This article originally appeared in PSYCHEDELIC REVIEW, Issue Number 5, 1963
Zen Buddhism: A psychological review (Part II)
By Edward W. Maupin
Another effect of relaxation procedures is less well documented, and more subjective, but it is worth examining. This is the possibility that by focusing attention on the present state of the body, relaxation techniques may indirectly act to lessen anxiety.
Thinking tends to take the subject away from his immediate feelings and sensations: one can only anticipate the future, remember the past or deal with distant objects cognitively. It is generally agreed that anxiety is an anticipation, even though the content (such as bodily destruction or loss of objects) may not be conscious in neurotic anxiety. Being anticipatory, it is cognitive.
All of the relaxation methods reviewed seek in some way to heighten awareness of the present state of body. This awareness, in a sense, brings the subject back to a personal “here and now,” away from the thought-world of distant objects and events. Thus it is reasonable to expect that cognitive elaborations of anxiety may be cut short. The means by which relaxation training lessens pain may, in part, be similar.
Full relaxation may not be necessary to achieve these results. Jacobson, later in his life (1955), reported decrease in anxiety and greater feelings of control when subjects were trained to attend to the sensations associated with acts rather than attending simply to the goals sought.
A third immediate effect of relaxation may be cathartic release of thoughts or emotions of which the subject was previously unaware. This effect is not invariable, but seems to occur in a certain proportion of cases. It may be partly due to psychic content related to the tension itself. Jacobson (1938) was inclined to believe that muscular tension always had to do with some act—so much so that he was inclined to ask his trainees what they felt themselves tensing to do. Defensive conflicts may easily find expression in muscular tension:
The physical effects of the state of being dammed up emotionally are readily reflected in the muscular system. Pathogenic defenses generally aim at barring the warded-off impulses from motility (the barring from consciousness is only a means of achieving this; thus this pathogenic defense always means the blocking of certain movements. (Fenichel, 1945, p. 246.)
Braatoy (1942; 1952; 1954, pp. 155-197) has discussed habitual patterns of muscular tension in neurotics as more generalized techniques of suppressing emotions. Relaxation on the psychoanalytic couch releases spontaneity. He suggests that hypertension of the anti-gravitational muscles may make it easier for high-strung neurotics to stave off emotions and inner unrest. One may often observe these individuals exerting the anti-gravitational muscles when it is quite inappropriate: some lie in bed pushing their feet against the footboard.
To repress an emotion it may often be useful to exert tension in the maxillary, respiratory and abdominal muscles, and these muscles in some neurotics may be involved in habitual automatic attitudes of tension. He feels that the respiratory pattern of neurotics may often be strikingly different from that of others.
The point is that muscular tensions often, if not always, express something. In certain individuals, the pattern of muscular tension may be involved in habitual, automatic, constant attitudes maintained to suppress emotion or to fend off the motoric expression of some impulse. These attitudes will interfere with the achievement of relaxation.
When relaxation is achieved, anxiety, emotional catharsis, or emergence of previously repressed ideas may occur. So far we have only isolated clinical observations to support this. The relationship between muscular tension and psychic content has not been studied sufficiently to enable us to predict which individuals will react in this way. Hadley (1938) suggests that catharsis in a physically relaxed patient is more spontaneous and is not accompanied by the bursts of emotion which characterize ordinary catharsis.
Relaxation procedures appear to differ in the psychic state which they induce. Jacobson’s techniques seem to lead to a “blank mental state’ and frequently to sleep. It is noteworthy that the Zen literature warns the student against this blank state during zazen (Hui Hai, 1948; Luk, 1960). It is felt to be useless and to hinder the occurrence of satori.
Bagchi (1936) notes that Hindu theories of relaxation aim at quiet attention, and later to a state of attenuated consciousness which they consider a state of equilibrium differing from sleep. He suggests that Jacobson makes use of attitudes similar to quiet attention, but his mechanistic outlook causes him to overlook their importance in inducing relaxation.
Autogenic sessions do not necessarily lead to sleep. Interestingly, when the subject intends to sleep after a session he often finds it necessary to eliminate the formula related to breathing. Concentration on the rhythmic stimulus offered by natural, uncontrolled breathing seems to induce deeper, more generalized physical relaxation (Behrend & Weiss, 1941; Bowman, Briggs, & Harris, 1950; Herrigel, 1960; Schade, Hruza, Washburne, & Carns, 1952; Schultz & Luthe, 1959), and also to prevent sleep or the blank state.
These long-range effects reported by trainees are remarkably uniform regardless of the method used. The pattern includes quicker and more restful sleep, feelings of increased energy and endurance, less tension and greater ability to cope with difficult situations, less susceptibility to emotional outbursts, and a greater sense of self-control. This last effect—the reassurance that one has an active means of controlling tension and difficult feelings—may be especially important.
Observations of behavioral changes from relaxation primarily concern reduction in symptoms of anxiety and tension. Jacobson (1938) records his impression that trainees move more slowly, without ill-coordinated movements. Their faces look calmer, less worried, and their voices often seem lower and less strained. Motor effects were studied by Haverland (1953), who gave biweekly training in progressive relaxation for six weeks to 26 subjects. Control groups received training in Rathbone’s (1943) rhythmic exercises or ordinary physical education classes.
The relaxation group showed significantly greater improvement on a reaction-time task, and on several tasks related to motor control (steadiness, aiming, tracing). Improvement in motor control and decreased muscular tension may also be involved in the results reported by Neufeld (1951).
A group of several hundred Naval Air Cadets was given group training in progressive relaxation for five weeks—a very short course. This group had significantly fewer physical injuries as well as fewer days lost for other sickness than similar groups of non-trained cadets. A smaller group was systematically observed for several nights while sleeping.
Compared to an untrained control group they tended to fall asleep faster, move about and waken less often, although these differences were not significant. Yates (1946) reported good results using relaxation to improve performance of college boxers and Army aviators, although World War II intervened before sufficient follow-up study could made.
Where relaxation training has been used in conjunction with psychotherapy, therapists report that patients associate more freely (Hadley, 1938; Fascal, 1947; Schade et al., 1952; Schultz& Luthe, 1959). Autogenic training particularly has frequently been used in conjunction with psychoanalysis. One interesting effect is that patients subject to anxiety dreams report that these dreams begin to assume benign endings.
Most investigators have found that relaxation training alleviated symptoms of tension and promoted insight into psychosomatic relationships. This symptomatic relief may leave patients better able to attack underlying problems in therapy. But Hadley and Schade et al. warn that the symptomatic relief may decrease motivation to continue treatment in some cases.
Much more extensive observation has been made on the effects of relaxation on psychosomatic disorders. This is especially true of autogenic training. The range of disorders treated and the varying effectiveness of the treatment in different disorders would be impossible to cover in detail here. Autogenic training is widely used in the treatment of bronchial asthma.
Surveying five studies reporting 150 cases, Schultz & Luthe give complete symptom removal in 66% and significant improvement in another 25% with follow-up of 6 to 50 months. Other approaches were being applied simultaneously with many of these patients; so clear-cut conclusions cannot be drawn. On the other hand, most of the patients had been treated for many years with other methods without satisfactory results,
A tendency for autogenic exercises to correct deviations in blood sugar balance has been demonstrated in well-controlled studies. Diabetics often require marked reductions in insulin dosage. A wide range of milder psychosomatic disorders, such as cardiac neuroses, neurotic epigastric symptoms, gastritis, etc., respond well. In some other disorders, where the effectiveness of autogenic training has not been established, there have been isolated instances of striking improvement. Some epileptic patients report being able to stave off seizure as a result of training, although the frequency of aurac remains the same.
Jacobson (1920; 1938; 1940) reported cases of hypertension, mucous colitis and other disorders which responded well to progressive relaxation. His case reports, while covering very few patients, include excellent follow-up studies — some for ten years or more.
Most authorities agree that the applicability of relaxation training depends largely on the capacity of the individual to take responsibility for applying the exercises. Children under nine and mentally retarded individuals do not seem to respond well. Neither do people who lack self-direction, either by illness or excessive dependency needs. Beyond this limitation, the type of disorder involved need not preclude benefits.
Schade et al. (1952) were unable to find clear-cut diagnostic groups which did not respond. Stokvis (1952) concurs that applicability depends more on the personalities of the patient and therapist than on the specific nature of the illness. There are, however, some suggested differences in response between different categories of neurosis.
Hysterics seem to respond quickly at the onset of autogenic training, but tend to have trouble practicing without supervision. This interferes with their further improvement. Obsessive-compulsive patients take a long time to establish the initial formulae in autogenic training, but beyond the initial stage they respond well (Schultz & Luthe 1959). Both Schultz and Jacobson caution that these individuals must be watched lest the training exercises be used as compulsive rituals.
It seems clear from this review that, from a physical stand-point, the meditative sitting of Zen may be subsumed under the category of relaxation training. Nearly all of the methods extend relaxation training to some sitting position, and the majority of them use similar breathing exercises to facilitate relaxation. From this literature, then, we may gain information about the probable effects of zazen in its early stages. This includes the pattern of subjectively felt benefits, the possible physiological reactions, favorable and unfavorable, etc.
But in all of this literature there is no mention of any experience like satori. Zen Buddhists evidently regard meditative sitting as a means of suspending ordinary conceptual activity. Jacobson’s evidence suggests that relaxation may indeed alter mental activity. The difference between zazen and these other relaxation techniques probably lies in the use to which the relaxed state of mind is put.
Concentration and Zazen
The other aspect of zazen, and the one which receives the most comment in Zen literature, is an attitude of concentration. This not a strained focusing of attention, but a state of mind quite similar to what Schultz calls “passive concentration”—a peaceful attention to the object of concentration without straining to achieve effects.
Relaxation itself, by decreasing mental activity, appears to facilitate this state of mind, Extraneous distractions—thoughts and external stimuli—are not forcibly excluded but, rather, dismissed. Eventually a state of stillness ensues which is occasionally broken by spontaneous associations and feelings.
There appears to be good introspective evidence that focused attention as it is ordinarily deployed may serve to limit the form and quality of conscious contents. The reorderings and transformations necessary at certain stages of creative thinking (and in therapeutic insight) seem to occur most readily at the "fringes" of focal awareness.
The “freely floating attention" which enables the psychotherapist to "hear" his patient on many different levels seems to involve a change in ordinary attention, Titchener (1912) noted that when attention is directed at affects they seem to evaporate, to lose their reality. When attention remains on the object of the affect, the affect remains vivid, There thus seems to be a close relationship between the logical, non-emotional schemata of adult waking consciousness and attention deployment.
Since attention deployment seems to be related to the logical schemata of adult waking consciousness, it is reasonable to expect that when attention is focused on one “corner” of the conscious field, differently organized content will emerge. Recent studies of perceptual isolation, where attention deployment is altered artificially by restricting afferent stimulation, seem to support this (Solomon, 1961). Imagery, primary process thought, and altered bodily feelings tend to occur quickly, although with marked individual differences in tolerance and in the patterns of alteration.
It is tempting to explore the perceptual isolation literature further in search of possible insights into zazen, However, the differences seem more important than the similarities. The Zen student sets out to deal with mental activity in a fairly specific way, whereas the perceptual isolation subject is left to his own devices. The relaxation aspect of zazen is likely also to introduce important differences in the amount of anxiety, press of ideation, and affect which occur in the two situations.
As the spontaneous associations emerge in zazen, the student strives to maintain a detached view of them, without acting out or otherwise distorting reality in terms of them. He simply observes and accepts them until they pass.
The Zen literature does not tell us specifically what the Zen master does to aid the student to maintain his detachment. Possibly the Zen master may not need to deal with “resistances” as actively as the psychoanalyst, because of the nature of zazen. If so, one factor may be that concentration is a less complex task than free association: the student may more easily become aware when he is deviating from the task. To put it another way, the attempt not to think may be particularly effective in helping the subject to be aware of the subjective origin of his thoughts and feelings. Another factor may be the increased awareness of the personal present which was discussed earlier.
There is some research indicating individual differences in attention deployment which could influence the manner in which different persons respond to zazen. This is the so-called "scanning control" principle which has emerged in studies by Schlesinger (1954) and Gardner, Holzman, Klein, Linton, and Spence (1959). These studies suggest that certain individuals tend to scan the stimulus field, or deploy attention broadly, while others tend to focus their attention more narrowly. The patterns tend to appear consistently, as characteristics of the individual in a variety of situations. The research also suggests a link between broad attentional scanning and the defense mechanism of isolation, although broad scanning does not seem to be used for defensive purposes by all the subjects observed.
In as much as Zen training requires a more narrow focusing of attention, individuals who can scan broadly might have special difficulty in carrying out the procedures. When broad scanning is involved in defensive patterns it should be particularly difficult to suspend. The relevance of this cognitive control principle to performance in situations similar to Zen meditation remains to be explored.
In order to explore possible therapeutic applications of Zen Buddhism, we must distinguish between the experience of satori and Zen meditation. Satori seems to be an experience which facilitates very healthy personality functioning. But satori takes years of training, and probably a Zen master as well.
For practical reasons its applicability to Western psychotherapy seems limited. Most present-day applications of Zen to psychotherapy derive from zazen.
Dr. Akahisa Kondo (1958) reports that he instructs his neurotic patients to practice sitting and breath concentration in addition to their psychoanalytic sessions with him. After an initial exacerbation of systems, the exercise seems to facilitate progress in therapy. Activity which has previously served as "an escape mechanism to avoid facing their problems” is blocked by the sitting. A more unified feeling of self and a calm vigor is the eventual result.
Gradually the patient “begins to show, unconsciously, more intensive concentration in working on his problems in the therapeutic situation... His psychic energy has begun to become assembled, unified, and available for constructive work.” Konda does not report individual differences in the reactions to this application. Fromm (1959) has suggested that some such application might be particularly helpful in the treatment of character disorders.
There have been several widespread applications of zazen in modern Japan. According to one very indirect source (Brower, 1961), Tokyo bus drivers have been required to practice zazen in recent years, The reported result is a decrease in street accidents involving buses. Many Japanese military officers are said to have received training in zazen before and during World War II, (Dewey, 1920; Malm, 1959). Unfortunately I have not found more direct information about these applications and their results.
Morita therapy, developed by a Japanese physician of that name, has recently been cited as a psychotherapy with a viewpoint akin to that of Zen (Kondo, 1953b; Kora & Sato, 1958). The treatment begins with several days of complete bed rest without distraction. The patient is simply instructed to leave himself to the “dynamics of the situation": to eat and sleep as he wishes, and to accept feelings as they come.
As the patient permits himself to suffer, worry, be uncomfortable without resisting, his discomfort gradually recedes. After four or five days a feeling of ennui appears, and the patient is starved for stimulation, He is given simple chores. Gradually his work becomes more complex until he is able to return to his ordinary job. The whole treatment usually takes from four to five weeks. Morita himself emphasized the role of hypochondriacal attitudes toward minor discomforts in certain neurotics. The mechanism was felt to lead to greater and greater anxiety and functional impairment.
The treatment was designed to reduce this self-perpetuating process by helping the patient to accept discomfort. The treatment is felt to require considerable ego strength, and it is used mainly with neurasthenic and obsessional patients. Results at the Kyushi University Medical School are a reported 76% cured, 7.6% improved (Kora & Sato, 1958), No follow-up information is reported.
Christmas Humphreys (1960) reports that his group of English subjects, which practiced sitting and breath concentration for several years, increased in intuitive development, withdrew projections by which they had tended to distort reality, showed greater serenity, ability to cope, and compassion,
“All who have made this experiment in the last few years have changed remarkably," Humphreys writes, "passing, of course, through periods of depression and doubt, but finding these well suffered as the price of wider awareness, deeper understanding of eternal truths, and many a brief experience of things no words can usefully describe.” (p, 205).
It is significant that the benefits reported for zazen are so similar to the results of other relaxation techniques, Several possibilities need to be explored:
(1) It may be that zazen has nothing special to offer,
(2) The special consciousness induced by zazen may have more therapeutic usefulness than relaxation procedures which produce sleep or a blank mental state. One factor is likely to be increased access, without ordinary anxiety, to repressed experience.
(3) Other relaxation procedures, because they move more on and carefully toward establishing relaxation, may be useful in helping subjects practice zazen who would otherwise find it too difficult.
In closing we must raise the possibility that the use of zazen may enable patients to deal with problems which are by their very nature inaccessible to other kinds of psychotherapy. A number of psychoanalytic writers have pointed to such a class of problems.
Balint’s (1958) discussion is particularly broad in scope. The usual argument is that problems stemming from Oedipal sources are most amenable to psychotherapy. The Oedipal experiences, regressively resurrected in the transference, are susceptible to verbal report. Verbal interpretations are understood as such and can be worked through.
The Castalia Foundation, in 2021, notes that it is now widely understood that Freud manufactured the Oedipus Complex after Vienese society refused to accept the findings of his paper, The Aetiology of Hysteria (in the original German, Über die Ätiologie der Hysterie). The author of Zen Buddhism: A psychological review, Edward W. Maupin, was writing in the 1960s and would not yet have easy access to the historical record of Freud's deception.
To offer a brief, and naturally therefore incomplete, summary of The Aetiology of Hysteria here, Freud discovered that the origin of most of his patients' illnesses were their experiences of sexual abuse as children. Unable to accept his findings, Vienese society threatened Freud with ruin unless he recanted his paper. We now know this type of reaction from society to be typical of abuse dynamics. When the abuser(s) are confronted, the society that implicity endorse the abuser(s) will rally to the support of the abuser(s) rather than confront the psychoemotional terror of acknowledging their role in the crime,
Readers who are interested in learning more about this topic may find the extensive work of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson useful in unravelling the horror of Freud's rejection by Vienese 'society', and Freud's later participation in covering up the crimes of abusive parents. A good starting point for learning is Masson's book titled: The Assault on Truth: Freud's Suppression of the Seduction Theory.
If we substitute the phrase " Oedipal experiences" for "childhood sexual abuse" in Edward W. Maupin's essay on Zen, then the essay remains approximately accurate. Zen-style approaches to self-exploration, relaxation, and healing, can precipitate the emergence of 'depressed' (meaning 'pushed down') experiences of childhood trauma which form the root of many adult diseases.
The Castalia Foundation has found that, with alarming frequency, emergent childhood-traumas tend to involve sexual abuse. Such abuse is a popular choice for abusers as it is, after all, is the most damaging. For this reason, it has formed the foundation of much of Earth's corrupt governments, institutions and political systems.
To accept external 'authority' the human being must first be subjected to enormous violence which displaces their own internal authority. It is no accident that the world's most 'powerful' people are also those who are most active in raping and molesting children. The reader is advised to look at Jeffrey Epstein's close friendships with Bill Gates, Prince Andrew, Bill Clinton and many others in the apex-predator class. Global power systems are fuelled by the industrialized rape of children. Those who speak out professionally on this topic are still met with the same type of censorship that Freud encounterd in Vienna. However, times are changing.
Naturally, many readers will dispute the above paragraphs, and this is to be expected in a society where child abuse is permitted; but talking about child abuse is taboo.
Defenses at this level are such that the patient is able to internalize despite tension. But in the context of problems related to pre-Oedipal experience, the verbal communication of therapy runs into more difficulty. Words do not always have an agreed, conventional meaning.
Externalizing defenses such as acting out and projection correspond to pre-Oedipal levels and are less amenable to therapeutic handling. In the self-exploration of zazen there is no need to verbalize emerging experiences, feelings, states of consciousness, yet anxiety and the need to externalize seem to be decreased. Might it not be that subjects could learn to face and accept experience corresponding of these lower levels by using zazen?
Satori itself, with its marks of preverbal, prelogical experience, seems to affirm this possibility.
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A version of this paper was originally published in the Journal of Consulting Psychology, whose publishers have kindly granted permission for this reprinting. The author is now at the Neuropsychiatric Institute, UCLA Center for Health Sciences, Los Angeles.
Regarding this fictional aspect, compare Sartre: ‘“The ego is not the owner of consciousness, it is the object of consciousness. To be sure we constitute spontaneously our states and actions as productions of the ego. But our states and actions are also objects. We never have a direct intuition of the spontaneity of an instantaneous consciousness as produced by the ego. That would be impossible. It is only on the level of meanings and psychological hypotheses that we can conceive of such a production — and this error is possible only because on this level the ego and consciousness are indicated emptily” (1957, p. 97).
The concept is a difficult one. Logically if we reject the conceptualized “I” as the author of one’s behavior, then there remains a real self which actually acts. Groddeck’s description of the “it” has been advanced as an insight parallel to what is experienced as the real self in Zen. “The it of a particular man starts — if we must start somewhere—with fertilization. It embraces all the powers which govern the formation and further development of individual man. The outstanding fact of this being is that without a brain it fulfills the most difficult functions of life, and indeed that the brain—and with it the power of thought and later of consciousness and the ego itself—are created by the it. The it is the deepest nature and force in man. It accomplishes everything that happens with and through and in man” (Weisz, 1960).
Rilke has a rare sensitivity to this level of experience. His Sonnets to Orpheus celebrate and record an experience of intense inspiration. In the portions quoted below, he describes the stillness of the creative state and distinguishes it from other states.
"A tree ascending there. O pure transcension!
O Orpheus sings! O tall tree in the ear!
All noise suspended, yet in that suspension
what new beginnings, beckoning, change, appear!
(Rilke, 1949, Sonnet I, 1. 1-4)"
"A god can do it. But can a man expect
to penetrate the narrow lyre and follow?
His sense is discord. Temples for Apollo
are not found where two heart-ways intersect.
For song, as taught by you, is not desire,
not wooing of something finally attained;
song is existence. For the god unstrained.
But when shall we exist? And he require
the earth and heavens to exist for us?
It’s more than being in love, boy, though your ring-
ing voice may have flung your dumb mouth open thus:
learn to forget those fleeting ecstasies
Far other is the breath of real singing.
An aimless breath. A stirring in the god.
OE A breeze.
(Rilke, 1949, Sonnet III)"
This article originally appeared in PSYCHEDELIC REVIEW, Issue Number 5, 1963