Randall Eiger LCSW
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Zen and Therapy

A monk said to Master Bodhidharma, "Master, I can't put my mind at rest. Please help me."

Bodhidharma said, "Place your mind before me and I'll put it at rest."

The monk said, "When I look for my mind, I cannot find it."

Bodhidharma said, "I've put it at rest for you."


Although Zen and therapy are not the same, both use the mind's capacity to reflect upon itself to clear away barriers to growth. In Zen meditation, people note the coming and going of their thoughts. In therapy, people speak their thoughts out loud in the presence of a sympathetic listener. In both practices, the act of noting thoughts, without judging them, subtly begins a process of change.

Self-observation initiates change because, strange as it seems, we don't know ourselves. Even though we assume we know what we think, feel and believe, when we actually start to observe our minds, we are shocked to make the acquaintance of a stranger, someone unlike the person we thought we were.

I recently had a patient describe what she felt was a betrayal by one of her co-workers. "I guess that's par for the course," she said offhandedly. "You can't really trust people." As soon as she heard what she was saying, she wrinkled her brow. Until that moment, she hadn't realized that she had been governing her life according to a principle of generalized suspicion. "You can't trust some people," I suggested, and she nodded.

The mind's capacity to generalize is one of its most useful, and troublesome, characteristics. Generalization saves effort. Thanks to generalization, we don't have to figure out what color the light should be each time we cross a busy street. And we know that sugar will taste just as bad on our spaghetti now as it did when we tried it at age six.

On the other hand, there is a price to be paid for generalization: it can keep us from the joy that comes with the freshness of experience. If we are looking at a rose, generalization can keep us from experiencing this rose, in all its glory, which is different from all other roses that have ever appeared on earth. If we are stuck in generalization, all we see is "a rose" and we miss the wonder of what's right before our eyes.

Both Zen and therapy loosen the grip of generalization on the mind and, if seriously pursued, set free the spiritual, aesthetic and moral imagination. The difference is one of intention. In psychotherapy, the process of self-observation is used to free the individual from habitual, self-defeating patterns of thought and behavior. It is a future-oriented process whose goal is a richer, more creative life.

In Zen, the process of self-observation is employed in the service of spiritual insight. Its goal is not future transformation but instantaneous realization. Unlike therapy, Zen is not so much a process of self-cultivation as it is the explosion of any notion of a separate self which stands apart from the here and now.

I have practiced both Zen and therapeutic counseling for a number of years. Both are journeys of exploration. Both originate in curiosity about life and the nature of the self. I am convinced that this curiosity, present in all of us, is where we must start in our quest for richer, more creative lives.