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[Book Review] Zen and Psychotherapy

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Writer admin Date02 Aug 2006 Read5,772 Comment0

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Zen and Psychotherapy
Integrating Traditional and nontraditional Approaches

Christopher J. Mruk with Joan Hartzell
Springer Publishing Company


In Zen and Psychotherapy, Christopher Mruk, A professor of clinical psychology, and Joan Hartzell, a psychiatric nurse and practitioner of Seon for many years, explore how Buddhist and Seon ideas could help in the healing of mental health patients.

Throughout Christopher Mruk gives us a detailed and instructive presentation of the different therapeutic approaches to mental illness. We come to understand clearly in a succinct manner the differences between biological, learning, cognitive, psychodynamic, humanistic and Seon based therapies. We learn what are their strong points and also in which way they might be limited. This shows us that not any one therapy, method or theory can by itself healed all the needs and difficulties of mental patients.

Joan Hartzell’s direct nursing experiences helps us to see how she applies Buddhist and Seon principles in her healing work. She sees six Seon principles as having psychotherapeutic value: acceptance, fearlessness, truth, compassion, attachment and impermanence. She thinks that “Acceptance of life and its pain allows us to minimize suffering or at least to avoid unnecessary forms of it”. The Buddha presented himself often as a healer. He taught that being able to accept and know suffering would enable people to see how they might create it and contribute to it.

Joan Hatrzell found that “ When people have the courage to face their fear and pursue a truth, a kind of mystical force seems to guide them forward”. When blocked by fear, it is difficult for people to find and allow their creative potential to manifest. By becoming fearless, they find a different kind of power within themselves. She also found that “Compassion can be liberating for the helper as well as for the one receiving help”. In a compassionate act, one moves from self-centredness to selflessness, helping one become greater than one thought one could ever be.

In her work Joan Hartzell saw that “when a client begins to understand the ways in which their individual ego attachments keep them imprisoned in their pain, it is like breathing in air that has been infused with the scent of sweet grass”. As a healer her task is to help people see themselves more clearly in a non-judgmental way. She experienced that “each time she can help a client understand how impermanent experience can be, they seem to relax visibly and gain hope from the fact that their pain, or depression, or worry, or anger, or whatever torment afflicts them, does not have to go on forever.”

Joan Hartzell, in chapter four, presents some practical applications of Seon in a clinical setting. She explains how she would be with so-called “difficult patients”, although she does not see them as such, preferring to see them as fearful or resistant. Her main approach is loving-kindness, with the injunction of doing no harm, a deep listening and staying calm, however fraught the circumstances, and a clear wide-open mindfulness. She explains how meditation helped her in developing these essential healing qualities.

This book finishes with a chapter looking at how Zen and psychotherapy could be integrated, what are their connections but also what could be the limitations to this complementary approach.

A few books have recently been published on Buddhism and psychotherapy. This particular one is clinically practical and at the same time quite rigorous and comprehensive. It often takes the form of a dialogue between the two authors, which makes it easy to follow and understand. It is a good addition to this specific topic.

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