Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Get a self

The Sunday Times magazine had an article about a Zen "master" seeing a therapist. ( I put master in quotes because I have real concerns about how masterful someone who has such obvious blindspots really is. I know I'm not supposed to be judgmental, but it's been 25 years since I first heard the expression, "You have to have a self before you can let go of self." What this means is that if you aren't psychologically integrated and healthy to some reasonable degree, spiritual practice won't have the desired effect. It's what's called a "spiritual bypass," meaning, you try to use spirituality to solve life's persistent problems--relationships, work, substance abuse, etc. Meditation doesn't cure anything. (I can't believe I just wrote that. . . ). This Zen guy had been divorced four times--usually a big clue about lack of emotional health. The description of him is typical of someone who is attached to spiritual ideas. It's very sad, really, how he describes connecting with the idea of forgetting the self. He felt invisible as a kid, so a practice that suggested wiping out the self was perfect.

The Western approach to Eastern spirituality can be very romantic and naive, full of magical thinking. When I first started meditating, I thought it was not only going to cure me, but was going to result in fame and fortune--somehow, meditating was going to make me a rock star. Don't ask me how. When you can't face reality, when you don't want to feel your feelings or be responsible, what you do is come up with magic to believe in. It's about transcending reality, and believing that reality is all an illusion anyway, so why bother.

Getting sober and working a program gave me a whole different way of viewing spiritual practice. At first I didn't think of what I was doing as spiritual, getting a job, going to school, trying to bring some integrity to my relationships. But now I think of those things, and all the practical aspects of life, as being key to my spiritual life. After all, Right Livelihood is part of the Eightfold Path; Sila, or morality, is one of the three major components of the Buddhist path (the others are meditation and wisdom). I mean, what do I think my life is? Sitting on a cushion and feeling blissful? How I actually live seems like the real test--not how many thoughts I can let go of or how many breaths I can pay attention to. I love meditation and it's incredibly valuable, but it's only part of the path. If it's not supporting an integrated, happy life, then something's missing.


  1. Hello Kevin,
    I also read that article that had been recommended to me by Bill Alexander. His whole approach to meeting the therapist seemed to affirm your concerns you noted above. Seemed to me that the therapist had a stronger anchor in dharma teaching than did the 'master' who was struggling so hard. But of course that's then my judging coming into mind.

  2. Hi Kevin,

    This essay really spoke to me and addressed some misconceptions I hold about meditation, recovery and practice. Perhaps this is the result of watching too many Kung-fu movies. It's easy to over-mystify Eastern philosophy and forget about chopping wood and carrying water. I live in Tacoma and am hoping to be able to attend your upcoming recovery class in Portland. I read your book and it is helping me to find the path.