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, and 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 while 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.”