Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Curative Fantasies

As I was reading Barry Magid's article "Ordinary Mind" in Psychoanalysis and Buddhism, I was reminded of what I think is Magid's greatest contributions to Zen: his identification of "curative fantasies." That's the name he gives to our secret motives for practicing, and probably coming to Buddhism in the first place. Perhaps it's to calm down or relax, lower our stress levels, overcome unpleasant emotions, or just plain old space out.

For me, it was the desire to become peaceful. I thought that Buddhism was an ancient form of self help, sprinkled with mind-bending meditation techniques. Images of beatific yogis and serene Buddhas came to mind. Count me in! I thought. And boy was I surprised when I didn't reach enlightenment in a week or even feel any different. To be honest, I'm just as tense, stressed, and angry as I ever was.

Ram Dass once said something to the effect that, "I'm just as neurotic as ever; now I'm just aware of how neurotic I am." Me too.

So why practice, if nothing is going to change?

Because with that awareness comes freedom, what Ordinary Mind Zen teacher Diane Rizzetto calls, "The Dead Spot." This is the moment when a trapeze artist is temporarily suspended in mid-air between trapezes. It's an empty moment charged with possibilities.

Our lives are filled with them: the moment before you say something hurtful or send out that angry email. Or even when you consider saying "To the hell with it," dumping your diet and gobbling down a mouthful of buttermilk pancakes.

So my anger hasn't changed, but I think my relationship to it has. I don't feel as ruled by my emotions or thoughts as I used to. "As" being the operative word.

What I really appreciate about Magid's work (Ordinary Mind and Ending the Pursuit of Happiness) is how he applies psycho-therapeutic wisdom to Zen practice. I think most of us come to Zen with an agenda, or curative fantasies. It's only natural, considering how goal-oriented Western culture is.

The key is to identify it, and see it for what it is--another mental construction. Identify it, acknowledge it, then let it go.

What I find most challenging is the seduction of other, flashier forms of practice. Awareness or mindfulness practice is...well ordinary. But this is another, more subtle form of curative fantasies--the desire to shop around.

"Don't get caught," I tell myself.

Identify it, acknowledge it, then let it go. Identify it, acknowledge it, then let it go. Identify it, acknowledge it, then let it go.

And so on. To infinity. That's the practice. It's not glamorous; it's not necessarily exciting. But it's Zen, and I love it.


  1. Great post. I need to check out those books.


  2. Thanks, I love Barry's work. Check out Charlotte Joko Beck's books too--they're classics.