A Question about Working with Trauma

A Question about Working with Trauma May 12, 2008

Question: Can zazen be useful in dealing with trauma? I am studying zazen and MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and I am a psychotherapist. I know zazen should have no-gaining in it…at the same time…is there some indirect effect on the mental-emotional side of the person?

Response: Thank you for your question. In my view, “zazen” (by which I mean shikantaza – themeless, earnest, vivid sitting) is the form and activity of dropping body and mind manifesting the intention to practice enlightenment. A person whose mind is powerfully colored by trauma may benefit from meditation techniques including mindfulness of breath and sensation (especially positive sensations), loving kindness, or emotions meditation (with careful guidance and close supervision). The research into the effectiveness of MBSR is quite compelling. Sometimes a person, usually someone who already has a strong foundation in zazen, can open the heart completely with a traumatic experience but that is unusual.

Trauma, of course, usually produces fear and strong self-clinging and so other practices may be more appropriate skillful means – a way of loosening the grip of the hand of thought before it can be opened. A theraputic relationship with someone skilled in talk therapy and some of the techniques above might well be the best fit for a person suffering from trauma. A Zen teacher-student relationship and intensive Zen training is usually not appropriate for such a person – for the time being, anyway. It is always case-by-case, however.

I once heard Thich Nhat Hanh tell about a man who had lost his family during the Vietnam War. The man came to the temple and had no where to turn. Thich Nhat Han encouraged the man to live in a hut nearby and practice mindfulness with the good friends in the temple everyday. After a year, Thich Nhat Han held the man’s hand, walked with him back to the hut, and then lit the hut on fire. It was time to let go of the healing practice and get on with life.

Thank you for your practice,


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