Being nobody being somebody

With all the talk in nondual circles these days about the problem of “spiritual bypassing” and the importance of psychological and spiritual integration, I thought I would share some of my own direct experience. As a monk at an American Zen center many years ago, I was in training to be a teacher and gradually being given more responsibility for sharing the Dharma with others. Yet I knew that I lacked the spiritual wisdom and emotional maturity necessary to be of genuine benefit, and I could see old reactive patterns and difficult emotions like anger and fear continuing to arise in painful and troubling ways. 

When I expressed these concerns to my teacher, a well-known Japanese Zen master, he just told me to sit more. I think he considered meditation to be a panacea for all life’s ills,  and I know he didn’t recognize the need or the value of Western psychotherapy. In fact, Eihei Dogen, the founder of the Zen lineage in which this teacher had been born and ordained, once described meditation as “dancing on the heads of demons,” a revealing image suggesting that he believed troubling emotions to be intrusive, unwelcome, and best avoided at all costs.

While I was being advised that meditation alone would take care of my emotional and psychological issues, I watched those who were already functioning as teachers, including the roshi himself, abuse their authority, sleep with their students, and otherwise engage in unconscious and insensitive behavior. I couldn’t go along with the popular rationalization that this acting out was an expression of “crazy wisdom,” meant to challenge and teach the rest of us. Quite the contrary, I knew that something fundamental, not only about the perpetrators of this unconscious behavior but about the approach they were teaching, was deeply misguided, and I realized I couldn’t in all conscience keep climbing the hierarchical Zen ladder without dealing with my own baggage, unless I wanted to end up like them.

But where to go and what to do? I had made a lifetime commitment to the Dharma when I took my monastic vows, and these were my friends, my colleagues, my community, my “whole world of meaning,” as Zen teacher Robert Aitken once put it. What alternative could I possibly pursue that would be equally fulfilling? 

At this opportune moment, I attended a conference sponsored by the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology entitled “What Is Sanity?” As it turned out, it was one of the first gatherings of psychologists and meditation practitioners to address the interface and dialogue between Western psychology and Buddhist wisdom. Among the presenters were Daniel Goleman, who would go on to write several books on emotional intelligence (a term he popularized); Dan Brown, who in recent years has become a well-known teacher of the Tibetan Buddhist approach known as Mahamudra; and Jack Engler, who, along with Brown and Ken Wilber, authored the book Transformations of Consciousness. In it, they made a statement that became a controversial meme in Buddhist circles: “You have to be somebody before you can be nobody. 

Now, I no longer believe this pronouncement to be true—after all, plenty of confused and troubled people awaken to the emptiness of self. In addition, it’s not even entirely clear what the statement means—originally, the authors were apparently referring to individuals with a fragmented or inadequate self-structure in the Western psychological sense. But it does point to a more fundamental truth that lies at the heart of spiritual bypassing: Each of us is both no one and someone, and if we hide in our inherent emptiness and refuse or otherwise fail to address our human embodiment, we repudiate our responsibility to live from the deepest truth of our being in every moment of life.

 As Ken Wilber puts it, there appear to be two separate but interdependent lines of development: waking up and growing up. Growing up without waking up—the goal of most Western psychotherapy— may give rise to a well-adjusted, optimally functioning, moderately happy human being embedded in a life of mutually beneficial relationships with others. At the same time, there may be a gnawing hunger for a deeper understanding of the nature of reality, and the deeper peace of mind that follows, that never gets satisfied. Waking up without growing up, on the other hand, may give rise to a quiet joy and a peaceful spaciousness and detachment from the drama of life—but yield an individual whose insights into emptiness of self and other appear to give them license to act in unconscious, insensitive, and self-serving ways. This is the problem of spiritual bypassing.

 As it turns out, I was fortunate at the time to begin working with a body-oriented psychotherapist who also happened to be a student of Zen. After some powerful breathwork sessions that revealed layers of childhood anger and pain, I decided to set aside my monk’s robes, leave the Zen center, and study Western psychology (and go into therapy myself) with the intention of bringing a deeper understanding of the human psyche into my work as a spiritual teacher. Now, more than 30 years later, I continue to integrate the two interpenetrating dimensions of psyche and spirit in the individual sessions, satsangs, classes, and retreats I offer, combining the psychological and emotional insight and the spiritual wisdom I’ve gained through my own personal experience and professional training. 

 Waking up is just part of an ongoing, lifelong journey of realizing and expressing the truth of our boundless, timeless, all-embracing, and compassionate true nature in the manifest world of work and relationships. As soon as we think we’re finished, we’ve stepped out of the endless river of Being and reasserted the illusion of a separate self that thinks it has it all figured out.