Zen Insight, Psychoanalytic Action: Review


Book Review By: Jeffrey D. Cole, PhD, ABMP

Zen Insight, Psychoanalytic Action: Two Arrows Meeting.

By Seiso Paul Cooper. Routledge, 2019, 172 pp.

Seiso Paul Cooper’s book, Zen Insight, Psychoanalytic Action: Two Arrows Meeting explores the tension between cumulative experience, understanding and knowledge — knowledge that becomes a fund of information — and direct, intuitive encounter. He elaborates on the relationship between these elements through associating two models — or methods — of encounter and learning: Zen Buddhist theory and practice and Bionic psychoanalysis.

Highly informative – and informed – and as enriching an experience as this read is, just as it is, contextualizing the work in current zeitgeists and evolutionary trends in the professions facilitates a meaningful review of this highly readable while information-dense work. As such, considering questions like, “Why this effort? Why now? Why a book exploring these modes of experiencing and these particular framework structures (Zen and Bionic psychoanalysis) in which they are encountered?”, and, “What is the relationship between the elements and containing structures such that they should be brought together in a unified analysis?” guides our attention to key elements of the work.

One answer to the above questions might be: The integration of psychoanalysis, Buddhism and meditation has become an enculturated endeavor and assumption for many at this point. That is, contemporarily, the relationships between these structures generally has popular appeal in both the psychoanalytic and meditation communities.

But, more expansively – and reaching toward a deeper connection, a deeper source of inspiration – is the book’s role in informing a current zeitgeist toward fusion across many disciplines and – from psychoanalytic and treatment perspectives at least – fusion of elements of the different schools of psychoanalysis, psychotherapy and the healing arts in general.

Considering the book’s role in our current growth phase and transition as a profession, Cooper’s book is commentary on and informs – explicitly or implicitly — multiple dyads. These include the relationship between learning and practice, between clinical practice (as relationship) and professional fund of knowledge, and between intuition (or prajna) in encounter (with the analysand or with oneself) and knowledge brought to the encounter. It looks at the contextualization of these modes of experiencing and learning as they exist in the time referents: past, present and future. If one looks closely, even the interplay of drive and relational conceptualizations are implicitly addressed. All these explorations emerge via Cooper’s analyses of the histories and practices of Zen and of Bion’s particular, Eastern-influenced brand of psychoanalysis. In this regard, Cooper’s text finds its rightly situated place in the incremental development of this highly nuanced and rapidly expanding literature that addresses these two disciplines. In fact, and uniquely, he provides an extensive review of this growing body of literature, which is rare among authors who pursue this venue.

Embedded in these analyses are commentary on really big questions, a couple of which might be summarized as: “What is it to ‘develop myself’ versus ‘to be a compassionate, contributing part of the world’?” and “What are the relative roles of being smart and being a valuable but unobtrusive companion (as healer, or psychoanalyst, or psychotherapist) on another’s path?” In addressing these questions, Cooper provides us a careful, deliberate and thorough unpacking of these two great systems of thought and provides a gentle nudging or laying the way open for, but, neither forcing nor enabling the reader’s synthesis of the component parts. This endeavor finds support with clinical vignettes that are generously sprinkled throughout the book to clarify, explicate and demonstrate the clinical relevance of the abstract ideas that Cooper presents from both Zen and psychoanalytic perspectives. Additionally, two chapters are fully devoted to extensively detailed psychoanalytic cases.

Cooper’s structuring of the text is significant in that there is a degree of embeddedness of the concepts in the flow of the narrative. In this regard, the text is at once informative and performative. He initially introduces the reader to Zen as incarnated in Dogen’s teachings as these evolved from Ch’an methods originating in China which in turn grew out of Buddhist methods brought to China from India (Bion’s birthplace not incidentally). Cooper’s analyses of multiple Zen teaching stories are fully fascinating and, in particular (as it is key to a grasping of the entire text) the reader is directed toward the story of “Polishing a Tile to Make a Mirror” (pp. 32-33) as this explicates a distinction between two major concepts contrasted in the text as a whole: Shikantaza (simply sitting) and conceptualizations of altered states archetypally associated with Buddhist practices and meditation in general.

While there is a trend toward revealing an evolutionary understanding of these differences (between knowledge — or the archetypal — and direct experiencing), yet another embeddedness is Cooper’s valuing of their perpetual reciprocation sustained throughout the text. That is, just as with Cooper’s thesis, while Dogen’s undifferentiated – other than increased awareness (zazen) – experiencing of the present reaches a deeper source, the tangible waters brought up from these depths continue to serve the – both enlightened and newly-informed — seeker on his or her continued journey along whose path the well is tapped again and again.

The same egalitarianism is granted Bion’s explications of “O” and “K,” which Cooper explains informatively and experientially, in psychoanalytic process and experience where the intuitive, unutterable knowings (“O”) of direct encounter between analyst and analysand become utterable concepts (insights, interpretations) that facilitate continued development of the relationship. That is, these conceptualized relational experiences (“K”) now become the structure through which further (and, as practitioners know: often deeply moving and transformative) experiences of “O” are accessible to the analytic dyad.

As Cooper lays out the Zen component of his analysis the formula might be described something like this: Shikantaza (sitting) is the circumstance in which zazen (awareness) yields prajna (intuition). Taken as a whole this grouping of processes manifest total exertion which is fullest possible engagement with experience. In the psychoanalytic consulting situation the parallel is: Being fully present with the analysand is the circumstance through which transformation – mutation of the immutable — is possible.

Cooper writes:

The activity of intuitive knowing manifests in the ability to respond spontaneously and with clarity. As the expression of knowing in action, prajna functions as the ongoing operation of the “Zen impulse” (Cooper, 2010). This is the activity that keeps on going no matter what. Prajna finds representation in the iconic swing of the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Manjushri’s sword, which is in constant motion, cutting through delusion more rapidly than we can see (pp. 51-52)

Cooper draws on Bionic concepts to articulate this process at its atomic level. Barriers to direct experiencing (in the sense of fullest awareness) – beta elements – are dissolved through the circumstance of fully being-with (one’s own reality or the analysand) into alpha elements (or, in the case of Zen: prajna) that then fuel continued exploration and deepening of awareness

Cooper’s narrative provides a mirror on both Zen and psychoanalysis as archetypes – replete with, as is the way with archetypes, both useful and obstructive information – and takes the reader through an accompanied process of gently breaking down shared assumptions toward allowing the reader more direct access to the life-giving elements behind these structures from which can be built a more compassionate understanding of ourselves, and each other, as questing – human – beings. This important offering will be of benefit to professionals, Buddhist practitioners, students of religion and the general public.