Sunday, April 26, 2009

New York Times Magazine - Enlightenment Therapy

Another recent article on Buddhism's infiltration of psychology in America and how even some Buddhist teachers are now seeking psychological therapy. The more the better in my mind. This article is a great look at why even a Zen teacher needs psychotherapy. I don't how enlightened one gets in the spiritual line, or how developed in the cognitive line, many of us are deeply wounded in the emotional and relational lines - it's almost impossible to grow up without being wounded.

Enlightenment Therapy

Published: April 23, 2009

I. The Invisible Man If he hadn’t been so distraught, he might have laughed at the absurdity of it: a Zen master in the waiting room of a psychoanalyst. He was a connoisseur of contradictions, an unsentimental man with a “Zen noir” temperament and an un-self-sparing wit. “Anywhere I hang myself is home,” he liked to say. It amused him that the greatest discovery of his life happened almost by accident — that his decision to renounce a tenured professorship in philosophy and become a Zen Buddhist monk 35 years ago rested not just on the traditional revelations of an enlightenment experience (floods of light, samadhi or oneness, ineffable joy) but also on some farcical hurdles concerning Jewish wedding etiquette and his belated discovery that he had indeed been circumcised as a kid.

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Illustration by Shout

Illustration by Shout

But that afternoon in July 2006, driving from his home in Brewster, N.Y., to the shrink’s office in Bedford Hills, he was frantic with anxiety. He found a seat facing the door, consumed with the feeling that no one could see him, that he’d become, in his phrase, “the invisible man.” He feared what the desire to be seen might drive him to do. How could he have spent his life cultivating unity of body and mind, oneness with all beings and the ability to apprehend reality directly, unmediated by thoughts or concepts or what Zen considered the arch delusion of “the self” — only to be haunted by the feeling that he lacked the most basic unity of all?

His self-alienation had divided him in two. Sometimes he was the Zen master Mitsunen (the name meant “Now Mind”), who got up before dawn each morning to sit selflessly for hours in meditation. Mitsunen received dharma transmission, by which teachings are passed from master to disciple, in the Soto school of Zen and was ordained a Zen monk in the Soto and the Rinzai schools. He served as head monk at the International Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji in upstate New York in the 1970s; for years he has led Zen retreats in Florida and North Carolina.

Other times he was Louis Nordstrom, a 63-year-old professor, poet and essayist with a round face, a shaved gray head and a shaky grip on whatever guise it was that people employed to navigate train stations and grocery stores. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at Columbia (his thesis was on Sartre’s theory of evil), and after giving up the monastic life he chose over tenure, he scraped by on teaching gigs at half a dozen schools, including Yale and N.Y.U. But the anxiety he was mired in in the summer of 2006 seemed deeper than what might be expected from financial or professional insecurity, or the infirmities of growing old, or even the aftermath of a busted marriage — his fourth. For two decades he lectured on the emergence of Western lay Zen, arguing against what he saw as the antiemotional bias of monastic Asian Zen in favor of an approach that integrated psychological experience into meditation practice. But as a pioneer of Zen in America, he had little success practicing what he preached. An antidepressant hadn’t helped much. Often in tears, he wondered if he was having a nervous breakdown. In a poem, he wrote:

Because being alone

Has penetrated the bone,

I have misplaced the meaning

of pleasure; displaced

the measure of its loss.

Because being lost

has become my treasure,

daily I grow more flagrant

in my courtship of vagrant nowhere …

Here he was now, penciled in for 2:30 on the afternoon of July 7, 2006, in a waiting room tastefully littered with back issues of The New Yorker and yoga magazines, hoping for … what? To be seen. To be understood. To be saved in some way.

“Hi,” a man said, emerging from an office with his hand extended. “I’m Jeffrey. Are you Lou?”

Nordstrom nodded. He had gotten the therapist’s name from a friend. For a moment the two men measured each other across clasped hands. Then they went into the office and closed the door.

II. The Marriage of Buddha and Freud Zen and psychoanalysis have been courting for decades, as dizzy with their differences as a couple in a screwball comedy. The two disciplines — one, a much-revised theory of mind and therapy for neurotic illness from fin de siècle Vienna; the other a largely unchanged spiritual technique for realizing enlightenment from fifth-century China — broadly share the goal of relieving mental suffering. But their metaphysical premises and practical methods are night and day.

Psychoanalysis, of course, began as a flashlight safari into the darkness of the human psyche. Bring even a bit of the benighted unconscious to light, and neurotic patients might be relieved of their symptoms, free to enjoy, in Freud’s famous phrase, “common human unhappiness.” With its staple ideas about unconscious conflicts, the hidden freight of feelings, the secret intelligibility of dreams, psychoanalysis is essentially an exploration of how meaning arises in the mind.

What darkness is to psychoanalysis, light is to Zen. In pursuit of mystic illumination, “the vast ocean of dazzling light,” Zen is cheerfully unconcerned with the manufacture and distribution of personal meaning. It tends to discount the authority of the unconscious and to ignore the significance of dreams. Students are discouraged from delving into the content of emotions. Where psychoanalysis is keen to unpack a patient’s past — especially those aspects of the past that distort perception in the present — Zen dwells on awareness in the present. This! Here! Now! Zen masters have been known to whack students with a stick.

It’s no surprise that such an unlikely pair got off to a rocky start. For decades the feeling of being “one” with the universe, prized in Zen as an attribute of enlightenment, was belittled by many psychoanalysts as an “infantile regression.” By the same token, the injunction “know thyself,” the ultimate chocolate-cherry in the candy box of Western wisdom, was brushed off by Zen adherents as a delusion. What’s to know about a conceit that has no fixed reality and more often than not is an impediment to experiencing Buddha nature? The self, as one Rinzai teacher put it bluntly, “is a malignant growth which is to be surgically removed.”

But by the middle of the last century, Zen and psychoanalysis were warming up to each other. The views of the relational school of psychoanalysis, which emerged in the 1980s to critique “the myth of the isolated mind,” fit comfortably with the Zen notion that suffering comes from the misperception that we are separate from the world. By 1994, when some 500 Buddhists and psychoanalysts gathered for a conference at the Harvard Club in New York City, a number of analysts had regular meditation practices and were incorporating Buddhist ideas in their work. Among them was Jeffrey B. Rubin. At the time he was 41. He grew up on Long Island, the elder of two boys; his mother was a social worker, his father an executive for Burlington Menswear.

Rubin’s interest in Buddhism and psychoanalysis can be traced to the last five seconds of a high-school basketball game he played for the Woodmere Academy Wolverines on Long Island in February 1971. As the short but sharpshooting point guard, he got the ball at half court, with the Wolverines trailing by a point. As he dribbled up the left side, the din of the crowd dropped away; an uncanny feeling of clarity and peace came over him; time slowed. After he shot from the top of the key, he heard the roar in the gym break in like the sound resuming in a movie. He lingered in the locker room after his teammates dressed, hardly caring that the Wolverines won or that he was the hero. A door had opened onto another world.

After graduating from Princeton, where he was a literature major, he was still confounded by the realm he’d glimpsed. He attended a Buddhist retreat and took up meditation. At night he immersed himself in the literature of Buddhism and yoga, Krishnamurti and Freud. During the day he worked in a halfway house for schizophrenics, more intrigued now by actual characters than by characters in texts. He got a master’s in social work at Columbia, and later a Ph.D. in psychology from Union Institute and University. At Lenox Hill Hospital, he entered a training program in psychoanalysis and in 1980 opened his own practice.

By the 1994 conference at the Harvard Club, Rubin was convinced that “the marriage of Buddha and Freud” would benefit both disciplines. “When you combine the best of Buddhism and psychoanalysis,” he told me one day last winter, “you get a full-spectrum view of human nature focused on both health and spiritual potential as well as on the psychological forces we struggle with and the obstacles we unconsciously put in our way.” But people at the conference still seemed bunkered in their doctrines, and he often found himself tacking between camps. He was scheduled to summarize a dialogue between a Buddhist and a psychoanalyst, but he was suddenly struck by the fallacy that enlightenment meant complete freedom from self-deception. He stayed up till 5 a.m. drafting a new talk, “The Emperor of Enlightenment May Have No Clothes.” Two years later he published his first book, “Psychotherapy and Buddhism.” Ten years after that — a decade in which he refined his pioneering approach to Buddhism and psychoanalysis, published two more books and began his own studies of Zen — the ultimate patient appeared in his office.

III. What Does It Mean to Have a Life of One's Own? With a wraithlike air, the Zen master accepted a seat on a black leather couch below the colored tumult of a de Kooning print and a photograph of a stone path vanishing around a bend in Kyoto. Lou Nordstrom later said he felt better almost the moment he met Jeffrey Rubin’s gaze. He had come as someone would to an emergency room for a therapeutic intervention.

“I left that first session with tears of joy on my face,” he told me one day last October as we sat with cups of coffee in the mica light of Bryant Park in Manhattan. “What Jeffrey did that first session saved my life. He listened empathetically and nonjudgmentally. He encouraged me to see my fears of acting out as symptoms of an unconscious desire to be seen.”

As the months went by, measured out in 50-minute sessions twice a week, the motifs of his history emerged. There was the surreal and horrific childhood of parental neglect, abuse and abandonment. There were those aspects of old trauma he was unwittingly reinflicting on himself, contriving to be abandoned by wives, disillusioned by mentors, seemingly incapable of taking basic care of himself. And there was the paradoxical role of Zen, which had enabled him to cope with the pain and alienation of his purgatorial youth but which he was now beginning to understand was implicated in his difficulties and may even have been making some of them worse.

Nordstrom was born in Atlanta in 1943, the only child of a Norwegian father who worked at a bank and a Scotch-Irish Cherokee mother. Both parents — now dead — were alcoholics. When Nordstrom was 3, his mother fled; his father, who remarried twice, ceded the child-rearing to Nordstrom’s paternal grandparents in Brooklyn. They had their own problems, his grandmother’s incipient senility among them. Once, when a friend came over for dinner, she triumphantly served up strawberry ice cream on a block of still-frozen French fries. As Nordstrom wrote in an unpublished memoir composed after a year of therapy: “My grandmother spent most of her time lying in bed amongst her large collection of dolls, wearing layers of housedresses, rarely taken off, and her Dodgers baseball cap; my grandfather spent most of his time in his basement workshop where he made hundreds of miniature sailing ships in bottles. They hated each other, and hardly ever spoke.”

From his grandparents Nordstrom learned his mother had stubbed out cigarettes on his skin and had beaten him with a brine-dipped switch; he was told that she was dead and advised to ignore the occasional phone call from a mysterious woman. It was not until he was 16 that he met his mother for the first time, at a hotel lounge in New York, where she downed a row of sloe-gin fizzes. She offered little explanation beyond that he was better off without her.

Growing up in the drawn-curtain gloom of that lonely, airless house, Nordstrom created the illusion of space by painting a wall in his room sky blue. He invented a private language and honed an ironical humor that was as much an existential posture as a rhetorical device. He escaped into sports and books. He learned to read in French and eventually German. He played the wise-before-his-time role common to children of incompetent parents. Once, when he was 14, sitting at the dining-room table working on a paper about the novel “Of Human Bondage,” his father dropped in for a visit and abjectly asked him what to do about a recent episode of impotence. When his grandfather was dying, his last words to Nordstrom were: “Be a man, not like your father.”

“I always felt my life was a Zen koan,” he said, sipping his coffee as an old woman crumbled bread for a flock of Bryant Park pigeons. “The koan is: What does it mean to have a life of one’s own?”

He entered Columbia at 16 on a full scholarship. His junior year he married for the first time, “a pure experiment to see if I could fit in.” He graduated summa cum laude and won a Fulbright scholarship, among numerous other prizes. The marriage ended after three years.

By 1967 he was employed as a philosophy instructor at Columbia and engaged again: it was his fiancée, a Brooklyn-born Vassar graduate, who, he says, came up with the idea of a Zen wedding when Nordstrom, then 24 and somehow unaware that he was circumcised, told her parents he was reluctant to make any amendments to his manhood that might be required were he to convert to Judaism and be married in an Orthodox ceremony. Nordstrom hadn’t a clue what Zen or a Zen wedding entailed, but as long as surgery wasn’t involved, why not? They found a local Zen center in the Yellow Pages.

The marriage, in September 1967, did not allay his self-destructive tendencies. “The agonizing absence of internal unity made me suicidal,” he would write later. His wife, who began a Zen practice after their lark of a wedding (and who would later became one of the first women in the United States to receive dharma transmission), enlisted a friend, who browbeat Nordstrom into a session of zazen, seated meditation. The habit took. He was impressed by the calmness he felt, not the “valium calm” of killing the turbulence inside him but the equanimity that came from becoming the turbulence.

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1 comment:

Lynn Somerstein said...

It's a joy to see an article addressing the synchonous relationship between meditation and psychotherapy. The issue of self vs. non-self is often explained this way-- self comes before non-self. "Existence preceeds essence," perhaps.
Yoga and psychotherapy are my ways to help people be the change they long for.