Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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To a student with years of experience in spiritual discipline, the suggestion that psychotherapy might be a useful adjunct can seem awful, backward, and possibly traitorous. Secret and not-so-secret voices may bridle: “What? The helper helped?” or “No one stands on my feet for me!” or simply “Those quacks!” And yet, the same experience that has served so well in pointing to the wonder of life can also be used to veil and bury difficulties that will hamper deeper understanding if they are not brought to light. It is a delicate and, in some instances, frightening situation — one in which each must make up his or her own mind. It is also an area in which, if rules applied, a rule of thumb might be this: don’t let determination stand as a substitute for true consideration of the possibilities; neither let consideration of the possibilities obscure true determination.
Certainly psychology and religion have engaged in a lot of bickering, polite and otherwise, in the past. Religion may see in psychology’s ministrations an attempt to limit, control and make comprehensible that which is limitless, ineffable, and nameless. Psychology, for its part, may think that its job is to ease the mind in day-to-day and long-term difficulties. Very often those difficulties are based in fantasy — intense, if inaccurate, recollection; unrealistic projection; feelings channeled away from their true course into safer, more acceptable forms; and so on. Fear, loneliness, pride, ambition, laziness and a host of other qualities can sometimes be found lurking fat-happy behind virtue and high purpose.
My own feeling is that religion is within its rights to suspect psychology: There are enough greedy, smug, and sometimes downright crazy shrinks running around out there to warrant a question or two. But I also think psychology is within sane bounds to suspect religion: charlatans have proved themselves every bit as pervasive and resilient in the spiritual fold as elsewhere. Further, a lot of seriously disturbed people turn up on religion’s doorstep — people who would be better served seeking help elsewhere — and overzealous acolytes have been egotistical enough to assert that this practice will cure everything from acne to schizophrenia.
There are obviously some good points on both sides. Yet I wonder sometimes if an important point isn’t lost — that there are honest, hard-working, compassionate, and clear-headed people in both areas of endeavor, people who may be helpful to each other. In this wondering, I would not like to suggest that psychology and religion fall on each other’s necks in some great, ecumenical, we-are-one reconciliation. Far from it. Ecumenism and oneness, in my experience, more often express social posturing and human hopefulness than they do reality. But if the shoe fits, if some other usefulness can be drawn from the one in aid of the other, well, that’s generous and friendly, isn’t it?
My own experience of psychotherapy, like the bulk of my experience with Zen practice, has been more personal than intellectual. Certainly there were books to read and lectures to go to, but none of it held much of a candle to experience itself. After sixteen years of dogging the spiritual-life trail and more than seven of formal psychological probings, I feel that I can say something for each — recommend one and the other, both and neither. But I can only speak from experience, not from great and ranging intellectual knowledge.
Four years after beginning Zen practice, at thirty-eight, I started going to see Jack, a bulky ex-Jesuit in his fifties — a man with steady eyes, a wife, three children, a dog, and two cats. His office, in his apartment, was a congenial mess, the bookshelves higgledy-piggledy with new and old and the desk strewn with what appeared to be papers about evenly divided between important and unimportant. Not a neat, cool, or distant setting. There was dust. It felt both human and uncontrived. It felt good. And I knew I was going to like Jack when he told me the story of a (nameless) woman who had come to him with an eye to further treatment. For each of the first three sessions, she grilled him. The highlight came in the third meeting when she asked him in an accusing tone, “And do you have malpractice insurance?” At the end of that meeting, she asked, “What do you think? Should we continue to meet?” “No,” Jack replied. “Why not?” the woman wanted to know. “Because I don’t like you.”
I liked Jack, but I started to see him in a very nervous frame of mind. What was I doing? Would it help? How long would it take? The thread of an excuse I used was that this was going to improve my practice. As it turned out, I was right, but not in exactly the way I envisioned.
I saw Jack more or less once a week for seven and a half years. During most of that time I continued to do zazen (a word best translated as “seated meditation”) between twenty-five and forty hours (sometimes more) a week at the center I attended. In the zendo, I would hear encouragements. Perhaps a quote from Dogen, one of the great Zen teachers: “Do not be too intimate with yourself; that causes self-resentment.” Thinking I knew what that meant, I proceeded to feel guilty about seeing Jack. Or, during a retreat, there might be an old teacher who’d growl incessantly, “Die on your (meditation) cushion! How do you expect to get anywhere if you don’t die on your cushion? Die every moment! Burn like a bright, hot fire! None of you knows yet that you’re going to die. You are! Do it now! Die on your cushion!”
A teacher urging death offers the prayer that I may become responsible for my life. Really enjoy it. Not just praise and blame the past; not just project some fantasy paradise in the future; not just manipulate and control the present; but honest-to-God enjoy myself.
It didn’t work that way with Jack. With him, I was hip-deep — hell, sometimes over my head — into praise and blame, acceptance and rejection, imagined past, present, and future. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t experienced on the cushion in one way or another, but this was face-to-face with another human being. On the cushion there was physical and mental pain (not really different when you study it), but it was between me and the blank wall I faced in silence. Forgetting might not be easy, but it was possible. In the presence of another, dodging was not so simple. One voice counselled, “Run!” but another said, “Do it, asshole! I’m sick of the bullshit!” I think I did my share of following both pieces of advice. It was not a pleasant business. It was down-to-earth and naked-making. Some Saturdays when I returned from his office, I would lie on the couch the entire rest of the day, wrung out with discovery and pain. While I dug and rooted and winced, Jack nudged. He was warm where I needed warm and clear where I needed clear. I came to trust and love him as a patient is supposed, with luck, to love and trust his shrink. But it was painful. Sometimes I thought I might die of it, literally. But I didn’t, as he gently and repeatedly pointed out.
We almost never spoke of religion. There was too much to be resurrected, inspected, and considered anew. But I never felt that my meetings with Jack took anything away from my interest in spiritual — or any other — matters. If anything, I felt as if the two, Zen practice and psychology, were symbiotic — nurturing each other in some very practical ways. A flash of bone-clear imagery during zazen might be supplemented or expanded upon while talking with Jack. Or, something I’d talked about with Jack might show itself in some new way during zazen.
And then, of course, there were the questions that were appropriate and integral to both fields: what about aloneness and love and freedom and fear and longing and fantasy and pride and ambition and laziness and desire? What about them really, in my heart of hearts, before anyone made up such a thing as spiritual discipline? Certainly that discipline could counsel “breaking through” the barriers of emotional and intellectual ties, but without some honest and careful assessment of what those ties were, how the hell could anyone hope to break through? How do I cope constructively with feelings — never mind if they’re accurate or not — that I was orphaned by both parents, the one an alcoholic, the other a college professor with explanations? Does that hurt? You bet. What are the implications in present activities? Plenty.
When I first went to Jack, as when I first went to the Zen center, I had a magic-bullet mentality.
“What about LSD?” I asked. “I read some good stuff about treatment using it.”
Or maybe I’d mention narcosynthesis or some other quick-fix treatment that would get it all out at once and I’d be “cured.” Or, if not cured exactly, at least have all the facts uncovered. Get it out and get it over. The same kind of hurry-up attitude rode with me when I first got to the zendo: “Why don’t they just cut the crap and tell me?” I’d wonder angrily after one of my questions brought what I thought was an especially abstruse reply. But neither Jack nor Zen practice worked that way and it would be some years before I read the line, “In principle, understanding is instantaneous; in practice, it’s one step at a time.”
Personally and professionally, Jack disliked drugs. He’s seen too much of the lifelessness they produced. He couched most of his gentle “no”s in those terms. But I wondered sometimes if what he was really worried about was his modest fee.
Of course that wasn’t the case. I needed strength, strength to see both the good and the bad. Strength and patience. That strength took practice — mostly just the practice (with and without his nudgings) of paying attention over and over and over again to the same problems in their many and ingenious disguises. The more strength, the less fear; the less fear, the more love; the more love, the easier to let go.
But letting go, while easy to say, was not easy to do. Bequeathed an agile intellect and a superego the size of the Ritz, I kicked and screamed and dug in my heels — sometimes in the smoothest and most reasonable-sounding of terms. “Of course I’m angry,” I might say, meanwhile eighty-sixing the honest feeling. Naturally, it didn’t work. The anger or fear or whatever it was would simply reassert itself in another form — dreams full of storm troopers, cops, earthquakes, bombs, whatever. When I caught myself fooling myself I’d feel as if I’d jumped into a cesspool that had been ripening for a hundred years. It stank. I stank. But once in, there’s no going back. Just like spiritual life: if you stink, you stink.
Fantasies crashed around me only to be hastily rebuilt in newer, shinier shapes. Opinions and judgements once held close were shown again and again to be narrow, inconsequential, and incapable of offering any real support. In flashes quickly doused, I saw how dearly I loved and identified myself with my worries. I hugged them. I relied on them. I made gods of them. And in so doing, I made a god of me, allowing the primal feeling to percolate upward and be heard: “I AM IMPORTANT!” Only to realize that I based my importance on things that had no duration or substance. A subtle and devious business.
Seven and a half years. Toward the end Jack and I were chatting more than probing. We were like a couple of mechanics who had done what they could for the vehicle on hand and now it was time to see if it could go the course on its own. In leaving the weekly sessions, I wondered more than once if there was material we had missed, if I had ducked out on some vital area. But I felt it was time. And I can report that the vehicle putters along, happier than once, more responsible than once, more at ease with the accumulated bumps and scrapes and somewhat frayed wiring. It may not be a pretty sight, but it moves. Sometimes it makes me laugh.
And I continue with Zen practice. If there’s a beanstalk growing through the roof of my house, I guess the best I can do is climb it. So I continue. Psychotherapy might have taken me away from practice but it didn’t. Maybe if I’d simply continued with my practice and skipped the therapy, the problems would have eased or moved to Bermuda. I doubt it, but I’ll never know. A friend of mine, a monk in another Buddhist sect, was once asked by a woman who was in wide-eyed awe of his black robes and sing-songy English, “Do the problems disappear after enlightenment?” “Nope,” my friend replied casually. “Same problems.”
Enlightenment. Understanding. “In principle, understanding is instantaneous; in practice, it’s one step at a time.” Who knows what the next step will be? I sure don’t.