Zen & the Art of Therapy: A New Species of Listener

A Dharma Talk given on the 2nd of April 2018 at the Blue Cliff Zen Sangha in Costa Mesa, California

This weekend I discovered a research article on mindfulness that caught my attention for several reasons. The first being that it focused on mindfulness’s effects on therapists rather than clients. Psychotherapy research has long neglected the role of the counselor’s ‘way of being’ in therapy, in favor of techniques and models. The large majority of research out there now is all focused on the benefits mindfulness may bring to those seeking the help of counselors, rather than the possible effects on the counselors meeting with clients.

The second, and more important reason, was that the focus of the article was actually on Zen meditation rather than a secular mindfulness practice like Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or the like. As far as I know the large majority, if not all mindfulness research, is predominately done using some form of secular mindfulness practice like MBSR. This was a very interesting development. The counselors in this piece of research studied with Soto Zen Master Fumon Nakagawa Roshi and his colleagues from the Zen Center of Eisenbruch, Germany.

And the final reason was the results of the article. This article showed a significantly higher assessment of individual therapy by patients treated during the time that the therapist’s regularly took part in Zen meditation. Following their therapy sessions, the patients experienced their progress in understanding of their own psychodynamics, difficulties, and goals as superior. They also made better assessments of their progress in overcoming their difficulties and symptoms, and in developing new behaviors and transferring them into daily life. In other words, those therapists that were practicing Zen meditation, showed significantly better results with the folks they were working with.

Now of course there were some limitations to this study’s methodology. These included the short duration of the Zen training, and probably the primary limitation is that there was no placebo group. Regardless, I found myself over the weekend reflecting on how Zen practice has influenced my work as a counselor.

As University of Washington clinical faculty Tony Rousmaniere writes, Counseling is one of the few fields were we are required to sit eye to eye with someone else’s pain and be emotionally open as we try to help, while simultaneously withholding the instinctual urge to immediately do whatever we can to make it stop.

Many a time I have found myself following my breath, struggling to stay present, while the air leaves the room as a client takes me back in time to share their powerful, devastating trauma stories. Many a time I have found myself counting breaths as a couple I am working with struggles with disappointment, despair, and heartbreak.

I know this aspect of Zen practice, following our breath, the present moment awareness this brings about, has absolutely helped me support those that seek my help. But I think there’s more to it than that.

Also this weekend I read an article by academic Arthur Frank where he writes: The primal task of any therapist is to convince the client that the therapist is prepared to be a new and different sort of listener. [That] the initial problem of therapy is whether and how the therapist can convince the client that he or she is in the presence of a new species of listener, and that relationship enables the client to become a new narrator.

I love that. A new species of listener. That is what I believe Zen practice supports. A new way of listening, a new way of being with people.

In his writing, Buddhist Teacher Gil Fronsdal illustrates the power of careful listening by sharing a famous story from the Ramayana, an epic poem in the Hindu tradition. The story tells of Rama walking in the forest with some companions. When Rama starts hearing the faint whisper of a voice, he asks his companions if they can hear it. They say, “No.” Rama begins to walk toward the whisper. As he gets closer he recognizes it is his name that is being spoken, “Rama…Rama.” As the voice becomes louder, his friends still say they can’t hear it. Finally Rama comes to a large boulder from which the sound comes. He then places his two hands gently on the boulder. At this point the rock breaks open and inside is a person who has been stuck in the rock through a magic spell. By listening to the whisper he was able to discover what was locked up and then release it.

Pretty relevant to therapeutic practice I believe.

Now I know all of you here are not counselors. Well, some of you are. Buddhist practice has a way of capturing a fair share of psychologists, therapists, and counselors. But for those that aren’t, how might all this talk about “a new species of listener” be applicable to your lives?

It is here that I point to the Bodhisattva path. Or perhaps more specifically, to the precepts. In the precepts one of our vows goes something like “Listening and speaking from the heart, I vow to take up the Way of Not Speaking Falsely.” Now for this talk I am more interested in the listening from the heart rather than the speaking from the heart.

My hope for this talk is to encourage us to consider for a moment how we might sit with those we love? What kind of listening are we capable of as we move through this world? And what might the effects of listening from the heart have on those we meet along the path?

We live in a time were arguably we can say there are more people talking than listening. Just examine your own Facebook feed. Observe the current political discourse. This weekend I also learned a new word; “Phubbing.” Phubbing it seems is the new label for ignoring someone you’re with in a social setting to concentrate on your mobile phone. Unfortunately I’m a “phubber.”

We are also in a moment where many are urged to practice vulnerability, to speak their truth. Vulnerability as a way to dissolve shame, or vulnerability and speaking your truth in the effort to step into a more ‘authentic’self. But what is the value of vulnerability, or speaking your truth, if no one is there to hear or witness you?

So this is why I believe this practice, Zen practice, is so urgent to my life, and maybe yours. To quote Zen teacher John Tarrant; To hear the world is to love the world, is to lose yourself, is to keep company with people in the world.”

I believe when we listen actively, and with an open heart, we become bodhisattvas. Easing the suffering in the world perhaps just a little. Or maybe a lot.

Since I started this talk with the therapy theme I would like to end it with a story reported by Buddhist Psychiatrist Mark Epstein in his book Thoughts Without a Thinker. In it he describes how the promise of meditation was first recognized by William James. William James for those that don’t know was an American philosopher and psychologist, and the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States. He could be considered the Freud of North America. Anyway, the story goes that while lecturing at Harvard in the early 1900’s, James suddenly stopped his lecture when he noticed a visiting Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka in the audience. “Take my chair,” he is reported to have said. “You are better equipped to lecture on Psychology than I. This is the psychology everybody will be studying twenty-five years from now.”

Thank you.

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