Zen and Psychotherapy: the same or different?

Some more thoughts on the subject of Zen and Therapy from Andy Tanzan Scott and Sarah Kokai Thwaites.

Andy Tanzan Scott

“Zen and psychotherapy: the same or different or both?”
For me, they are different. I see Zen as a branch of Buddhism and thus as a religion. It is concerned with meaning – of life, the universe and everything. It is based on faith – not in the sense of belief in a creed, but in a deep trust and confidence. Trust in the method of the practice and in the original teachings, not as something to swallow without question but as something to deeply engage in and work with.

By contrast I see psychotherapy as a healing art, a useful – and sometimes essential – method for dealing with the difficulties in life and in our relationships and conflicts with ourselves and others.
I think we do Zen and psychotherapy a disservice by conflating them and seeing them as the same. For sure, Zen practice can reveal some of our underlying issues and conflicts, and illuminate perhaps the need for us to seek therapeutic help. But Zen practice is not the cure for these issues and conflicts. As Barry Magid points out in his book, ‘Nothing Is Hidden’:

(It was thought) “the sitting cushion not the analyst’s couch was where one would find true liberation … yet the fruits of those breakthroughs … proved far more elusive than advertised…. It turned out that even the most transcendent experiences faded…. Not only did realization fail to heal the deep divisions in our character, for many people, in particular for many teachers, practice opened up bigger and bigger splits between an idealized compassionate self and a shadow self….”

And the difference between practice and psychotherapy is perhaps underlined by the number of Buddhist teachers, of all traditions, who have misbehaved; being a teacher doesn’t mean you have no personality flaws or issues to deal with. Buddhist practice, by itself, doesn’t seem to be enough. Crucially it seems there is a difference between realization and liberation, and integrating this realization with deeply ingrained character traits.

For me it feels healthier to respect both Zen and psychotherapy for what they are and to maintain the differences.

Sarah Kokai Thwaites

For those of you with better things to do I can jump to my very unexciting conclusion: “Maybe, it depends”. Here is my inexpert thinking behind that inconclusive conclusion. I should also explain that, although I have plenty of experience, both personal and through work, of people in mental and emotional distress, I am not a therapist and can only give very much a lay, outsider’s perspective.
From that outsider’s perspective, it seems clear that the word therapy covers a wide range of methodologies which themselves will each be experienced differently depending on the qualities and approach of the therapist and the person attending therapy. Similarly Zen practice also spans a wide range. Although we may all look like we are doing the same thing, sitting on our identical zabutons and zafus, I’m sure that what goes on in our heads and bodies as we sit differ widely. We all come to practice with different life experiences and different ways of responding to those. Each person’s practice also varies over time and even from sit to sit.

I can only really reflect on my practice. There have certainly been times when the distinction between my practice and therapy has been a very fine one. Sometimes it has felt that sitting has provided the space for a strange form of solo therapy to take place, without it feeling like I was directing it: more that my role was to provide the space, time and openness for that to happen. My sitting is admittedly a bit odd (maybe everyone’s is odd in their own way?) but I’ve had quite a few times where my sitting “goes wherever it needs to go”. It’s been oddly therapeutic and I’ve later found out that there is a psychological or therapeutic approach which matches what spontaneously happened on the cushion. The strangest of these were some sits when my eyes moved around in fast but quite precise ways while some old memories passed through my head and body. Afterwards those memories had somehow shifted and were no longer experienced in quite the same way. I knew vaguely of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) but until I researched after those sits I had no idea how it was done and yet my eye pattern very closely matched that which EMDR therapists encourage. Inner child work, voice dialogue, journaling and various somatic practices have also unintentionally been temporary but very helpful therapeutic arisings from my sitting time.
I can’t explain any of this. But I can say that for me my practice has been my own form of therapy. I did have a short course of counselling. At the time I was dealing with some very difficult old issues and although I thought that practice was proving helpful in allowing these to unravel, I was aware of the potential to fool myself over this. Each session, the areas the counsellor had intended to explore with me turned out to be areas that sitting had got to first in between sessions. We mutually concluded that for me, at that time, more counselling sessions had little to add to my Zen practice, until or unless a stuckness arose.

A key element of therapy that can be missing from Zen practice is the healing role of others. We accumulate our mental and emotional scars in relationship with others, although we can certainly deepen and reinforce these by ourselves. I think that at least part of the healing from them occurs in relation to others. For someone with a solo Zen practice at home only and no sangha around them this, I think, may be tricky and might be another factor in influencing whether therapy is required, as obviously is the nature of the issues and turmoil being faced. Self-therapy certainly has its limitations and pitfalls. We may need another to supportively prod areas we might hesitate to tread, to help us to see our patterns and shadows and to help us create a safe environment within which to explore all of this. For many people a therapist will be the best and possible only available person with the expertise, time and impartiality to fulfil this role. (I should here both thank and apologise to Roshi, Andy and John who heard far too much from me in interview during that period in my practice!)

The “effectiveness” of my sitting as “self-therapy” at that time to address my inner turmoils has various factors. I’m stubborn and relentless, I was at a time and place in my life when there was the space and need, I sat a lot including an awful lot of retreats, I had people around me to help me heal and I was lucky. I certainly don’t think that practice should or could always fill that role and I don’t think it is a negative reflection on anyone’s life or practice if formal therapy is required. I’d think of it instead as a brave step, taking responsibility for facing inner turmoil and inviting the help of another to be part of the process of uncovering, healing and embodiment. I don’t rule out counselling or therapy in the future if a need and an ability to afford it again coincide. I have almost a compulsion in practice to keep digging deeper into my patterns and shadows and I’d actually be curious to explore what other modalities of therapy could add to this.

So sometimes, maybe rarely, Zen can work like therapy. At other times they can be very different. More often I think the two can be complementary with the proportion and timing being hugely individual.