CBT, Zen And The Experience Of “No Self”

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and Zen both address the reality of human anguish. CBT targets the beliefs and thought patterns that create emotional suffering.  “I’m no good” is a belief associated with depression.  “Something bad is going to happen to me,” a belief that drives anxiety.  Zen practice comes at such “delusive thoughts and feelings” in its own way.

Notice each of the beliefs mentioned above rest on a prior belief.  That is, a belief in a me, or an I.  The existence of a me can seem as self-evident as, say, the earth’s being flat or the sun revolving around the earth.  Yet like any belief “me” is a cognitive construct – perhaps our first. We are trained to it as young children when our parents point and say “you,” point and say “me.”  While CBT helps us reset distorted thoughts and self-defeating beliefs, Zen helps us see through the cognitive construct “I” to the ground of being from which this construct – and all other phenomena – arise.

I was hiking up a steep, narrow trail in the National Forest yesterday when a mountain biker suddenly appeared just above me, riding very fast down the same trail.  I jumped off the downhill slope, grabbing a tree branch to avoid falling a good ways down to the switchback below.  As he passed the guy looked stricken and yelled “I’m sorry!”  He was probably thinking “I just ran this guy off the trail.  He’s probably pretty pissed at me.  I’m riding recklessly and we both know it.”

But here’s the thing: I too am an avid mountain biker. Seeing a member of my tribe bombing down through the aspen grove I instinctively identified not with my situation but with his. As I jumped out of the way I felt only the joy and exhilaration of a great downhill run.  None of the fear and umbrage I’d have felt identifying with a separate “me.”

In this moment my experience of separate selfhood went missing.  We could say I forgot myself.  I did this by not picking up the usual thought pattern that separates a “me” from the great mass of experience all around.  The Japanese Zen poet Dogen speaks to such moments.  When we forget ourselves, Dogen writes, “ten thousand things advance and confirm us.” In such moments we are no longer separate observers of life.  We are instead participant in everything around us, in the big picture of life on earth.

I suspect all of us have these moments of “no self,”  perhaps without even realizing it.  Looking into the eyes of a loved one, at a magnificent sunset, listening to a particular piece of music we seize the opportunity to take a break from ourselves.  We then relax into a reality larger, more inclusive and satisfying than a separate existence could ever be.

A reality prior to any thinking about reality.  A reality that is our true nature and everlasting home.

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