Should Meditation Be Considered a Form of Psychotherapy?Dr. Michael Kampschaefer
Updated: Jan 10
This is the first of a two or three part exposition of a point of view regarding the current wave of popular interest in what has been referred to predominantly as “mindfulness” practice. In the following essay, I hope to clarify what appears to be, in the mind’s of some, a natural confusion between two separate but related realms: meditation and psychotherapy. From the standpoint of a long career as a psychologist/psychoanalyst as well as many years of Zen practice, I hope to shed some light on this subject by referring to several articles, one quite old and the other fairly newer, by psychologist John (Jack) Engler (1983, 2003), having to do with the development of a relatively secure sense of self (‘being somebody”) as a condition for being able to experience “being nobody” (a culmination of Zen practice). Along the way, I wish to clarify the difference between something being therapeutic, eg having a salutary effect on one’s functioning in one way or other, versus any such pursuit constituting therapy.
The reason I believe this distinction needs to be addressed is that as human beings we are always looking for a “cure”. That is, we are always seeking a “solution” to the experience of personal dis-ease/discomfort. This is the hope behind the search for “panacea”. It occurs as a result of some form of personal desperation, either for ourselves or a loved one. We may think “if only I could experience such and such, I would be content and happy in my life.” We may have a young adult son or daughter or other beloved family member for whom we wish “if only they could meditate or do zazen, meet this teacher or read that book, attend a sesshin, etc., then they would be ….”. You can fill in the blank here: saner, happier, more grounded, functional, etc. And they may experience this effect.
On the other hand, plunging into the silence and structure of a sesshin, particularly, along with its physical rigor, can strain even the strongest ego. For example, I recall an early sesshin experience in which I was having significant tension in my neck. I semi-involuntarily tilted my head a few times. The monitor shouted “Stop Moving!” in a strong voice. I immediately felt shame wash over me, followed by an intense wave of anger. For a few minutes it took everything I had to stay on the cushion. By allowing my breath to ground me, I was able to calm down and reflect on what this experience called up from my past (i.e. childhood experience) as well as the naturally complex motivations of the monitor. One thing in particular that the experience helped me face was that zen training involves repeated encounters with the feelings we analyst sometimes call “narcissistic injury” or wound to self esteem. It takes a certain groundedness and strength to be able to tolerate koan work. The feeling of not being able to “get it right” calls up all sorts of painful feelings until one gets a sense of grace about the process, realizing that the practice isn’t about that at all.
In my field, increasing numbers of practitioners are being drawn to the use of mindfulness as a technique to help persons deal with the experience of uncomfortable feelings along the anxiety-depression spectrum. I myself encourage almost every patient to consider adopting at least a meditation practice centered on counting of breath because such practice strengthens the skills of concentration and self observation. So, I definitely see meditation as an aid to psychotherapy. However, it should not be considered a substitute or replacement for good psychotherapy and/or psychiatric medication, especially in cases of more severe diagnoses such as bipolar (type 1 or 2), schizophrenia, major depression with psychotic features, schizoaffective, etc.
In some future post, I hope to be able to discuss in more detail the matter of being able to be both “somebody” and “nobody” with the help of Dr. Engler’s work. Meanwhile, those who are interested can find at least one of these papers easily available as a PDF on the web!
Michael Kampschaefer, Zen student
Maria Kannon Zen Center
Engler, J.H. (1983). Vicissitudes of the Self According to Psychoanalysis and Buddhism. Psychoanal. Contemp. Thought, 6(1):29-72.
Engler, Jack. (2003). Being somebody and being nobody: A reexamination of the understanding of self in Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. In, Safran, J. (Ed.), Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: An unfolding dialogue. Wisdom Publications, Boston.