What is Intimacy in Zen?

This spring welcome is dedicated to my teacher Kyogen Carlson, whose intimate presence whispered of home right from the start.

In a conversation with a visiting teacher this weekend about the importance of intimacy in practice, he said, “If you don’t have intimacy in Zen, then what have you got?” I appreciated this seasoned reply that leapt beyond the idea that we “add” intimacy to our life or not. It was a kind of intimacy with intimacy. As a lay teacher, training psychotherapist, and a human being who knows the landscape from isolation to embrace, this question about intimacy is endlessly intriguing and nuanced and one that I feel is a magnificent bridge in which the understandings of each of these practices can inform one another. What is it? When do we know it? How do we get there?

Intimacy is a common term in our Western culture that connotes qualities engendered by a sense of closeness, warmth, and holding dear. It is something we desire yet often avoid and fear. Our closest intimate relationships are built on time and trust, fostering mutual enrichment, appreciation, and increased ability to risk. To feel like you really know someone’s heart is to rest in this intimacy. To be open and impacted by the other is to know this intimacy. Fear, control, and judgment preclude the experience and leave us frustrated and wanting. Often our “attempted solutions” to become closer and more intimate with others when we feel separate paradoxically produce the opposite effect, sending us through another round of grasping for something outside ourselves. This is why we need Zen.

Zen intimacy does not exclude any of these understandings and insights. It is a vital gate of practice to become aware of those moments we guard and distance ourselves from others, speak falsely, avoiding being hurt, and shrink from the invitation to authentic participation. Much of the work in psychotherapy has to do with a failure of intimacy characterized by conditioned estrangement from inner and outer experience. Like religious practice, the mode of healing rests on reconnection. However, Zen takes this intimacy to a whole new level that does not exclude any state, even that of estrangement. Even though we can label one moment intimate and another not, intimacy in Zen is a facet of the fundamental state in which we actually live. Waking up to that truth is the goal of our practice from which compassion and wisdom flow. Zen intimacy rests on the clarification of delusion, the conceptual ideas concerned with I am and I am not. When these delusions dominate the landscape, the the you who is a mystery unfolding before me disappears, and we miss the opportunity to experience the vitality and creative fullness of the moment. We stop listening and our patterned responses to life take hold.

If we want to understand this intimacy, we need to take a step outside our comfort zone. We learn how to do this in zazen. Exactly because we don’t “know” how to “do” zazen, we are already intimate in that very act.

When you know yourself, you know intimate action. Thus, Buddha ancestors can thoroughly actualize this intimate heart and intimate language. “Intimate” means close and inseparable. There is no gap. Intimacy embraces Buddha ancestors. It embraces you. It embraces the self. It embraces action. It embraces generations. It embraces merit. It embraces intimacy.
Enlightenment Unfolds, Dogen Zenji trans. Kaz Tanahashi

When we meet in the absence of the idea of each another, there is intimacy. When there is just the bird’s song, there is intimacy. When I am afraid and separate, yet still, there is also intimacy. With trust, creativity, and curiosity, the information we need to proceed in the world is found in the entirety of these moments. This kind of intimacy far surpasses what Western psychology understands as intimacy. Yet over the years, I find that our Western standards of intimacy are exhibited as qualities in seasoned practitioners. The cushion is not a substitute for the risk that is taken when we look deeply into the eyes of another being. Both practices of Zen and psychotherapy inform one another and the nourishing life-giving aspect of intimacy becomes one of the greatest fruits of practice. Although our patterns are often deeply ingrained, we do not need years of either to let go of that which separates us. The cherry blossoms are already in full bloom.

In gassho,