Zen + Bioenergetics=What?

Zen + Bioenergetics = what?  It is an equation I have been working on for many years.

Zen is based on a 2500 year old Buddhist practice focusing on moment to moment awareness of the present, encouraged by sitting and walking mindfulness practice. In zen practice, we are mindful of our breathing as it  takes us deeper into our experience to discover the wisdom there.  As we notice our breathing, we may begin to wonder, “who breathes,” or “what is breathing?”   We may come up with a few answers, but then our mind hits a blank wall.  This is the mind before words, before thinking—one’s “don’t know” mind.  “The truth is beyond all words,” says Sengstan, an early zen teacher.

In 1975 when I was in a creative writing program, I began experimenting with meditation as a way to open up my creativity.  I began practicing various forms of Buddhist meditation, eventually centering on zen.  Practicing zen at long retreats brought up tension in the middle of the back, usually at the same point in the retreat.  So the question arose, What is that? As I became increasingly aware of tension in my body, in my counseling practice, I also became more aware of tension in others’ bodies,  a subject little talked about in mental health training. I received 2 hours of training in body language in my counseling training program, by a graduate student.  The awareness of body tension led me to the study of bioenergetics, which opened a whole new dimension of knowledge about energy and the body.

Bioenergetics is a 75 year old therapy based on the unity of body and mind developed by Alexander Lowen from the work of Wilhelm Reich.  Bioenergetics works with movement, self-expression, breathwork,  awareness , as well as traditional psychological methods. Bioenergetics helps one work through chronic tension and habitual patterns  allowing one to experience pleasure and a sense of freedom.

During this time, as I practiced as a clinical counselor, I became disenchanted with several aspects of clinical practice.  Words, for example.  So many words.  People need to tell their story, but much of what mental health counselors did relied on words to give meaning and change people’s thinking.  We have this linear thinking self, often correlated with the left brain, that needs to organize the world by words and concepts.  But this method leaves large parts of ourselves untouched–the physical self, the creative self, the imagination, the emotional self.  We let the linear thinking brain drive the therapy and rule the roost.  However, as Gregory Bateson points out, the body and the right brain don’t communicate via linear thinking.  It uses analog communication—metaphor, images, senses, story.

Zen Master Seung Sahn, who studied western philosophy when he was in the university, used to say: “Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”   He would then follow this by asking, “So, I don’t think, then what?”  So there are unchallenged philosophical assumptions going on in the therapy process, that create an over reliance on words and the thinking mind.  Words emphasize the very thinking mind and verbal identity that, from a zen point of view, is part of the problem. Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say that westerners had strong “energy up,” which means our energy is all in our head, in our thinking.  So I began to wonder—for people who really want to change, doesn’t verbal therapy just strengthen the energy up?

In addition, I have seen people let go of things at zen retreats, bioenergetic and  breath work workshops, without any need to put a cognitive frame around it.  At one zen retreat, I experienced body tension related to anger; and as I explored it, I felt it extend throughout my body and back into my memories of the past. Then it released itself and let go.  All without a word said.   The point is learning to let go—to not hold onto ideas or emotions.

One time two family therapists interested in bioenergetics asked to attend one of my group workshops. During the workshop I did some deep emotional release work with a regular client of mine who was attending the workshop. I considered verbal processing of the work afterwards but instead we made eye contact and she seemed done. Words would’ve added an unnecessary post script to a complete piece of work. The family therapist asked why I didn’t do the verbal processing and I answered that the experience seemed complete as it was. I got a sense they weren’t satisfied with that answer, but the client later stated that words would’ve seemed a distraction at that point.

If we move beyond words, we also move beyond linear history, which relies on the same parts and pieces view of the world that linear thinking relies on.  We believe in the fiction we have created of minutes, hours, days, years; and we believe that somewhere in our past, something happened, a childhood wound causes our behavior.  But the pain is now, the trouble is now.  The pain is there because we never released it.  Other mammals don’t need therapy because they release the trauma as it happens, but we hold onto the pain, because we’ve learned not to let go. The wound in the past is a memory,  the pain is now and needs to be released now.   We need to learn to release the trauma held in our bodies, through things like bioenergetics, trauma release exercises, spontaneous qigong. Sometimes we need to pick the scab and sometimes we need to let it heal.  The man who trained me in hypnotherapy used to say that to heal a broken leg, you don’t go back and break it again. It is best to focus on healing the present and let the past heal itself.

If  we can let go of the held tension,  we can  also let go of a need for an answer.  Maybe we can stop working so hard on getting ourselves “fixed.”  “If one kills the desire to search, one will find what one is looking for” is an old zen saying.   Someone I know says she stopped going to therapy because she was tired of the assumption on her part and probably the therapist, that  she needed to be fixed—that there was some developmental injury in her childhood that needed to be repaired. 

Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say  that when you are here in the moment, your karmic self, your thinking mind, the thought mass that creates the patterns we define as ourselves, is gone.  Living in the moment there is just that moment.  In this moment, one is complete. A saying from The Compass of Zen goes:  “One by one each thing is complete.  One by one, each thing has it.”  I was sitting in the interview room with Zen Master Dae Kwang, when he had me read these statements. There was a sense of opening and letting go.  I was complete.  The situation was complete. There is that fundamental wholeness which each of us has.  We are ok, just as we are.  “Without cultivation, you are already complete.” 

From zen, I learned these two things that I brought into therapy:  moment to moment mind, and grounding ourselves in our fundamental completeness.  Zen Master Seung Sahn use to say, “Believe in oneself 100%.” One of my jobs as a therapist is to believe in the people I work with and help them believe in themselves.

So if I believed the zen point of view had so much to offer, why not just do zen?  When some of my bioenergetic group members went to zen practice, they found it useful, but also thought the zen students would be helped by bioenergetics.   With just zen, I felt people sometimes avoided the emotions and the relationship part of the equation.  Sitting on the cushion putting effort into just attaining that “awake” state, the absolute self, people would strengthen the zen part of the equation but  ignore the emotional and relationship part of the equation represented by  bioenergetics.  John Welwood, a well known meditation teacher and therapist, coined the phrase “spiritual bypassing,” to refer to this phenomenon. 

So, why not just do zen?  Because energy work is an effective means of bringing people more into the present. It helps release body tension which constricts awareness.  It helps people let go. It can be more effective than just sitting.  Dhiravamsa, a former Buddhist monk,  leads workshops that include vipassana, a mindfulness practice similar to zen,  and bioenergetics.  On utilizing body and energy work in Buddhist practice,  Dhiravamasa said:

As for the practice of meditation, bodywork and massage help release tensions and energy patterns brought to the surface through the meditative process, . . . It is very obvious to all participants in my work that after each bodywork session, meditators can sit more comfortably and go deeper into a meditative state. 1

In the Kwan Um Zen School, Zen Master Seung Sahn  brought in zen wind exercises, a form of Buddhist qi gong,  utilizing meditative movement and breathing.

So Zen + Bioenergetics = What? 

As I have continued to sit with the question of what do you get when you bring together zen and bioenergetics, the answer evolved in my practice.  If you are sitting or standing and paying attention to the moment,  then a thought, an impulse, a sensation, a feeling arises from the ground of our body, leading to—movement.  So movement by movement we express ourselves, coming from that ground of our total self.  Put zen and bioenergetics together and you get movement.  Put them together and you get something like qi gong.

Functionally, this means doing a combination of meditative and bioenergetics exercise, beginning in stillness and awareness, moving into energy as people release tension, and then back to a deeper awareness in stillness. The workshops I do alternate  periods of silence and music,  individual work and creative movement in a group.  There is a limited amount of talking, at the beginning and end.  Combining both awareness work and energy work, it is like a zen bioenergetic retreat with the goals of moment to moment awareness,  acceptance and letting go.

As people do the creative movement in the workshop together, it becomes a dance, a dance of the self, and as one does it with others, as we breathe and move and dance together, we are building a creative and healing community.  In the workshop, we are moving and dancing together as a community, a sangha, a tribe.

At a retreat one December, Zen Master Soeng Hyang (Barbara Rhodes, “Bobby”) allowed me to lead some evening stretching sessions.    One night I led 45 minutes of bioenergetic, zen wind and yoga movements and exercises.  Here, zen met bioenergetics—movement as meditation, energy work combined with awareness work. From Bobby, I heard great reports from the participants when they returned to their  sitting with more focus and physical comfort.  This was it—zen and bioenergetics.

If when you put zen and bioenergetics together you get movement, when you put zen and bioenergetics movement in a group with music, you get a dance.  And, as  we move, breathe and dance, we  discover what is most human in ourselves—our compassion, our creativity, our ability to move and express ourselves, to find our creative and growing edge—grounding us in our fundamental self so we can reach out, to move with and be moved by others.

1.Dhiravamsa.  Turning to the Source:  Blue Dolphin Publishing, 1990.  P 219.

the healing power of groups

The culture around us is pretty dysfunctional.  So more and more for me, groups are the treatment of choice for many issues—a place to build and heal in a group culture that supports one’s growth.   In a group, people are there for a common purpose, which is to grow beyond where they are now and the problems they bring to group.  In a group, they can see that what they bring is reflected in everyone else.  Anxiety and depression are not the special problems of a few people, they are part of the human condition. Depression is a physiological state and usually it is related to other things— sadness, loss, despair, loneliness; and mostly those things are what everyone feels at some time or another.  Depression particularly is correlated with lack of social connection, isolation.  And what happens in a group?  Lots of connection. 

My personal experience of the power of group was attending a Gestalt workshop at the Cleveland Gestalt Institute.  I was going through the end of a relationship.  A woman also going through the end of her relationship  volunteered to do some work.  She said her goodbyes to her spouse in a Gestalt “empty chair” exercise that helped her release the feelings she was holding. I, sitting in the circle watching her, was working through those same feelings with her and  through her.

As a group leader, I remember one woman in particular doing some significant work. It may also have been about ending a relationship.  As she worked through her feelings, she began to sob and as she felt the support of the group through touch and presence, she sobbed even more.  Afterwards, she felt released from the feelings and the support of the group increased the power of the release. She was smiling, relaxed—at peace.

Anyone who has meditated, with others, has felt the power of the group presence, as one has settled into stillness and the silence.  On a cognitive level, we may think of ourselves as all separate, but on a physical and energetic level, we are synchronizing with each other, like waves on a lake   As a group facilitator leading meditation, I have actually noticed, when a group gets to a place of deep peace together, many people’s breathing does appear to be in rhythm. There is physical harmony within the room.

In a  therapy group, a person becomes more than the problems they bring to group.  They can become a support to another, a teller of a story of a similar experience, an intimate sharer of similar feelings; and all of this moves them beyond themselves and the problem they brought to group. And moving beyond one’s current self into a larger self is growth. As we grow beyond our old self, our ego, and make connections with others, we settle into the ground of spiritual growth—that vague ambiguous word that gets tossed around. 

Spirituality, if I have to define it, is growing into a larger self more  identified both with one’s deepest self, the self that is a part of everything else, and a growing identification with the world, through greater connections with others.  So groups can be,  with the right focus, a tool for growth, a tool for learning to live more fully in the  moment, and tool for connecting and giving of oneself to others.  And these are the tools that help heal people’s lives and hopefully the larger world, which is in sad need of healing.

Finding the health inside us

Disease is an old concept and and as a concept can lead us astray. Sometimes disease is an old friend.  In conversation with a chiropractor friend, she talked about how functional medicine wants to trace the problems back to the root, rather than focusing on the symptoms. 

Two stories demonstrate looking past the symptoms to the roots.  My bioenergetic trainer told a story about getting diagnosed with borderline hypertension, and was surprised considering her history of practicing bioenergetics and self-care. She had tried some things, including medication, and they hadn’t worked.  As I remember the story, she went to Dr Alexander Lower, founder of bioenergetics, and he talked to her and had her take some bioenergetic positions. He told her that when she stood, she leaned forward on the balls of her feet, tensing her calf muscles.  She took this observation with her and worked on standing in a more feet grounded position and the hypertension cleared up. 

Another story involved a violinist and Fritz Perls, founder of gestalt therapy.  A famous violinist had developed a problem where the hand that held his violin cramped up during playing, keeping him from finishing pieces. He had gone to various psychiatrists with no result and eventually went to Perls. As I remember the story,  Perls had him play the violin for him and immediately saw what was going on.  As he played he brought his foot back behind the other foot  which cause increased tension in the that foot and slowly worked its way up his body until his hand cramped up.  Perls worked with him applying awareness to his stance and the problem ceased. 

Sometimes we get so focused on a particular aspect or way of looking at a problem that we miss the wider perspective.  Often, the wider perspective is the body, either via food, or behavior, or held tension.  When I worked in the field of chronic pain, the physiatrist I worked with talked about how a person focusing their attention on the pain reinforces the pain, sending more attention and signals through the nervous system.  This over time increases the pain.

Sometimes the disease becomes a friend. People focus so much attention on a problem or an aspect of a problem that it is all they see.   They have it so long it becomes like a ‘frienemy.”   We need to fix “the anxiety,”” the depression,”” the relationship problem,”  but we are used to having it around.

My philosophy drawing from my experience with zen and buddhism shifted my perspective.   In zen, there is the idea of buddha nature, or intrinsically awake and healthy awareness inside each person.  This translates into the idea of basic health, or “basic sanity” as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche put it. My belief, reinforced by my training in hypnosis,  is that inside each person is the wisdom, experience, knowledge to resolve their problem if it is drawn out of them.  This means that in working with people,  our focus is on the natural health, wisdom and healing capacities that we have inside us. 

So let us focus on attending to basic or natural health as the foundation of personal change.  Let us open the therapy process to wider area of focus. This shifts the perspective to the whole person and their relationships with others, with the world. We can begin with basic health   People can to do physical things to be well—to eat well, exercise, and sleep.  This includes  energy practices or methods, such as bioenergetics, qi gong, or  acupuncture,  to promote a free flow of energy in the body.  Cultivating basic awareness, mindfulness,  leads to a sense of themselves as a whole and interconnected with the people and life around them. 

Finally community, having a healthy social support network, is the matrix, the ground of change.    Two women who I treated with chronic pain seem a good illustration of this point. Regularly their pain was often in the 7-8/10 level when the came in Monday mornings. One weekend, both of their husbands went away for the weekend.  On Monday, both reported their pain down at the 2-4 level. 

Supportive relationships and community, or lack there of, can be the crucial piece  in helping a person move beyond their problems, and a group can be that community, those relationships.

Next up:  The healing power of groups