Zen and Psychotherapy

Partners in Liberation

Self and No-Self

What is the self? Can we embody our no-self self?

What is self? What is no-self? Psychotherapy grows the self's capacities; Zen helps us see through self-delusion of separateness. How do YOU see it??

Here's some grist for the mill: Our experience cannot be captured by a theoretical formulation; by its nature it eludes final, definitive elaboration. Like a good response to a koan, a truly alive moment is beyond conceptual description. It must be embodied, lived. Discursive language cannot fundamentally convey it, though some language, like poetry, comes close. Psychotherapy and Zen each involve the activities of letting go and coming forth, though the two disciplines have tended traditionally to privilege one aspect more than the other, containing different "proportions" of each activity. The image of a double helix captures something of their dynamic relationship. Each strand is discrete, yet each intersects the other, and, in so doing, changes the other and is itself changed. Working in concert, the whole evolves in the direction of deeper aliveness, truth, integrated self-knowledge, and compassion for others.
Psychotherapy affords the opportunity to develop experiential knowledge of self and other in (and out of) intimate relationship, and deepened, integrated awareness of personal and interpersonal activity in the realm of the unconscious emotional field. The therapeutic relationship and the heart-mind of the therapist provides the experiential ground in which the patient brings himself to life as a separate and interdependent person. Zen practice offers the opportunity to see into the essential identity of the self-structure, of the experiencer, himself.

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Although integration is desirable, my sense is that we can't really "get it together"; it is together. Jack Engler (1986) describes the apparent conflict inherent in the fact that what in psychotherapy is a developmental achievement -differentiating a separate self (or, we might say, a mind) - is in Buddhism the very source of suffering. As Yasutani Roshi (1973), one of the first Zen teachers to come and teach in America said: "The core delusion is that I am here and you are there." But this, despite being axiomatic in most contemplative traditions, is not quite accurate. I don't think it is the separate self (or the autonomous mind), illusory as it is, that is the problem. To the contrary, a differentiated self is crucial. Rather, what generates suffering is the habitual, automatic, and tenacious attachment to constricting versions of such a self and its relations to others, that informs and shapes and drives our experience and behavior.
Engler (1986) concludes with the notion that "one must have a self before one loses it," a notion that has gained much popular currency. That is to say, from an expanded developmental perspective, both are achievements, but having a self precedes letting go of the self. I suggest, however, that the two are neither mutually exclusive nor are they simply sequentially related. Rather, we must both have (create) and not have (lose, destroy, see into) a self. Further, we must struggle with, ultimately accept, and hopefully come to enjoy their differentiation, their interpenetration, their necessary though incomplete integration, and their falling away in each moment of fresh, lived experience.

Rather than having to construct a self before we can discover no-self, as Engler suggests, I think it takes a (distinctive, personal) self to fully embody our essential (no-self) nature. And as one unravels, experiences, and realizes the empty, multi-centered nature of all beings and of consciousness itself, the (particular, personal) self and its unique qualities are potentiated, brought to life and fruition. This process seems closer to the experience of contemporary psychoanalysis, to the edge of current meditative practice, and to life itself.


Dr. Joseph Bobrow, Roshi, is a Zen master and psychoanalyst who integrates Buddhism and psychotherapy in his writing and in his trauma work with veterans and their families.


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