Zen and Psychotherapy: Partners in Liberation
By Joseph Bobrow
2010 W.W. Norton
Reviewed by Jeffrey Eaton
Among the many books that have recently appeared exploring the intersection between Buddhism and psychotherapy it is still rather rare to find a title authored by a person who has trained both to the level of a Zen master and a fully qualified psychoanalyst. Joseph Bobrow, who currently practices psychoanalysis and is also founder and Roshi of Deep Streams Institute in San Francisco (http://www.deepstreams.org/), is that rare person.
Among the many intriguing things about Bobrow is his commitment to bringing his dharma practice and his analytic world view into relationship in ways that can be of practical help to others outside the zendo and the consulting room.
Some years ago Bobrow began the work of the Coming Home Project that serves Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families (http://www.cominghomeproject.net/). The Coming Home project is neither Buddhist nor analytic but a practical and creative effort designed to help Veterans in many different ways. The Coming Home project exemplifies the creative trend of “engaged Buddhism” as well as showing Bobrow’s commitment to a larger view of the “analyst-as-citizen”.
His recent book Zen and Psychotherapy: Partners in Liberation is another example of the creative interaction between his Buddhist studies and his analytic work. Written in accessible and conversational style, Bobrow effortlessly weaves stories of clinical practice and Buddhist reflections into a quietly captivating series of chapters.
Some writers in this emerging genre take pains to demonstrate their scholarship or intellectual virtuosity. Bobrow is the opposite. His prose is so apparently open and simple that one might not notice how much experience exists in the background. In other words, this is a book that both beginners and seasoned students will enjoy. One can understand it without much preparation while others will appreciate its relaxed sophistication.
I admire the quiet aliveness of Bobrow’s writing. He is personal without being self absorbed. Some of his clinical vignettes are quite moving. In particular I like a story early in the book where he shares an experience with one of his patients as describes a moment of her emotional awakening. Bobrow neither turns away from it nor over describes it. Instead, he is present and shares something emerging that becomes meaningful to both. It is neither a Buddhist experience nor a psychoanalytic experience. Bobrow doesn’t have to pin it down, name it, or concretize it. He allows it, instead, to just be what it is. It is something lived together, something whose meaning exceeds description. Bobrow is able somehow to convey the sense of something ordinary and of something special simultaneously. Experience is not fabricated here, instead, the habits of seeing oneself in a particular way just begin to loosen and fall away.
Bobrow touches on many themes close to my heart, especially in such beautifully titled chapters as “Harvesting the Ordinary” which deals with such themes as suffering, reverie, and attention. I also resonated with his themes in “Presence of Mind” and “Knowing the Truth” which raise important questions and then explore issues in a to and fro of Buddhist and analytic perspectives.
The overall experience of reading Bobrow is one of appreciation for how personally he has expressed his own experience. I get a sense of the texture of his thinking, how it resonates with my experience and the many different kinds of pathways that open up into new thoughts and ideas. His writing seemed to create a generative space for me.
A nice phrase that Bobrow offers is “a glimmer of Suchness”. That phrase describes the experience of reading Zen and Psychotherapy. One catches occasionally such glimmers. It is a generous work, not intending to convert anyone to any particular point of view, but rather sharing many points of view a refreshing and open way.