Monthly Archives: February 2018

The primacy of experience

Some years back I wrote a paper looking at the work of the psychoanalyst R. D. Laing and seeing how it related to the insights of Thomas Merton. I looked at both men’s work on Zen – Laing practised yoga and meditation for many years, and read widely in Eastern texts. In 1971 he spent a year in India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) spending months on retreat in a Buddhist monastery near Kandy, studied Sanskrit, and met holy men in the foothills of the Himalayas.

The books I focused on were Merton’s Zen and the Birds of Appetite and Laing’s The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise because both were writing about the primacy of experience – experience that is unmediated by concepts, conjectures and stylised thought. For both authors this is about subjectivity and the experience of being a person. Laing asks, ‘Can human beings be persons today?’A question that resonates with Merton’s plea in an earlier book: ‘The person must be rescued from the individual’.

Merton thought that our rational technologically based society alienates and mystifies us and Zen is a way to break through the blinding conformism and really see. Laing writes that our alienation ‘goes to the roots’ and that we are, ‘strangers to our true selves, to one another, and to the spiritual and material world’. We are born into a world where alienation waits for us, through the ‘outrageous violence’ that human beings inflict on one another. The alienation can be set aside when we experience one another without preconceptions and expectations – we are really there for one another. Both men are writing about ‘experience with complete acceptance – that that is how it was meant to be’.

For Laing the alienation is exemplified by the treatment of the mentally ill. He writes that no age in the history of humanity, has perhaps so lost touch with natural healing processes. For Laing madness can be a breakthrough from the illusion of the egoic experience. ‘The “ego” is the instrument for living in this world but if the “ego” is broken up, or destroyed (by the insurmountable contradictions of certain life situations, by toxins, chemical changes, etc.), then the person may be exposed to other worlds’.

Even in Laing’s later years when he was discredited professionally and all over the place personally there are extraordinary accounts of his capacity to accept and connect with another’s experience. At a conference in Arizona in 1985 Laing presented a live filmed interview with a young ‘schizophrenic’ street woman whom he had found the night before. The twenty minute interview looked inconsequential on the surface, but when the woman voluntarily joined Laing on the conference platform she said she felt better and then praised Laing as someone, ‘who knows how to tap into where other people’s minds are at, not just by asking questions and trying to figure things out’. Laing approached others without preconceptions – filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, accepting the evidence in front of him – surely a Zen like frame of mind where he responded to who they were, and not how they were. Indeed Laing refers to Zen as a growing influence in psychotherapy, ‘with its emphasis on illumination achieved through the sudden and unexpected’.



Zen: looking at things as they really are

Zen: looking at things as they really are

It is really difficult to simply look at things as they really are and plenty of Zen masters have said this. To be able to look directly at reality is in fact what Zen is all about. You can find this in the example that Jesus gives to ‘consider the lilies’ (Matthew 6: 28), not as flowers to be picked or as representing something but just as themselves ‘how they grow’ – in other words just as they are.

As psychoanalysis explains, the difficulty is that we project onto the lilies all our own stuff – desires, aversions, nostalgia, how we might use them or arrange them and so on. The difficulty is that we do it often without recognising that we are … so that what we see becomes a function of ourselves – things to serve me and work for me. If we do it about flowers it’s also true that we do it in personal relationships, where our emotional reaction to the other person is central and we see we are only liking or loving someone that we have largely fashioned to suit ourselves. Falling in love is held up as an envious state but it is a massive projection and often it is only over time that one can begin to see the person for who they really are.

Zen tells us: ‘Wherever your attention alights, at this very point, experience.’ And ‘Feel the consciousness of each person as your own consciousness.’ This is the path of sympathetic insight which leads to love; but where there is no insight then love is replaced by what Dom Aelred Graham calls ‘that feeblest of substitutes – good intentions’.

All this requires pushing aside the egoism of the mind and with that our set opinions. It’s a well-known Zen story but worth repeating:

A Japanese master received a university professor who came to enquire about Zen. The master served the tea. He poured the visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself, ‘it is overfull. No more will go in!’

‘Like this cup’, the Zen master said, ‘you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’

Clinging to opinions can be a direct block to direct contact with reality, and therefore to union with God… this too is pointed out by Jesus against his enemies – right thinking people but who held uncritically to the accepted views about religion and consequently missed the point:

‘Try not to seek after the true, Only cease to cherish opinions’

Sometimes as we seek the truth we have already decided what truth might look like or what kind it might be… it’s part of clinging and attachment rather than an ‘amiable selflessness’.

‘Obey the nature of things, and you are in concord with The Way… when your thoughts are tied, you turn away from the truth.’ The aim is to become aware of immediate reality with nothing, not even a thought intervening. Only then can our true, that is, the God-centred, self make the egoless response.

Looking at Zen 2

Dom Aelred Graham brings up a common conundrum that can be found in Christianity:

I am greatly interested in Wednesday of next week being fine and sunny, so interested that I pray for it. Wednesday comes and proves to be, from my standpoint, a perfect day. I am grateful and my prayer has been answered.

The spontaneous thought is that God has been good for me, but as Graham asks, how true is it? It might have been better for my neighbour’s vegetables if it had rained, or for the town water supply.

So were these larger benefits foregone by God so as to satisfy me? One would hesitate to think so. ‘God’s plan is not centred on my ego; but neither am I a mere pawn in a divine game of chess. The difficulty is to keep both these facts simultaneously in mind’ …. (incidentally another example of the tension of opposites).

Thomas Merton has an epiphany about this quite early on after his initial conversion when he decides to enter the Franciscans. He writes how God often talks to us through Scripture – or indeed other books: ‘That is he plants the words full of actual graces as we read them and sudden undiscovered meanings are sown in our hearts, if we attend to them, reading with minds that are at prayer.’

Merton was reading: ‘if He comes to me, I shall not see Him: if He depart I shall not understand… if He examine me on a sudden who shall answer Him? Or who can say: why dost thou so?’ The words sear and burn Merton who feels they act as ‘a forewarning of an accusation that would unveil forgotten realities’… and here’s the rub… he writes: ‘I had fallen asleep in my sweet security. I was living as if God only existed to do me temporal favours.’

So when things don’t go to plan God becomes an unfair God who could not be unjust or unfair: Why should it happen to me? God becomes a projection of our desires, and often rather superficial desires. Interestingly it is only when we think of ourselves as ‘me’ – an object of thought rather than ‘I’ that this question arises. I think this is linked to self-consciousness. When I am fully absorbed in something – it could be meditation or a task – there is no self-preoccupation but rather undifferentiated self-awareness. ‘I’ (the self as subject) is not distracted by ‘me’ (the self as object). We need the ego but it is also the condition and focal point of deep distress, all we are is what we feel we are.

This is the tendency of the human condition but a tendency that Zen offers to free us from and open us to the inner self or ‘seeing into our own nature.’

There is a close connection between being truly aware of ourselves and being aware, to some degree at least, of God: the ultimate Self.

Looking at Zen 1

‘If you wish to see it before your own eyes

Have no fixed thoughts either for or against it’

So says the Buddhist scriptures and in one saying we are transported into the enigmatic world of Zen, a world both fascinating and infuriating, and jam packed with the coincidence of opposites. Zen attracts because it strips away the false with the lure of what might be ultimately real; and not real in the hereafter but here and now.

The five things that no power in the universe can bring about are, according to Buddhist tradition: That what is subject to old age should not grow old, that what is subject to sickness should not be sick, that what is subject to death should not die, that what is subject to decay should not decay, that what is liable to pass away should not pass away.

It is a struggle and suffering to take these inevitabilities on board but an enlightened mind is about being reconciled to what cannot be changed and this lies at the centre of Zen. Dom Aelred Graham says that this too is the message that lies deep in the heart of Christianity – for him Catholicism. At our normal level of consciousness we are full of care, a sense of anxiety and foreboding, frustration and insecurity despite our material wealth – there is so much human sadness. And of course we can see many reasons for that too. How can the suffering of uncertainty be accepted, every day and here and now?

It is sometimes described as ‘the sorrow of existence’ and it is this problem that lies at the heart of Buddhist teaching. The sorrow is seen to arise from a general state of restlessness, agitation, desire and unawareness of reality.

The word Zen means meditation but Zen itself is indefinable: ‘Those who say do not know; those who know do not say.’ For the rational Western mind Zen is a problem because it has no philosophy and it’s not a theology. The practitioners say that in a literal sense there is nothing in it but rather it is an attitude or a state of awareness in the mind – one of simplicity and directness.

D.T Suzuki who influenced Thomas Merton and corresponded with him says: ‘When I raise the hand this, there is Zen. But when I assert that I have raised the hand, Zen is no more there.’ In other words this is about direct experience unmediated by conceptual thought, so ‘unselfconsciousness’.

In the same way it’s not so much about hours spent meditating and following techniques but rather about being open to awareness and connection. ‘Awaken the mind without fixing it anywhere’. We are told that it – enlightenment – is there within us already if we could only cleanse the doors of perception.


Another term used is that it is the active principle of life itself… This reminds me of Donald Winnicott’s use of the word ‘spontaneity’ for a quality of the true self …being alive to life and to the moment.