This article first appeared in the January/February 1994 issue.

Like Zen masters, therapists must be experts at bypassing resistance.

ZEN BUDDHISM IS APPARENTLY THE OLDEST CONTINUING procedure in which one person sets out to change another. For at least 700 years, Zen masters have responded in a one-to-one relationship with someone who wishes to change. I will attempt to clarify the nature and influences of Zen on the ways of changing people in Western therapy, particularly in relation to the strategic, or directive, approach best represented by Milton Erickson.

THE GOAL OF ZEN IS SATORI, OR ENLIGHTENMENT, WHICH IS assumed to come about in relation to a teacher who, when successful, frees the student from a preoccupation with the past or the future (or with trying to become enlightened). The relevance of Zen to therapy becomes apparent when one observes that Western ideas of psychopathology are extreme versions of the problems of the average person dealt with in Zen. The client in distress is typically said to be preoccupied with the past, with guilts, obsessions or desires for revenge. Or the client can be overpreoccupied with the future, as with anxieties and phobias about what might happen. He or she struggles to control his or her thinking, wanting to be rid of certain thoughts.

Sometimes the client fears death and sometimes the client seeks it, being so depressed about living. Interpersonally, the client is often so attached to a person, either in anger or love, that it is like an addiction. Sometimes the person is fixed on material possessions or compulsively works and never enjoys a nice day. By definition, a symptomatic person keeps repeating behavior that causes distress while protesting that he or she would rather not be doing so and cannot help it. These kinds of foci and fixations are assumed in Zen to be preventing a person from fully experiencing the present moment, which is one way to view enlightenment.

In the 1950s, when Zen ideas began to enter the clinical field, there could not be a comparison with therapy. The psychodynamic ideology, which was what was available, contained premises so opposite from Zen that the two approaches could not be related. The focus on insight was in sharp contrast to the Zen focus on action. However, one therapist was establishing a therapy with a different set of ideas. Milton Erickson was known as the leading medical hypnotist of that time, and he was practicing a therapeutic approach that was new and was based on an ideology different from that of psychodynamic theory.

When 1 began to practice therapy and sought supervision from him, Erickson was the only therapist I knew about who had a new set of premises relevant to brief therapy. I also realized that one way to understand his directive therapy, which was incomprehensible in the nondirective psychodynamic framework, was to view it within the framework of some of the ideas of Zen. I talked to Erickson about the similarities between his work and the approach of Zen. His response was typical: He gave me case examples. These stories illustrated some of his views on the attempt to live in the present moment. For example, he described a case in which he hypnotized a golfer. The golfer was instructed to live only in the present moment, and so focus total attention on one shot at a time. When the man next played golf, he was aware only of each shot. On the 16th hole, he was shooting his best game, but he did not know what his score was or what hole he was on. He was aware of only the present moment and not of the context.

THE CYBERNETIC REVOLUTION influenced the field of therapy by introducing the ideas of self-corrective systems. Erickson had been a participant in the first Macy Conference in the late 1940s and he was familiar with systems theory. The relevance of this to Zen appears with the basic premise of Zen that human beings are trapped on the wheel of life and keep repeating distressing behavior. The more a person attempts to escape from this destiny, the more he or she is caught up in it because the attempts to change cause the system to continue. One goal of Zen is to free the person from the repeating system so that new, spontaneous behavior can occur. Obviously, that is also the goal of therapy. It is the assumption of Zen that the attempt to change, or help, causes the reaction that prevents change or help. Obviously, that is the assumption of a cybernetic, self-corrective system. As any element moves toward changes in the parameters of the system, a reaction occurs that prevents the change. How to change without activating the forces that prevent change is the paradox of both Zen and therapy. It requires an almost trickster approach to free the person from preventing change. As an example, how can one obey a teacher who is instructing one to think independently and not to obey teachers?

As part of the trickster aspect of enlightenment, both Zen masters and Erickson have been accused of being too concerned with interpersonal power and manipulation. In both situations, the need of a teacher to have power and skill in influencing people is simply assumed. As an example, Erickson liked to describe how someone in an audience called out that he could not be hypnotized and he defied Erickson to try. Erickson shifted the issue to whether the person was able to refuse to do what he was told. When the person insisted he could refuse, Erickson told him to come up the right aisle and sit beside him on his left. In defiance, the person came up the left aisle and sat beside him on his right. Erickson continued to induce a trance, assuming that is what the man wanted.

There is a Zen story one cannot read without thinking of Erickson (5): ~ The Master Bankei’s talks were attended not only by Zen students, but by persons of all ranks and sects . . . His large audiences angered a priest of the Nichiren sect because the adherents had left to hear about Zen. The self-centered Nichiren priest came to the temple, determined to debate with Bankei.

“Hey, Zen teacher,” he called out. “Wait a minute. Whoever respects you will obey what you say, but a man like myself does not respect you. Can you make me obey you?”

“Come up beside me and I will show you,” said Bankei.

Proudly, the priest pushed his way through the crowd to the teacher.

Bankei smiled. “Come over to my left side.”

The priest obeyed.

“No,” said Bankei, “we may talk better if you are on the right side. Step over here.”

The priest proudly stepped over to the right.

“You see,” observed Bankei, “you are obeying me, and I think you are a very gentle person. Now sit down and listen.” ~

One problem in helping a person who seeks help, or a person who seeks enlightenment, is that to help that person one must change his or her way of life of constantly seeking help. I recall Alan Watts telling a story of a Zen master who wished to inform his students that he could not enlighten them by teaching them something new. All the knowledge they needed to become enlightened was within them, so he could only help the students discover what they already knew. He said to a student, “You already know anything I could teach you.” The student assumed that this was a wise master withholding, for some educational reason, important truths. The student could not escape from the classification of himself as a student, yet that was the goal of the relationship.

In the 1950s, I began to find similarities among Zen, systems theory and the therapy of Milton Erickson. There was a way to describe human problems and an ideology for therapy that was an alternative to psychodynamic theory and practice. It was also different from the learning theory therapies that developed later. One dissatisfaction with psychodynamic therapy was the growing realization that people were being created who spent their lives monitoring themselves and hypothesizing why they did what they did. The constant preoccupation with exploring one’s past and watching out for unconscious conflicts led to an extreme self-consciousness. In the attempt to use self-exploration and awareness as a way to avoid distress, people became preoccupied with their distress and its origins. Supposedly, the self-preoccupation was to free people from the past, but such a change was not occurring. After years of therapy, people were habitually monitoring themselves. Even while having sexual relations, they would be wondering why they were enjoying the experience.

In contrast, Erickson came from the tradition of the unconscious as a positive force. One should give up trying to monitor one’s unconscious consciously and allow it to direct one’s actions. The centipede should not attempt consciously to coordinate its 100 legs. Erickson’s goal was to have people respond to their impulses in the present without being concerned about whether or how they were doing so. In the same way, the primary goal in Zen is simply to live, rather than to be preoccupied with how one is living. The goal is to recover from self-monitoring. In fact, it is said, “When you are really doing something, you are not there.” Consider this example (5):

~ Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection. “Come on, girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?” ~

The goal of therapy is to change someone’s actions or to change the ways the person classifies actions and thoughts as bad or good, painful or pleasant, useful or not useful, and so on. Rational advice does not usually solve such a problem. The change must occur in action, according to Zen. One way is for the master to direct the person in some action and resolve the problem as part of that activity. As a result, Zen is often structured as a joint activity between master and student in some type of art. Often, it is taught through archery, swordsmanship or the tea ceremony. There is a task, and the student associates with the master as part of the task. In that process, the master is directing what happens, rather than merely reflecting with the student.

As an example, one way to practice Zen is to apprentice to a master swordsman. A student who did that was given the task of cleaning the floors of the master’s house. As he swept the floor, the student was surprised by the master’s suddenly hitting him with a broom from around a corner. This happened again and again. No matter how the student anticipated where the blow of the broom would come from next, and got set to defend himself, he was hit with the master’s broom. At a certain point, the student learned that he was best prepared to defend himself from some surprising direction by being unprepared in any direction. Then he was ready to receive a sword. He had begun the move toward enlightenment in the context of action between teacher and student.

Zen masters pride themselves on being responsive in any direction. Watts told me of one who asked another, “What do you know of Zen?” The other immediately threw his fan at the man’s face, and the man tilted his head just enough for the fan to fly by, and he laughed. (Once, when Watts was visiting my home, my wife asked him, “What is Zen?” Watts happened to be holding a box of matches and he threw it at her. I don’t know if she became enlightened, but she became angry.)

This active involvement of master and student in any task contrasts sharply with traditional psychodynamic, nondirective therapy. When I searched for a therapy relevant to Zen, I found that the directive therapy of Erickson included activities he set up between himself and the client, just as Zen master and student related around an activity.

As an example, a mother brought her 50-year-old son to Erickson, saying that he would do nothing and that he constantly bothered her, not even leaving her alone to read a book. Erickson said that the son could use exercise, and he suggested that the mother drive the son out into the desert and push him out of the car. Then she was to drive one mile and sit and read her book in the air-conditioned car while the son walked in the hot sun to catch up with her. The son would have no alternative except to walk. The mother was pleased with this task, but the son asked Erikson if, after walking his mile in the desert, he could not do some other exercise while his mother read her book. When he suggested that he would rather go bowling, Erickson agreed. Erickson pointed out to me that his use of classification in this way was calculated; the son would reject walking in the desert, but when he protested and wanted something else, he would remain within the classification of exercise and choose another exercise. This example is typical of Erickson’s way of getting into a relationship of action with a problem client, as is done in Zen.

Traditional therapy was based on a theory of psychopathology. Symptoms, thoughts and character were classified according to a diagnostic system that was shared by clinicians and differentiated them from other people. A little girl who would not eat was classified as a case of anorexia nervosa, not as a little girl who would not eat. The language of psycho-pathology set clinicians apart from those who thought of human problems as dilemmas that arise in life. In contrast, a directive therapist prefers to think of problems as temporary, as a fluctuation in normal living that must be corrected. For example, when I was testing families of different kinds, it was necessary to select a normal sample. I found that I could not use clinicians to select normal families because they never found one. They always discovered some psychopathology in a family. It was characteristic of Erickson that he emphasized problems of living rather than pathological states. Instead of describing a child as having a school phobia, he would emphasize the problem as one of avoiding school, and he would have a way of dealing with that. He did not call a woman an agoraphobic, but a person who could leave the house only under special circumstances.

One problem in finding similarities between Zen and therapy is that in Zen there is no psychopathology. There are simply problems on the road to enlightenment. It is particularly significant that in Zen there is a way of classifying and dismissing human dilemmas that clinicians might consider serious psychopathology. In Zen, hallucinations, fantasies and illusory sensations are called “makyo.” It is said, “Makyo are the phenomena visions, hallucinations, fantasies, revelations, illusory sensations which one practicing zazen is apt to experience at a particular stage in his sitting . .. These phenomena are not inherently bad. They become a serious obstacle to practice only if one is ignorant of their true nature and is ensnared by them.” (3) Describing the phenomena further, hallucinations are said to be common, whether verbal or auditory, as are other sensations. “One may experience the sensation of sinking or floating, or may alternately feel hazy and sharply alert.. . Penetrating insights may suddenly come . . . All these abnormal visions and sensations are merely the symptoms of an impairment arising from a maladjustment of the mind with the breath.” The author adds:

~ Other religions and sects place great store by the experiences which involve visions of God or deities or hearing heavenly voices, performing miracles, receiving divine messages, or becoming purified through various rites and drugs . . . From the Zen point of view all are abnormal states devoid of true religious significance and therefore only makyo … To have a beautiful vision of a Buddha does not mean that you are any nearer becoming one yourself, any more than a dream of being a millionaire means that you are any richer when you awake. ~

The phenomena that could lead to a diagnosis of psychopathology are assumed, in this view of Zen, to be a product of the special situation of the person and will change as that situation changes. That is also the view of a strategic approach to therapy: such phenomena are a response to a situation and not a character defect or a permanent malady.

A STRATEGIC APPROACH TO THERapy has no single method that is applied to all problems. Each case is considered unique and requires a special intervention for that person. Similarly, in Zen there is no method that is used to enlighten everyone who comes. There are standardized procedures, such as meditation, but it is assumed that a unique intervention must be made for enlightenment to be achieved. In a similar way, in a strategic approach to therapy, there might be standardized interviewing, but the directive must fit the unique situation. In Zen, learning and cognition are not considered the path to enlightenment.

One is not taught how to live or instructed how to relate to others. In addition, neither strategic therapy nor Zen is based on the theory of repression. Therefore, insight into unconscious dynamics is not considered necessary to change nor is the expressing of emotions a goal. It is assumed that expressing emotions, like expressing anger, leads to more expressions of emotions and so to more anger. In Zen, change is described as sudden and discontinuous, not as cumulative and step-by-step, as when learning or being educated. Similarly, in strategic therapy,

the client is not educated by being taught to behave in a certain way or taught how to be a spouse or a parent. Nor is the Zen student taught how to become enlightened, and, in fact, one discovers that one must give up theories about it to achieve it. The assumption is that when the situation is changed by an intervention, the behavior will be appropriate to that new organization without ritual learning. One of the characteristics of Erickson’s therapy was the use of imagery. Often, he would have a client image a scene in the past or in the present and use it to induce change. Such imagining might seem unrelated to Zen practice, where the focus is on reality, but a Zen story describes a wrestler named Great Waves, who was of champion caliber in private training, but was so bashful that he lost all public bouts. He went to a Zen master for help (5):

~ “Great Waves is your name,” the teacher advised, “so stay in this temple tonight. Imagine that you are those billows. You are no longer a wrestler who is afraid. You are those huge waves sweeping everything before them, swallowing all in their path. Do this and you will be the greatest wrestler in the land.” The young man did that to the point where, “Before dawn the temple was nothing but the ebb and flow of an immense sea.” The next morning, the master said to him, “You are those waves. You will sweep everything before you.” And he did. ~

There is another similarity to Erickson’s therapy that could be emphasized. In Zen, there are stories, or analogies, told over the centuries to illustrate the path to enlightenment. Erickson also told stories

to illustrate his view of changing people. In both cases, education is accomplished with analogies and metaphors. As an example, Erickson liked to tell of an experience he had when he was 17 years old. He was totally paralyzed by polio and his doctor said he would not live until morning. Erickson asked his mother to arrange a mirror so that he could see the sky outside the window. He wished to enjoy his last sunset.

How similar that is to a parable Buddha told in a sutra (5):

~ A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffled at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away at the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted! ~

When we compare Zen with other therapies, we can think of examples where it is difficult to find parallels. We can turn to the Zen metaphor of Gutei’s finger (5):

~ Gutei raised his finger whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A boy attendant began to imitate him in this way. When anyone asked the boy what his master had preached about, the boy would raise his finger.

Gutei heard about the boy’s mischief. He seized him and cut off his finger. The boy cried and ran away. Gutei called and stopped him. When the boy turned his head to Gutei, Gutei raised up his own finger. In that instant the boy was enlightened. ~

When one examines the different schools of therapy to find a case similar to this painful removal of a finger, it is difficult to do so, particularly in this age of litigation.If one existed, it would be a case of Erickson. One of his classic cases comes to mind:

A mother came to Erickson saying that her adolescent daughter had stopped going out of the house. She would not go to school or see her friends because she had decided that her feet were too big. The girl would not visit the office and so Erickson visited the home on the pretext that the mother was unwell and that he needed to examine her as a physician. When he arrived at the house, he observed that the girl’s feet were of normal size. He examined the mother, asking the girl to help him by holding a towel, and he maneuvered the girl so that she was standing beside him. Suddenly, he stepped back and trod on her foot as hard as he could. She yelped in pain. Erickson turned angrily to her and said, “If you would grow those things big enough for a man to see, I wouldn’t be in this difficulty.” That afternoon, the girl told her mother that she was going out and she went to visit friends and returned to school. Apparently, she was enlightened.

In this case and the Zen example, it is assumed that a sudden intervention causes change, that inducing pain can be a necessary part of an intervention in some cases, and that no education or cognitive and rational discussion is needed.

Related to this example is the use of ordeals, which are commonly part of both Zen and Erickson’s work. The path to enlightenment is often painful, with an ordeal sometimes arranged by the master and sometimes voluntarily by the student, such as suffering hunger and cold.

With all the similarities between a strategic approach to therapy and Zen, one might wonder if there are differences. There are many, of course. For one, there is often a long-term involvement of years in Zen. Strategic therapy is briefer. Also, a primary difference is the remuneration to the therapist. One does not find therapists in yellow robes with begging bowls. They have reconciled financial success and therapy as a calling. There is also no emphasis on meditation in therapy; the activity is conversation and directives. One other difference is that strategic therapy has its origins in hypnosis, and practitioners often use trance to achieve their ends. In Zen, if one is meditating and goes into a trance, one is hit with a stick, since trance is not a goal of the interaction with a teacher. However, one might note that Erickson did not encourage meditating trances, but active responses.

There is also no family approach in Zen. Monks typically live with each other, not in families. Interventions by masters do not change families to change the individual. Once enlightened, the Zen monk might marry and live in a family, but the task of Zen is not to change a family constellation.

One important similarity is the use of humor in Zen and in therapy. There are many Zen stories that are amusing, and a characteristic of Erickson’s therapy was his humor and practical jokes. Related to humor is the Zen use of koans and Erickson’s use of riddles. Both techniques seem designed to help a trainee change perspective and to recover from being rigid and intellectual. When dealing with a client who believed that change was not possible, Erickson would pose a riddle that seemed impossible to solve. Then he would show the obvious solution. One riddle he liked was that of diagramming how to plant 10 trees in five straight rows, four trees in each row, without lifting the pen off the paper. When the client tried and failed to do it, Erickson would show how simple the answer was if one can escape from rigid and stereotyped ways of classifying.

In the same way, and apparently for the same purpose, Zen masters build much of their work around koans and such impossible riddles. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” is an example. One that provokes action rather than tranquil reflection is the koan where the master holds a stick over the trainee’s head and says, “If you say this stick is real, I will hit you. If you say it is not real, I will hit you. If you don’t say anything, I will hit you.” The student must solve that koan or be hit. Such examples make one wonder whether much of Zen might not have been created to cure young Japanese intellectuals of being so self-conscious and rational.

Perhaps the most basic similarity between strategic therapy and Zen is the willingness to make use of the absurd to change logical classification systems. Not only are absurd riddles and koans used, but absurd actions are demanded. With particularly rational and logical clients, Erickson would give them absurd tasks. He would tell an overrational, intellectual person, for example, to go exactly 7.3 miles out into the desert, and there to park the car carefully, get out of it, and find a reason for being there. I have replicated this technique with overly logical scientists by sending them a certain distance up a mountain road to find a reason for being there. When they come back, they are different. Erickson’s directive to climb Squaw Peak might have had similar purposes. It should be noted that when Erickson sent clients into the desert, they always went, and always found a reason for being there. When they came back, they were different less rational and less logical, and perhaps more spiritual.

IN SUMMARY, WHAT ARE THE PROcedures of Zen that are relevant to therapy? In Zen, enlightenment is sought through a relationship with a master who believes that change can be sudden and discontinuous; who becomes personally involved with the student; who joins the student in a task that involves directing him or her; who attempts to escape from intellectualizing about life or monitoring personal behavior; who poses impossible riddles and insists on solutions; who approaches each student as a unique situation; who has a wide range of behavior and many techniques, including a willingness to be absurd; who focuses on the present and not the past; who solves the systemic problem that attempting to change prevents change; and who, within a kindly framework, uses ordeals to force a change. These are also the characteristics of a strategic approach to therapy.

If we take a broad view of the task of changing people, Zen practitioners and therapists have much to offer each other. Clearly, Zen came first, by a few hundred years. However, even though a latecomer, therapy has developed many innovations in recent years. When we take a broader view of enlightenment, we see that Erickson was not simply a unique therapist. He was working in a centuries-old tradition of masters sending people out into the desert to discover new ways of spiritual being.

Jay Haley is the codirector of the Family Therapy Institute of Washington, D.C. Address: 5850 Hubbard Dr., Rockville, MD 20852.

Reprinted with permission from Jay Haley (1993), “Zen and the Art of Therapy,” in. Jay Haley on Milton H. Erickson, pp. 118, 121-122, 124-134, New York: Brunner/Mazel. “Zen and the Art of Therapy” also appears in The Evolution of Psychotherapy: The Second Conference, pp. 24-38, edited by Jeffrey K. Zeig, Ph.D., New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1992. Copyright ® 1992 by The Milton H. Erikson Foundation.


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