Erin Joen Dempsey

Joen Dempsey is a practitioner with Thousand Harbours Zen in Halifax. She grew up in the community of Herring Cove, just south of the city, which is the current location of the Theravadan Atlantic Buddhist Meditation Center, whose facilities Thousand Harbours used for day retreats prior to the pandemic. I interviewed her, however, during the period when restrictions were in place and groups like Thousand Harbours were only able to meet through Zoom.

She tells me that when she reflects on her childhood, “I actually remember looking forward to being an adult. I remember explicitly thinking, ‘I can’t wait until I’m an adult.’ And I remember in my late 20s feeling like I’d come out the other side of a dark tunnel. It sounds so bleak. Who knows why?”

She uses terms like anxiety, depression, and even trauma. Which may be a factor in why at the time I interviewed her she was training to be a clinical psychologist.

One of the ways in which Zen has been viewed by people in the west is as a form of Eastern Psychology. The Zen popularizer, Alan Watts, wrote a book on the subject, entitled Psychotherapy East & West. I find myself wondering how closely related psychology and Zen actually are. Joen believes the goals are different.

“When I think about Zen, if you have a goal when you sit down to do zazen, then there’s something wrong with that picture already. That’s how I’ve been trained and how I practice. That ‘simply sitting’ is the point of Zen. Being present. Maybe it is like making friends with oneself. People talk about that in Zen, and it kind of resonates with me, the idea of getting to know oneself not in a discursive way where you’re asking probing questions and responding internally or anything like that. But where you sit and notice and see and being okay with that. That’s what I understand Zen to be about.”

“If one sits without a goal,” I suggest, “doesn’t that imply it’s purposeless? Why would you do it if it were without purpose?”

“Because it’s honest. It feels honest.”

“Honest in the sense that one doesn’t have an intention?”

“For me the reason to do it, despite no goal, is that it feels like an honest thing to do. I’m being truthful with myself; I’m being authentic in the moment. I’m not avoiding; I’m not trying to escape. So, I guess, to be more in touch with the moment, to be more in touch with reality. I think these are important reasons to sit. Just with the caveat that if one sits down with the idea, ‘Okay, now I’m really going to get in touch with reality,’ then you’re projecting yourself onto reality and you’re not doing it anymore.”

“And what are the goals of psychology?”

“Well, the goals of psychology are the goals of the person you’re with. So, in my training the goal is understand a person’s suffering and then help them to make changes.”

“Are the issues which lead people to Zen similar to those that lead them to therapy?”

“Well, I’m told that there are people who are drawn to Zen because they have spiritual curiosity, or they’re interested in enlightenment. So, that, obviously, is quite different from the folks that I work with. But do you mean, ‘I have mental problems, so I want to try Zen’?”

“Is that what people say when they go to a psychologist? ‘I have mental problems, I need help’?”

“Sometimes. But usually there’s a problem. They come to you because they have a problem. And I started sitting in Zen because I had a problem. But in psychology, the problem has to be inside you. I can’t help you with your husband; I can help you with how you respond to your husband – that might help your relationship – but I can’t change anybody else. So, yeah, you come to psychology with an internal problem. Now, a lot of people actually don’t. A lot of people come to psychology with an external problem. Then the job of the psychologist is to help them see whether there is or there isn’t an internal problem that can help them with their external problem.” She pauses a moment. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot because of this kind of dual interest in my life or occupation or what have you. So I wonder if in a way Zen sort of opens a door to introspect, to seeing oneself in context, seeing the patterns in one’s mind, and seeing how one responds habitually. So, it can be informative in a psychological way, particularly on retreat or something, if you’re interacting with a lot of people, and you’re starting to anticipate responses from them that they have given you reason to anticipate, then you begin to see the way that your past experiences inform your anticipations of others. Basically, your psychology – how you understand others now – is based on how you understood others in the past. And Zen can help you see those things and identify them and understand them through meditation and through community. I think when people have a clinically significant problem that they’re seeing a psychologist for, I’m not sure Zen would help them see these patterns. And I know that for some populations, some forms of meditation can be counter-indicated depending on the type of mental issue the person is working with. But the ability to introspect and to understand oneself in context, I think, can be compromised by one’s life history to the degree that psychological intervention – that’s just not about ‘look inside and see what’s there,’ but that’s more structured – can be helpful in ways that I don’t think Zen could be helpful.”

Further Zen Conversations: 85-87; 119.

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Published by Rick McDaniel

Author of "Zen Conversations" and "Cypress Trees in the Garden."

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