Zen and Psychotherapy

1. Coming to Life

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Coming to Life

We shall not cease from exploration,

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

— T. S. ELIOT, Four Quartets


Religion and psychotherapy, with some exceptions, have been traditionally suspicious of one another, each tending to view the other as a purveyor of illusion. Psychotherapists’ discomfort with religious or spiritual experience seems to have roots in a few key concerns: It can be an escape from unpleasant experience, a soothing balm that postpones coming to grips with reality, or worse, a self-deception. It kindles fears of a possible return to magic, to superstition. In turn, spiritual practitioners’ discomfort with psychotherapy is that it fosters self-centeredness. In this chapter, I contrast and compare Zen and psychotherapy and explore the themes of awakening and aliveness. Using the dimensions of coming forth and letting go, I examine the overlap and differences between their practices, aims, and principles.

Freud sees in religion a desperate turning to a powerful illusory authority as an antidote to human helplessness and a socially acceptable form of obsessive neurosis:


One might venture to regard obsessional neurosis as a pathological counterpart to the formation of religion, and to describe that neurosis as an individual religiosity and religion as a universal neurosis [italics added].

This view speaks to a narrowing of the range of experience and a diminution of personal awareness, discrimination, and agency. It reflects confinement within rigid rituals and prescriptions for what and how to think and be. So, it is both confinement and escape, not to mention the specter of sin that may be conjured up. The God one fears is just beneath the surface, a God who punishes for transgressions from the party line.

Religious objections to psychotherapy and psychoanalysis have been many and varied, but a central concern is that they build up or ignore the tendency toward self-centeredness rather than encourage its dissolution. This view sees psychological work as detrimental to the capacity to be in contact with and have concern for one’s fellow humans and to know God.

Countering this polarization, Fromm and Symington describe a religious motivation characterized less by primitive psychological mechanisms than the search for fundamental self-knowledge, integrity, and core human values. Such a religious path views human beings as capable of responsibility, intention, and choice. Meditative practice can be part of such a path and, instead of imprisoning one in a rigid system of beliefs, can liberate rather than confine, reveal rather than obscure, and foster openness, resilience, the kind of loosening up that psychotherapists also look for. (Of course, meditation can also be put to other uses; it can have multiple functions.)

In fact, genuine meditative experience is quite subversive. It is subversive to the core of our beliefs about ourselves, our relations with others, and the very nature of reality and human existence. It challenges our most profound and unconscious assumptions about “the way it is” and “the way it’s supposed to be” — the most cherished organizing concepts that give shape to who we take ourselves to be. Among these are our notions about the nature of mind, meaning, identity, and self. In so doing, meditative experience can facilitate a qualitatively different kind of exploration and deepen these dimensions of our lives.


In a spirit of respect for the distinctiveness of both psychotherapeutic and meditative traditions, I examine some of their similarities and differences with a view toward mutual enrichment. After all, both speak to the relief of suffering, emancipation from mental and emotional constraints, and the freeing of human potential to love and learn through self-knowledge. I suggest a way to think about their interaction and place it in the context of work by Mitchell, Ogden, Loewald, Erikson, Fromm, Symington, and Engler.

I suggest that two dimensions of human experience — which I call letting go and coming forth, or relinquishing and emerging — are common to both psychoanalysis and Zen, although each is privileged differently in the respective disciplines. These dimensions, which infuse our experience and development, are not simply sequentially related but are intrinsically synchronous. A vital human life — a coming to life — involves the capacity to both fall away and gather together, to be somebody and to be nothing at all, to know and to not know. It involves the ability to move between relinquishing and emerging, realizing moments when each activity is distinct, moments when they interpenetrate, and moments when (by virtue of being heuristic and fundamentally illusory organizing concepts) each falls away in direct, liberating, unmediated experience. I include a clinical vignette and discuss the notions of meaning, identity, self, and mind. I then explore the dynamic relation between psychotherapy and meditation and suggest a way to think about their interaction.


Zen Buddhism is not a religion in the traditional sense. The practice of Zen is not worship as it is commonly considered. There is no deity in the ordinary meaning of the word — no otherworldly, supranatural entity. Zen does not posit a soul, traditionally construed as an everlasting personal essence that changes form over time and space. Rather, through the practice of sitting meditation, or zazen, usually in the context of a mutually supportive community, or sangha, and usually through a relationship with a teacher, each person is capable, like the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, of coming to know (gnosis) for him- or 4herself the intersection of the sacred and the personal, the universal and the particular, through mindful awareness of one’s own experience in the many moments of one’s daily life.

Zen practice offers a path for addressing perennial human questions of identity, origin, meaning, and ethics: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? What is the meaning of my life? Why is there such suffering? What is it to live a good, wise life? The practice of Zen can productively help to engage what Mitchell called “the struggle of people at the end of the twentieth century for personal meaning and interpersonal connection.” It offers an avenue for resolving what Loewald said is the “compulsive separation between self and other, inside and outside, on different levels of organization” (cited in Mitchell).

Complementary Paths

The intention of each path is, in a sense, quite different. Psychotherapy facilitates integration of the personality, a gathering together, particularly the integration of that which is unconscious — that which has been split off, dissociated, repressed, or otherwise excluded from awareness. Zen, on the other hand, offers the opportunity for fundamental ontological insight: What is the essential nature of the one who is born, lives and dies, loves and hates, laughs and weeps? Who is the subject? From this vantage point, humans exclude from awareness not only split-off affects, wishes, perceptions, memories, conflicts, parts of ourselves, and conflicting self-organizations, we also keep unconscious our fundamental insubstantiality, interdependence, and, consequently, our own sacredness and that of our fellow beings — human and otherwise.

The purposes of the two disciplines are not mutually exclusive or ultimately divergent. Rather, they are complementary and potentiating. In fact, psychoanalysis and Zen practice share various features. Each is a journey and a way of discovery — a process of inquiry, self-knowledge, and transformation. Each encourages the use, expansion, and ultimately the liberation of attention. Each recognizes the tendency toward self-deception and values truth, awareness, the depth dimension. Each acknowledges that things are not always what they seem, that indeed we ourselves and our fellows are not what we seem. What is not readily apparent does not lose value thereby; what does not make sense can be 5important and valuable. Ambiguity and uncertainty are not to be shied away from but can be a gateway. In each, knowing — understanding that is not discrepant from experience — leads to a kind of transformation. Each presumes that direct experiential understanding is not synonymous with being smart, that unlearning is important. So, each implies the activity of unknowing as well as deeper knowing. Curiosity activates, deepens, and energizes both processes, resulting in a richer understanding that leads to greater acceptance of oneself and one’s experience, and to what might be called “a certain wisdom.” This acceptance is contemporaneous with openness to others and the world, to activity for the good. Wisdom, compassion, and virtue go hand in hand. Each path leads to an expanded sense of meaning and aliveness and in so doing places value in this. Individual development and freedom (arising from expanded perspectives, from seeing oneself and one’s activity as one actually experiences and constructs it) is not alien to deepening feelings of connection and responsibility. Each values a process of tolerating paradox, holding discrepant experiences, and letting things emerge, unravel, take shape, and give up their meanings.

Each situates its inquiry in, and values the cultivation of, the rich field of ordinary daily experience in its multifaceted dimensions. The lotus blooms in the mud; insight arises in the very field of pain, conflict, and confusion. It is from unhurried, gradually freed-up, skillful attention to what is so that understanding and growth emerge, not from chasing elsewhere, seeking to escape one’s experiential and emotional field, or using willpower alone to forcefully make it other than it is. Another word for buddha, which means “awakened one” or “awakening,” is tathagata, which means “thus come,” the “one who thus appears,” or “intimacy with that which arises.” Nyogen Senzaki, an early Zen pioneer in America, left this message to his students:

Trust your own head. Do not put on any false heads above your own. Then, moment after moment, watch your steps closely. These are my last words to you.

Each setting involves stepping out of ordinary social norms of interaction. Fromm notes that people in our culture rarely speak truthfully and frankly to each other. Mitchell referred to “the protection and 6timelessness of the analytic situation” and how these conditions make “learning about and connecting with multiple self-configurations possible without having to account for oneself in the way one has to in ordinary life.” Bion and others find the freedom to engage in reverie a central capacity of both patient and analyst in the unfolding of a deep, genuine psychoanalytic process, as it is in the mother–child relationship. At the outset of every Zen retreat or sesshin, participants are encouraged to leave behind social graces and habitual modes of interaction and let themselves settle deeply.

Each path, each discipline involves an intimate relationship over time with another person. The dyads of the analysand and the analyst on the one hand and the Zen student and Zen teacher on the other each struggle with and find some measure of experiential resolution to two key and apparently paradoxical dimensions of human existence — letting go and forgetting the self in direct engagement with one’s experience, and bringing forth, maintaining, and affirming a sense of self, of personal agency, and of self-continuity. In one mode or dimension, self is multiple, relational, discontinuous, and ultimately nonexistent; in the other, self appears as singular, private, and continuous.

Letting Go and Coming Forth

Letting go and coming forth constitute a fundamental rhythm of life and may be useful metaphors for organizing our inquiry. As we shall see, they are neither entirely discrete nor simply sequentially related; rather, they are intrinsically synchronous.

I use the term letting go in a rather broad way, attempting to bring together various psychical activities. I relate it to the falling away of outmoded understandings and the opening to new experience and understandings. It originates as the encounter with difference, discrepancy, and dissatisfaction; with illness, death, loss, and mourning; and with aging and impermanence. Things don’t go our way. Who among us, patient or analyst, has not been touched by suffering, duhkha, the first of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism? Who has not been exposed to sickness, old age, and death, to helplessness and loss in some form? Sickness, old age, and death are three of the four “signs” (the fourth was 7seeing a monk, a seeker for the way) that led the historical Buddha Shakyamuni to search for resolution to the question of why there was such suffering. Ultimately, after many struggles, seated with firm resolve beneath the bodhi tree, he came to his understanding of suffering, his experience of liberation, and a long career of teaching others. The awareness of our mortality and of not living as fully as we might impels us. Each evening during Zen retreats, at the end of a long day of meditation and before retiring, the participants hear the following message:

I beg to urge you everyone. Life and death is a grave matter. All things pass quickly away. Each of you must be completely alert, never neglectful, never indulgent.

Letting go is facilitated by what in Zen is metaphorically called “the sword that kills,” an aspect of wise action that cuts away delusive understanding and protective conceptual structures that prevent us from encountering our circumstances directly. Life itself functions in exactly this way if we can learn from it. None of us has escaped unscathed over the course of our experience. This experiential current relates to unpacking, destruction, to unintegration, and finally to the encounter with that which cannot be measured — and then letting go of the idea of the immeasurable and simply being awake, in direct, moment-to-moment experience.

Bodhidharma, a Zen master who helped bring Zen from India to China, was asked upon his arrival by the emperor: “What is the first principle of Buddhism?” Bodhidharma replied: “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” The emperor was unsettled, to say the least. Dogen, the teacher primarily responsible for Zen taking root in Japan, sheds light on the path to self-knowledge in Zen:

To study the Way is to study the self.

To study the self is to forget the self.

To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe.

Compare this with the view of a contemporary psychoanalyst (Mitchell):


The basic mode within the object relations approach to the analytic process is the facilitation of a kind of unraveling. The protection and timelessness of the analytic situation, the permission to free associate, to disorganize, allows the sometimes smooth but thin casting around the self to dissolve and the individual strands that make up experience to separate themselves from each other and become defined and articulated.

One can see here both the parallels in approach and the differences in intention of the two paths. Traditionally, in Zen it has not been of particular importance that “the individual strands of our inner experience become defined and articulated.” Rather, the approach has encouraged getting to the bottom of things, directly experiencing our essential nature. We do become aware of thoughts, feelings, images, and bodily sensations as they arise, although we do not necessarily examine in detail their patterning or personal meanings, conscious or unconscious, but instead focus our attention at a more fundamental level.

As with “letting go,” I use the idea of “coming forth” to refer to a group of activities related to both emergence and gathering together. This is the aspect of cohering and coalescing, of creating personal agency, structure, stability, survival, and continuity. It is the realm of things appearing, of new schemata taking shape, and of symbol formation and self-formation. This coming forth and its significance in a life is captured in the Gnostic Gospels:

If you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

This can be seen as what in Zen is metaphorically called “the sword that gives life,” a bringing to life that makes us truly human. Desire, intentionality, meaning, even subjectivity itself — these relate to form, to coherence, to agency, to actualization, to the personal subject, and to time. In this mode, we are and are becoming something, somebody. We have a point of view, perceptions, desires. This relates to knowing. It may not always be clear or pleasant, it may involve ambiguity or conflict, but 9there is a sense of some self-structure, someone knowing that which is known. Mitchell writes:

People often experience themselves at any given moment, as containing or being a self that is complete in the present; a sense of self often comes with a feeling of substantiality, presence, integrity, and fullness.

In letting go, letting be, there is nothing to become or attain and nothing left undone, nowhere to rush. This relates to the timeless, to not knowing and to unknowing, a negating of sorts. The field is open, spacious, and clear.


Shunyata, the shining void, often translated as “emptiness,” sounds barren, but it is neither anomie nor vacuum, but rather the absence of self as absolute and continuous in time and space. Charged with potential, boundless and without measure, this emptiness is the fundamental ground of Zen. In psychotherapy, we can see its action in generative, non-defensive silence, sometimes called the fertile void — a deep, cooperative mutuality into which pieces can gather and out of which surprises, discoveries, new movement unfolds. Some think this is the goal of therapy; some think it underlies its method of free association. Perhaps both are true. If we are empty in this way, we are open to realizing our fundamental kinship not only with patients or our therapist but also with intimates, enemies, and the widening circle of life. We can allow and bear being constituted by, as well as co-constituting, all beings and phenomena. We may even appreciate and be enhanced by it. Joanna Macy, a Buddhist scholar and teacher, says:

You are not a thing. You are not a substance or an essence separate from your experience of life. The juiciness of this, the wealth of the flowing river, is often left unsung, unappreciated. So the teachings can seem rather unappetizing. Selflessness can easily be misunderstood to mean that we are being erased. In truth, we don’t erase the 10self. We see through it. Throughout our lives, we have been trying so hard to fix that “I” we have each been lugging around. So when we drop the endless struggle to improve it or punish it, to make it noble, to mortify it, or to sacrifice it, the relief is tremendous.

Psychotherapists also appreciate this; Mitchell writes:

The rushing fluidity of human experience through time makes authenticity essentially and necessarily ambiguous. The fascination with and pursuit of that ambiguity lies at the heart of the analytic process.

In a spirit not unlike Mitchell described, meditative inquiry into this ambiguity, this field of not-knowing, underlies Zen practice in general and koan study, an insight practice of disciplined curiosity, in particular.


Koans are meditative, metaphorical themes usually drawn from spontaneous, everyday encounters between students and teachers, the folk stories of Zen. A koan is literally a “matter to be made clear.” Koan practice allows one to discover the sacred in the particulars of one’s daily experience. Here is an example from a collection titled The Gateless Barrier:

A monk asked Feng-hsueh, “Speech and silence are concerned with equality and differentiation. How can I transcend equality and differentiation?”

Feng-hsueh said, “I always think of Chiang-nan in March; Partridges chirp among the many fragrant flowers.”

Feng-hsueh was not trying to be “in the present” or avoiding remembering the past. He could not have been farther from that familiar conflict. Rather, he was coming forth unfettered and showing simply and personally just how speech and silence, equality and differentiation are actually transcended.


First steps in Zen practice involve cultivating the ability to attend, usually to the breath, and to settle into our experience. Eventually, inquiry deepens, and there is a qualitative shift as observer, observed, and observation are no longer separate entities. Yamada Koun Rōshi used to say that Zen is the practice of “forgetting the self in the process of uniting with something.” Through wholehearted attention to each moment as it is, we come to rest in the question itself.

Another koan is “Who hears?” (Who is the master of hearing that sound?) Kuan-Yin, the archetypal embodiment of compassion in Buddhism, means “the one who perceives the sounds of the world,” the sounds of suffering. Yet, there is also the laughter of children, and the crow of the rooster. The sensory apparatus in zazen is not in a state of deprivation, sounds are not shut out; to the contrary, we open ourselves and let them enter. But, the question is, “Who is the one who hears?” The Buddha’s question was why there was suffering in the world. Our own deepest questions and those of our patients are not all that different. “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “Why is life so hard?” — these are perennial human dilemmas.

Curiosity about origins is at work here. The question “Where did I come from?” refers, of course, to the intercourse of one’s parents, the womb of the mother, the penis of the father, and the minds of both. However, in Zen, the koan, “Show me your original face before your parents were born,” speaks to another dimension of human curiosity. Children’s questions — “Where do I come from?” or “I know I came from mommy and daddy, but where did you, mommy and daddy, come from?” — although in part deflective, contain more than a kernel of real inquiry. Our response as parents, “From each of our mommies and daddies,” leads us back to the mysteries of the beginnings of time and creation, which are animate in the present.

Practically speaking, the ability to split the ego and self-observe, although a crucial developmental achievement in psychotherapy and meditation, may be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for emancipation. Whereas zazen includes non-judgmental observation of the arising and passing of thoughts, images, affects, and bodily sensations, inquiry begins in earnest when the subject — its object of attention and the attending itself (in Buddhism, the Three Wheels) — are no longer 12sharply distinguished. In fact, when these distinctions are not operative at all — when the question itself is held in awareness, pregnant with curiosity, and attempts to figure it out intellectually fade away — mental turmoil gradually dies down. We are less under the sway of constraining conflictual perceptual structures. Concentrated but not narrowly so, we become open and receptively absorbed.

Through continued, mindful practice, we may come to experience the emptiness of all concepts, including the self. However, to be stuck in emptiness is not the object of Zen. “Take another step,” Zen master Shih-shuang says:

You who sit on the top of a hundred foot pole,

although you have entered the way, it is not yet genuine.

Take a step from the top of the pole

and worlds of the Ten Directions are your total body.


There are many stories of Zen students coming to awakening (kensho, satori, realization, seeing into essential nature) through hearing a sound or seeing an object as if for the first time. The ground has usually been prepared by years of meditation and moment-to-moment attentiveness, perhaps working with a koan. The mind is focused yet free from preoccupation, open, un-self-conscious in the usual ways. We gradually become able to attend, to settle body and mind, to sustain focused inquiry. We are surprised when we find that we are no longer thinking of attaining anything at all; no longer trying to breathe, but rather simply breathing; no longer speculating about an answer to a question, but somehow having become the question itself. Do we breathe, or are we breathed? We begin to allow ourselves to become absorbed in what we do. We gradually stop “chasing out through the five senses” (as Meister Eckhart says). The mind is settled, empty, alert, and receptive, having come naturally to rest through self-awareness (not mind deadening). At such a moment, anything can serve to awaken. Sometimes, it is the sound of a bell, one’s own sneeze, the act of standing up, or in the Buddha’s case, looking up at the morning star. All categorization — self–other, inside–outside, subject–object, enlightened–deluded — gives way, and there is 13an experience of coming alive that is not bound by such dualistic constructs. Bashō wrote a haiku that presents this:

The old pond;

A frog jumps in —

The sound of the water.

This is not simply a matter of aesthetics; Bashō got completely wet. Nothing was missing, nothing left over. Sengai expresses this in his version:

The old pond!

Basho jumps in,

The sound of the water!

Over the course of practice, this insight or enlightenment is clarified, refined, deepened, and personalized in our ordinary daily life, and then let go, so it does not become a stale artifact impeding further learning.

Yamada Rōshi would speak, for purposes of explanation, of each moment, each frame of experience as being like a fraction; the numerator is the particular phenomenon, and the denominator is empty infinity. Each lived moment — laughing or crying, throwing a ball, sharing an ice cream with my child — is like this. This is the radical understanding of Zen, immanent, but needing to be personally realized in real life, through practice. What obscures this realization are narrow, mistaken views of self, other, and mind based on an illusion of self as solid, substantial, and continuous in time and space. These mistaken views are rooted in subject–object duality.

Clinical Vignette

What follows is a highly selective, anecdotal account of a four-year, twice-a-week psychotherapy with Ellen, a thirty-five-year-old married woman, a graduate student in psychology, and a mother of three children. I focus on the unfolding of a specific, shared experience.


Ellen wanted more from her relationship with her husband, more enjoyment from being a mother, more from life. Over time, we explored various aspects of her dissatisfaction, multiple and occasionally conflictual meanings of her sense of not getting what she wanted. This dynamic emerged in the transference, and we examined it over many months, from different angles, in several configurations. After a turbulent period, Ellen began to wrestle in a qualitatively different way with her distress: its roots in her growing up and her relations with her parents, especially an anxious mother. It began to occur to Ellen that she herself had become an obstacle to “getting it,” that somehow the urgency itself was part of the difficulty; the more she wanted, the further away it got. Her entire life, it seemed to her, had been shaped, even distorted, by this search. She began to have a sense of the hollowness, the falseness of it. This observation came with surprise and sadness and did not have a sense of self-blame. Periods of grieving followed; sometimes, it was clear as to what was being mourned, sometimes not.

About two years into the therapy, halfway into a session, she drifted into silence and began to talk slowly about how hard it was for her to just let herself be. There was a fleeting image of her mother, then a long silence. Her eyes filled with tears, but there was no struggling. Rather, there was a slow, meditative pace and quality to her reflections. I do not teach or speak about meditation to patients; this experience unfolded out of the work together. Silences lengthened and seemed to deepen. I felt a powerful shift in the affective climate. A cardinal was singing. It was bright and sunny that day, and light filtered into the office. After several minutes, she began to speak again in a very different way: “There is the tree,” she said, gazing out the window at the avocados, “the bird is chirping, the light is shining through the leaves, it feels warm on my skin.” This was not detachment as defense or escape; rather, she was unanxious, deeply settled, alive in the present moment. Each statement seemed to arise from silence itself and not to be an observation at all. As I experienced this 15sense of peace that was simultaneously alive, I had the image of a child feeling held so that she could completely let go, completely come to rest, “fall into” each moment, and, utterly unconcerned about moorings, simply be. But that was my image, a relational one, and while I felt affected and drawn into the experience, I also felt oddly in the presence of an absence, as if I were witnessing a transformation of sorts, albeit temporary, something bigger than the two of us. Each thing was just as it is. Just as it was, it filled the screen. What was absent was the sense of a separate experiencer, an observer separate from what she was observing. There was no trace of hollowness or pretense.

In the weeks that followed, as she reflected on what had happened, material about dependence and control emerged that could be worked through and integrated. Ellen looked back and felt that although it was but one experience among many, it had been a turning point. A knot had loosened from within, which she felt had to do with being alive — quite in contrast to being nice, compliant, and seductive or frustrated, demanding, unsatisfied, and hopeless. She could begin to let in — and to be more fully absorbed in — what she had been clamoring for but had realized she was afraid of and conflicted about. The experience occurred nearly thirty years ago, when I was several years post-licensure, and although I did not know quite what to make of it, I was intrigued because it was so moving, so helpful to Ellen, and because it seemed akin to the type of experience that in Zen often precedes realization.

Whether or not there was a relational frame to this experience, such as the “being alone in the presence of the other” I had imagined, I want instead to highlight a different aspect. The experience itself involved a relinquishment — a limiting self-organization dropped away, making possible what Buddhists might call a “glimmer of Suchness.” In shedding her encrusted, familiar, but unsatisfying way of experiencing herself in the world, she came alive and curiously began, slowly, over time, to feel more herself. Mitchell quotes Graham Bass, who notes the


great irony of the psychoanalytic experience; that in some respects, the patient is actually less known at the end of an analysis than at the beginning.

Mitchell writes that

one of the great benefits of the analytic process is that the more the analysand can tolerate experiencing multiple versions of himself, the stronger, more resilient, and durable he experiences himself to be.

I think this, in turn, facilitates a deepening exploration or “unraveling.”


Meaning — explicit, implied, conscious, unconscious, manifest, latent, conflicted, non-conflictual, constructed, discovered, intrapsychic, relational — is the bread and butter of analytic work. The vignette, however, described what seemed to be a nondual (although shared) experience. There was no meaning proper to it; rather, it was its own meaning. Inside and outside, subject and object, authentic and inauthentic, continuous and discontinuous: such polarities, such dialectical tensions themselves did not seem to be active. What could we say about the value of such an experience? Usually, value is a relative notion, defined in operational terms according to a particular frame of reference: What can I do with it? or, in Fromm’s critique of contemporary life, What can I get from it or buy with it? Although valuation and utility were perhaps implicit, they were not experientially central to the experience. Yet, it was not an esoteric exchange, something otherworldly. It disrupted, catalyzed, and enriched her set of personal meanings and values.

Such experiences not only represent; they also present something fundamental. They not only symbolize; they also just are. Fromm writes:

If one follows the original aim of Freud, that of making the unconscious conscious, to its last consequences, one must free it from the limitations imposed on it by Freud’s own instinctual orientation, and by the immediate task of curing symptoms. Then the aim 17becomes that of overcoming alienation, and the subject-object split in perceiving the world; then the uncovering of the unconscious means giving up the illusion of an indestructible separate ego which is to be enlarged and preserved as the Egyptian pharaohs hoped to preserve themselves as mummies for eternity. To be conscious of the unconscious means to be open, responding, to have nothing and to be.

There was not a separate experiencer standing outside the experience, commenting, narrating, as is usually the case, imbuing it with particular meaning. The experience was not the object, and we were not the subjects. This shared coming alive was in a way not bound or justified by traditional meaning criteria at all. Such experiences of touching down in a dimension of no-meaning-proper enrich one’s sense of authenticity, aliveness, connection, and paradoxically, the sense of meaning in one’s life. They illuminate what is truly of value and enrich and deepen our value system. Our ability to see, understand, and relate compassionately, not only to ourselves but to others as they are, is deepened. This reflects — in Zen as in analysis — a receptive emptying, a sloughing off of familiar me–you perceptual meaning-making grids. Mitchell writes:

Self refers to the subjective organization of meanings one creates as one moves through time. An experience of self takes place necessarily in a moment of time; it fills one’s psychic space, and other, alternative versions of self fade into the background.

One can call what Ellen and I shared an experience of self in time, facilitated by alternate versions of self having faded into the background. But the question, “What does this mean?” never crossed our minds. And while this was not a trance — either of us could have responded adequately to a mental status test if we had to — the coordinates of space and time that ordinarily anchor us were absent. Meaning-making per se or self-construction was not going on. Even calling it a variety of self-experience, as some self-psychologists

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