Friday, 29 March 2013

Reluctant Zen Masters: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and The Guard At The Gate

One day I was pushed from an elevated subway platform in Chicago’s Loop down to street level. There were pain medications, surgical options, cat scans, and many visits to many different doctors and specialists.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a research based clinical practice. It is a one on one experience, face to face. There are workbooks, revelations, and my personal outcome helped me rescue my practice during a very dark time.

If I were to have designed a perfect life for myself before training the guard at the gate, it would be completely inferior to the life I have today.

A year after falling down flights of metal stairs in a reflexive fetal position and hammering my spine at every revolution, I was a complete basket case. One of my pain medications tackled pain by ratcheting down the entire nervous system, including the brain. In spite of being functionally brain dead, I was also full of anxiety and prone to being depressed and feeling hopeless about the entire situation.

As a result of CBT and as it applies to my practice, I not only meditate on my breath as I was taught in my beginning years by my kind teacher, but I now also check in on how the Palace Guard At The Gate is doing because I ask certain things of him as a result of my CBT.

When pain enters the palace of my perception, I might be working at my desk or looking at the sky asking myself which is a star and which is a satellite. The guard at the gate does not draw his sword or close the gate when pain enters the palace.

He greets pain and hands him a nametag that says “Hello, my name is Sean”. When the perception of pain leaves my palace he opens the gate for Sean and tells him to have a good day and that a lot of people love him and are rooting for him.  He no longer beheads the perception if it is negative because he now understands that it means he is beheading himself.

I still have the pain today. It has not gone away. I am on zero pain medication and I am alive and grateful to be in touch with reality on reality’s terms, connected to other people, and constantly evaluating how I treat people and the ripple effects of what happens when I do not respond compassionately. Less than compassionate responses still happen more often than I prefer.

My palace guard {1} will never be out of work because I have invested a lot in him and he has been given more responsibility, constantly meeting and greeting all sorts of perceptions and impulses. I am pleased with his performance, even though is he is a mere human being and freaks out when I lose my car keys and can be remarkably insensitive at times. When he is at his best, he focuses on the task he is given in the present moment with no expectations of the future and any delusions of changing the past.   

It was rather convenient that both the CBT office and the sangha of my root teacher’s tradition were both only blocks away from my apartment. It is also with a warm fuzzy feeling that I regard my former therapist as a reluctant Zen master.

I would point out to the CBT professional that many of the chapters in the workbooks began with  “This is section is about the research based concept of X in CBT, which is similar to the Buddhist concept of Y…”.

The CBT practitioner would respond, “We are not here today to talk about your religion, we are here to change the way you perceive things. How are you feeling by the way?”

At the start of my therapy, I would respond that when I entered the sangha I was but a shell of a human being that could not perceive anything other than physical pain. I considered myself as a ghost haunting a zafu cushion and could not connect with anyone on any level and that when I meditated my perceptions of my body were overwhelming.  

My therapy has ended.

Reluctant Zen masters can only carry you for so long if they are truly teaching you how to walk.

Dharma teachers don’t tire of carrying you because they point the way. When you are going the wrong way, they still point the way. When you are going the right way, they still point the way.   

Therapists tend to have too much baggage anyway.

With Love,

I turn 41 on April 1st and I requested the day off of work to avoid the April fool’s jokes and to go the farmers market when parking is easy. After that I am going to reread the parts of The Miracle of Mindfulness I have yet to underline or put in brackets. Perhaps some of those sentences will resonate with me on my birthday once I have experienced them for myself that day. When every sentence is underlined, I will be ready to give the book away. I may pass away first, so I recommend buying your own copy before the chronic pains arrive. Buddhism has long tradition of liberation from suffering; chronic pain has its place in my practice. In an ironic twist, the graphic comes from a trial attorney’s web site and it contains no solutions, only problems. I spit in the general direction of attorneys due to my employment as a trial consultant after a publication I was on in graduate school. I have two teachers that practice the dark art of law, so I do not spit on them but I remain cautious.

Reluctant Zen Masters: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and The Guard At The Gate


  1. Hey! Your article regarding cognitive behavioral therapy is very informative. Well, I want to share some statistics in the recent year, which I collected online indicated between 10 to 12 % people suffered some form of panic attack. Some the most common related terms are given in the list below:

    - General Anxiety Disorder
    - Panic Attack Disorder
    - Anxiety Panic Disorder
    - Performance Anxiety
    - Anxiety Disorder
    - Social Anxiety Disorder

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