Ordinary Mind: Exploring the Common Ground of Zen and Psychotherapy (Book Review)

Title: Ordinary Mind: Exploring the Common Ground of Zen and Psychotherapy
Author:  Magid, Barry
Publisher: Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2002
Reviewed By: Susan B. Parlow, Winter 2004, pp. 34-36

Towards a Psychology of Presence

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a little verse to a friend who was ill: “Suchness is the ultimate reality./ How can birth and death touch you?/ Awaken early to the pink dawn. /Peace comes without effort.”

His gift to his friend was remarkable—a jewel evoking a luminous and powerfully kind reality as the actual domain of human life, an inviolable haven as death approaches. It is characteristic of Buddhist writing in evoking the very sublimity that the individual already is and inviting the person to seek this presence at the deepest level of existence--our true nature yet so different from our ordinary, everyday selves. For the individual to realize this sublimity requires taking up the psychological work of meditation and the ethical work of the Eightfold Noble Path. “Small mind”—that same personal self that is the object and subject of psychoanalytic study—is slowly transformed into “big mind,” the universal Way, which Barry Magid refers to as the Zen unconscious, embodied in this particular individual.

People seek this oneness, wholeness and peace through the austere practice of Zazen, sitting silently on floor cushions in groups for many, many hours. Contrast this meditative activity with “love and work” in the noisy, conflictual, violent world that conditions and forms us on a daily basis, and one begins to see the climate in which many today, including Magid, are practicing Zazen. It is one thing to practice meditation in a serene monastic community in the Japanese or Vietnamese countryside. It is something substantially different to do so in New York City, or Chicago, while actively engaged in trying, at the same time, to live a decent life as a citizen in the restless, materialistic, exciting democracy of our contemporary situation. This situation requires a flexible and self-possessed individuality that manages personal feelings, impulses, and the dynamics of a multileveled mind. The development of this individuality is difficult enough that many people enter lengthy psychotherapies to construct a viable self, one that can navigate the challenges of this culture and historical moment. The two historically and metaphysically different systems of thought and practice, Zen and psychoanalysis, are both used today by many yet remain two separate horizons of endeavor, often seeming parallel to each other with no points of contact in either theory or practice. We lack an articulated sense of how the notion of the self and the transformations of Zen compare to the changes that result from psychotherapy.

Barry Magid’s useful book Ordinary Mind, is the chronicle of a psychoanalyst, trained in self psychology, who has also been for several decades a Zen practitioner and teacher. He has been living in, practicing, and thinking about this intersection of Buddhism and psychoanalysis for over two decades. In fact, his book is not only about this intersection but rests at an intersection of intersections. Magid’s primary intent is to begin to translate basic Zen concepts and recent psychoanalytic concepts into one mutually comprehensible view of the self and its possible development and transformation. In so doing, he contends with many other intersections that contribute to our contemporary situation: not only that of Zen Buddhism and psychoanalysis but also, within the Zen tradition, the intersection of Soto and Rinzai schools of thought (he prefers the former), and the contrast between Asian Buddhism and what has been recently referred to as a new American school of Buddhism (more on this below). In psychoanalysis he sits at the intersection of classical Freudian drive theory and more recent models of self psychology and intersubjectivity; he debates issues of secularity vs. spirituality, monastic vs. lay practice; east vs. west, and more. Although there are times when his discussions, situated in a context of such crisscrossing issues, become a little vague, generally Magid stays in illuminating focus by tracking and explicating in detail his own carefully reflected upon personal encounter with these various dualities. That he touches on so many issues which inhere in our contemporary experience of subjectivity gives this book a broad appeal--many people will find something useful here.

Magid’s book closely follows the example set by his teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, whom he refers to warmly throughout. Beck is the head of the San Diego Zen Center and is considered a major developer of American Zen. Born in New Jersey, divorced, beginning Zen practice at age 40, she was formed in our contemporary culture rather than within a Zen monastery, so that when she began to practice meditation her own identity was already that of a secular, psychological self. Beck points out that since the purpose of Zen is to awaken us fully to life as it is actually lived we must embrace the everydayness of our American lives rather than pursue special enlightenment experiences that take us into a rarified domain, however enshrouded in certain Japanese traditions they might be. She teaches meditation rooted in her own experience as an American “psychological ‘man’” looking directly at the actual bodily tensions, emotions and thought patterns which emerge into consciousness while we sit. This is a sharp contrast to certain Zen traditions where body tensions and personal feelings were to be ignored as one concentrated elsewhere in order to achieve enlightenment. Further, she points out that the pursuit of something special such as enlightenment sets up a dual situation: self, and something else it is pursuing or desires; yet the overcoming of dualities is precisely the aim of Zen. Beck instead focuses on training to being wholly present in everyday moments in a kitchen enlightenment, however ordinary this may seem, and using the actuality of our own existences as the field in which we deepen our capacity for full presence. Magid’s self-psychology background allows him to take the additional step of grasping the narcissistic temptation inherent in pursuing something special, and he adopts Beck’s base as his starting and ending point for both Zen and therapy. Through this shift to everydayness as the beginning point, medium, and goal of practice, the model of the person becomes the same in Zen and psychoanalysis. He builds on this commonality in the book to render the unique qualities and goals of Zen development intelligible in terms familiar to the practicing psychoanalytic clinician.

This approach of seeking enlightenment in the ongoingness of our everyday lives responds to a question facing every religious tradition in Western cultures today: how do we describe the spiritual quest in terms that are not merely other-worldly, esoteric and elitist? An emphasis on a transcendent spirituality, one that requires leaving the everyday world behind in search of special states and private experiences, forces a split between the ordinary needs of people and the value of religion. Whether Buddhist enlightenment or Christian mysticism, transcendent spiritualities are subject to the atheist criticism of Feuerbach, embraced by Freud, that they are in the end a mere projection of the finest potentials of the human self and as such constitute a proto-psychology. Religion today is challenged to demonstrate otherwise. Ordinary Mind is a valuable clinical journal that demonstrates the unique contribution of psychoanalytic therapy and Zazen as they work together--like “one foot forward and one behind”--to foster wholehearted, compassionate functioning in the world in a way not possible with one practice alone.

Magid finds that both Zen and psychoanalysis, in practice, are “structured disciplines of attention” that lead over time to profound changes in personality structure. Psychoanalysis pivots around the close attention of the analyst in exploring the unconscious meanings, impulses and feelings in the subjective experience of the analysand. To the Zen mind, having the self work on parts of the self in this manner perpetuates a dualism. Zen specifically disengages the content of thought, viewing thought as merely the activity of the mind just as vision is the activity of the eye. Zazen disciplines the self by rooting the personal self in the anticipation of the eternal within, concretized in the meticulous details of meditation and following the breath. The self detaches, again and again, from thoughts, feelings and bodily tensions as attention stays with the breath. Eventually, the whole self achieves oneness with the breath and functions in the world in a new way: rooted no longer in individual needs, but in the deeper pulse of life in each moment. At this level a new spontaneous self-organization emerges and compassion, a deep and abiding sense of responsibility, and humility guide actions in the world. Zen works to help the whole self dispose itself to openness to the present moment. Magid argues that psychoanalysis has not only not been able to conceptualize these changes in personality achieved by Buddhism, it forecloses this possibility of understanding these changes through Freud’s influential definition of religious oneness as regression, and through clinging to narrowly restrictive scientific and humanist worldviews. Buddhism’s rootedness in the existence of the eternal “Zen unconscious,” which exists independently of human effort or conditioning and is more than the personal unconscious, affords it an Archimedean point from which it can hold the whole self. Magid suggests that psychoanalysis, lacking this capacity, sets the ceiling for human development too low. On the other hand, Buddhism lacks eyes to see the personal feelings and needs of the individual, so that often in monasteries and sanghas a well-intentioned traditional formalism winds up doing emotional damage to the person in the absence of skilled awareness of emotional realms.

Magid proposes that the intersubjective and relational turn in psychoanalytic thought now enables our discipline to conceptualize the levels of experience and functioning that Zen cultivates. In particular, the impact of Kohut’s self psychological theorizing on the previous Freudian model: away from scientific objectivity, a drive-based reduction of personal existence, and a model of the autonomous individual as the pinnacle of human development, towards a non-reductive, empathic entering into the subjectivity of the analyzed--opens up a different view of self-in-world that resonates with the Buddhist view of the universe. Kohut’s subject lives in an experiential world peopled by selfobjects, persons who are, in the normal state of affairs, necessary for the self to be evoked and maintained. The selfobject relationship includes a sense of oneness between the self and the selfobject that cannot be reduced to other levels of analysis. The vital role played by this relationship in the formation and maintenance of the self over time indicates that the human self cannot unfold solely from internal sources, but requires evocation from figures in the environment. This, plus the transformative and enlivening experience of oneness within selfobject relationships, allows Magid to conceptually connect the worldview of contemporary psychoanalysis with that of the key Buddhist notion of dependent co-origination. This pillar of Buddhist philosophy represents the entire manifest universe as a flux of perpetual co-creation. Nothing has an independent existence or an essential nature that separates it from all other things

If this is, that comes to be;
From the arising of this, that arises;
If this is not, that does not come to be;
From the ceasing of this, that ceases

This bridge between the two is a cornerstone of his theoretical link between the two worlds. For example, Magid articulates the manner in which intersubjectivity theory of Stolorow and Atwood resonates with Buddhist notions of the interweaving of creation in the moment and opens up understandings that overcome Western alienation from nature and the global social matrix. He builds on this foundation to illuminate Buddhist concepts of oneness, enlightenment, emptiness, no-self, and the depiction of the spontaneously self-organizing universal presence within the human mind that he terms the Zen unconscious.

Ordinary Mind is a valuable step forward in making two radically different healing techniques available to each other in both thought and practice. The luminosity of the Buddhist monastic world and the pragmatism of the therapeutic endeavor are woven together in many different ways throughout the chapters in a manner that gives texture to each. At times he may overstate his case, for example, I do not agree that we lose nothing if we do away with monastic Buddhism and just practice lay sitting on a daily basis. Monastic meditation continually refines and purifies the well-disposed practitioner at levels that clarify certain potentials in human character. But I surely agree with Magid that Zen practiced regularly by people who have also engaged in psychotherapies creates a synergy not anticipated by early Japanese roshis and one with great promise for each practice. With the help of this book, teachers and students in both camps can reflect fruitfully on the benefits of the other.

Reviewer Note

Susan B. Parlow is a graduate of the NYU Postdoctoral Program, is in private practice in New York City. She studies theology at Fordham University and has engaged in spiritual disciplines, including Zazen, for over 15 years.

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