The terms psychotherapy and spirituality cover a lot of territory: the more we’re caught up in ideas surrounding these labels, the more difficult it is to work effectively with certain obstructive forces that often arise as one’s meditation practice deepens. When we dismiss such problematic mental and emotional phenomena as “merely psychological,” we can wind up painting ourselves into a corner. Without an understanding of the underlying dynamics of the unconscious mind, we inevitably fail to address them appropriately, and the failure is likely to have serious consequences for ourselves and others.

On the other hand, as practice develops, the sharp distinctions between what may be worked with in psychotherapy and what can be addressed through dharma practice begin to blur and fall away. For Western converts to Buddhist meditation practices—and we include ourselves in this category—working with the direct experience of the mind as it unfolds, coupled with a clearer sense of the underlying dynamics of the psyche conditioned by Western culture, helps us to simplify and clarify our understanding, opening the door to new possibilities for healing and transformation.

Related: Are You Looking to Buddhism When You Should Be Looking to Therapy?

Aspects of the unconscious that are pervasive features of the Western psyche—the hidden roots of the psychological systems that have developed to address those features—commonly arise for meditation-oriented practitioners. In reality, of course, there’s no such thing as “the unconscious,” and yet there is a certain heuristic convenience in writing about it as if there were. Our intent here is to use the term liberally, meaning that it includes all the different kinds of psychological forces, both creative and destructive, that lie outside of our everyday awareness. More specifically, when we refer to “the repressed unconscious” we’re talking about not only thoughts, feelings, and impulses but also the buried needs and narcissistic tendencies that we’ve learned to push beneath the surface of our awareness because they’re too painful, conflicted, or threatening to face directly.

For some people the material in the repressed unconscious is relatively benign, while for others it can be quite the opposite—so much depends on our early life experiences. What’s significant here is that our forbidden feelings, impulses, and needs, along with the complex defensive mechanisms that hold them in check, create a dynamic system that gets fired up, or mobilized, through intensified forms of dharma practice. It is clear that the quieter the mind and the more penetrating the practice, the more thoroughly this unconscious material becomes mobilized.

These deeper realms of the mind hold profound healing energies—but certainly that’s not all. The greater the mobilization, the more powerfully the shadow-like energies of the psyche also move toward the surface. As these obstructive and destructive forces become increasingly active, they trigger a range of internal responses, including unconscious anxiety and the defensive systems long woven into the subtle fabric of our being. All of this is normal in the process of deepening practice.

The less we’re aware of our unconscious dynamics, the stronger their influence will be on our practice, lives, and relationships.

We’re aware that the notion of spiritual bypassing, which maintains that unresolved psychological issues can be overlooked or excluded from spiritual practice, has long been accepted by many as valid and useful. For many years we ourselves didn’t question this view, but we now find this interpretation simply doesn’t fit with a fuller understanding of the mobilized unconscious. Just as no one would seriously claim that you can “bypass” your karma, neither can we sidestep our intrapsychic issues.

Our experience has shown us that such internal dynamics, particularly those connected with repressed anger, cannot be ignored or pushed aside without potentially significant consequences. These darker forces have a life of their own and so need to be addressed directly. We can’t actually “bypass” anything—everything is interconnected; all boats rise and fall with the tide. The roots of these inner mechanisms run deep, and they are often tightly intertwined with our implicit sense of self. What’s important here is that, in general, the less we’re aware of these unconscious dynamics, the stronger their influence will be on our practice, lives, and relationships.

Furthermore, if these repressive forces are not addressed, they can become more entrenched within the practice itself: over time they have the potential to manifest themselves more fully as obstructions in practice and as dysfunctions in the teacher-student relationship. One of the great opportunities we now have in contemporary approaches to dharma is to clarify and expand our understanding of the ways these dynamics, so often rooted in the punitive superego, play themselves out in the minds and lives of those of us raised in Western culture. Naturally, the earlier on in a person’s practice these issues can be addressed, the better.

To see into these mechanisms, the first thing we have to contend with is an often idealized attitude toward practice itself. As long as we hold fast to the simple notions that meditation practices are universally healing and “the more we practice, the better,” the further away we move from a realistic grasp of the situation. If this idealized view were true, then how is it that a substantial number of dedicated practitioners find themselves slipping into extended depressive states, as both informal observation and formal research make plain? (See, for example, the research conducted by Dr. Willoughby Britton and others at Brown University.) More to the point, how are we to understand the disturbing, unethical behavior of so many dharma teachers? How are we to explain the fact that individuals who have been practicing for decades, and who have supposedly had at least some measure of awakening, could act in such destructive and highly narcissistic ways?

What has become clear to us over time is that these painful outcomes of depression and transgression are in fact related and are both intimately linked to the unconscious dynamics of mobilization and further repression. What’s also clear is that the profound teachings and practices of the Buddha can be profoundly misused. While practice certainly does not cause dysfunction, it does work to bring old issues to the surface, where they may be painfully reenacted and reinforced. On the other hand, when addressed more skillfully, these darker energies can be resolved and transmuted—to become powerful guardians of the dharma, supporting us as we find our way through the often turbulent waters of the psyche.

To back up a bit: people come to practice for many reasons—some more universal, some more personal. Often it’s the painful elements from our past, conscious and unconscious, that drive us: we look to practice, at least in part, for relief, resolution, and perhaps even salvation. Such early wounds leave an imprint on the whole of the psyche. Embedded within these experiences we usually find intense feelings that frequently include not just pain, fear, and grief but, more significantly, anger, guilt, and all the hidden needs and hurtful impulses that go along with these difficult, often conflicting emotions.

The American clinical psychologist John Welwood put his finger on it as early as 2002 when he wrote the following in Toward a Psychology of Awakening:

Spiritual teachers often exhort us to be loving and compassionate, or to give up selfishness and aggression, but how can we do this if our habitual tendencies arise out of a whole system of psychological dynamics that we have never clearly seen or faced, much less worked with? People often have to feel, acknowledge, and come to terms with their anger before they can arrive at genuine forgiveness or compassion.

If this is all true, then the question becomes: What can we do about it? Are there ways these core issues of the unconscious can be addressed in the midst of practice and even as practice—or are we required to somehow “psychologize” them and work with them in a different sphere altogether?

Paper sculpture of secret garden psychotherapy and buddhism
Artwork by Jeff Nishinaka

Of course it can be said that we do work on these issues in practice: we have, for example, the bodhisattva vows, precept study, metta meditation, and koan work. Yet as powerful and transformative as these practices can be, by themselves they may leave big gaps in our training. What complicates things is that our dharma practices (which for the most part derive from Asian monastic traditions) have been planted not in some neutral zone but rather one heavily conditioned by the legacy of Western thought and spirituality.

Although the fundamental ground of mind may indeed be universal, the psychological and cultural differences between Asian and Western psyches have been well documented by many scholars, among them the social psychologists Anthony Marsella, Richard Nisbett, Shinobu Kitayama, and Hazel Rose Markus. Historically, these differences have included ways of thinking, feeling, and paying attention, as well as the ways we use language and even our very sense of self. With regard to dharma practice, one of the most significant differences may be found in the ways we relate to shame and guilt. Although they are tricky terms to define, “shame” tends to manifest itself relationally, while “guilt” finds more inward forms of expression. What this means in the context of practice is that shame—which numerous cultural studies have shown manifests in Asian cultures more often than in Western ones—involves reaching out beyond oneself. On the other hand, guilt—a more common feature of the Western superego—triggers a greater tendency to shut down, disconnect, and move in more punitive directions. When these destructive energies come into play and are turned against oneself, they often show up as recurring barriers to deepening practice. And if these forces are directed outward—especially by those in positions of spiritual authority—they will inevitably have a damaging impact on others and on the dharma as a whole. The struggle becomes further accentuated when we try to impose artificial distinctions between “spiritual” and “psychological” on what is essentially a living process without clear demarcations.

What we’ve been finding in our own work, practice, and teaching is that for many people, integrating a dynamic understanding of practice itself can help open pathways to deep and lasting change. Although some will disagree with this approach, its roots can be traced back to early Buddhist traditions.

The 12th-century Chan master Tai-hui (Dahui Zonggao), for example, wrote: “If you can instantaneously realize the truth of nonexistence without departing from lust, hate, and ignorance, you can grasp the weapons of the Demon King and use them in an opposite way. You can then turn these evil companions into angels protecting the dharma. This is not done in an artificial or compulsory way. This is the nature of the dharma itself ” [trans. Garma C.C. Chang]. We can find similar teachings by other great masters such as Man-an, Yuanwu, Longchenpa, and Hongzhi.

In our own Zen community we’ve been exploring ways of dealing more experientially with the unconscious in all of our dharma work. Along with weeklong sesshin, we also offer three- and five-day retreats that focus more directly on listening to the unconscious and working with the intrapsychic dynamics that so often arise in the silence of intensified practice. These retreats, although grounded in traditional zazen practice, also draw from contemporary psychotherapeutic approaches and help transform the powerful energies of the repressed unconscious into true insight and compassionate action.

The buddhadharma may well be the most diverse spiritual path in the world; its timeless essence has found unique expression within each new culture it has entered. Coming to the modern West may well constitute its biggest leap yet, and we are now finding our way through significant challenges in this process of cultural transmission.

As this unfolds, we’re becoming increasingly aware of the ways in which intensive forms of practice mobilize and empower the whole of the psyche, and our experience continues to affirm that if we address conscious and unconscious issues directly as they arise, new pathways open up. This is not easy work, but as C.G. Jung observed, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

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