Psychodynamic Zen™, an Introduction – Lawson Sachter and Sunya Kjolhede

Posted on Mar 3, 2011

Psychodynamic: The interplay of conscious and unconscious mental or emotional processes, especially as they influence personality, behavior, and attitudes.
We’ve created this section of our blogsite as a way to share some of the more psychodynamically oriented work that’s being integrated into the training at Windhorse, and to invite ongoing discussion. In the future we hope this site will also attract the work of others who share similar concerns, and that it can serve as a link to related resources.  This particular section grows out of the recognition that unconscious forces can play a hidden, but significant, role in Dharma practice; and that these forces often function in ways unique to the Western psyche.  Certainly the unconscious can complement the creative and compassionate sides of practice, but it can also manifest itself through all kinds of self-afflictive mindstates.

We don’t read much about such problems in historical Asian accounts, and our experience has been that traditional forms of practice often don’t make much headway against them. Our sense is that in some ways these issues are a relatively new phenomenon, a product of our particular time and conditioning.  As such, it seems inevitable that new approaches will evolve to address these challenges, as has always happened when the Dharma takes root in a new culture.
Explorations into the unconscious side of practice have taken us in many directions. One area we’ve been delving into involves the profound differences between the Asian monastic system that has so strongly influenced the spirit of Zen training brought here from Japan, and our own contemporary Western culture and psyches. A fascinating collection of writings exists documenting the markedly different ways in which Asians and Americans experience the world. Many of these works characterize Asia as an honor-bound, ‘shame-based’ society, which contrasts strongly with our own highly individualistic, ‘guilt-based’ Judeo-Christian culture.
The authors of these studies also delineate remarkable differences in the structures of our languages, our family systems, the ways we experience emotions/feelings, our linear versus holistic worldviews, and, of particular note, in the ways we see ourselves in the world and experience our sense of self.  All these dimensions have major implications for how we understand and experience Buddhist practice on both conscious and unconscious levels.
We’ve also become more aware of the different ways in which various Dharma practices engage mind and heart, and how these practices affect aspiration, will, and intention. Mindfulness, clear awareness, and concentration practices, visualization, questioning (koan-based) practices, and various devotional and loving-kindness practices are also profoundly different, and each emphasizes, and brings forth, different qualities.  Some methods cultivate the ‘observing’ or ‘witnessing’ mind, while others work to help one ‘lose’ oneself.  Some are more conducive to calming the body-mind, reducing stress, or cultivating a ‘heart’ connection with the world; while others focus more on deepening one’s absorption (samadhi) and experiencing one’s essential nature.  The practice an individual chooses to work with obviously depends on his or her affinity and aspiration, and can have roots to the unconscious as well.
In spite of the differences among various methods, some of the fundamental elements of the deepening process remain the same.  Often it looks like what happens when you drain a lake — gradually more and more of what lies beneath the surface reveals itself and we gain clarifying, sometimes painful, insights into our lives.  At other times the process is less passive, more dynamic – the depths become activated in singularly disquieting ways. We may wind up obsessing over something, or struggling with some relentless feeling, or lost in a fog of confusion.   Or we may get mired in a sense of helplessness and hopelessness, a complete collapse of the will.  We may suddenly become convinced that we are unworthy, utterly unlovable, and then find ourselves engulfed in a sea of negativity that completely undermines the practice. Such states can be particularly strong during retreats and other intensified forms of practice, and may well be rooted in old layers of our unconscious processes.
It is no easy matter to work skillfully with these states — in part because no one wants to deal with painful things; but also because if we are willing to go beyond this first disruptive layer, we may find ourselves tapping into a reservoir of resentment and anger.  This is where it gets tricky. If we believe, as we’re often taught, that such ‘negative emotions’ are merely expressions of ego, then of course it will seem that the best thing to do is avoid them altogether.  In so doing, however, we can pay a high price – the price of our ability to be at home in our depths, authentic with ourselves and others.
At Windhorse our experience has been that if someone is willing to work with and through whatever they meet, real change is possible.  This requires, however, cultivating a willingness to break though our defenses and face intense feelings, including anger, grief and guilt.  It’s not pleasant work, and it means avoiding the opposing dangers of repression and acting out. Worked with skillfully though, this process gives people a way to see though and transform obstructive states.  Then, rather than becoming frustrating dead-ends, these obstructions themselves become doorways to greater focus, understanding and compassion.
Our work in this area has evolved over the past 20 years, and grows out of a form of psychotherapy developed by Dr. Habib Davanloo.  He first developed this type of work in the 1960’s and 70’s, and it has been continually refined over the years.  In its basic form it’s known as Intensive Short-term Dynamic Therapy, or ISTDP, and it deals most directly with the dynamics of repression and our unconscious processes.  Because of its emphasis on opening to deeper and deeper layers, and its affirmation of our essential freedom, many practitioners have found that it complements their Dharma work, often resolving issues that had been affecting practice in unseen ways.
As people begin to explore the material presented here, they may feel that it runs counter, at least on the surface, to aspects of traditional Dharma teachings. Our experience, however, is that while teachings that advise people to steer clear of ‘negative’ or ‘afflictive’ emotional states may be effective in Asian societies, such avoidance tends to reinforce Westerners’ repressive tendencies, and can lead to more problems.  It’s understandable that elements of this work have been viewed as controversial, and regrettable that at times the work has been misrepresented and misunderstood. We hope this forum will help to shed light on a number of these issues, and that through this process we can come to a more complete understanding of some of the challenges facing Dharma practitioners in the West.