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Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Psychology ... Zen ...

Our zendo group (sangha) recently discussed a koan story about a lady who heard a lecture from a wise teacher about how one might find “a Buddha of light” in one’s mind and heart, an infinite enlightenment within one’s own body, a light that would make everything you encounter seem to glow. So, the woman takes this to heart and a few days later she has a religious experience while washing a pot. Everything started to glow for her. So she ran over and found the great teacher and told him about it. He tried to deflate her a bit by asking if the smelly pit beneath an outhouse would also glow for her. She slapped him and called him an old fart (just to play off the teacher’s eschatalogical theme, I guess). He got a laugh out of that. End of story.

Turns out that all of this has something to do with happiness. Or so said the guy who wrote the book that we are studying, a Zen teacher named John Tarrant (book entitled “Bring Me the Rhinoceros”). Roshi Tarrant’s challenges his readers by asking “Are You Afraid of Happiness?” He sums it up by saying “when you are not afraid to forget who you are, life in the kitchen or life in the office might contain huge and overwhelming happiness [assumedly, one’s life in the smelly outhouse might also qualify . . . just to push this koan’s gastro-eschatology to the limit!] . . . when you are not afraid of your own happiness, you don’t get in its way”.

Happiness is an interesting word. The more you think about it, the less you understand it. If you try to define it, you lose it. If you try to “pursue” it, as the Founding Fathers gave us a right to do, you are probably in for a lot of frustration and disappointment. How do you pursue something that you really don’t know how to define? Something that appears to be defined by society, but when you get there you feel let down, as the rich and famous often tell us? Happiness is sort of a “koan” in itself, just as maddening a concept as the “sound of one hand clapping” or “your face before you were conceived”. (Or the guy who always speaks lies who tells you that he always speak lies; which is another lie OK, but only because it in itself is a truth . . . or was a truth? Hmmm . . . )

Tarrant basically says that happiness can find you if you stop chasing yourself, stop building up an “unhealthy” ego focused on your own happiness (especially if you are using those social standards of power, wealth and fame, throwing some sex, youth and beauty into the equation too). Fine; this is the old lesson of learning to let go, stop chasing your object of desire.

But what happens then? Would you then become permanently “happy” by not wanting to be happy? And even if that gambit worked, would you truly want to be happy all the time? Or is it better to have some unhappiness interspersed between bouts of happiness? And if so, is that a state of “true happiness”? I.e., does pure happiness cause or require unhappiness (but not so much as to cause neurosis, misery and depression)? Or would even a “balanced mix” of happiness and unhappiness get boring? For life to be real, do we have to face the true “pit of dung”, the real possibility that all is black, that happiness is just a cruel illusion? (Along with Heaven, Nirvana, and “Enlightenment” . . . )

Tarrant seems to retain his faith in “happiness”, with a Zen back-door approach to it. I’m not sure if being “afraid of happiness” is really the problem; what the hell could happiness really be, that is more the problem here.

You can have fun trying to think about all this too much – but you won’t be rewarded with happiness for finally achieving the right answer. Hey, that’s what koans are about (or not about). You don’t crack a koan by grokking it. You just have to live life and try to appreciate just being alive, nothing too much more. If you can dump “happiness” and end the pursuit thereof (without trying too hard at it), maybe it will all make more sense.

Well . . . one other thing about happiness that I will throw in here. And that regards the shrink industry. I’m talking about therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, ACSW’s, those people. We have a few of them in our zendo, and a lot of their fans and customers. Quite a few people I’ve spoken to think that shrinks are really necessary to address any complex personal problem. Obviously, I don’t agree. Not to say that psychological therapy is totally spurious; it certainly is necessary to identify serious disorders (schizophrenia, autism, chronic depression, etc.) and may well do some good in helping people deal cope with terrible shocks (including soldiers returning from battlefields with PTSD, children who are raped, etc.).

But as to the success of therapy in dealing with emotionally dysfunctional situations, in dealing with “unhappiness” in relationships, there I have my doubts. Shrinks may have wonderful paradigms of how the brain and mind works and how behaviors are driven; but as to changing any one person’s mind states and behavior towards more positive states, well . . . The main problem is an informational one, a question of what a shrink can really know about a person that she or he is trying to treat. (I guess that makes it a problem of epistemology, a word which I have sometimes confused with eschatology, which was serendipitously mentioned earlier!) How can a shrink really judge a patient, if she or he is relying almost entirely on what the patient says to him or her in a 50 minute session? Is that really the patient, or a picture that the patient is painting specifically for the therapist? Does a series of 50 minute interviews really tell the therapist who that patient is?

Psychologists and ACSW’s hardly ever do any “field research” on what the patient is like in his or her day to day life. (Marital therapy is a bit more grounded in that the therapist actually sees the couple interacting; but still, interacting with the therapist in the picture, which cannot help but distort the picture). And yet, people go to shrinks and pay big money so as to tell them a story and thus have a “professional” take their story seriously. Who knows just how that story stacks up against day to day reality.

I’ve had some well intentioned people in my zendo tell me that I shouldn’t let a close relative of mine confide in me with regard to the problems with his “significant other” (no, it’s not a gay thing; but almost as complex, actually). They told me that I should refer that relative to a therapist, and go see a therapist myself to talk about my talks with my relative. Obviously, I did not follow up. I don’t think that we would all have more “happiness” if I were to do that (except for the shrinks who I would be writing checks to).

Again, shrinks can and do help people in extreme distress, plus those with behavioral dysfunctions driven by brain imbalances (chronic or acute). But as to helping people with otherwise functional brains to find happiness in their relationships (and most importantly, in their relationship with themselves) . . . I think it’s best to admit that shrinks don’t know what happiness is any more than anyone else (and neither do Zen teachers, with all their “enlightenment” jive, know what it is about). Perhaps the best thing a shrink could tell someone seeking to be happy in their love life or work life or family life (or whatever life) is that to seek happiness is to guarantee that you won’t actually BE happy (unless by accident, when you’re not looking).

You cannot “find” happiness (or “enlightenment” either, for that matter). If the shrink told you what I just wrote, at least you’d get a word of wisdom in return for your $100 per hour. The concept of happiness, along with other great ideas such as truth and God and beauty, is a very complex and convoluted koan (oh, and don’t forget Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where Robert Pirsig tried to turn the word “quality” into a koan, at the cost of his own sanity). A good dose of humility is recommended when standing before “happiness”, and before deciding to “pursue” it – including pursuit of a “healthy, happy mind” with the aid of a professional psychological therapist.

P.S. — Again I repeat the caveat that I am speaking here mainly about disappointments and broken hearts and he-said / she-said’s; and not about bipolar mood swings and chronic depression and other major and self-destructive dysfunctions; for those, go see that shrink!

P.P.S. — And in case you wondered . . . yes, John Tarrant, the Zen happiness guy, has a doctorate in psychology and practices psychotherapy. What a surprise. And as the teacher-leader of various Zen groups, Tarrant has been accused of sexual indiscretions with his students. A Zen teacher exploiting his students? Oh wow, another huge surprise [NOT].

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:33 pm      

  1. Jim, Once again, I think of your comments here as two separate issues: One on happiness, a second on “shrinks” and their effectiveness in helping one achieve happiness.

    So, first: I can’t agree with you more: The more a person thinks about being happy, the more a person tries to be happy, the more happiness eludes him/her. Oddly enough, one has to forget about happiness or being happy to find it.

    I myself have noticed that every single time in my life I have pursued something (in my case usually not something tangible like a “thing” but something intangible like an educational goal, but that’s me; everybody has his/her own goals) I have found that once I actually achieve the goal, I’m somehow disappointed. Well, not disappointed so much as more of what we used to call “let down”.

    I ultimately decided that it was the *working* toward the goal that was “happiness making” than achieving the goal. (Nowadays they overuse the word “journey”, but I tend to think they likely mean the same thing I am referring to. Yet somehow the overuse tends to diminish the meaning of the term.) Could that be part of what makes for a person being happy-—that is, the working toward some achievement rather than the getting of the achievement as such? Not sure myself; just asking. But I have a hunch the answer may lie somewhere in that area-—working toward something is more “happiness making” than achieving the goal itself.

    Then, too, I’ve discovered that in times when one has a “right” to be unhappy-—as in some situation where some seriously bad thing has been done to one-—there is a way to come to some kind of happiness. This is not my idea. I read about this. Specifically, I read about a woman whose daughter had been killed by a man. She found that nothing could make her happy any more, when she tho’t of the evil that man had done her daughter and of the loss in her life due to her daughter’s death.

    This woman realized she could not live well if she wished the man who killed her daughter evil. So she hit on the idea of wishing one small good thing a day for the man who killed her daughter. E.g., that the sun shine on him soothingly or that a sandwich taste good to him, something so small as that was about all she was capable of wishing well for him. But over time, wishing that one small thing for that man each day eased her sorrow and pain—-did something good for HER even in such a dire situation.

    I have tried this method in my own particular situations in life that caused me unhappiness. If one works at it, it is extremely helpful in first, helping the person to come to a kind of place where one’s pain, anger, unhappiness is not necessarily turned around but is somewhat neutralized. Over time one can come to a place where one is not totally unhappy over a particular situation—-which is a whole lot better than being seriously unhappy. Eventually, one realizes that perhaps some unknown good might come from the situation.

    That’s about the best I can do when it comes to happiness. I tend to think that if one concentrates on doing small good things for others in life one tends to be more happy; I also know that concentrating on “I want to be happy” is a sure way to NOT be happy.

    Second: As to “shrinks” and their ability to help one achieve happiness. Again, I tend to “side with” you on this issue. I’ve known of “shrinks” who, when an individual cried over a situation (which rightly deserved some crying), the “shrinks” saw it as a “breakthrough” (their word). I found that ludicrous. In the end nothing changed, everything returned to its original “position” after about a month. The only ones who considered some real progress had been made in the crisis were the shrinks. I couldn’t help but think that at least THEY tho’t they had achieved something; I knew nothing had been achieved in reality.

    The fact of the matter is that when it comes to “shrinks” the only way they help is if the person coming to them for help wants some kind of intellectual guidance in finding the solution to the problem. Then it’s always a matter of a person talking things out while another person listens so that the individual can come to his/her own understanding of what the answer is. It’s the listening that seems somehow important in these particular situations. (Right there is the reason psychoanalysts, and other kinds of psychiatric workers, say that one must be “intelligent” to find “shrinks” helpful.)

    And here I should like to point out that “shrink” is a very general word that covers several very different kinds of “shrinks”: psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychoanalysts; then there are the ACSWs, the LCSWs, the Psy.D’s, etc. (See for a list of credentialed “shrinks.”)

    Most people don’t understand the difference among these several kinds of practitioners, nor do they CARE what the difference is. Some people never come to an intellectual understanding of their problem; in fact, most people do not WANT an intellectual understanding of their problem. They want an emotional/psychological SOLUTION to the situation. Often in life’s messiness (and haven’t we all experienced just that—-life’s messiness) there is no easy solution that can be handed out by the “shrink”.

    So, I 100% agree with you that in the situation with your family member it would probably be futile to seek help from a “shrink”. I myself in my own family have experienced the ineffectiveness—-even somewhat harmful-¬effects of a “Shrink” who told someone I know that she should “express” herself more. When another person who knew her well heard that, she said: “She’s the last one who needs to ‘express’ herself more.”

    So, in some cases, while the “shrinks” may follow their particular theory, it may not be the best in a particular situation. I also know of an individual who went to see a “shrink” because he wanted to get some medicine for depression. He had to go to the “shrink” before he could get to the psychiatrist for the prescription for the medication he wanted/needed. He told me that he told the “shrink” that he was not married and had no children, when he was married and had 2 children. I said, “Why did you do that?” His answer was: “I don’t want her to know my business.” So, it seems to me that one question the “shrinks” should be asking FIRST is: Is this person telling me the facts of his/her life or just saying what he/she thinks I might want to hear.

    All this having been said, in the end, I reiterate: I agree with you much more than I disagree with you—¬in fact, there is little here concerning which I disagree with you. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — March 21, 2012 @ 3:02 pm

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