come to incorporate aspects of neurotic over-control and painful self-denial. Instead of being a positive force in our lives, our practice then becomes just one more way of making ourselves feel alienated and inadequate.

Although some will certainly disagree, my experience has overwhelmingly convinced me that this dynamic is almost always connected, at least in part, with the repression of anger. More specifically, it has to do with the ways repressed anger gets turned against ourselves. This pattern satisfies the need for the hidden anger to go somewhere, and simultaneously takes care of the guilt and self-punishment that relates to holding this anger in the first place. It becomes a self-contained system, triggered by the mobilized unconscious, and it often mirrors similar dynamics found elsewhere in a person’s life. This pattern repeats a common theme that runs through much of western spirituality, and one that is unfortunately perpetuated through so many other elements of our culture.

In bringing up the issue of repressed anger we’re touching into a central and much misunderstood area, one that we won’t be able to go into in much depth here. Just skimming the surface, though, it seems that in general there is a fundamental lack of clarity about the difference between a feeling and a defense—and that this confusion holds especially true for our “experience” of anger.

Further, in reading about anger in Buddhist and other sources, most of the writing I’ve come across refers to anger as being some kind of tension, anxiety, and fear. From my perspective, these types of experiences are definitely not anger itself, but actually evidence of the resistance against anger. In other words, they result from our being threatened by the unconsciously mobilized feelings, and then holding back the aggressive impulse. Only rarely have I ever heard about anger’s essential power and clarity, much less the ways this energy can be utilized in practice. So rather than experiencing it directly and working with it, we wind up mistaking it for such things as weepiness, distancing, physical problems, compliance and defiance, confusion, depressive states, explosive discharge, and so forth.

All the psychodynamic training I’ve had rests on certain basic assumptions. The first one is that although feelings and thoughts are related, they are independent types of phenomena. We might more accurately say that thoughts go along with feelings, but the actual physical experience of the feelings themselves is primary. This work also grounds itself in the fundamental premise that feelings and impulses are primarily internal experiences, and exist independently from speech or action. Feelings have specific neurobiological pathways that allow for free-flowing kinds of experience that often come in waves of intensity.  When we know the truth of this in our bones, we are free to experience whatever feelings and impulses may arise without feeling compelled to act in any particular way.

What people often overlook is that feelings like anger don’t exist in a vacuum, but are linked to other feelings, thoughts, memories, and more: as one passes through, the next rises up, until the passage of the full spectrum is complete. For virtually everyone, of course, repressed anger has strong ties to the past; because it is linked to closeness and so many other contradictory feelings, it can be extremely difficult to access. At the same time there can be some value in simply knowing that it’s possible to experience anger as a pure strong force, filled with power and directness, with a special sense of immediacy and hyper-attentiveness connected to it. If we don’t censor these feelings, or turn them against ourselves, our whole being can become richly charged. If we can become more comfortable with this raw energy, and can learn to work with it skillfully, it can truly empower our lives.

Another aspect of the process of mobilization has to do with how it unfolds over time—an extremely complex area that can only be mentioned briefly here. Most people are aware that working with a psychotherapist over some years can lead to a transference neurosis within that relationship. In my experience, the same dynamics can arise within the context of a long-term dharma relationship between a student and his or her teacher. In fact, the kind of projections that lead to this neurosis can be even more charged within such a framework—though not necessarily in negative ways.

Interestingly, it seems we can also develop something similar to a transference neurosis with our practice itself, especially if we’re working on an initial koan like Mu. So not only does intensified practice evoke our more immediate defenses, over the years it also works on deeper characterological levels to bring to the surface deeply hidden neurotic and, in the rare individual, even sociopathic structures. Again, practice doesn’t create these things, but it can activate them.

Here we’re talking about the extreme end of the spectrum, but I bring it up because I feel quite certain this is what we’ve seen happen with a few individuals who were unfortunately put in teaching positions.  Along these same lines, there can be developmental issues such as unresolved Oedipal conflicts and the narcissism that goes along with them. These forces may become activated on unconscious levels and then acted out under some other guise. We’ve certainly seen instances where intense sexualized problems have arisen for those in teaching positions, where these issues have been repeatedly acted out, causing enormous pain to students, their families, and the sangha. Defenses such as the spiritual splitting mentioned earlier often seem to be a part of this destructive process. In some cases, we’ve seen prominent dharma teachers turn to drugs and alcohol in an apparent attempt to self-medicate the pain created by these disruptive forces. Needless to say, the underlying guilt such people harbor must be immense.

Not surprisingly, the patterns that form during this long-term process are much more difficult to see because they are so deeply entwined with our sense of self. And when we do probe into these entrenched dynamics what we discover is that it’s not so much that the self has these resistances, but that the sense of self is itself actually inseparable from the resistances, particularly those that operate on characterological levels.

What this means is that to truly uproot the implicit and constructed sense of self implies the need to resolve our deepest unconscious conflicts. Fundamentally we are already the truth we seek—but we are also, and at the same time, these obstructive dynamics that get in the way of realizing that fact. Practice has the potential of bringing all these swirling realms to the surface, giving us the opportunity to see into and work through the intrapsychic conflicts that can so heavily influence every aspect of our daily life and spiritual practice.


Clearly, this article has tried to cover quite a bit of ground, and many of the key points have only been touched upon superficially. What hopefully comes through, though, is that the principles of the mobilized unconscious apply to all of us, but are really only significantly relevant to those involved in intensified practices, or to those with a personal or professional interest in this kind of psycho-spiritual exploration.

By way of a quick summary: what we know is that dharma practices open our hearts in astonishing ways, and at the same time they touch into the most hidden recesses of the psyche. This inwardly focused work helps weaken the bonds of self and so dissolves our sense of separation, but that’s certainly not the whole story.

The whole of the psyche, including the punitive unconscious, also becomes mobilized, and so in spite of, or because of, our openness and vulnerability, unresolved issues of the past begin to rise up in ways that bring forth the twin dynamics of danger and opportunity. The danger lies in closing our eyes to the disruptive forces that sometimes arise and obstruct the practice. The opportunity lies in developing the skills and understanding that can help us use this openness to see into and transform the psychodynamic forces of the unconscious.

The term co-mergence refers to this dual unfolding—this remarkable fluidity that embraces both the healing and destructive forces within us, as well as the tension that exists between them. For many reasons, the ways these intrapsychic forces manifest themselves in western dharma practice is unique. My understanding is that we’re looking at something of a new paradigm, one that offers a range of opportunities for freeing ourselves from an entire spectrum of oppressive forces that create pain for ourselves and others.

For me this is an exciting time, one filled with a radical promise not only for the western dharma, but perhaps for western culture as well. If we can work directly with all the mobilized forces within the unconscious, and touch more deeply and directly into the underlying unity of all existence, genuine peace becomes possible.