Zen and the Art of Psychotherapy

The clarifying lens of Zen philosophy focuses our attention on common factors that drive change across the different forms of psychotherapy.

According to the American Psychological Association (n.d.), Zen-therapy is:
“psychotherapy that is informed by and incorporates the philosophy and practices of Zen Buddhism and that, like existentialism, is concerned with the unique meaning of the client’s life within the universal context, rather than with simple adjustment to or removal of symptoms.”

Ancient Zen precepts, which evolved in China more than 1500 years ago, provide an excellent guide to today's best practice of psychotherapy.

Cherish every encounter. All human encounters are special, irreplaceable, and to be treasured. And few encounters are as meaningful as those that occur in therapy—enriched by unusual intimacy; the sharing deep secrets; emotional catharses; uncovering unacceptable thoughts; and revealing embarrassing experiences. No session should ever be routine, and therapy should never be the slightest bit boring for either participant.

Experience the moment. Every patient contact is a once-in-a-lifetime experience with the potential to powerfully change both the patient and the therapist. This is akin to the Zen concept Ichigo Iche, where "ichigo" means "whole life" and "iche" means "one meeting." Progress in psychotherapy does not occur in small, slowly incremental steps. We never know when something we say will stimulate a great leap forward. So, we must always, in every session, be alert for the chance to create a magic moment.

Change is the only constant. “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them—that only creates sorrow. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” 
                                          Lao Tzu (2500 years ago)

Everything is impermanent: your thoughts, your pains, your sufferings, your body, and so on. Whatever we see in our environment was once different and will soon be different yet again. This insight creates the happy expectation that therapy can be life-changing in a positive way. It also helps to reverse hopelessness and demoralization as well as promote acceptance and resilience when confronting life's inescapable losses.

Faulty perceptions. Things are never what they seem because our perception of them is so inherently subjective, self-serving, and fallible. Searching below the surface of our own attitudes and of the external world is necessary if one is ever to see things straight on and apprehend the real meaning of life.

Suffering. There is a radical difference between the experiential approach of the Zen master and the rational approach of ancient Stoic philosopher. But they do share a common understanding, re: how best to manage painful experiences. Both accept that: natural disasters will happen; people are often thoughtless or cruel; we age, get sick, and die; hardships and losses are a constant part of life. We cannot change bad events, but we can change how we react to them by learning acceptance; detachment; meditation; and desensitization via deliberate exposure to painful experiences.

Path to wisdom. Zen is experiential, not didactic. Enlightenment relies heavily on intuition, metaphor, and poetry. The master can point in the general direction toward wisdom, but each person must find their own personal path. One's potential strength lies only within oneself; only what is internally learned is of any importance; and only by one's own personal efforts can it be increased.

Paradox. Zen speaks in puzzling riddles. Here is a typical example: "To study Zen is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be awakened by all things.”

Life's quandaries often have no ready solutions—we must accept that the only certainty is uncertainty.