This article originally appeared in PSYCHEDELIC REVIEW, Issue Number 5, 1963
Zen Buddhism: A psychological review (Part I)
By Edward W. Maupin
Zen, a sect of Mahayana Buddhism, originated in China and has played an important role in Japanese culture since its introduction there in the thirteenth century. It has traditionally sought to bring about in its students a direct experience of the enlightenment which characterized the Buddha. What makes this of interest to psychologists is that enlightenment is considered to be essentially a psychological problem to be worked out by the student. Appeals to divine intervention or intensive study of scriptures are felt to be irrelevant.
Zen involves a variety of training techniques designed to guide the student to a turning point, satori, which appears to be a major shift in the mode of experiencing oneself and the world, and which is an important step on the way to enlightenment.
Since the individual, with satori, is described as living an increasingly effective and satisfying life, Zen is of interest in terms of pyschotherapy. There is a growing body of literature by psychologists and psychiatrists on this aspect of Zen, and it seems likely that there are concepts and procedures here which will prove useful in Western psychotherapy.
It is the purpose of this paper to distill, out of the often-confusing literature in English, a coherent picture of Zen; its procedures; and the experiences which result. Without wishing to over-interpret or 'pigeonhole' Zen experience, I have examined psychological literature which seemed to shed further light on the phenomena described.
Western interest in Zen began largely in response to the writings of Dr. D. T. Suzuki, Professor of Buddhist Philosophy at Otsni University, who has himself experienced satori.
The burgeoning literature in English may be roughly grouped into four categories. The first consists of writings by contemporary authors who have personally undergone Zen training and have firsthand experience of satori. This includes Suzuki's books (1927; 1933; 1934; 1949a; 1949b; 1956) and those of other twentieth-century Zen monks and masters (Chang 1959; Luk, 1960; Senzaki & McGandless, 1953). With the sole exception of Eugen Herrigel (1956; 1960) all of these people are Chinese or Japanese.
A second category consists of traditional sources. These include sutras and lectures of Zen masters, from as far back as the eight century, now being translated (Huang-po 1959; Hui-hai, 1960).
Thirdly, there are publications by Western interpreters of Zen (Humphreys, 1949; Watts 1947, 1958, 1960). Finally there are a number of publications by psychologists and psychiatrists on various aspects of Zen (Ben-Avi, 1959; Benoit. 1959; Fingarette, 1958; Fromm, 1959; Fromm, Suzuki & De Martino, 1960; Holmes, 1957; Jung, 1957; Kelman, 1958; Kondo, 1953, 1958; Sato; 1958, 1959; Van Dusen, 1958a, 1958b, 1961; Weisz, 1960).
The experience of satori is the central core of Zen. Everything else is considered secondary to it. Since it must be experienced in order to be fully understood, I have given primary attention to the authors who have had it. Where pertinent issues are raised, and especially where these bear on psychotherapy, I have turned to secondhand sources.
The ordinary adult mind and satori
Zen literature makes no particular distinction between types of psychopathology, As a therapy, Zen seems well designed for people who are normally mature and have achieved a fair degree of self-control.
Existential problems are seen as resulting from the way the ordinary adult perceives herself and her world, and from the terms in which the problems are couched. For a solution, a radical shift in the mode of experience, a satori, is proposed.
The term satori seems to be used in two ways in Zen literature. One is to refer to an experience of insight, lasting only a short time, which may recur more than once. Another, vaguer usage refers to the changes in one's outlook and ability to function which are brought about as a result of the insight.
A part of the confusion seems to stem from the timelessness of the experience, a feeling of immortality, which leads the person having it to deny that it comes and goes. It is an insight into the nature of things as they always have been.
Satori is not a trance. Consciousness is not lost, nor does it impair the ability to use ordinary cognitive functions as required. It is not a quietistic retreat. All of these possible outcomes of the training procedures are considered byways to be guarded against with the help of the Zen master. Satori is described as an added mode of experience, comparable to the opening of a third eye. It is considered impossible to express in rational language. This raises the problem of irrationality in Zen literature, which warrants a short digression.
The confusing, non-logical quality seems to stem from three main sources. First, there is the ordinary difficulty in describing any state of consciousness. Under the proper circumstances we can specify the content of consciousness—what fantasies, thoughts or sensations are present—but the formal qualities are much more difficult to communicate.
One recourse is to speak in analogies and hope that the hearer has had such experience that the analogy seems familiar. We find one Zen master counseling his students to keep a kind of 'doubt', which arises in the course of meditation, that is neither too fine nor too coarse.
Both the term "doubt” and the sensory terms with which he qualifies it are analogies which become meaningful only when the student reaches that stage. This first source of unclarity in Zen literature, then, is one which often plagues the attempt to communicate subjective experience.
A second source is the teaching method of Zen.
The problem to which the Zen master addresses himself is to have the student get beyond concepts of satori to the experience itself. The student may come with a question about some important aspect of Buddhism, the training, or his own problems in reaching satori. But a direct, conceptual answer would only be about the topic; it would not bring the student to see the thing itself. There is a deep feeling in Zen that conceptual knowledge can come only so close to its object. In satori one no longer mediates experience through concepts. So the Zen master may make an apparently illogical retort which may jolt the student into seeing the thing for himself.
The third source of unclarity seems to be a genuinely illogical quality of satori itself. Certain aspects of this new mode of experience, such as the feeling of oneness, seem genuinely inexpressible in a language posited on a subject-object dichotomy, conventional time, space, and so on.
Although descriptions of satori are given with a caution that they are only inadequate analogies, there are certain uniformities in the way people compare it with the ordinary mode of experience. The first contrast is between intellection and intuition. Suzuki writes that man tends to mistake his conceptual tools for reality:
“He forgets that concepts are his own creations, and by no means exhaust reality. Zen is fully conscious of this and all its mondo are directed towards casting off the false mask of conceptualization" (1946a. p.28).
Chang (1959, p. 141) outlines other characteristics of the ordinary mind: It must break reality into discrete entities and can only deal with a few things at a time. It is rigid and fixed, unable to deal with all possible aspects of a thing, and it tends to “cling” to the object thus separated and objectified.
The term “clinging” hints at personal motivation to maintain the stability achieved by this kind of structuring. It will be noted that the conceptual mode is under attack not because it is useless in general, but because improperly used, it separates the individual from another, more direct contact with his experience. It is this loss of immediate experience which plunges the individual into existential problems.
The intellect is primarily intended to have us get on well with a world dualistically conceived; but as to its probing into ultimate reality it is an inadequate instrument. (Suzuki, 1949a, p. 112.)
"...human consciousness weaves a time-continuum and regards it as reality. When this is accomplished, the procedure is now reversed and we begin to build up our experience on the screen of time. Serialism comes first now and we find our lives miserably bound up by it. The absolute present is pushed away back, we are no more conscious of it. We regret the past and worry about the future. Our crying is not pure crying, nor is our laughing pure laughing. There is always something else mixed up with it, that is the present has lost its innocence and absoluteness. The future and the past overlay the present and suffocate it. (Suzuki, 1949a, pp. 72-73.)
The loss of immediate experience refers in part to the tendency to live in a fantasy world (which treats objects and events in terms of a personal—and necessarily cognitive—network of goals, plans, wishes and fears). Also included is the tendency to impose too quickly the conventional structures like time, space, the subject-object dichotomy, and self-other value systems. It should be noted, too, that the psychological unconscious, as repository of repressed derivatives of unacceptable wishes, is included in this conceptual filter. Suzuki is inclined to think of this as merely a lower stratum of the same kind of conceptual mind, "probably accumulated ever since we began to become conscious of our own existence" (1949a p.95).
Constrasted with this is intuition, which Dr. Akihira Kondo, a Japanese psychoanalyst, interprets as “the function of the human mind for perceiving totality" (1953) . Suzuki speaks of it in terms of the more traditional "prajna".
Prajna is the experience a man has when he feels, in its most fundamental sense, the infinite totality of things. That is, psychologically speaking, when the finite ego, breaking its hard crust, refers itself to the infinite which envelops everything that is finite and limited and therefore transitory. We may take this experience as being somewhat akin to a totalistic-intuition of something that transcends all our particularized, specified experiences. (Fromm et al., 1960, p. 74.)
Intimately connected with the conceptual mode of experience is the experience of self. The individual mistakes the self which he can take as an object of consciousness for his real self. Like other objects of consciousness it must be separated out, and this, in particular, leads the individual into a frantic scramble to defend, maintain, and bolster himself. Herrigel writes:
By learning to discriminate himself more and more from everything that is not himself, that does not belong to him, man experiences the tension between the ego and non-ego as an opposition. The more consciously he confronts everything not himself as an object, the more the ego places itself outside—outside what is “opposite” to it. The result is a continuous division of being into the two realms of subjective and objective. (1960, p. 19.)
Man feels and experiences himself as an ego. Egohood leads to selfishness and self-assertion in the face of everything that is not-self, and hence to hardness of heart. He feels himself and makes himself the center, if not consciously, then in secret (ibid., p. 19).
It will be seen from this that the experience of a separate self is felt to stand in a causal relationship to other aspects of the clinging, conceptual mind. But from the standpoint of satori this self is a fiction.
Satori, in contrast, is the intuitive seeing into the real self, the true author of one’s behavior, which is at the same time a part of the whole flux of the universe. This contact, however, does not mean reflexive awareness of the real self—which would then only replace the old self as an object of conscious thought.
One's experience is felt to take place directly through the real-self, unmediated by conscious thought, and without consciousness of the process. "It is rather a state of mind in which there is no specific consciousness of its own workings" (Suzuki, 1949b, p. 105). One is content to let behavior bring out a self which cannot be fully conceptualized. One trusts this self enough to suspend conscious reflective control over it.
It is this getting out of the way of the infolding of the real-self which is the therapeutic effect of satori:
Zen, in its essence, is the art of seeing into the nature of one's being. It points the way from bondage to freedom.
"...We can say that Zen liberates all the energies properly and naturally stored in each of us, which are in ordinary circumstances cramped and distorted so that they find no adequate channel for activity... It is the object of Zen, therefore, to save us from going crazy or being crippled. This is what I mean by freedom, giving free play to all the creative and benevolent impulses inherently lying in our hearts. Generally, we are blind to this fact, that we are in possession of all the necessary faculties that will make us happy and loving toward one another." (Suzuki, 1956 pp. 3 ff.)
Although one may make forays into the cognitive world as various situations require, there is direct contact with experience, unmediated by concepts. This means the transcension of existential problems.
Satori stands firmly on the Absolute Present, Eternal Now, where time and space are coalesced and yet begin to get differentiated. They lie there dormant as it were with all their futurities and possibilities; they are both there rolled up with all their achievements and unfoldments. It is the priviledge of the satori to be sitting in the Absolute Present quietly surveying the past and contemplating the future. (Suzuki, 1949a, p.61)
This very 'moment' is not subject to birth-and-death and therefore there is no going beyond it as long as we live this present moment. Here is absolute tranquility which is no other than this present moment.
Bliss lies in the timelessness of this present moment. There is here no particular recipient of this bliss and, therefore, every one of us is blessed with eternal bliss. (ibid, p. 111 Quotes from the ancient monk, Yeno). It is important to note that ordinary perception and conceptualization are not impaired in satori, Rather, while intuiting totality, the individual sees objects more objectively than before, less distorted by personal motives. Cognitive skills remain available as required.
Thus far we have discussed satori as though it were more or less a constant state of mind after a certain point in Zen training. Actually, the first experience of satori probably lasts only a short time. Further training is directed toward expanding the situations in which such a state of mind may be maintained.
Enlightenment, a nearly impossible ideal, is felt to be a constant experience of satori. Nevertheless, at times following satori, the individual may deepen the experience to a point of complete union. Relaxing conceptual consciousness and falling back on unreflected intuition are felt to have important effects on the range of stimuli to which one can respond. Zen-trained artists and soldiers especially have made use of this state of mind to heighten their effectiveness.
We turn now to the techniques which are used to lead the student toward the experience of satori, It must be emphasized that satori is felt to be an awakening to something which was always there, not the product of some particular technique.
What procedures are used will depend on what the Zen master feels his student needs to awaken him to this kind of experience. Thus specific methods will vary far more than the present review can convey. Generally, however, the student sets aside a portion of the day for sitting motionless and engaging in some time of concentration exercise.
The object of concentration varies considerably and may be changed as the student progresses. The aim is to suspend the ordinary flow of thoughts without falling into a stupor. The achievement of undistracted concentration is the first means of coming to grips with the purely conceptual mode of experience.
The bodily position used is of some importance. It must be relaxed and comfortable, yet not supine and likely to induce deep sleep. Ordinarily the crossed-legged half- or full-lotus positions are used by the Japanese, The eyes are kept partly open, again to avoid sleep or stupor.
Three subjects of concentration deserve special mention: breathing, the hua t'ou and the koan.
Concentration on breathing seems to be the simplest of these and is frequently used to develop the ability to concentrate. Hua t’ou is a Chinese word which Means “ante-thought”’. It describes the state of mind of a person who approaches himself with the question “Who is this who calls on the name of Buddha?” (Luk, 1960). As such, it appears to define a particular attitude of detached observation toward one’s mental contents, whose subjective origin is kept in mind. It is also an attempt to grasp the mind originating these contents. The hua t'ou overlaps with the koan, a statement which is impossible of rational comprehension but understandable to the person who has experienced satori.
Any of a number of traditional exchanges between masters and monks may be taken as the object of concentration. The idea is not to run through the words themselves, but to penetrate to their meaning, the state of mind which they express.
Not all Zen sects use the koan exercise. Where used, it seems to deepen the intellectual crisis preceding satori and to produce a deeper and more vivid satori experience.
De Martino (Fromm et al., 1960) suggests that the koan serves to crystallize and focus the desperate personal need to break through to an answer which is necessary for satori. As he describes it, the attempt to solve the koan becomes almost a surrogate for the struggle to solve one’s life. In the wealth of subjective reports it is generally possible to distinguish two main stages in the course of training before satori. There is an initial phase in which concentration, difficult at first,
eventually becomes more successful.
Relaxation and a kind of pleasant “self-immersion” begin to follow. At this point internal distractions, often of an anxiety-arousing kind, come to the fore. Herrigel (1956) indicates that the only way to render this disturbance inoperative is “to look at It equably and at last grow weary of looking” (p. 55).
Eventually a second phase begins (Herrigel, 1956). This is a state “in which nothing definite is thought, planned, striven for, desired or expected, which aims in no particular direction and yet knows itself capable alike of the possible and the impossible, so unswerving is its power...” (pp. 55-56). Concentration seems to be accompanied by a sense of calm stillness, of energy and vitality, and a feeling of invulnerability (Chang, 1959; Kondo, 1952, 1958).
Sato (1959) and his students, who undertook a special "accelerated" course of training from a Zen master, reached this point after about five days, Both Chang and Herrigel suggest that the phase begins with a “jolt” or “shock,” but this is not invariably mentioned.
This state of mind is traditionally described with the analogy of a mirror, which reflects many things, yet is itself unchanged by them. It seems likely that this phase of meditation, in particular, increases receptivity to previously excluded experience. But the ability to deal with it in a detached, non-anxious fashion is also facilitated. This state of mind is similar to a phenomenon reported by patients in psychoanalysis. Associations are experienced as derivatives of one’s own mental processes, regardless of the reality of the objects represented. An observing attitude can be maintained until anxiety or other effects become too intense. (Cf. Sterba, 1930.)
Sato (1958), too, feels this state of mind may have its counterpart in the free association method of psychoanalysis, but emphasizes the fact that Western therapy usually works with words, whereas the Zen student in this stage does not dissect what he is experiencing with ideational operations. “In Zen, the ideas, if they appear, are allowed to pass uncared about. They need not be grasped or verbalized”’ (p. 217).
Obviously, there are dangers. Traditional Zen literature considered this middle phase to be one in which the monk was in danger of possession by demons (Luk, 1960), There are handbooks, unfortunately not translated, which warn the student against the many experiences in this phase to which he might be tempted to “cling.”
While the Zen master does not attempt to interpret the emerging material, he is apparently active in guarding the student against acting-out, unconscious projection, and loss of awareness of its subjective origin. He also acts to curb temptations to go into a stupor, toy with paranormal psychic functions, indulge in ecstasies or quietistic retreat. All of these are considered blind alleys.
The Castalia Foundation, in 2021, advises readers to guard against this same troublesome phase of "acting-out" and "unconscious projection" during the psychedelic experience. A strong psychedelic trip can offer a glimpse of satori to the seasoned traveller. During the ascent of a powerful psychedelic journey, the uninitiated explorer can easily dispace unconsious material onto those around herself.
There can also be a phase, during deep psychedelic work, in which "paranormal psychic functions" emerge within your mind, and invite interest. While the The Castalia Foundation would not be so definitive as to call these "blind alleys" they are certainly risky.
Discovering, for example, a latent ability to alter matter with your mind, even on a very local scale, unleashes a bewildering host of existential paradoxes. In the the malestrom of observing such a feedback-loop in which your concepts of subject and object; and experiencer and experienced become confused, it is likely wisest not to play with such faculties but, instead, to breathe through the realization that they exist; leave them untouched; and elevate further through the field of consciousness.
The Castalia Foundation appreciates that the previous paragraph will sound hopelessly esoteric to most readers. However, to those who know the realms of which we speak, it should provide reassuring guidance.
Such dangers must be taken into account in any proposed application of Zen or its procedures. They do not seem to occur during the early portions of training, but later supervision may be critical. Herrigel (1956) does not report having had florid reactions at this stage, and there are apt to be gross individual differences. Where they occur they are considered to be manifestations of the dualistic mind attempting to defend a fictitious ego.
What follows seems to be a very long period of struggle until the intellectual approach is exhausted. Kondo (1952), Herrigel (1956), and Suzuki (1956) describe nearly identical experiences when, having reached a state of inner stillness, the student is given a koan to solve. Time after time he reaches an intellectual solution which is rejected by the Zen master.
With increasing despair he concentrates more and more on the koan until his concentrating is no longer voluntary; the problem cannot be put aside. Where the hua t'ou is used, the feeling of doubt which emerges is carefully maintained until something like a crisis is reached. This crisis is still, rather than turbulent. Intellectual skills seem worthless for the problem, and one can only wait.
Death images like "walking in darkness" or "enclosed in a black lacquer casket" are used to describe the state of mind. In the midst of it, the student "let's go" of his egoistic self "throws himself into the abyss" and satori follows.
Interpretations of Satori
Erich Fromm, who has conferred extensively with Suzuki, concludes that satori is not a pathological phenomenon. He interprets Zen statements about the limitations of ordinary consciousness in terms of his own explanations of estrangement and alienation.
Social learning and individual conflicts tend to produce a "filter" through which only a part of one's experience may pass to be represented in consciousness. Fromm understands satori to be the result of breaking through this filter: "the immediate unreflected grasp of reality, without effective contamination and intellectualization" (Fromm et al., 1960 p. 133).
In a sense it is a repetition of the direct grasp of the child, but on a new level, in the context of the full development of adult reason, objectivity and individuality. If one defines the unconscious to include all the aspects of experience which are filtered out, and if one carries the psychoanalytic goal of "making the unconscious conscious" to its ultimate extreme.
Then the goal of psychoanalysis approximates the Zen goal of enlightenment. The methods obviously differ. To Fromm, the difference is that Zen makes a frontal attack on the alienated mode of experience by means of sitting, koans, and the authority of the Zen master, while psychoanalysis trains consciousness to get hold of the unconscious by directing attention, step by step, to individual distortions and personal fictions in the perception of experience.
Schachtel (1959) appears to be in essential agreement, seeing the nature of satori as a breaking away from conventionalized and structured experience. He has traced the role of this mode of experience in adult amnesia for childhood experiences and brings forward the death-imagery surrounding the pre-satori state as evidence of the defensive purposes for which the conventionalized mode is used.
Fingarette (1958) has undertaken a fairly comprehensive mapping of mystic states into sychoanalytic ego psychology. His material is taken mainly from the Eastern literature of mysticism, including that of Zen.
He feels that interpretations which emphasize pathological regression fail to take into account the “significant marks of insight” associated with the great mystics. Patients who have made progress in psychoanalysis describe their changed experience in terms which are sometimes comparable to mystic paradoxes.
The mystics may be describing a singularly integrated mode of ego-syntonic functioning. Selflessness cannot refer to an actual loss of the subject-object distinction as it occurs in hallucinations and paranoid delusions, because the social behavior of mystics is often highly realistic and effective. Rather it refers, he feels, to that normal unselfconscious characteristic of experience which is non-anxious and motivated by neutralized drives functioning within the conflict-free portions of the ego.
"The introspected, self-conscious ‘I’ is not in fact a perception of one’s total person; it is some particular part affect, idea or action of the person as perceived by the person in a context where the dynamically dominant affect is some form of anxiety. Consciousness of self is not an awareness of some self-identical entity; it is, rather, any consciousness colored by intrapsychic conflict and anxiety." (ibid., p. 16.)
“Freedom from striving,” “acceptance,” and “desirelessness”’ seem to refer, not to a flaccid absence of motivation, but the absence of inner conflict. Similarly, “no-mind” refers to the absence of compulsive thoughts about thoughts. “Dwelling in voidness refers to complete openness to experience, unblocked by preconceived ideas of overly-rigid maintenance of logical forms.
Fingarette suggests that such integrated functioning indicates that the mystic has undertaken a prior phase similar to psychotherapy in which he has achieved a deep personality reorganization by facing his underlying problems and gaining insight into them. The regressive phenonmena-trances, hallucinations, and so forth-reported in the literature of mysticism-appear to belong to an earlier phase of self-exploration rather than to the mystical state itself.
The Feeling of Oneness
In satori, one experiences the universe as a totality of being, of which oneself and all other objects are manifestations. This is the aspect of satori which is most inexpressible, yet known so directly that it is irrefutable with logical argument.
William James (1928) considered mystic states to be characterized by a breaking through of the subliminal or subconscious mind into consciousness. He noted that union, ineffability, certainty, and passive reception were found in most such descriptions. While the experience carries strong authority for the individual himself, other people must evaluate it in terms of the empirical functioning of the individual after the experience.
Mere contact with the subconscious, then, does not guarantee that the experience is psychologically constructive. Certainly the material which he reviews ranges between extremes of sickness and health. He does not carry his thinking about the subconscious far enough to try to account for those incursions which are apt to be pathological and those which are not.
Psychoanalytic interpretations of oneness begin with Freud’s (1935) comparison of the oceanic feeling with the primal experience of unity of the satisfied infant with the maternal breast. This interpretation, in terms of oral fantasies, is followed by many subsequent psychoanalytic writers.
Bertram Lewin (1950) has explored the oral basis of the feeling of oneness as it occurs during the early phases of manic or hypomanic episodes and in the writings of two Christian mystics. Psychoanalytic material suggests that the earliest feeding experiences of the infant involve not only the wish to devour, but also the wishes to be devoured and to sleep.
The well-fed and pre-dormescent infant apparently feels itself merged with and devoured by the breast, and later sleep comes to have this meaning. This is the matrix of subjective experience from which spring ideas of sleep, death, nirvana, immortality, heaven and the oceanic feeling. The continued oral meaning of sleep among normal adults may be inferred from hypnogogic phenomena observed by Isakower (1938). Typically, the sleeper may feel something being pushed into his mouth (to devour) and feel that something is enveloping him (to be devoured).
In the hypomanic episodes studied by Lewin, the wishes to be devoured and to sleep may break through as deeply regressive phenomena leading, at times, to ecstatic experiences of union. In ecstasies the breast is often condensed psychologically with the superego, a deathless one with which the ego identifies so as to participate in its immortality. Along with the active, devouring fantasies there is the sense of yielding, and ultimately joining it in sleep or a sleep-like state. The hypomanic episode may follow and serve to deny and ward off these wishes.
Lewin makes an interesting contribution by treating the feelings of inexpressibility and certainty as elements of manifest content. He points out that the mystics and his patients have sometimes given excellent descriptions. The indescribability is subjective and points to the nonverbal latent content, the union at the breast which is being relived. Similarly the noetic quality reflects the realness of the breast experience:
This experience is what one knows because it is primal, immediate, and unquestioned experience. It was not learned by seeing or hearsay, but represents the primitive narcissistic trust in subjective experience. (1950, pp. 149-150.)
The Castalia Foundation, in 2021, feels that Lewin's theory is a little shakey here: If satori was merely a re-living of the union between mother and breastfed-child, then surely this would mean that bottle-fed babies cannot reach satori as adults? As this is plainly not true, we feel that Lewin's idea is creative, but unsupported by the evidence.
Fingarette (1958) concedes that the feeling of oneness may be considered a fantasy of the primal unity, but occurring in the context of a highly integrated and flexible ego, and made possible by this flexibility. Acceptable residues of infantile fantasy and partial instinct gratification can be maintained without making experience anti-realistic. Thus the selflessness of anxiety-free experience would, through regression in the service of the ego, be deepened and colored by the selflessness of the primal fantasy. The sense of joy and power derived from conflict-free functioning would have ecstatic overtones of fantasies of primal gratification and omnipotence.
The feeling of oneness and its accompanying inexpressibility, certainty, and passivity may also occur quite unexpectedly to non-religious and apparently quite healthy people. James notes several recorded instances. One such person describes a preceding state of mind which may be characteristic:
“My mind, deeply under the influence of the ideas, images, and emotions called up by the reading and talk, was calm and peaceful. I was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment, not actually thinking, but letting ideas, images, and emotions flow of themselves, as it were, through my mind."
(Quoted by James, 1902, p. 399.)
This particular writer was a Canadian psychiatrist, Dr. R.M. Bucke. His experience began with a flash of light. He felt Joy and assurance, and an “intellectual illumination. This was a clear conception in outline of the meaning and drift of the universe,” a whole to which he belonged. He saw that all is life,” man is eternal and the soul immortal, and all things work together for good (Bucke, 1923).
Coming as a complete surprise, this experience made a deep impact on Bucke. He evidently spent the rest of his life documenting similar cases and evolving a theory regarding them. He interpreted these experiences as manifestations of "cosmic intelligence,” a coming evolutionary stage in human intelligence beyond “simple” and “self” consciousness. His episode lasted only about a half hour, but he noted a number of effects persisting for many years after: loss of fear of death and the sense of sin, “elevated moral character," and the certainty of immortality. He observed that episodes of cosmic consciousness occur among earnest people of “strong moral nature" and usually between the ages of thirty and forty.
If we assume, as Fromm does (1960), that Bucke had satori, then his account gives us important information. His sense of immortality seems to demonstrate the effect of culture on satori. Satori has overtones of immortality, but not of the soul after death. Rather, in the Zen accounts, it seems to be the present moment which is immortal and the universe to which one belongs. His comments about age and previous character of people experiencing genuine cosmic consciousness may be important contributions to understanding satori. Finally, Bucke never experienced cosmic consciousness again.
Zen students may experience full satori several times and at other times abandon self-consciousness for various purposes. This may emphasize the importance of the social context in which satori occurs. It would seem that Bucke did not know what to do with the experience he had had.
James also noted that the experience of oneness sometimes occurs under chloroform. More recently Watts (1960) and Van Dusen (1961) have compared experiences under LSD with what they understand to be the nature of satori. If we apply James' criteria, it seems clear that some LSD experiences exhibit the marks of mystical experience similar to satori. This writer feels, though, that the prior training of Zen students may lead to more thorough integration of the experience into their daily life.
The inspirational phase of creative work may also be accompanied by similar experience for some artists. Anton Ehrenzweig treats this in a highly stimulating review of a book by Joanna Fields (Ehrenzweig, 1957). The problem of the artist, he says, is to maintain an ego organization flexible enough to gain periodic contact with the less differentiated images outside ordinary consciousness. “These images rescue art from stultification by the clichés of surface consciousness. In the “creative surrender” the subject-object distinction may be temporarily abandoned in an oceanic fusion between inner and outer world. Since the ordinary feeling of self is abandoned in this state of consciousness, this surrender may be experienced in sado-masochistic terms as death and rebirth. The effective tone of this experience tends to vary from catastrophic fear to a blissful, almost austere stillness according to the flexibility of the ego and how easily the reversal in ego functioning may be brought about.
Ehrenzweig makes an extremely interesting comparison between the ways Schreber and Rilke dealt with the undifferentiated imagery stemming from regressed ego states. Both men apparently experienced bisexual fantasies of procreation in states of regressed consciousness which antedated distinctions between sexes and between bodily orifices. Schreber,
in order to fend off the ego-disruptive effect of such imagery, imposed the precise verbal structuring of surface consciousness on his fantasy. The result was an obscene paranoid delusion. Rilke submitted to the undifferentiated state more voluntarily. And he was not compelled to articulate his fantasy fully in order to stave off disorganization, but kept its undifferentiated ambiguity in his poetry.
This line of reasoning may help to explain differences in the experience of oneness as it is reported by different mystics. The “surface” consciousness is faced with the problem of rendering the experience into its own terms. In ordinary consciousness the undifferentiated experience undergoes a kind of “structural repression,” the extent of which varies with the tolerance of the ego.
A person raised in a culture which recognizes a personal deity is likely to turn to such terms to explain his experience. Individuals may also differ in their need to impose structure, so that, even in cultures where “God” is available, some people will not explain their feeling of oneness in these terms. Finally, the feeling of indescribability may be a residual awareness of the artificial structuring which has been imposed.
We have come now to a very complex situation. The experience of oneness, with its attendant feelings of ineffability, certainty, and passive reception, may occur in many different situationsunder the onslaught of deeply regressive oral wishes and of certain drugs, in quiet, reflective states of healthy people, and as a fairly voluntary act of some artists.
Zen students and certain other mystics. Union may be experienced in terms of a highly personalized deity or of an impersonal universe. In affective tone the experience may vary from extreme ecstasy to austere stillness. It should be noted that the satori of Zen is clearly of the impersonal, non-ecstatic variety. Ecstasies, like trances, hallucinations, and similar phenomena are considered blind alleys, simply other manifestations of the egoistic mind defending itself.
Two main lines of explanation have been advanced. One is the classical psychoanalytic explanation in terms of a fantasy of the primal union of the infant with the maternal breast. One line of evidence supporting this view is the oral content given by psychoanalytic patients who have had this experience and the oral terms in which certain Christian mystics have expressed themselves. This genetic explanation refers the feelings of indescribability and certainty to the preverbal nature of the situation which is being “relived.”
The other explanation is a structural one. The radical change in the state of consciousness is considered to represent, in psychoanalytic terms, a structural regression of the ego. This is more in line with Zen thinking, which construes satori as a breaking-through of one state of (“conceptualizing”) consciousness to another.
Fingarette uses both explanations, and interprets mystic states as the function of a flexible ego, able to regress safely and voluntarily and, from a position of strength, able to entertain residues of oral fantasies without loss of reality.
The Zen writers might take issue with this reference to fantasy. From a structural point of view, oneness and undifferentiation may be considered a characteristic mode of organization of a particular ego state. The Zen writers, quite consistent with this, attribute oneness to the state of mind which is no longer conceptual: an awareness of reality no longer encumbered by concepts or fantasies.
It is clear that the two explanations may easily be combined, but the genetic one offers little means for distinguishing psychologically destructive instances from constructive ones. The structural explanation is able to take into account both forms.
We turn now to the theory of regression in the service of the ego. Both to consider how well satori fits this model, and for the additional information which the theory may give.
Regression in the service of the ego
Schafer (1958) has organized an excellent review of the psychoanalytic concept of regression in the service of the ego. Satori seems to fit into this class of psychologically adaptive regressions for several reasons.
First, discussions of satori repeatedly emphasize flexibility in the use of ego functions. One thinks when the situation requires it, and the intellectual mode may be abandoned when it is unnecessary.
Secondly, other types of regressions which might be less adaptive—hallucinations, trances, are—consistently ecstasies rejected as spurious by the Zen master.
Thirdly, the states of mind which become possible as a result of satori are clearly used for adaptive purposes. Zen was closely involved in the training of the samurai class in traditional Japanese society (cf. Reischauer & Fairbank, 1958, pp. 547-549): more effective action, rather than monastic withdrawal, was the goal. Finally, the implied increase in energy, and decrease in conflict, inhibiting self-consciousness, and anxiety suggest that satori promotes adaptation.
Since the concept seems relevant, we may use it to increase our understanding of Zen and its training procedures. Schafer has also reviewed some general factors which tend to hamper or facilitate the ability to regress for adaptive purposes. Conditions that interfere seem to center around the unconscious significances or the regressive process. Such meanings as passivity and femininity, sinful and defiant transgression, or magically potent destructiveness have been cited.
The ability to regress is fostered by a sense of self able to tolerate momentary blurring of boundaries, a well-developed set of affect signals to guard against getting too close to unassimilable contents, relative mastery of early traumata, moderateness of superego pressures, adequate trust and mutuality in relationships, personal and effective communication to other people, and self-awareness.
We might expect the hampering conditions to become issues in the period of Zen training which precedes satori. It is noteworthy that the Zen literature itself focuses mainly on issues involving the sense of self and the techniques used to defend it.
The sequence of Zen training might easily be conceptualized as a series of “regressed” states, each of which develops functions on which succeeding states must depend. For example, the first phase eventually deepens to a kind of relaxed drowsiness in which primary-process derivatives appear. The ability to deal with them in an accepting fashion enables the student to get through to the next phase in which much more regressed elements are apparent.
Feelings of omnipotence appear to color this stage of "mirror-like" detachment. The non-striving quality of this State is apparently its chief safeguard against maladaptive reactions, even though further impulse derivatives are probably emerging. This non-striving is probably a lesson of the previous phase. Satori, in turn, grows out of the second phase, and is probably based on certain safeguards which were developed there.
Limitations of ordinary consciousess
As we have seen, the Zen literature contrasts the limiting quality of ordinary consciousness with the broader “intuitive” functioning which becomes available as a result of satori. When the swordsman is able to lay aside his ordinary consciousness of himself and his situation and to rely on his “trained unconscious” (i.e., another type of consciousness which is not aware of itself), then be becomes capable of remarkable feats. His perceptual sensitivity becomes broader and his motor response becomes more accurate, less hampered by mediating thoughts.
Research on perceptual sensitivity in states of altered consciousness is clearly relevant. The oldest and best known phenomenon in this area is the increase in accuracy which occurs when a forced choice technique is used (see Erickson, 1958) in a sensory discrimination task. This essentially means that, when a subject is forced to make a definite comparison, he may correctly discriminate two stimuli above the level of chance even when he feels he is completely guessing. This “guessing state of mind” may be considered an altered state of consciousness.
Erickson reports that his group has found very marked individual differences in the intensity range between where a subject shows better than chance guessing and the point where he begins to report confidence in his judgments.
Another group of investigators has studied the influence of subliminal stimulation on the products of other states of consciousness: dreams, free associations, and spontaneous imagery. The classical study in this area was conducted in 1917 by Potzl (see Potzl, Allers, & Teler, 1960) who exposed pictures tachistoscopically for 1/100 of a second. He had his subjects report verbally and by drawings what they had consciously perceived.
Potzl demonstrated that parts of the picture which had not been drawn or described appeared in the manifest content of dreams which the manifest content of dreams which the subjects reported next morning.
Fisher (1954, 1957) and Shevrin and Luborsky (1958), using much the same procedure as Potzl, have confirmed this phenomenon. Later studies have demonstrated that “preconsciously registered”’ parts of subliminally presented pictures may subsequently appear in conscious imagery, free association and hallucinations as well as in dreams. Emergence of these elements seems also to be facilitated by LSD (Fisher, 1956, 1957; Friedman and Fisher, 1960). The following conclusions appear to be supported by these studies:
(a) an enormous amount of intricate visual material is registered in extremely brief time intervals, such as 1/100 or 1/200 of a second;
(b) while inaccessible to consciousness in the ordinary sense, the registrations may be demonstrated in their effects on the products of other states of consciousness such as dreams, spontaneous imagery, and free association;
(c) while the previously unreported elements may be reproduced with photographic accuracy, the dreams and images more often show that numerous transformations and distortions have occurred. These distortions are closely related to characteristics of dream mechanisms or primary process patterns of thinking.
Klein (1959) has explored the implications of these studies in a paper on consciousness. He feels that the data warrant a distinction between “registration” and “conscious perception.” Perception appears to be an experience which is not singular and unvarying from one state of consciousness to another. The problem-solving state of consciousness called forth by most laboratory situations tends to limit the range of registrations which may appear in conscious perception. Other states of consciousness, such as those explored in these studies, may draw on other registrations, differently structured.
This interpretation seems directly consistent with the Zen point of view regarding ordinary consciousness. The more limited nature of problem-solving consciousness has been explained by ego psychologists in terms of controlling structures which impose distinctions between wish and reality, certain and uncertain, dream and waking perception, and so on.
Although the major emphasis has been places on the role played by these structures in making veridical perception and appropriate response possible, it is conceivable that such structures might unnecessarily limit the range of stimuli available to the person in forming an appropriate response. This is acknowledged by theories concerning regression for purposes of artistic creativity (which may require bypassing the well-trodden schemata of problem-solving consciousness), but the point has been little explored with reference to motor responses in complex and even dangerous situations.
There is a serious problem remains in this formulation. If pre-conscious registrations of stimuli are subject to such marked distortions, how can they facilitate accurate response?
The transformations noted by Fisher are corroborated in studies of incidental stimulation by Pine (1960) and Goldstein and Bartol (1960) , where the effects were assessed in the production of stories. Fisher has left open the question whether distortions occur in the process of registration or in the memory traces as they are utilized in the formation of dreams, images, and hallucinations.
If the distortions occur only in the process of forming imaginative products, then we need only argue that the swordsman’s state of consciousness, while certainly “altered,” is not necessarily identical with the states whose products have been examined in these studies. The fact that unreported elements were reproduced occasionally with great accuracy in the dreams of Fisher’s subjects suggests that preconscious perception need not be distorted.
The limitation imposed by ordinary consciousness on flexibility and adaptiveness of motor responses has received less attention. It is clear that there are certain motor habits, such as driving a car or using tools, which operate quite successfully outside the range of focused attention once they have been learned (cf. Hartmann, 1951; Kris, 1952).
Consciousness does not necessarily improve function; rather, preconscious responses seem to have definite advantages. It should be noted that a part of the training in many of the Zen “arts” consists in overlearning specific motoric acts so that they may be utilized without thought in response to the intuitive perception of the situation. Of course, the ability to suspend conscious reflection is developed by other means. The acts performed in that state of consciousness are thus quite comparable to this class of automatized functions.
Some of the motor phenomena of hypnosis may be relevant. Weitzenhoffer (1953) concludes that most of these feats may be performed in the waking state with sufficient training, and that endurance in some tasks is often due to suggestions against fatigue.
We are warned, then, against expecting miraculous increments in motor capacity under hypnosis. But the occurance of any increments in performance or decrease in fatigue suggests that thoughts about one's capacity which exist in ordinary states of consciouness may unnecessarily limit what one is able to do. The “second wind” phenomenon may also be relevant as a state of altered consciousness in which enhanced motor performance occurs.
There may exist another class of behavior of which the following is an example:
A student was working in a factory where extremely hot material was being poured into small portable molds. The temperatures involved were such that, if the molds touched water, a serious explosion would occur. He was sitting in a chair when he saw a mold begin to drop into a puddle. He was at the top of a 12-foot wall when the explosion occurred, but remembers nothing in between. He inferred that he climbed the wall with remarkable speed but had no reflexive awareness of the act.
Unless such reports are simply the product of some distortion, there appears to be a class of emergency behavior involving spectacular motor feats performed without awareness. It has received little attention in the psychological literature, and its very emergency character may have precluded systematic observation.
In summary, the material we have reviewed in this section seems consistent with some of the Zen assertions concerning the limitations of ordinary waking consciousness in forming adaptive reactions to complex situations. Certain states of consciousness, such as those which we obtain during dreaming or other imaginal productions, seem to make use of stimulus registrations that are not available to the perception of ordinary consciousness, for example, that of a subject in a laboratory situation. Even in a laboratory, nonverbal responses may indicate accurate discriminations in the absence of correct verbal reports, and even verbal reports may show finer discrimination when the subject is forced to choose despite strong subjective uncertainty.
On the response side we have less information. Overlearned motor skills may operate best when not specifically attended, but there is little research concerning the effects of reflective consciousness on motor efficiency. Some of the motor phenomena under hypnosis suggest that ordinary consciousness may unnecessarily limit response because of the way one conceptualizes his capacity. Finally, we have a mere hint that much more dramatic motor activities may take place, without conscious reflection, in extreme emergency situations.
The training procedures
We turn now to consider the basic exercises used in Zen training. Hitherto we have noted some similarities between Satori and other, better known states of consciousness. These included mystical and creative “regressions" occurring in the context of well-integrated personalities. While in the West these transient episodes seem to have occurred unexpectedly, almost by accident, Zen uses methodical training procedures for bringing about satori. The basic exercise used for this purpose consists of motionless sitting and some sort of concentration. For ease of exposition we will refer to this practice by its Japanese name, zazen.
Zazen and Relaxation
Sato (1958) has compared the bodily adjustment of zazen to Jacobson’s “differential relaxation,” and it is useful to survey the literature related to relaxation and its therapeutic effects. First let us review just what is done with the body during zazen.
The ordinary position used in China and Japan is the cross-legged “full lotus” posture seen in many Buddhist statues. The knees and seat form a three-cornered base which is very solid, but requires almost no muscular exertion.
The back is straight, the head erect, the hands folded in the lap, and the eyelids partly open. The entire position is balanced, but not completely relaxed. Most Westerners cannot cross their legs this way without strain, but some Zen authorities feel that the same kind of balance can be achieved sitting on a chair (Kondo, 1958: Senzaki & McCandless, 1953). Next the breathing is allowed to become relaxed and natural, and the student begins to concentrate. More controlled breathing exercises may also be used.
Present day techniques of therapeutic relaxation training derive mainly from two sources: Jacobson’s “progressive relaxation" (1938) and Schultz’s “autogenic training” (Schultz & Luthe, 1959). There are other methods (see especially Begchi, 1936; Faust, 1949, 1952; Rathbone, 1943; and Yates, 1946), but these two are the most widely used and represent most of the variation to be found in this field.
Jacobson’s procedures focus on training the subject to recognize muscular tension, this being considered a necessary step toward enabling him to relax it. One method is to have him contract large muscle groups in successively smaller degrees until he is aware of even small amounts of tension.
Similar training may be given for the small muscles of sight and speech. With this greater awareness of tension, the subject 1S told to relax to a greater and greater degree. Toward the end of a training session the subject may often fall asleep. Jacobson considers this a sign of successful progress. Further supervision aims at counteracting habits of muscular tension of which the trainee is not aware.
After the subject has learned to achieve deep relaxation in a reclining position, he is taught “differential relaxation” in other positions. This training is to enable him to use the minimum muscular tensions requisite for an act. This phase of the training usually consists of a review, in the sitting position, of tension and relaxation in the various muscle groups. Full-scale training in progressive relaxation may involve several supervised sessions a week for several months, and the trainee is expected to carry out additional practice sessions alone each day.
While Jacobson’s method is a direct approach to relaxation through training in the muscle sense, some other methods are more indirect and require no such conscious control of the musculature. Schultz’s autogenic training, which derived originally from autohypnotic techniques, is one of these. This method, while well-known and widely used in Germany, is virtually unkown in this country. The first presentation of the method in English (Schultz and Luthe) appeared as late as 1959, but it lists over six hundred clinical and research reports on its use during the past thirty years.
The method is as follows: the subject sits or lies down and assumes a relaxed state of mind. He concentrates on a “training formula,” such as “my right arm is heavy,” while environmental contact with that portion of his body. An attitude of “passive concentration” — of focused awareness but unconcerned indifference to the functional outcome — is important in producing effects. Initial sessions may be as short as five minutes with one minute periods of concentration punctuated by one minute periods of rest. The full standard series of formulae proceeds from heaviness in one arm, then both arms, then both legs, to warmth in the extremities, "heartbeat calm and regular," "it breathes me," "my solar plexus is warm," and "my forehead is cool." Each formula is added only after preceding ones are well-established.
Since the kind of mental contact involved has very real consequences for the circulation, blood pressure, and so on in the body parts concerned, careful supervision is maintained to avoid undesirable physical reactions. These are primarily of two kinds:
(1) the trainee’s mental contact may be incorrect (for example, the hand rather than the whole arm may be the area of focus), in which case a variety of minor symptoms may appear;
(2) in the case of special irritability of certain body parts, such as psychosomatic conditions involving the heart or respiration, serious complications may occur unless formulae involving these areas are approached carefully. Thorough mastery of the series ordinarily takes from one to eight months.
"The trainee should be capable of ‘switching on” the many various standard exercises effectively and almost instantly by applying the following pattern of formulae: “I am at peace... My arms and legs are heavy...I am at peace... Heartbeat calm and regular...It breathes me... My solar plexus is warm... My forehead is cool.”
As a result of the quick (20-30 second) and effective application of the standard formulae, most trainees will experience the body as a resting mass which is heavy and warm. Slow pulsation of the heart and deep and slow respiration may be perceived. The head is usually experienced as being "separated” from the rest of the body. (Schultz & Luthe, 1959, pp. 95-96.)
What are the effects of relaxation?
In a series of studies using relaxation-trained subjects, Jacobson (1930a, 1930b, 1930c, 1930d, 1931a, 1931b) presented evidence that mental activity is impossible without minute quantities of muscular tension. Taking pains not to suggest his main interest in these studies, he had subjects visualize various objects. Regularly they reported minute quantities of tension in the muscles of the eye. Told to relax completely while visualizing objects, the subjects could do one or the other, but not both at the same time. Using a string galvanometer to measure muscle potentials, he demonstrated similar effects with imagined movements.
Since this evidence indicates that mental and emotional activity are associated with neuromuscular activity, Jacobson conceived of relaxation training as providing a direct, mechanical, negative control over such functions and hence as a sufficient treatment in many neuroses (1920; 1941; 1943). While this formulation leaves important questions unanswered, the evidence does suggest that relaxation may affect the quantity of mental activity and that some measure of control over thinking and emotion may be exerted by relaxation procedures. Read Part II of this article by clicking here.
This article originally appeared in PSYCHEDELIC REVIEW, Issue Number 5, 1963