In 1903, the “Father of American Psychology,” William James, seeing the young Buddhist monk Anagarika Dharmapala in the audience at one of his lectures, remarked to him (as Anagarika later recalled), “Take my chair and I shall sit with my students. You are better equipped to lecture on psychology than I am. . . . This is the psychology everyone will be studying twenty-five years from now.”

Today, more than a century later, hundreds of articles, books, and conferences have explored the relationship between Buddhism and the field of psychology—particularly psychoanalysis, the set of psychological theories and therapeutic methods pioneered by Sigmund Freud. Despite the increasing number of mental health professionals interested in Buddhist meditation, however, there are few venues where one can practice traditional meditation within a conceptual framework of psychoanalysis. For the past six years, Seiso Paul Cooper, Sensei, has held retreats to bridge this gap.

Seiso Sensei, a Soto Zen priest, is the cofounder, director, and guiding teacher of Two Rivers Zen Community in Narrowsburg, New York, and is also a contemplative psychotherapist with a practice in New York City. His yearly Realization Practice Studies retreats at the Garrison Institute in New York’s Hudson Valley have attracted health care professionals and lay Buddhists interested in exploring psychodynamic approaches to the human mind.

“The path to studying both Zen and psychoanalysis with the former’s emphasis on practice is to study the experience of self,” Seiso wrote in his 2019 book, Zen Insight, Psychoanalytic Action. “The study of self requires being fully and totally present with one’s experience here and now. No other time, place, or vantage point exists except the immediate and present situation.”

The retreats are limited to 30 participants to allow for an intimate setting. Like traditional Buddhist retreats, the Realization Practice Studies events include one-on-one teacher interviews as well as scheduled discussion periods for participants.

At the heart of the retreat is zazen, or seated meditation, the central practice of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism. Half-hour zazen sessions are scheduled throughout each day to create mental spaciousness, a suspension of ordinary ways of thinking that allows fresh insights into the internal mechanisms of the mind to arise spontaneously.

“The path to studying both Zen and psychoanalysis is to study the experience of self.”

Though Zen masters have described zazen as an undertaking best practiced without a specific goal in mind, zazen does have a helpful by-product—a direct deconstruction of the unconscious. As Seiso wrote in Zen Insight, Psychoanalytic Action, “zazen exerts a direct deconstruction of unconscious, habitual chain reactions that engender stereotypical thoughts, feelings, and attitudes by disrupting deeply ingrained thought trains.”

In other words, zazen offers retreatants direct insight into the otherwise unconscious formation of their own thoughts and emotions, enabling a deepened appreciation for the spontaneous arising of all experience.

“The opportunity to sit zazen with other psychoanalysts and therapists committed first to listening to their patients and second to knowing and listening to themselves is both rare and rich,” said Jonathan Sugar, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who attended the June 2019 retreat. “I left the retreat committed to listening ever more intently. And to further my practice and the study of Zen.”

In addition to attending zazen sessions and discussions on Buddhism and psychoanalysis, retreatants practice social dreaming, where participants share dreams in a communal setting without interpretation or analysis. Social dreaming was created by the psychoanalyst Gordon Lawrence as a way to allow images from the unconscious to speak for themselves. By creating space for images from the unconscious to emerge, social dreaming often reveals, Seiso says, “a collective intention, the purpose for gathering together and expressing the dharma as Buddhist practitioners and psychotherapists. . . . It brings the unconscious into the retreat experience and brings a synergistic quality to the retreat as a whole.”

This year’s retreat is scheduled for October 22–24. Whether it will be virtual or in-person is still uncertain. In either case, Seiso Sensei says he plans
to lead a discussion on the complementarity he believes to exist between the 13th-century Zen master Dogen’s notion of “just sitting” and the idiosyncratic approach to psychoanalytic listening developed by the British analyst Wilfred Bion. The comparison between Bion and Dogen serves to illuminate a notion that is essential, in Seiso’s view, to both Soto Zen and psychotherapy: the fact that mental spaciousness can be an “understanding beyond words.”

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