A Moment of Awakening

Many people first get into Zen by reading a book about it, or by meeting a Zen master, or from a general curiosity about meditation. For me it was different.

One afternoon when I was nineteen years old I found myself alone on a beach. As I stared out at the water, I saw that it looked coal-black yet at the same time dazzlingly bright where the sunlight licked over it. I was trying to figure out if it was actually black or blindingly white when suddenly everything changed. It was as if the whole world that I had always believed to be outside me—the phenomenal world—was suddenly not outside me, and never had been. That light on the water was in me. It was me myself. At the same time, it was as if I’d split open too, and my heart was filled to overflowing with a love I couldn’t explain or name, yet which was deeply familiar and precious. It seemed to fill the entire universe as if I was made of the very same substance as the cosmos.

I had never known anything like it. Nothing in my liberal humanist education had prepared me for it. Yet I knew I had just seen an absolute truth of the universe, of who I was, of what it meant to be a human being. The afterglow went on for days. I lived in a world transfigured. In the hours immediately afterward, the sand was unimaginably soft and powdery, and the sea looked like it came straight out of the Bronze Age Aegean I knew from my schoolboy studies of Homer. Everything seemed like it was both real and unreal—like an ancient dream I had had many centuries ago, in another lifetime. A flame of love wouldn’t stop burning in my heart. My heart had been swamped, overtaken, overwhelmed by a kind of love I had never known before, yet which was powerfully familiar.

Cut forward ten years. I’ve been to university, I’ve worked in various odd jobs, I’ve begun a life as a writer, having published one book and being in the middle of a second. It seemed that after a rocky start my “career” was beginning to work out. Yet I was unsettled. One major reason for this was that although the experience on the beach had faded into the background, I still couldn’t forget it. Whatever it was, it still felt like the most important thing that ever happened to me. But what was it? And how could I get back to it? Sometimes I felt a kind of guilt or dismal failure, because I seemed incapable of recapturing it.

Then I met someone who happened to be a Zen student. One evening she read me a passage of Dogen, the 13-century Japanese Zen master who founded the Soto Zen sect in Japan. I didn’t understand a word of it: something about mountains walking, and mountains not being mountains. But something happened as I listened. Somehow, I knew this man Dogen understood what I saw on the beach. He was speaking from that incredible world I had stumbled onto. So I got myself trained in zazen—Zen meditation—as soon as I could. I also began a long search for my own Zen teacher. Finally, another ten years on, I settled down with a teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan, a Zen lineage that employs traditional koan study.

I came to discover that every koan is about that very reality I glimpsed on the beach. They are about the “essential world”—a world that we can apprehend, but which seems to radically contradict our “dualistic” or everyday view of things. There is indeed another side to everything. Through the course of koan training, and through a series of further plunges into the vast, ever-changing, ever-empty, unitary world of buddhanature, different yet similar to the one I’d had on the beach, this world penetrated my psyche more and more, until one day the wall between the two worlds—the everyday world and the world of awakening—came tumbling down in one radical thunder-crash.

Life has been much easier since.

The above is one version of my story. Here is another: I grew up in a ruinous broken home occupied by my siblings, myself, and my depressed mother, who had been abandoned by her husband, my father, in favor of her own first cousin, with whom he set up a home just down the road in our hometown of Oxford, England. In addition to the difficulties of life with a betrayed, depressive, single mother, I spent my childhood encrusted in eczema. The disease was ugly and painful and itched with a fury beyond any number of mosquito bites. I was often in hospital and, when home, was regularly visited by district nurses.

Finally at the age of 18 I escaped and went away to work in South America, and the eczema lifted like a magic spell. For the first time my skin ceased to cause anguish. It became a thing of pleasure. I could hug without pain, shake hands without shame, and look at people without quaking at the thought of the rashes and gashes on my face and limbs. I also earned some decent money. Then I backpacked with a friend to remote corners of the Andes, seeing things more beautiful than anything I had ever imagined, and wrote my first book, Sons of the Moon (Scribners, 1989). Near the end of the trip, I went down to a beach and had that strange moment of union with all things. Then I went home.

Just six weeks after the epiphany by the sea, I pulled up in the English rain outside my father and stepmother’s house in Oxford. After a few minutes of awkward conversation in the living room, sitting on a chair and feeling like I was perched over a cliff, I went upstairs to take a warm bath. And there something else happened, in its way as dramatic as the moment on the beach. As I listened to the sound of the plumbing whistling in the fabric of the house and the murmur of the voices coming from downstairs, a terrible familiarity swept over me. This was the nightmare I had grown up in: I had walked right back into it. I seized up in despair and sobbed like I hadn’t in years. All the misery of my childhood, held at bay while I was living through it, tumbled down on me. The person I had started to become, the new hopeful life I was embarking on, seemed to be destroyed and lost, because I had done the worst thing possible: I had come home.

For the next few months I lived in a daze of grief, unable to converse for fear of breaking down. But I couldn’t understand it. What was going on? Why so upset? First, a doorway of light opened on that beach; now, a doorway of darkness. It never occurred to me that both doors could possibly lead onto one and the same path.

The Buddha’s Awakening

According to the Pali canon, when Shakyamuni Buddha experienced his great awakening at the age of 35, it did not come about through grueling ascetic practices. Rather, after several years of mortifying his flesh under the guidance of various spiritual masters, to the point where he had brought himself close to death, he realized three things. First, he wanted to live and therefore took nourishment to restore his constitution. Second, in spite of all his asceticism, he had come no nearer to fulfilling his existential quest. And third, he remembered a time as a child when he had experienced complete happiness, without any special practices at all. Rather than put himself through more deprivation and torture, why couldn’t he just be happy like then? So he decided to abandon severe asceticism and instead sit quietly under a banyan tree and let the memory of that childhood moment guide him.

According to Ashvaghosa, who embellished the Pali canon’s stories, the moment in question happened when as a young boy Siddhartha had been watching a man plowing. His nanny had left him in the shade of a rose apple tree at the side of a field, and as he saw the plow’s blade cut through the earth, he noticed dozens of insects scurrying for their lives. An overwhelming sadness welled up in him. These little creatures were desperate, and he could feel their pain as if it were his own. Then hard on its heels came an equally overwhelming joy. He suddenly saw that the insects were not just linked to him but were actually part of him: he and they formed a single phenomenon, a single body. That discovery, of a hidden identity with all beings, brought effortless joy. It arose spontaneously from his heart. This moment could surely be labeled a “spiritual experience,” a clear apprehension of the dharmakaya or dharma body, the singularity of all phenomena. Yet it came about through feeling—through tenderness, hurt, compassion, love. The path to the spiritual ran through the heart. The heart, the organ of love and pain, was the master key.

A common prejudice holds that spiritual practice is not about feelings: it transcends feelings, it takes us beyond our small self. In a way this is true. But if spirituality is only about self-transcendence—about seeing through the story of “me” that we habitually inhabit—then it runs the risk of cutting us loose from that story so that we no longer take care of the human wounds of self and other. We may become dependent on self-transcendence as a means of avoiding subjective and intersubjective problems. No matter how imaginary the self proves to be, we return to its world. If spiritual or transcendent insight doesn’t lead to healing and transformation in our actual daily lives, it is clearly incomplete.

Zen teaching is quite clear on this: the training is not about transcending the self but seeing clearly what the self is, seeing through it and thus becoming less convinced and imprisoned by it. In his Genjokoan, Dogen says (to paraphrase): first, we see that all is one; then we see that there is no self; then we drop the whole system of self and world and are liberated. After that, we forget all about enlightenment, and let the “flowers fall amid our longings, and the weeds spring up amid our antipathies”—in other words, we lead lives rich in human responses, with our hearts wide open. In the West, Buddhist practice is still very young. Nevertheless, perhaps it is old enough to begin to feel a responsibility to move from a simplistic view of enlightenment as transcendence to a more integrated stance of awakening as embracing the subtleties of living responsibly and responsively within our relationships and communities.

Koans and Dreams: Zen and Psychotherapy

What is the sound of one hand clapping? What is your original face before your parents were born? Why has the bearded Bodhidharma no beard? In all, there are said to be some 1,700 classical Zen koans. In the Zen line in which I have trained and now teach, we use about 650, nearly all of them recording the sayings and actions of Zen masters from Tang Dynasty China (618–907 CE). They are teaching stories with an extraordinary power to bring about a dramatic shift in our experience of self, world, and consciousness. We call this sudden shift kensho—seeing our real nature. If pursued assiduously, koans can thoroughly break our attachment to, release us from enthrallment to, the self-protective sense of “I, me, mine.” Zen, if it’s anything, is a training in becoming less self-absorbed, less self-centered, but it’s really much more than that.

The koan is a short anecdote or story that contains some apparent paradox or enigma that cannot be resolved by the thinking mind. “What is Buddha?” a monk asked Tozan; he replied, “Masagin” (three pounds of flax). While it may be possible to work out a conceptual explanation of this koan, the teacher is looking rather for a living embodiment of the koan in the student, who must present it with an action. By surrendering to the enigma of a koan we allow it to take us over and to open us up to an unexpectedly broad field of awareness. By sitting with one koan after another, week after week, and taking each one to the teacher, the barriers between our sense of self and the world around us may be weakened to the point where they crumble altogether, after which we are freed to meet each moment as it arises, with less attachment to outcome and greater compassion.

Yet all this—kensho, koan training, and so on—is only one side of the practice. Zen training opens up a space for another side, less dramatic but equally important. If the first side is sudden, this other is gradual. In a new spaciousness within our experience, gradually we learn to accept ourselves more thoroughly; in doing so we heal the wounds that need healing and become kinder and wiser, more able to function helpfully. At least, that’s the ideal.

It was on this side of Zen training that after several years of koan study I started to become interested in my dreams. I was going through a difficult phase in my marriage and was finding my work life stressful. We are multidimensional beings, and healing in certain areas does not imply healing in all areas. Even though Zen might have clarified that I and my world were both inventions, I still wanted some extra help negotiating those inventions. My Zen teacher Joan Rieck Roshi had done some dream work herself years before, with Robert Johnson and at the Jung Institute in Switzerland, and I was curious about it. From reading Rodger Kamenetz’s The History of Last Night’s Dream, I was attracted to the ideas of the controversial dream worker Marc Bregman. His approach, which he calls archetypal dreamwork, is in some ways analogous to koan work. A story or image (in this case a dream) is used as a means of personal transformation; here, too, there is an authority higher than the personal. In koan training we sit with stories of the masters; in archetypal dreamwork we sit with the stories told by our dreams. While these are not equivalent, the work in both cases involves being prepared to sit with them patiently. In both, there are difficult lessons to be learned about who we really are. Both often involve being open to discomfort. The prick of a koan, the nub of a dream, the part that sticks in the throat—in both, this often turns out to contain a power beyond its parts, and the release of this power can be cognate with a dramatic shift in consciousness. The key difference is in the precision of the dream with regard to our own particular blocks, wounds, and feelings.

Repeatedly in my dreams men would come for me. I’d be afraid of them: a scary chef with a large knife, a long-range desert truck driver whose eyes seemed to look right through me, a captain on a ship asking me to participate in a sea battle with nothing but a boat hook, and so on. Time after time, I would engage superficially with these men, then turn away, with a mix of fear and anger seething inside me. The therapy required me to sit with these feelings rather than seek to escape them. Bregman’s work has a loose template for male dreamers, which is basically the journey of the prodigal son who surrenders his pride and returns, broken, to his true father. As he outlined the process, and as it unfolded in my own case, after a while I began to have dreams where I was a boy again. One night I dreamed that I was being rowed across a lake by my own father to a castle where a banquet was being prepared, and a man on a throne held out his hands to me. I sank to my knees in front of him, put my head in his lap, and began to sob. When I worked the dream, I was overcome by a wave of grief. For weeks after, I only had to put myself back in the dream to feel a profound sorrow washing over me. I’d weep as I hadn’t in years. It felt profoundly healing, as if at last I was able to surrender myself to an infinite wound and find it somehow okay. At last I had opened to the trauma that had swamped me when I’d returned home at 19, which clearly dated from childhood losses and pains. I allowed them in. It was like rediscovering myself as an innocent, a child, a boy full of intense, fresh feeling; as a boy who loved his father and had come home.

In my outward life, I began to heal my long-broken relationship with my dad, fraught as it had been with divided loyalties. In my dream life, I frequently dreamed of myself as a child—riding on a man’s shoulders, playing on swings with a man overseeing me, and so on. At the same time, I started to dream of being killed—by a mortar shell, by an assassin who shot me through the heart. I had dreams where I learned to breathe under water. All these, according to archetypal dreamwork, are indicators of “dying to the self” or becoming less attached to our ego-selves. I started to dream of myself as a girl. In one memorable dream I was standing before what I took to be a far-off range of hills, until it moved and I realized it was a giant reptile turning toward me. Instead of being scared, I made my stand and with complete courage cried out: “I come from God!” I didn’t care what happened to me. I was functioning with a heart full of a power not my own. I also happened to be holding the very kotsu—or Zen teacher’s stick—a master had recently given me.

Soon after that, I dreamed of being a crew member on an old sailing ship. A giant squid had been attacking us, and we hacked away at the last of its tentacles until it slid off and gave up the fight. Then the captain gave the order to sail west, and we headed off into the setting sun, toward some sublime new adventure. The feeling was glorious, like a long battle was over, a vital victory won.

The way I see it now, the transformative power of meditation has a profound ally in our dreams. They work the same defenses, in different but allied ways, battering our defended self until we give up and allow greater forces to work through us. Instead of knowing, we learn to not-know. Instead of being the hero of our own story, we become a servant, a helper, in a greater story. Archetypal dreamwork has helped me in my emotional and relational life. My marriage has been transformed into a field of love, of welcome challenges. Increasingly the archetypes, animus and anima, direct my actions rather than my own limited perspective. Likewise, my Zen teaching is not mine: I appeal to the masters to do it, and they do often seem to teach through me.

Perhaps those two early experiences, one of cosmic liberation, the other of existential despair, were less important in themselves than as gateways into two parallel journeys that in the end are only one journey: of the soul’s healing and awakening. We all know both rapture and despair: the first may drop us into a vast love, while the second asks us to face our own deep wounds. It is useless to ignore either. The whole soul must know both light and dark, suffering and awakening.

Is There Really a Difference?

If we truly embrace our existential suffering, as Buddha did, it turns out to be different from the horror we thought. What is the way to wholeness, to healing, to true helpfulness for ourselves and others? Surely it cannot ignore suffering, any more than it can ignore illumination by unnamable love.

Another way of looking at both koan and dream work is that our life is a story. We begin with one story of ourselves: our birth, childhood, youth, work, relationships. When we enter Zen training, we submit to another order of story in which we are lost beings struggling to find our way in a universe that makes no sense to us. We are asleep. Gradually we awaken from the dream of our life into another story, of liberation. Then we must awaken from that story, too, and forget all about it. Only then can we allow each moment to arise fully and freely.

Comparably in dream work we surrender to another order of narrative. We are no longer heroes in our stories. Instead we are errant creatures lost from our true home, gradually being coaxed back into the fold. Then the “story” of the old self is given up. We die to that self, primarily by opening to the feelings our dreams are asking us to experience. We pass through the keyhole of feeling, of woundedness, of trauma, into a new story, one we could never imagined, an epic in which we have only a bit part but find that a huge privilege.

Just as Zen opens up the possibility of dropping into timeless, spaceless reality, so dream work may open us to a vast wound. It’s as if there’s a psychological equivalent to spiritual experience, a place of infinite wounding in which we find infinite support. In the very heart of the feelings against which we protect ourselves, we find the love we seek, and our healing is found exactly where we’d last choose to look for it: right in the heart of the pain we thought we were trying to get away from.

Excerpted from “Buddhism and Depth Psychology: Refining the Encounter,” the latest issue of Spring: A Journal for Archetype and Culture. Polly Young-Eisendrath served as Guest Editor.

In May, Shukman and Young-Eisendrath will participate in “Opportunities and Obstacles in Human Awakening,” the first of the Enlightening Coversations conference series exploring the intersection of Buddhism and psychoanalysis.


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