Zen and the Art of Therapy

By Haley, Jay | Family Therapy Networker, January/February 1994 | Go to article overview
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Zen and the Art of Therapy


Haley, Jay, Family Therapy Networker


Like Zen masters, therapists must be experts at bypassing resistance.

ZEN BUDDHISM IS APPARENTLY THE OLDEST CONTINUING procedure in which one person sets out to change another. For at least 700 years, Zen masters have responded in a one-to-one relationship with someone who wishes to change. I will attempt to clarify the nature and influences of Zen on the ways of changing people in Western therapy, particularly in relation to the strategic, or directive, approach best represented by Milton Erickson.

THE GOAL OF ZEN IS SATORI, OR ENLIGHTENMENT, WHICH IS assumed to come about in relation to a teacher who, when successful, frees the student from a preoccupation with the past or the future (or with trying to become enlightened). The relevance of Zen to therapy becomes apparent when one observes that Western ideas of psychopathology are extreme versions of the problems of the average person dealt with in Zen. The client in distress is typically said to be preoccupied with the past, with guilts, obsessions or desires for revenge. Or the client can be overpreoccupied with the future, as with anxieties and phobias about what might happen. He or she struggles to control his or her thinking, wanting to be rid of certain thoughts.

Sometimes the client fears death and sometimes the client seeks it, being so depressed about living. Interpersonally, the client is often so attached to a person, either in anger or love, that it is like an addiction. Sometimes the person is fixed on material possessions or compulsively works and never enjoys a nice day. By definition, a symptomatic person keeps repeating behavior that causes distress while protesting that he or she would rather not be doing so and cannot help it. These kinds of foci and fixations are assumed in Zen to be preventing a person from fully experiencing the present moment, which is one way to view enlightenment.

In the 1950s, when Zen ideas began to enter the clinical field, there could not be a comparison with therapy. The psychodynamic ideology, which was what was available, contained premises so opposite from Zen that the two approaches could not be related. The focus on insight was in sharp contrast to the Zen focus on action. However, one therapist was establishing a therapy with a different set of ideas. Milton Erickson was known as the leading medical hypnotist of that time, and he was practicing a therapeutic approach that was new and was based on an ideology different from that of psychodynamic theory.

When 1 began to practice therapy and sought supervision from him, Erickson was the only therapist I knew about who had a new set of premises relevant to brief therapy. I also realized that one way to understand his directive therapy, which was incomprehensible in the nondirective psychodynamic framework, was to view it within the framework of some of the ideas of Zen. I talked to Erickson about the similarities between his work and the approach of Zen. His response was typical: He gave me case examples. These stories illustrated some of his views on the attempt to live in the present moment. For example, he described a case in which he hypnotized a golfer. The golfer was instructed to live only in the present moment, and so focus total attention on one shot at a time. When the man next played golf, he was aware only of each shot. On the 16th hole, he was shooting his best game, but he did not know what his score was or what hole he was on. He was aware of only the present moment and not of the context.

THE CYBERNETIC REVOLUTION influenced the field of therapy by introducing the ideas of self-corrective systems. Erickson had been a participant in the first Macy Conference in the late 1940s and he was familiar with systems theory. The relevance of this to Zen appears with the basic premise of Zen that human beings are trapped on the wheel of life and keep repeating distressing behavior. The more a person attempts to escape from this destiny, the more he or she is caught up in it because the attempts to change cause the system to continue.

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