The Zen of Loneliness

In the blue sky a winter goose cries.
The mountains are bare; nothing but falling leaves.
Twilight: returning along the lonely village path
Alone, carrying an empty bowl.

Foolish and stubborn – what day can I rest?
Lonely and poor, this life.
Twilight: I return from the village
Again carrying an empty bowl.

~ Ryokan

After the holidays, I feel compelled to acknowledge the shadow of our cultural ideal of family togetherness and beloved intimates, for like most ideals, our lived experience often falls short. As a teacher and therapist, on the darkest night of winter, it is the curious state of loneliness that draws my attention – the state not easily admitted to, and the one that we can experience regardless of whether we are together with others or not. To know one’s own loneliness with the intimacy of Ryokan is to fully embrace the inherent problem of the separate self and the world of duality, to take responsibility for all of its humanness and give up attempts to escape, medicate, meditate away or cajole lonely from one’s experience. Instead, when we take up the Zen practice of non-opposition, lonely gives us a moment to deeply see into its causes and conditions. Becoming this empty bowl, the receptive vessel, is not for the faint of heart, but for those who wish to open to the wide pallet of human experience. Right in the midst of this lonely, this uncomfortable absence of a particular other, a particular way of being known, we render the heart capable of meeting itself. Right here, we meet Ryokan eye to eye, on his road home.

I am not sure there should be only one word for lonely or what this condition truly is though you can find many a definition along the lines of a sense of absence, absence of connection or love, of another, but being with another in a particular way. That being said, I think each of us should put aside looking for a concept that fits and instead look into our own visceral experience right in the midst of life. It is an enormous relief for many to just claim it. So many of those I work with in therapy suffer deeply from their loneliness. They feel isolated, all alone, not understood, not cared or loved in a sincere way, not trusting anything good will come along, and much of the suffering comes from trying to hide from this state. Despite my presence across from them in the moment, with compassion, openness and availability, I am no instant cure when the state of lonely is fixed identity, but can only bear witness and hold it with them. I notice when appreciated and held well, lonely moves on in its own due time. Something seems to need to work itself out from this place. This is also true for others not in the therapy room. People with family and stability, and long time meditators with connected sanghas and Zen teachers also claim times of loneliness both long and short in duration. What is it we fear there?

Sometimes I notice lonely is a sense of an innermost place that cannot be shared, cannot be met or communicated to another juxtaposed against this longing to be known, embraced, and experience feeling felt. Sometimes lonely is a closed room with thick walls and locked doors. Other times, lonely is an open plateau, just you and the packed red dirt and the too blue sky. I imagine our first lonely came when we cried out and no one came and the sense of being this one body completely dependent upon the world began to take shape. Some lonely carries it the sense of something deeply amiss inside our core, an old worn out message of wrongness, that goes right to the heart of our most innocent years.

If we give up ideas about getting rid of it, we can ask what it is here to teach us. We could consult the night sky.

From my vantage point midlife, the Zen of loneliness means to cure the cure and allow our natural response to being a skin bag (our unflattering Zennism) to inform us. There is nothing inherently wrong with being lonely. To cure the cure means to notice what we do with our lonely and see if we can put that reaction aside. Like Ryokan shows us, to be fully unapologetically longing, to be in complete non-opposition, is to be free. Do we try to fill the lonely space with busyness, Facebook encounters, and other distractions, or numb with a drink or make a companion of our TV or iPod? Or do we live in a dream of an ideal other – a lover, a spouse, a community? If we can stay a bit with this lonely, we can begin to ask what kind of lonely is it? And listen deeply for the response.

Ryokan Taigu, the beloved gentle itinerant monk from the 1800’s who played with the village children and wrote poetry for his friends, was human through and through. Some contemporary readers are perplexed by reading about a Zen master’s loneliness and question his awakening because we equate enlightened expression to be free from so called negative emotions and suffering. But Ryokan was not bound or reduced or lesser for this – he was freed within it, something that shows in his writing and his capacity to move from this state to joy and serenity as conditions changed. Towards the end of his life, he even falls in love with a young nun, Teishan, and thoroughly embraces this experience.

In Zen emptiness, everything we meet is the self. In that way the world perfectly loves us, welcomes us in its embrace unconditionally. Though the sun may warm or the wind may feel cold to the bone, it whispers to us alone in that moment. The fullness of emptiness leaves no space for lonely. Nothing is lacking. It is not possible. But this is only half, for which Ryokan provides a necessary cure. Sometimes the bowl is just empty, the road long and lonely, and there is the want of another heart. This is also the buddha’s awakening to conditioned life and it is perfectly OK. Ryokan’s loneliness is not a trap or a hindrance. The next day finds him playing with children and drinking sake with his old friends. Completely at ease! We are all carrying this empty bowl on the path. To know this solitary mountain is to meet one another on the path where the sky meets the sky.

Standing alone beneath a solitary pine;
Quickly the time passes.
Overhead the endless sky –
Who can I call to join me on this path?
~ Ryokan

Palm to palm,

Dreaming Mind: The Eyes in Sleep

Every dewdrop manifested in every realm is a dream. The dream is the glowing clarity of the one hundred grasses. ~ Dogen Zenji

If we’re really interested in waking up, we should befriend our dreams. Through our dreams we study the self in its unadorned form. We forget the self when we realize the nature of dreaming. Night after night we dip in and out of this stream of images, thoughts, and feelings, plot lines that beguile, embarrass and inspire us. We run, chase, fight, fly, love and awaken to great “Aha’s!” in our dreams. And yet, few practitioners I know pay much attention to these nightly excursions even though we practice exquisite awareness of our day waking thoughts and mind states in zazen.

The beauty of our dreams for this “study of the self” is that they are not constructed by our willful ego, but instead often bring forth the very thing we turn away from, the obstacle that blocks our opening, release or integration of our spiritual studies. In our dreams, we play out what is foreign to our conscious ideas of ourselves – showing up naked to the meeting, screaming at a close friend or having sex with the wrongest person – ways we would not allow or admit in our ordered universe. And yet, in these night missives, we come into contact with an intrinsic sense of deep knowing, encounter inexpressible beauty, and meet with great sages who love and know us completely. What keeps us from looking deeply into this phenomenon of mind?

In Japanese, the word for dream is yume, meaning “the eyes in sleep.” We could also say this is what we aspire to in Zen, the see in the dark, to have insight. For several years now I have been working with students and groups to help us develop a dharma eye for our nightly dreams – to enter into their secret language, a language that is at once very personal to each of us and at the same time, universal. Jung said a dream was “speech that is not yet ripe.” How familiar to us in practice, this wordless “felt sense” of change along the path.

Practicing with the images and actions in our dreams, the stranger at the door, the odd placement of the flower vase, requires us to let go of our initial interpretations and desire to know what a dream “means” and instead, reenter the dream on the dream’s terms, in the world of images and felt sense. To do this is to befriend the dream and allow it to speak its own message through practicing with the dream. While interpretive philosophies may have their place, to reduce a dream to its meaning is to kill the dream. It is like reducing Starry Night or Water Lilies or Beethoven’s Fifth to their meaning or conclusion. All dream images have the potential to carry multiple meanings and unfold in different ways over time, so to keep the dream in its live form, we write it out in the present tense and practice “don’t know” mind.

When I first took up practice, my dreams became vivid, intense and completely riveted my attention. I dreamt of collapsing buildings, fires and floods as a great dismantling was taking place. I faced fears by confronting strange attackers with knives and embracing the deep grief of forgotten past losses. Ancient corpses floated to the surface of the water to be reconciled, old lovers came to give complaint or say goodbye. More and more, as the path became established, I was getting out of my car that was driving me and started riding a horse and walking. Out of the shadows, new visions began to emerge over time, unspeakably beautiful sunsets, wise old masters arrived with the truth so simple and obvious, and a marriage of opposites took place. Throughout this period of time, my teacher, Kyogen, would very naturally engage these dreams with me in our meetings and also share his own remarkable formative dreams he had when in the monastery. I took for granted that this was an integral part of practice and when I later had the chance to do a group dream workshop, knew instantly that I would take this into my teaching. I am always humbled to hear a dream, no matter how simple, it is intimate expression.

Many people tell me they don’t remember their dreams as if this skill is somehow intrinsically lacking in them, but for most people, this is simply a matter of interest and willingness. Research has shown that a few simple changes to our routines increase our ability to remember our dreams – setting the intention to do so when you go to sleep and upon waking, the first thing, having a journal close by and immediately writing even the faintest wisp of the dream. At first it might look like this: “There was an old house” or “a dog” or “angry.” It isn’t important to have a plot line (many of which are manufactured in the remembering of the dream anyway) at all – what is important is to begin to reestablish a relationship with the state we call dreaming. All of us can just begin with some scratch paper and a pen without too much effort.

When we look into our dreams as a group, what I find remarkable and reliable is the way that our dreams characterize our obstacles, our worst fears and contain within them the dharma gate to work with these obstacles. For instance, we may be searching through stark corridors for the right doorway, or looking for our teacher who keeps receding or changing into someone else, and right in the moment of despair or surrender, there it is, right in the dream, a flower, a golden child, the missing key. Dreams help us find the blocked door to our opening of the heart and offer a gate often hidden to our conscious mind that wants to plan out how our practice will go and what we’re prepared to do. When we work in groups, it is the eyes of other dreamers that point this out to us, not in an interpretative way, but because of our common suffering and our common enlightenment.

And then there is this forgetting the self. To forget the self is to study the act of creating the self, that is, dreaming. Our identities, the stories we weave together from fragments cobbled together over time, are truly great dreams. To awaken, we awaken to the nature of the dream within the dream. In Muchu Setsumu, Zen Master Dogen says enlightenment is “expressing a dream within a dream.” By befriending our nightly dreams, we learn to turn towards all mind phenomena with curiosity and openness, to notice the dreaming mind. This life we call “real” and the dream we call an “illusion” from a Buddhist point of view is not so different from each other. Our narratives, selections of images and impulse, relationships and plot lines, while so very convincing are really dreams. I return to Dogen Zenji’s offering that to awaken is to awaken within the dream and clarifying this dream does not make the dream go away. We awaken and continue to dream, but the whole world is changed forever.

A star at dawn
A bubble in a stream
A flash of lightening in a summer’s cloud
A flickering lamp
A phantom and a dream
So is this fleeting world

(Verse of the Diamond Sutra)

Sweet dreams.

Palm to palm,

Student says to the Master, “Do I Need Therapy?”

As a Zen teacher who also is a psychotherapist, it’s not unusual for me to get this question. And like all good koans, there is no formulaic answer, only your true answer that “hits the mark” for you. I’m very happy to air this question with practitioners, because in my early days of practice, psychotherapy was alluded to as something a little shameful – considered self indulgent, a panacea, and certainly a lesser practice that Zen.  I see that changing amongst teachers and sanghas.  It’s also true that many practitioners have had unsatisfying experiences with “talk therapy” in the past and find that Zen practice addresses their deeper needs completely. No two therapy relationships are alike, so generalizations are not so useful. My own experience is that Zen and Psychotherapy are wonderful partners in liberation, and each has its own lens into our delusion and our suffering.

When we ask if we should see a therapist, it’s important to look at our motivation.  What am I hoping to achieve with therapy? Is my motivation to be fixed, complete, feel good and avoid pain, be in control, or am I willing to  face my fears, to grow and be challenged, to learn to trust, and love, and to find compassion for myself and others?  Am I looking for therapy because practice has not changed me in the way I’d hoped, or am I looking for therapy to deepen the investigation of the truth of practice? Am I willing to do the work?

By asking these questions, we bring the mind of wholehearted practice into the therapy room, to invite the therapist to help us see clearly, to nudge and soften the places where we’re stuck, to hold us and to challenge us. In particular, what most often gets missed in our Zen practice is attending to deeply ingrained emotionally charged distorted ideas of the sense of ourselves in the world – whether we feel we belong or not, whether the world is a hostile or giving place, and whether our needs will be met. These ideas are often accompanied by depression and anxiety and sometimes connected to trauma.  When these implicit orientations are not attended at the root of their wound, it makes it hard to practice Buddhist precepts – to be giving when one is fearful, or to cultivate equanimity, when one is carrying rage from past trauma, or not become intoxicated when the body is constantly overwhelmed. Therapy, especially with those who have an understanding of attachment patterns and the important role of the body, can help release and transform stuck places that allow us to open up, to soften to ourselves and others, and practice precepts from the love of our common humanity and embracing our flaws.

Dogen said to study the self is to forget the self. Therapy is a way to sweep our houses clean, to bring light to the discarded, the shameful, and our primal life urges. For Zen practitioners, what is more challenging than the kyosaku, is admitting and touching our vulnerability with another, to open the heart and develop adult boundaries that are flexible, responsible and dynamic.

The Master replies, “If you follow the suffering, follow it all the way down.”

Buddhism and Psychotherapy Graduate Training

man-throwing-fishing-net-in-backwaters-of-kerala-300I consider myself an accidental traveler in the field of couples and family therapy. Several years ago, I went to a panel talk one evening at the University of Oregon on Buddhism and Psychotherapy. Without it having been announced, almost all of the local sangha members showed up, scattered amongst a packed hall. At that time, although many people of practice regularly engaged therapists, there seemed to be some inhibition sharing this fact despite other intimate disclosures that are shared on a regular basis. That evening confirmed the need to make overt and examine this Western therapeutic process fueled by our impulse to understand this life and the nature of suffering in our own native language. I wanted to enter that conversation. The next morning I awoke and, despite having a long time thriving business partnership at the farm, received the distinct message, Go back to school. I know that voice well in my life – and though it causes temporary problems, has yet to lead me astray.

Several years before that (I laugh at this memory) I’d been struggling with what seemed like the failure of my Zen practice, despite my heart being filled with great faith and openings, to address the particulars of some emotional suffering. I felt like I could not talk to my teachers at the time about my interest in seeing a psychotherapist, as it was not uncommon to hear collective disdain towards therapy as self indulgent delusion. If only everyone would just sit zazen, they wouldn’t need therapy! Even my own teacher refers to therapy as “a neurotic solution to a neurotic problem,” and though I appreciate what he means, didn’t find it a fond endorsement. In some panic, I ended up cold calling a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist in San Francisco who’d written an article I admired titled “Coming to Life,” and am indebted to Joseph Bobrow to this day for indulging my nervous Zen student self seriously fearful that my intuition was evidence of deficiency of my faith. We talked for a long time in his office on Clement Street, but the only thing I remember is him saying to me most kindly that, at the time it may seem like you’re traveling away from practice, but in the long run, you will be a stronger practitioner. He didn’t steer me wrong.

Over the subsequent years of insightful personal work, I fell in love with Jungian psychology, an approach that beautifully articulates what we come to know intimately in Zen training over time. The Jungians connect the meaning of ritual and process of surrender to universal journeys of transformation and gives a place for the collective unconscious and shadow work sometimes lacking in Buddhist psychology. Having considered my training options the next morning after the Buddhism and Psychotherapy lecture, instead of a Jungian program, the family therapy training appeared to offer the straightest and most thoroughly well trained route to actual hands on clinical experience.

Ironically, the CFT field is about as far away from Jungian psychology as say, mechanical engineering. Jung is not even mentioned in the curriculum. However, while I did not fully know what I was getting in to at the time, I am now happy to consider that the family therapy field more closely aligns with Buddhist psychology than many other psychotherapeutic fields based on pathology. This is especially true when it extends the systems theory upon which it is based beyond the family or couple unit as we classically know it. I appreciate the sentiment of Mother Theresa who said, “The problem with the world is that we draw our family circle too small.” That is the view from which real change will come – when “family” knows no bounds.

Though it has its dissonant edge with Eastern understanding of human suffering, the CFT field rescues psychotherapy from itself by opening the door to the awareness of interdependence and eschews the idea of pathology located within the individual. Against the tide of our obsession with “abnormality” and new mental “disorders,” it is a profession based on the inherent goodness and capacity of people rather than the eradication of their neurosis. It is also a profession that challenges the protective clinical expert position of the therapist and honors the simple beauty of warm, honest, compassionate human encounters.

When I consider what I am doing in the CFT field, I think of our Buddhist image of Indra’s Net, shining jewels at each juncture of overlapping twine, reflecting every other jewel in the net. This is an image of boundless awakened clear undivided mind. I think of the CFT field as studying the net itself in the world of particulars, the pulsing threads of connectedness between the jewels, the communication and complications, the breaks and frays as well as lifelines and powerful charges in which we awaken and invigorate one another. I imagine this net drenched in salt water from the deep – old and ancient and full of archetypal motions. The warmth of entangled human interaction doesn’t change the relationship of the jewels, yet we tend the net, strengthen the weak spots, and unfurl the twisted strained areas, so we can see the jewels again in their perfection, free and undisturbed.

The CFT craft which examines the subtleties of our human exchange has brought me a clearer understanding of where we sometimes go astray in practice. Watching the layers of social interaction elucidates my own many mistakes over the years and helps me to hold practice more loosely. It is easy with any new Buddhist training to think, “This is it!,” an example being our Zen mondo style of communication – a powerful transformative training – which can be seen as a training for moment to moment life, and yet when adopted as habit becomes inappropriate. Habitual blunt honesty becomes insensitivity, the impulse to challenge invites deflection and self protection, always searching for someone’s edge misses their strengths. Ultimately, this training in psychotherapy has brought me both a deeper respect for our Buddhist tradition and its much needed offering to our “neurotic” culture. It also offers a language to address the shadow created by any practice clung to too long. The dialogue between these fields brings life and freshness to this instinctual ancient impulse to awaken.

Palms together,

The emergence and blossoming of understanding, love and intelligence has nothing to do with any tradition, no matter how ancient or impressive – it has nothing to do with time. It happens completely on its own when a human being questions, wonders, listens and looks without getting stuck in fear, pleasure and pain. When self-concern is quiet, in abeyance, heaven and earth are open.
– Toni Packer

Resources on Buddhism and Psychotherapy

The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychotherapy by Jack Kornfield

Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: An Unfolding Dialogue edited by Jeremy D. Safran

The Psychology of Awakening by Wellwood

Zen and the Heart of Psychotherapy by Robert Rosenbaum