Although they have different parents they may look alike, act alike and even have the same goals, but an intimate relationship between them has never quite been accepted.
Zen people say that combining therapy with Zen will water it down, turn it into something different, inauthentic or shallow.
Therapy people say that to introduce spiritual practice such as mediation or the concept of enlightenment into therapy will make it unprofessional, subjective and woo woo.
I say boo-who, and that both have very important, even essential, elements to offer each other. To combine the best of both makes a very strong practice.
The vocabulary of therapy has given us terms like ego, projection, transference, triggers, emotional patterns, family dynamics, behavioral problems, etc. as well as concepts like having a “story”.
Zen, in turn, has given us terms like no-self, oneness, emptiness, being the emotion, letting go of the self, dropping the story, etc.
We now have the vocabulary to identify and work on profound personal issues and problems with more subtlety and efficacy than ever before, should we be willing to embrace this cultural-spiritual revolution.
For example, when a Zen student is struggling with painful emotional issues and does not understand why, if we tell them to just cut off the thoughts and be one with the pain… they may be able to cut off or suppress the thoughts, but not necessarily resolve the core issues creating the thoughts.
There is a great scene in the movie “The Piano” where the natives who have never seen an onstage play are watching the shadows lit behind a screen. They assume it is really happening so they attack the screen to save the damsel in distress. We are like this when we are projecting our old issues onto this screen we call reality. We attack our reality thinking it is real, but it is empty. If we see this we can enjoy the play rather than attack the screen. If we can see how we are projecting our childhood issues onto our current situation we can see through it and experience the emptiness.
In therapy we may get a lot of support to learn and tell our story and see how we project it into our current situations. However, if we are not given the space and support to sit quietly with the emotions that are connected with this story we cannot process and let of these stuck emotions on the deepest level.
We hold the energy of our childhood pain and trauma deep in our cells. If we learned to flinch or tighten when we were scared or abused and then we develop that way we grow up with this tightness as part of our being. It takes tremendous amount of sitting still and quietly for this tightness to loosen up. Once we loosen up all that energy begins to release, and we relive the pain. We practice sitting still with the pain and learning to be intimate with it and comfortable enough to feel it without running away.
Therapy can help us identify this pain and the patterns we have created around it, but it cannot help us be still enough to let it release and let it go, for good.
If a Zen teacher cannot help a student identify emotional patterns that block oneness the student may become enlightened but unhappy or cause more suffering. If a therapist cannot help a client let go of their emotional pain on the deepest level, the client may become self-aware but still unhappy.
Of course Zen teachers and therapists will never adopt the full practice of each other’s roles and expertise. But they can learn, without feeling threatened, enough from each other to help end suffering for their students and clients.
It’s important to be able to tell our story in order to make sense of our issues and patterns. Once we know our story then we can practice letting it go as we become intimate with our emotions. And learning to identify stuck emotional patterns as well as learning not to project will get us to a place of accepting what we need to do to accomplish this path much faster.
These are a few of so many examples of how Zen and therapy can work together to create an incredibly strong foundation for self-awareness and awakening to no-self awareness.