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Enlightenment Therapy
April 26, 2009 2:24 PM   Subscribe

Enlightenment Therapy: How a Zen master found the light (again) on the analyst’s couch. [Via]
posted by homunculus (39 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
I read this piece this mnorning and it struck me as useless...troubled guy saved. Nice. Gets now to teach zen stuff. turns life (finally) around. Good. Now, if you are at one with yourself, turn to the same issue (magazine section, NY Times) and read about Bill Buckley, son, Christopher, and Mrs. B. Not sure that is any better.
posted by Postroad at 2:29 PM on April 26, 2009


Huh. I'm not a Zen master, but I thought Enlightenment was supposed to be a once-and-for-all kind of transformation. That once you became Enlightened, you were supposedly freed from the struggles and strivings of desire, etc. and weren't constantly having to upgrade or maintain your Enlightenment.

I thought that was the whole point of the distinction between kensho, satori and finally enlightenment?
posted by darkstar at 2:35 PM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wow. I've been reading Louis Nordstrom's work for quite a while. To find his name in an article like this both does not surprise me and surprised the hell out of me. I hadn't thought about his works in about two years, honestly. Now I want to go reread his books.
posted by strixus at 2:36 PM on April 26, 2009


darkstar, thats a common misunderstanding of kensho and satori. In some (most) zen schools, you obtain momentary insights into enlightenment, known as kensho - they aren't lasting, but they are a taste of what you are working towards. Satori is the deeper, lasting state of obtained enlightenment; but kensho is very powerful and meaningful in of itself.
posted by strixus at 2:38 PM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I had to keep checking to make sure I wasn't reading the synopsis of a Woody Allen movie from the '60s.
posted by nasreddin at 2:42 PM on April 26, 2009


Freud. Dogen. Words words words. Panic Attack.
posted by phrontist at 2:46 PM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


strixus, I'm not sure if you're agreeing with me or not. My point was exactly as you described: kensho is a fleeting glimpse, satori is a deeper understanding. But Enlightenment, once finally attained, isn't volatile and doesn't require therapy to regain. So in what way is my characterization a misunderstanding?
posted by darkstar at 3:03 PM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Brad Warner: Is Meditation Dangerous? (Site NSFW.)
posted by homunculus at 3:12 PM on April 26, 2009


In fact, the more I think about this, I think I've answered my own question. As I mentioned in my first comment, there is an important distinction between kensho, satori and attained Enlightenment. If the Zen Master in question has benefited from therapy to regain his oneness, then it's clear he was at either a kensho or satori stage in his journey. Hence, my original inquiry is moot.
posted by darkstar at 3:15 PM on April 26, 2009


And while we're at it, here's one of my favorite koans:

One afternoon a student said "Roshi, I don't really understand what's going on. I mean, we sit in zazen and we gassho to each other and everything, and Felicia got enlightened when the bottom fell out of her water-bucket, and Todd got enlightened when you popped him one with your staff, and people work on koans and get enlightened, but I've been doing this for two years now, and the koans don't make any sense, and I don't feel enlightened at all! Can you just tell me what's going on?"

"Well you see," Roshi replied, "for most people, and especially for most educated people like you and I, what we perceive and experience is heavily mediated, through language and concepts that are deeply ingrained in our ways of thinking and feeling. Our objective here is to induce in ourselves and in each other a psychological state that involves the unmediated experience of the world, because we believe that that state has certain desirable properties. It's impossible in general to reach that state through any particular form or method, since forms and methods are themselves examples of the mediators that we are trying to avoid. So we employ a variety of ad hoc means, some linguistic like koans and some non-linguistic like zazen, in hopes that for any given student one or more of our methods will, in whatever way, engender the condition of non-mediated experience that is our goal. And since even thinking in terms of mediators and goals tends to reinforce our undesirable dependency on concepts, we actively discourage exactly this kind of analytical discourse."

And the student was enlightened.
posted by darkstar at 3:20 PM on April 26, 2009 [95 favorites]


This reminds me of the story where people would actually buy the answers to popular koans and present them as their own to the Zen master. I get the same feeling of disillusion with this article. I didn't take my curiosity about Zen any further than reading books, attending a Zazen session and realizing that you don't need the metaphysics to benefit from meditation.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 3:26 PM on April 26, 2009


i wish my analyst had a lighted couch. i am tired of lying here in the fucking dark.
posted by kitchenrat at 3:28 PM on April 26, 2009


The Zen of Sphincter Control
posted by homunculus at 3:28 PM on April 26, 2009


Huh. I'm not a Zen master, but I thought Enlightenment was supposed to be a once-and-for-all kind of transformation. That once you became Enlightened, you were supposedly freed from the struggles and strivings of desire, etc. and weren't constantly having to upgrade or maintain your Enlightenment.

Clearly, you have no experience with Linux desktops.
posted by srboisvert at 3:58 PM on April 26, 2009 [9 favorites]


Well, I found this article to be interesting. In fact, I see some parallels between Mr. Nordstrom's situation (plight? self-affliction?) and my own life.

I, too, have comforted myself with zen-like attitudes (platitudes?) throughout my life, though I certainly can't claim to be a master of anything. And as I've grown older - and discovered that my life isn't all zen and roses, regardless of how stoic I manage to be - I've come to realize that it hasn't really helped me as much as I thought it had.
posted by dammitjim at 4:13 PM on April 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


Different strokes for different minds.
posted by kozad at 4:14 PM on April 26, 2009


There was an AskMe about this a while ago, but it didn't yield fruit that I found tasty. What's a good introduction to Zen and/or Taoism (to the extent these are unrelated, this is two questions)? Zen Master Dogen, IIRC, and Tao Te Ching<> aren't doing it for me.
posted by DU at 5:18 PM on April 26, 2009


darkstar: I don't think the question is worth dropping just yet.

First answer:
Just because someone has received Dharma Transmission doesn't mean that they have all your answers. It is a sign, not the thing itself. If one person's advice or method doesn't work for you, don't bother with it. Nothing here is sacred, especially the notion of enlightenment.

Second answer:
I see enlightenment not as an end to suffering or desire, but an ability to see beyond suffering and desire. It is often asserted that desire causes suffering, which leads us to desire an end to desire, which is, as is often noted, quite a bit of a fix. It's an obvious contradiction. Try this converse on for size. Clearly, once we have no more suffering, there is no more need for desire, so in order to get rid of desire, I must get rid of suffering. I take this to mean that desire and suffering are inseparable.

Enlightenment isn't so much about ending the cycle as seeing past it. It doesn't mean that I don't break my hip anymore, or that I'm free of the nightmares lingering from an abusive childhood, or that I don't desire a nicer bell for my zendo. It also doesn't mean that a bit of medicine can't make my hip feel better, or that my nightmares are immune to the aid of psychotherapy, or that actually buying that bell won't relieve me of the terrible suffering of emerging from meditation to the sound of a cell phone alarm every morning.
Enlightenment is something else.
posted by kaibutsu at 5:28 PM on April 26, 2009 [6 favorites]


DU: Suzuki's 'Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind' is a good introduction to Zen.

A better introduction is to go sit and stare at a wall for an hour. If you happen to live in the same area as any practicing Zen Buddhists they should be glad to help you do this, though the degree to which you need people to help you stare at a wall is debatable. It is nice to have people to discuss the intricacies of wall-staring with, though, and to tell you to suck it up when you complain that every. single. part. of your body is in incredible pain after 10 minutes of sitting.
posted by kaibutsu at 5:36 PM on April 26, 2009 [4 favorites]


got up before dawn each morning to sit selflessly for hours in meditation

That's his problem right there. Sitting in meditation for hours is not "selfless" (barring the metaphysical connotation). 30 minutes is plenty. Then go do something productive, and maybe something for someone else so it can be more "selfless". Meditation is great, but if you don't know when to stop and get up then it can lead to mild psychosis.
posted by Burhanistan at 5:51 PM on April 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


I had just put down the Magazine after thinking that it's a topic that is close to my own interests these days, but a truly terrible article and a waste of a great opportunity to discuss Buddism/zen/meditation vis a vis psychology/psychotherapy. Also, I second the recommendation of "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind."
posted by twsf at 5:58 PM on April 26, 2009


Then go do something productive...
No reason that productivity and meditation always have to be mutually exclusive. Mindfulness can be cultivated/practiced/experienced wherever.
posted by lumensimus at 7:29 PM on April 26, 2009


Newsflash, staring at a wall doesn't solve everything. /bitter
posted by milarepa at 7:53 PM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


DU: For an introduction to meditation I recommend Mindfulness in Plain English. For a good overview of the conceptual core of Buddhism as relayed by the cannon of pali sutras I recommend What the Buddha Taught, which is written from the perspective of Theravada, the most old school tradition. Zen is usually thought of as part of the Mahayana school of thought - but Zen's disinterest in metaphysical speculation makes this influence of limited importance.

I too recommend Suzuki for an introduction to Zen, but I'd go with the aptly titled Introduction to Zen over Zen Mind Beginner's Mind for your first exposure.

The writings of Thich Nhat Hahn are generally very feel good in tone - imagine if Mr. Rogers had grown up in Vietnam. I particularly liked the very small and very interesting Heart of Understanding, which are commentaries on the Heart Sutra, which deals primarily with the idea of anatta or non-self. He isn't known for that kind of writing though, his aphoristic volumes like Peace is Every Step being much more popular. Its all good.

As Taoism goes, the Tao Te Ching is really the best intro - but unless you read archaic Chinese the particular translation you read could make or break your appreciation of it. Here is a big collection of different translations. I like Addiss and Lombardo (my university's Asian philosophy class uses a dead tree version with pretty groovy calligraphic illustration).

I'll take a stab at what Taoism is all about though, as I've been thinking about writing a Flatland style story, following a similar allegorical structure, but about determinism and scientific epistemology instead of space and dimensionality.

I've got your blog on my RSS reader, and judging by your projects I'd imagine you've heard of cellular automa. Our world doesn't seem all that unlike a big CA - simple rules gives rise to progressively more complicated structures, which we model with higher level rules. Taoism is, at it's core, a sort of metaphysical naturalism, wherein everything, including humanity, is a manifestation of basic (as in: impersonal, will-less) forces. The first line of the Tao Te Ching is stressing that our conception of "the rules" are not and cannot be the rules. After all your theorizing you look out and there is the world, doing it's thing.

If you ran some giant CA simulation on a computer and intelligent life resulted, you could talk to them about the nature of their world. Perhaps these creatures have done some science, and through empirical prodding figured out some approximate rules (some heuristics that had predictive power) for how things "move" in their world. Perhaps CA-creature says the world is made of irreducible gliders, to which you would roll your eyes and ask what the gliders move around in, what gave rise to movement in the first place, or confront it with some version of Zeno's paradox. From your perspective you could tell them what appeared to be the most basic rules governing the CA, the Theory of Everything for their world. Having a conversation with you, an apparently "supernatural" being, they would inquire about the nature of your world, of which their world was a subset. You could tutor them in what we knew of physics, but eventually you'd hit a wall. You couldn't explain why, say, there are n-dimensions instead of (n+1) or, more woah inspiring why anything at all existed.

So the Tao is kind of like the ruleset for the metaphorical bottom-most cellular automa on the stack of reality, though this description, like any other, necessarily falls short. The Tao, that ultimate ground of being, is that non-thing/non-rule that makes all rules and things possible. The Tao Te Ching tries to point your mind in the right direction by talking about all the things the Tao is not.

So that's the metaphysical side, but Tao Te Ching takes on ethics as well. It is not an anthropocentric worldview, but it is humanistic one, asserting the goodness of man's natural state. The problem is that the average guy gets too wrapped up in "rules" (see: Li), striving to control things, to be a Type-A kind of personality that Gets Things Done . Taoism's prescription for human life is to cultivate Te, or a self-nature harmonious with the Tao. Te is not just laying around doing nothing, but going with the flow, keeping your will out of conflict with the nature of reality.

As an interesting aside, when Buddhism came to China (an event ascribed to Bodhidharma) it was seen as a kind of foreign Taoism. The Buddhist tradition that developed there, which incorporated many Taoist ideas, became Ch'an which then made it's way to Japan as Zen.

A lot has been made of the apparent divide between East and West, philosophically. I couldn't disagree more - it's just that the people who promulgated ideas like these in the west got crowded out by conflicting worldviews (and, to be fair, I understand this very lofty Zen/Taoism we're talking about isn't super popular in Asia today). If you're interested in western analogs I'd recommend Wittgenstein and the stoics.
posted by phrontist at 7:57 PM on April 26, 2009 [18 favorites]


> No reason that productivity and meditation always have to be mutually exclusive. Mindfulness can be cultivated/practiced/experienced wherever.

Agreed 100%, but the guy in the article was just doing the zazen in those "hours", not any sort of mindfulness-within-task practice.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:17 PM on April 26, 2009


I'll second 'Mindfulness in Plain English.' It's great to see there's a web version available! Thanks phrontist!
posted by kaibutsu at 8:17 PM on April 26, 2009


Seconding Thich Nhat Hanh's work -- kind, unpretentious, and inclusive as far as I've read. The Mr. Rogers comparison is pretty apt, phrontist.
posted by lumensimus at 9:10 PM on April 26, 2009


Interesting that there's no mention of Morita therapy^ (adapted for Westerners as Constructive Living).
posted by dhartung at 10:33 PM on April 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


From the article

.. free to enjoy, in Freud’s famous phrase, “common human unhappiness.”

Famous, maybe, but not to me. That is one of the wisest phrases I've read. It captures something true about our natural estate in three simple--and comforting--words.
posted by mono blanco at 2:54 AM on April 27, 2009


As I mentioned in my first comment, there is an important distinction between kensho, satori and attained Enlightenment.

Darkstar - satori is the same thing as what you call attained enlightment. I will not be drawn into a discussion on what that actually involves, suffice to say the quote "do not assume you will recognise your own enlightenment" seems pithy.

Secondly, dharma transmission need not necessarily be a certification of satori. It's basically a 'license to teach' if you will, or an indication of the line of leadership succession within a monestary, or a necessary piece of paperwork given before spreading teaching endeavours to other places- some particular schools will award it before satori just as some won't award it to given individuals even after satori.

T. Griffith Foulk writes of the practice as it is in Japan, stating, "The usual practice...is for a Soto monk to be given Dharma transmission by the priest who ordained him (in most cases his own father), after he returns from his minimum period of monastery training. Because Dharma transmission is a prerequisite to becoming the head priest of a Soto branch temple, virtually all Soto priests meet this ritual requirement at a relatively early stage in their careers."

As is the usual case with buddhism, you can find plenty of counter-examples to any given descriptive statement about it.

Note that Nordstrom never describes or mentions any satori awakening experience. Indeed, I don't think the word even comes up in the article.
posted by Sparx at 3:01 AM on April 27, 2009


mono blanco: It captures something true about our natural estate in three simple--and comforting--words.

Heh, Buddhism does it in one.
posted by 2or3whiskeysodas at 4:07 AM on April 27, 2009


So if Zen was not successful for Nordstrom, then I guess he wasn't doing it right. It that it? Or isn't that the fallback position of all religions and pseudo-religions? "Gee, if you're not being enlightened, then there must be something wrong with YOU." This article is really a recovery story. It's as if he were an alcoholic, an overachiever who dropped into the gutter, found 12-step, and came back to re-encounter the reality without the mediation of the self-annihilating liquid. Nordstrom had been stupifying himself, burying his particularity beneath the cloudy weight of Zen. The shrink lifted the clouds, and Nordstrom was able to see the landscape of his own life, his own individuality laid out like a map. He realized that he was a real person, with a real life -- which may not seem like such a big deal compared to satori, but is very much with Freud's stated goals of turning hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness. I'm reminded of the Jewish sage, let's call him Sam Berg, who abandons his studies after the realization that, "When the time comes for me to face God, he's not going to ask, 'Why weren't you more like Moses?' He's going to ask, 'Why weren't you more like Sam Berg?'"
posted by Faze at 4:25 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


New York Times is not zen.
posted by rainy at 5:01 AM on April 27, 2009


I've got your blog on my RSS reader, and judging by your projects....

*blush*

I'd imagine you've heard of cellular automa. Our world doesn't seem all that unlike a big CA - simple rules gives rise to progressively more complicated structures, which we model with higher level rules. Taoism is, at it's core, a sort of metaphysical naturalism, wherein everything, including humanity, is a manifestation of basic (as in: impersonal, will-less) forces.

I was already interested in learning more, but Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which seems to make a similar point, is driving the most recent desire to learn more. (As well as the AskMe I mentioned.)

I'll check your recs, thanks!
posted by DU at 6:10 AM on April 27, 2009


It should be noted that the koan darkstar quotes is originally from David Chess.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:19 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


So if salsa class was not successful for Nordstrom, then I guess he wasn't doing it right. It that it? Or isn't that the fallback position of all ballets and west-end shows? "Gee, if you're not being on the stage getting paid, then there must be something wrong with YOU."
posted by Sparx at 4:34 PM on April 27, 2009


By the way, David Chess has written a series of "Broken Koans", many of which are quite insightful as well as humorous.
posted by darkstar at 11:17 PM on April 27, 2009


Freedom Ain’t Another Word For Nothing Left To Lose
posted by homunculus at 2:27 PM on May 5, 2009


Ancient Buddhism and modern psychology: Both practices are focused on releasing followers from suffering, and both aim for emotional health
posted by homunculus at 3:11 PM on May 5, 2009


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