Psychodynamic Zen: The Hidden Roots of Unethical Behavior

Psychodynamic Zen: The Hidden Roots of Unethical Behavior

Dharma practice can help us to become a better musician or magician, a finer therapist or thief. Deep practice surely helps to awaken great stores of compassion—but equally so, it may stir up painful, dark, and vengeful hauntings rooted in the past. Buddhist teachings unequivocally teach that our deepest nature is no different from wisdom and wonder, compassion and love. These fundamentals are always present, but because of reactively-conditioned patterns, particularly those arising out of the repression of feelings, we’re likely to find ourselves falling into pain-producing states, or imposing them on others.

Over the years what has become increasingly clear to me is that the deeper we go in practice, the more powerful becomes the influence of our unconscious—and that unconscious forces will manifest themselves in ways that either help or hinder an authentic, compassionate life. These unconscious dynamics are present, of course, whether we practice the dharma or not. Practice can’t give us anything we don’t already have: it doesn’t “make us” any more neurotic or creative or compassionate than we already are. It does, however, activate the entire psyche in ways that speed up and magnify the dynamic unconscious as a whole. So much depends on if, and how, we integrate these potent forces into the practice itself.

What’s also clear is that intensive practice fosters a unique and profound intrapsychic fluidity, a condition which, when worked with skillfully, allows for all kinds of remarkable shifts and openings to occur. However, when unresolved relational issues of our lives are stirred up, but left unaddressed, over time they become woven more and more deeply into the hidden neurotic structures that govern significant parts of our lives. When hidden feelings and unmet needs, desires, and expectations embedded in these relational issues become triggered, they have to go somewhere. We can turn these energies against ourselves in self-deprecating ways, or we can direct them outwardly so that they falsely color our relationships, which then become, to one extent or another, re-enactments of the past.

When practice fails to deal with the ways we direct these destructive forces inwardly, toward ourselves, this can reinforce self-isolating, sabotaging, and depressive states. Many people find their way through these entanglements, but for others this systemic failing has long-term consequences. We find many of these same underlying dynamics when we look into the lives of dharma teachers with a pattern of unethical behavior. The difference is that such people, through a misuse of the practice, tend to split off the hurtful, often sexualized forces and then direct them towards others. In the first instance, guilt has the upper hand and so we suffer; in the second scenario, the aggressive and sexualized side dominates, causing suffering to others.

The Western psyche unquestionably contains unique features, and perhaps one of the greatest weaknesses of the Western dharma is a failure to understand how intensified forms of practice mobilizes the full range of our emotional systems. In particular, it is vital that we grasp the ways that the punitive unconscious can come to flourish through repression.

There are those who insist that practice is a complete path—that psychologizing the dharma is only a way of watering it down, a kind of self-indulgent diversion. These people hold that if someone’s awakening is deep enough, all these more emotionally-based phenomena would evaporate. This is a tempting, perhaps even noble view— but we might also ask, how deep can an awakening be as long as there are unresolved issues in the unconscious?

An idealized view of practice as complete in itself simply doesn’t stand up to the disturbing reality revealed by the unethical behaviors of dharma teachers. This is especially obvious in those cases where decades of practice have only led to on-going dysfunctional behavior. Although most teachers probably do not carry deep intrapsychic scars, some clearly do—so care is always called for. In terms of our own on-going practice, the question becomes how willing are we to open to the depths of our own punitive unconscious, and how much do we want to hide?

If we wish to use our time on the mat well, there can be significant value in understanding how these hidden dynamics unfold cyclically and relationally over time. We all know that the harder we push down on something, the more intensely it will want to spring back. As long as we resort to repressive practices, especially in regard to unresolved aggressive and sexual feelings, there will be a price to pay.

The good news is that we now have access to Western psychotherapies that deal experientially with the unconscious, and that can be seamlessly incorporated into the practice itself. When we do this skillfully we may find, as the 12th Century Chinese Master Ta Hui said, that one “can grasp the weapons of the Demon King and use them in an opposite way.” Ta Hui goes on to say that one “can then turn these evil companions into angels protecting the Dharma. This is not done in an artificial or compulsory way. This is the nature of the Dharma itself.”

In the words of Andrew Harvey, “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.’


Zentensive retreats focus on the ways the psyche becomes activated through deep, sustained practice. These are training opportunities that deal specifically with the unconscious, and are accredited for all mental health professionals. Zentensives deal both with the theoretical and experiential dimensions of our inner work as it unfolds in the midst of practice.

When we buy into the artificial distinctions of “psychotherapy” and “spirituality,” we easily move into all kinds of thoughts and judgements, and in that process wind up tripping over our own experiences. On the other hand, when we trust the healing energies of our intuitive unconscious, and learn to work skillfully within the context of direct experience, practice can take on an entirely different quality. No one is saying this is easy—how could it be? But for those wishing to really touch into some of these inner realms, they offer much promise.