Yesterday I visited a local Zen center for the first time since moving here a few months back, and I was thinking this morning about subtle correspondences between Zen meditation and classical psychoanalytic practice. As psychological technologies, they are like half-siblings, sharing distinct affinities and oppositions. (I am neither a Zen devotee, exactly, nor an analyst, although I have long had an ambivalent fascination for both).
Both attempt to go beyond both everyday and logical concepts, which are viewed as limiting and distorting. In psychoanalysis, ordinary conceptual language is defensive and repressive, whereas in Zen language is mostly beside the point, an endless distraction. In psychoanalysis the instruments of language are turned ruthlessly upon language itself, in a kind of psychological self-vivisection; in Zen the swords of verbal intelligence are turned into the ploughshares of somatic awareness.
Suppose that you're looking for the needle in the haystack, where the needle bears a close resemblance to a piece of straw. In psychoanalysis, one painstakingly sorts through the hay, examining and comparing each piece exhaustively; in Zen, one steps back and focuses upon the haystack, appreciating the gleam of the sun upon it. The Zen question is: do you really need to find the needle in there? What if it doesn't exist? Even if it does, why do you assume it would make you happy?
Both psychoanalysis and Zen share a disconcerting austerity, a withholding of what we think of as the verbal and interpersonal creature comforts of life. No reassurance is to be had, only the paradoxical reassurance that one doesn't, finally, need reassurance. I therefore find in both a faintly sepulchral ambience: the reclining, quasi-solitary position of analysis, the still silence of Zen. Both are profoundly out of step with both conventional religion and consumerist (post)modernity.
Given the choice between an analytic hour, a meditation session, and some time with Shakespeare, I would always choose the latter. But the former have their own roles to play; how could we appreciate Falstaff without those elements that are opposed to Falstaff: iron discipline, limitation, and the void?