Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Zen and Intensive Dynamic Psychotherapy - a Wayward Endorsement. 

I suppose I should start with a disclaimer – it is now fifteen years since these events have passed. In that time I have myself become a psychotherapist, and have continued Dharma practice in both Asia and the States. But I will try to write what I recall.

In my early twenties I began Zen practice at the Rochester Zen Center and several of its affiliates in the Midwest. At that time if a student wanted to study koan Zen the RZC affiliates in the Midwest were the only opportunity available for that, other than going to New York, California, or Hawaii.  This did not seem realistic for me, even though I was more drawn toward Robert Aitken’s writings than any other teacher’s. After a year of regular sesshin attendance I decided to move to the Rochester Center. My plan was to do an initial six month trial stay, and see how my practice matured. I also knew, from my friend John, that an intensive therapy was available to residents of the Center, via Deborah LeBeaux, an old center member practicing therapy at the Genessee Hospital. This was a significant part of my motivation to move to the center, as I had done about a year of supportive therapy which I did not find very useful.

Also of note is that two of the three group leaders in Madison made it clear – in a half-joking, but in retrospect passive aggressive way,that they expected me to become a Zen teacher. One of these people became a big part of my break with the Zen Center about a year later.

I moved to the Center in Sept 1991. From the first day I was annoyed by arbitrary and dreadful decorum, the rigidity of many of the leaders, and the way that any questioning of aspects of life at the Center were framed as character problems of the student, especially if the student had not passed Mu. I felt I was pressured into becoming the abbot’s student, and we were forbidden to even consider visiting other centers in the greater American sangha. It seemed mildly cultish, but I had made a commitment, and I intended to honor it. I tried to match the encouraged athleticism of the sangha, sitting with as few cushions as possible, often in excruciating pain.

Two incidences which I now consider highly dysfunctional stand out as I write this. The first is that the head of zendo (Lanny Ross) insisted that I obtain a NY driver’s license. He said the center’s auto insurance would refuse to add me to the policy without one. I told him I wanted to keep my Wisconsin license, since I intended to return there for possible graduate school. I also knew that one other resident had an out of state license, and he’d lived there for a year, and drove the center’s vehicles. One day as I exited the zendo Lanny confronted me. In an aggressive tone he said “where your NY driver’s license?”. I said I did not have one. He said “don’t drive any center vehicles” and stalked away. I new he was bullshitting me about the insurance issue, but his aggression left me shocked and angry. Later that day he said that my feelings about this constituted my “baggage”. “Put it down” he said. The second incident occurred when Mitra Bishop insisted I sit sesshin without a small pad I wished to insert into my zabuton. I sat with the pain but resented it.

In October, with my teacher’s support, I began STDP therapy. As I progressed with the treatment, I experienced intense rage at my mother, which I had previously internalized and directed against myself. I recall literally feeling that the right side of my brain had been opened to the world – the right side of my head actually hurt, in a way that was somehow almost pleasant. Debbie also was open at times, when not challenging me to experience affect, about her own experiences of the rigidity of the Rochester Center, particularly the assertion common there that those who had experienced kensho were psychologically mature. By March of 1992, after 5 months of weekly STDP, I was sure that I did not want or need to live at the Rochester Center to practice Zen. Six months of my trying to fit into the model there of a “good zen student”, along with the self-affirmation of all the years of internalized rage I was carrying, and needed to carry no longer, were starting to show me that I could continue Zen practice without an external rigid structure. After learning to trust my own affects – a little – I was also starting to trust the intuition that knew the punitive structures in place in Rochester were not useful, and were even damaging.

I moved back to Madison, and into the affiliate center there. On the surface I told myself that I intended to keep attending sesshin in Rochester, though part of me knew that this was unlikely. I began applying to the Peace Corps also, hoping they would send me to Nepal, where I had done a study abroad program. The group leader in Madison, who was also my employer that summer, took it upon himself to correct me on these beliefs. After many conflicts, he publicly denounced me as having a “big ego”, having failed in my efforts to gain kensho, and a slew of other accusations. He stated that his “level of attainment” justified this aggressive behavior, and asserted his right to act as Bodhin’s “representative”, given that I had “fled the pressure cooker”. I wrote to Bodhin, explaining that this man was not someone I would ever have as a teacher. Bodhin defended Lou, and said I should be grateful that he was trying to humiliate me. “The desert fathers paid people to humiliate them” he wrote. I reacted strongly, and in retrospect too intensely, though I am sure, because of the STDP I had done, of the difference between my feelings toward Lou and that portion of them that were actually about my parents. This allowed me to resign as Bodhin’s student with sadness, but a clear conscience, despite his final letter lamenting that I was “not ready for the teaching” that he and Lou had “offered”.

I joined the Peace Corps shortly thereafter. Lou, while acknowledging that I had been a diligent and skilled carpenter for his business, refused to write me a positive reference based on his interactions with me in the sangha. After returning from Nepal in 1995, I began zen practice with Robert Aitken and two of his dharma heirs, John Tarrant and, since 1998, Jack Duffy. I found the sitting in all of these groups rigorous, with none of the authoritarian dynamics I tried so hard to not see when I began sitting in Rochester. Recently I have started training as one of the zendo leaders in sesshin – I am surprised to find that I am sometimes able to hold the forms of sesshin with more ease than many in the zendo, and I certainly owe some of this to my time in Rochester. But I also realize that ultimately zen practice is about realizing and expressing who WE fully are, and not adhering to some outward form, and despising myself for not adequately manifesting it. STDP cleared the way for me to see that for myself in zazen, and though self-doubt and loathing still arise when I am on the cushion, I now greet them with gentleness and patience, instead of pushing them away out of anxiety. Aitken Roshi approved my passing of Mu in 1999 (though of course Mu is boundless), and while I consider this a milestone and am deeply grateful, I don’t think it means anything special in regards to my relationships within the sangha. The Diamond Sangha does not operate in this authoritarian manner, much to my relief.  While any intrapsychic changes that arose from my work in STDP took time to manifest, the clarity and courage I gained from it empowered me to leave a very unhealthy situation, and I remain grateful to my therapist and her teachers.


  1. What a rough start to your practice. It's good that you neither allowed yourself to be subsumed in those ways nor let it dissuade you from pursuing Zen study entirely. Thank you for this candid, intimate remembrance. _/|\_

  2. I deeply appreciate hearing about your experience. I do so often tire of hearing that my "issues" are creating my errors of perception at certain practice places, and that I need to just "let it go". I was recently told I should seek therapy because I cannot work with a particular person--or that my response to him is out of proportion. Funny thing is, I AM in therapy and many of the other folks in positions of power (priests) are not, and never have been. I find the whole thing exasperating. I am on the fence about giving it up completely and just practicing with Jack only, but I have a long history with my actual teacher (11 years), and he hasn't said anything like this to me--the problem is more one of having a place where I can train to be head student with him, and unfortunately, until recently, the choices have been rather dysfunctional. Anyway, thanks for this post! Helps me feel less alone!

    1. (by "actual", I mean my teacher in the Soto line, and not the other priests. I consider Jack to also be my teacher.)