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Zen principles

The principles of Zen are observations about reality, which one learns en route to enlightenment. The principle that “the essential world of perfection is this very world” (Aitken, 1982, p. 63) most clearly expresses the essence of acceptance in Zen.1 The world is perfect in the sense that it is the best that it can be. It cannot be any different than it is because it is created or caused by what has preceded it. Within this world, everything and every experience is impermanent, ebbing and flowing like waves. DBT therapists help clients to experience the world in these ways primarily by teaching the skills of mindfulness and radical acceptance. Acceptance again appears in the observations that: “All beings are the truth, just as they are” (Aitken, 1982, p. 6) and that all individuals have an inherent capacity for enlightenment. Therapists particularly use validation strategies and encourage clients to use Wise Mind and self-validation to accept themselves.

Zen also describes the consequences of not seeing and accepting reality. In his description of Zen, Aitken (1982, p. 49) commented on the inherent nature of suffering and the effects of not accepting it: “The first truth enunciated by the Buddha is that life is suffering. Avoidance of suffering leads to worse suffering. ... [W]e drink alcohol excessively to avoid that pain, thus causing more pain”. Zen suggests that suffering results primarily from attachments to or insatiable desires for reality being a certain way. These attachments and desires have many forms, including yearning for a particular relationship or for universal love, desiring an unattainable goal or object and remaining attached to a set of beliefs that conflict with the facts. For example, therapists might have desires or beliefs about the way that they think their healthcare service should operate (e.g. the service should fund their programme). A strong desire or attachment to these beliefs may interfere with accepting reality as it is (e.g. the manager has an unlimited number of such requests and a very limited amount of funds) and responding effectively. When reality crashes into desire, the one with the driving desire receives the damage (e.g. intense anger, ruminating on judgements, increased stress). Zen does not state that attachments or desire should not occur; it simply highlights their relationship to suffering. It also suggests that one can reduce suffering by letting go of attachments or desires that obstruct seeing and accepting reality.

In addition to desires, “delusions” (i.e. cognitive biases or distortions) also interfere with accepting reality. For example, Zen proposes that boundaries are only a delusion and that all individuals and reality are actually one. Such a proposition provides an antithesis to the emphasis that many psychotherapies place on establishing boundaries. The following story, however, indicates the suffering that arbitrary boundaries can cause and suggests an effective means of removing such boundaries. Thich Nhat Hanh (1987) visited a friend with two young children and discussed life with a young family.

Then Allen said, “I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part was for Sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work. The time left over I considered my own.

But now I try not to divide time into parts anymore. I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time.

The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself!

(Thick Nhat Hanh, 1987)

This story illustrates Yamada Roshi’s point that: “The practice of Zen is forgetting the self in the act of uniting with something” (Aitken, 1982, p. 9). Thus, DBT validates a relational as well as an autonomous self and balances the traditional psychotherapy focus on developing and defining a sense of self with attention to developing a sense of connection to the world and letting go of arbitrary and ineffective boundaries.

DBT does not require therapists to practise Zen, but Zen practices of acceptance are critical to balancing the techniques of change in the treatment. Zen emphasizes experience and practice as means of understanding the world. The practice includes focusing on the current moment, seeing reality as it is without “delusions” and accepting reality without judgement. The practice also encourages students to let go of attachments that obstruct the path to enlightenment, to use skilful means and to find a middle way. In the early phases of learning or applying Zen, therapists often view it through the filter of a particular psychotherapy model or try to “bolt on” some of the practices. The following story illustrates the problems with these approaches and suggests an alternative path to learning.

Nan-in, a Zen master received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” “Like this cup”, Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?

(Reps & Senzaki, 1957)

This story about an overflowing cup applies equally well to learning about the other principles and practices of DBT. The journey of learning is never easy, but travelling without extra baggage will help.


1 This use of the term acceptance most closely resembles acknowledgement and does not imply approval or agreement.

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