Posts Tagged ‘koans’

At some point in my life, I read or heard someone say that the key to improvisation is rehearsal. This, I opined, was idiocy. I mean seriously, improvisation is making it up as you go along, right? Well how the hell do you make something up as you go along when you’ve already rehearsed it? Oxymoron, I say, oxymoron!

Like some obscure kind of abstract dinosaur thing, that little episode passed away and settled on the seabed of my memory, destined to be covered by years of silt until, crushed beneath all that pressure, it mulchified (technical term) itself into a thick black viscousness far beneath the earth.

Scene change.

The founding gestaltists were influenced by Zen Buddhism. In the book Concentration and Meditation, Christmas Humphreys describes Buddhism as a long, well-worn path to the top of the mountain. This is the teachings as laid down by Buddha, intended to be a safe and consistent journey that needs only dedication to complete. By contrast against the background of this metaphor, he then describes Zen as a vertical sprint up the mountain side, a fearless dedication to taking the most direct route to enlightenment at any given time.

This, roughly speaking, is how I would sum up the difference between gestalt and the humanistic/existential therapies. Working in the here and now, following what is being directly experienced in the moment, therapist and client strive to cut through to the heart of the matter; we sprint up the side of the mountain.

One of the key teaching media in Zen is the koan, a brief parable-like story whose main purpose is to short-circuit logical thought in order to provoke an insight that can generate anything from an experience of satori to fullblown enlightenment.

The closest equivalent to the koan in Western culture is, in my opinion, not the parable but the joke. A parable is logical, usually relying on clever analogies that, as symbolic as they might be, translate well. The whole point of a parable is to convey a moral lesson (Zen Buddhism, on the other hand, isn’t concerned with moral lessons; in Zen, if morality gets in the way of enlightenment, you kill it just like you’d kill the Buddha).

A joke, on the other hand, isn’t funny if you have to explain it, just like a koan doesn’t provoke insight if you have to explain it. The experience of laughter in getting a joke is an exact parallel to the experience of aha! in getting a koan; and in both cases, you either get it or you don’t.

Koans frequently feature the exploits of Zen masters of the past. In this respect, I think a large part of engaging with koans is about rehearsing for enlightenment, a state that can’t possibly be known before it happens. Like the stand up comedian who rehearses routine after routine in order to be able to throw away the routine and respond spontaneously to the audience, I suspect the Zen student is given koan after koan precisely so they can eventually throw the form of the teachings away in order to directly grasp insight. Rehearsing routines helps the comedian get a felt sense of raw comedy; rehearsing koans helps the Zen student get a felt sense of raw insight.

Many people have reduced gestalt therapy to the impressive techniques they have seen master gestaltists use in workshops; this is the critical error of mistaking the finger for the moon. In training, the purpose of such techniques is to provide a rehearsal structure that can later be thrown away; the purpose is to help the trainee get a felt sense of the therapeutic moment. The purpose of rehearsing two chair work, for example, isn’t to get really good at a specific technique, but to gain a felt sense of what it’s like to get two or more aspects of a person to engage in dialogue with each other and work towards reunion. Sometimes, setting up a two chair experiment actually prevents that from happening!

All of these rehearsals lay down dinosaurs on the seabed of self to be covered in silt and mulchified by the years. Then, one day, you set up an oil rig, dig down, down, down into your crust, and GUSH! you’re bathing in the black gold of wisdom.

And that’s how I know that Buddha’s first words as an enlightened being were:

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, I seeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!


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