Hakomi & Buddhism: An Interview With Flint Sparks

One of the core teachings from the Zen tradition that I return to over and over is the famous statement of Dogen Zenji, the 13th century monk who founded the Soto Zen tradition in Japan. This statement is found in the Genjo Koan (“Actualizing the Fundamental Point”) a teaching he offered to one of his students. In it Dogen says, “To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by the myriad things.” This powerful and direct statement moves from mindful self-study to a deep vision of emptiness; first seeing through the habitual and automatically constricted habits of self and extending awareness a more elemental and profound intimacy with all things.

The first sentence in Dogen’s statement is basically a reflection of the Hakomi Method. To study the Buddha way, to study the way of reality and awakening, is available by studying the self in mindfulness. The Hakomi method is an elegant and precise method of self-study. This form of mindful investigation is not only a gateway to understanding the complex, interdependent nature of our lives but also offers the possibility of freedom from suffering, an important goal in psychotherapy as well as in Buddhist practice.

Through assisted self-study in the Hakomi Method we not only learn about how we organize experience, but also how this organization is a reflection of our core beliefs and conditioning. Further, we become aware of how this conditioning and these beliefs shape behaviors and relationships in ways that are limiting or painful. Through self-reflection we also have the opportunity to begin to wake up to the fact that we have all the raw material we need to not only heal psychologically but also to awaken spiritually. Each of us is a full expression of ultimate reality. Nothing is missing. Everything that goes into the formation of our body and mind is intimately and infinitely connected with everything else in the universe, throughout space and time. The teachings on dependent origination can seem complex and abstract, but they actually point to the simple fact that everything is a result of something else. Every thing and event comes into being through a contingent web of causes and conditions, and this chain of association is without end. We can wake up to this fact, which is the basic realization that the Buddha had under the Bodhi tree, and we, like the Buddha, can come into a full appreciation of mutual causality through meditation practice. So in a way, each of us is the only “sutra”—a full teaching of the dharma—we will ever need because we are a living example of it. The entire curriculum for study is right here.

Deepening our skill in assisted self-study available using the Hakomi Method, can directly support our spiritual and contemplative practices, and it can also help open the way for deeper emotional and spiritual nourishment. The second sentence in Dogen’s statement is, “To study the self is to forget the self.” This doesn’t mean we don’t remember who we are or what it means to function in the relative world. However, the closer we look the more we are confronted by the fundamental misperception that lies at the core of our suffering. We function, mostly out of our awareness, as if we were a separate, independent self. As a result, we struggle and we suffer. To study the Buddha Way is to begin to be free of this misperception and to loosen our habitual clinging to this illusion of self.

Hakomi offers some contemporary technologies to support this awakening. We begin with relative reality—with ordinary conventional reality. We start where we are. We begin to see how we make ourselves into something that seems solid and dense. We learn to relax a bit, slow down, and quiet the mind. As we relax and become intimate with these habitually contracted places, we contact the fear that is hidden just below the surface. If we move skillfully toward that fear rather than indulging the usual protections or distractions from the fear, we are better able to touch a profound spaciousness that is the gateway to silence, stillness, and a deepening capacity for mindfulness. As this capacity grows we become more skillful in self study, and less bound by our habits of “self.”

As we settle and open to these tender places, we also open to the possibility of opening beyond everyday consciousness. We not only begin to see ourselves more clearly, we begin to see through ourselves and in doing so, glimpse some freedom from the self. But of course we enter this spaciousness by using the relative methods, and Hakomi really facilities this endeavor. So many people come to me with questions about the Dharma, their lives, and their practices, but 90% of what they bring to me is really psychotherapeutic material. And so, as teachers of the dharma, if we don’t have skills to meet, or at least recognize these struggles for what they are, and we don’t have the skills to support our students, we can easily do them a disservice or miss the key that might help them gain some freedom.

As a simplified example, suppose a student comes to you describing an experience of trauma saying, “When I sit still in meditation and I attempt to get quiet, I become very agitated because I’m so stimulated with all that floods me physically and emotionally. I don’t know how to practice with this?” The traditional response to “just sit with it” isn’t enough. It’s not that such a recommendation isn’t based on truth or might not be useful in the long run, but it isn’t adequate in the moment. Many students will give up on practice when faced with these kinds of inadequate responses. We know that if we sit with something long enough and with enough spaciousness, it will eventually be self-releasing. Over time, you see through its apparent solidity. But in the meantime the Hakomi Method offers very skillful ways to engage the pain in ways that can help the whole system relax. This skillful capacity for quieting the system in safety and in loving presence encourages the student to make better use of the traditional instructions. A relative skill from the Hakomi Method opens the possibility for a glimpse of the absolute offered through sustained meditation practice.

Yeshe: One thing I’m thinking of here is the different sense of self that you have if you’re a Westerner vs. an Easterner. I don’t know what it’s like to be an Easterner, but I imagine that it’s different. So maybe for an easterner the instruction to stay with it would be sufficient?

Flint: That could very well be. Aside from one wonderful trip to Japan, my Zen training has been primarily with Western teachers and my training has been with other Western students. I have been a therapist in the United States for over 35 years, so all of my psychological experience is with the Western sense of self, as you call it. However, the teachings that have come to us from our ancestors in the Tibetan or Zen traditions demonstrate an amazing clarity of mind and openness of heart and issue from an Eastern perspective. I have a great deal of respect for these teachings and a lot of confidence that what they transmit to us is truly liberating. I honor these truths as part of my vows as a priest and in my everyday activities as a teacher. I also believe there are equally amazing things being discovered in the contemporary Western world that can assist and support these ancient truths and that are not in conflict with their deepest intent. I know you’ve heard the Dalai lama say that if we discover something that is in conflict with the traditional teachings, then we can make changes. Buddhism is flexible. It’s one of the reasons why it’s trustworthy.

So I think Hakomi is unique among psychotherapeutic methods in this way— emphasizing experiments in mindfulness as a way to study self-experience. It accords with fundamental Buddhist practice and can actually open the way for deeper practice by assisting a student in “seeing through” the solid sense of self. So this is where we start. There are things that arise in meditation practice that need to be held gently and can be met with the instructions of the Dharma alone, but if we have other skillful tools, that’s also useful. And then there are things that arise in psychotherapy that no matter how much we work on them are never going to be seen through unless we practice deeply. There is a necessary weaving of these two skillful means if we want to support the full liberation of a human.

Yeshe: So nonduality can arise as therapy?

Flint: Absolutely, it happens all the time. I first started seeing it during the years I worked with cancer patients who were dying. In facing their illness and pain, they were opening to levels of consciousness that were beyond the ordinary. The existential impact of the illness overturned their beliefs about vulnerability or confronted their denial of death. As these barriers were stripped away by the demands of the treatments and the inevitable looses associated with the progression of the illness, they began to glimpse the naked truth of their existence and they reality of impending death, They begin to ask questions that simply hadn’t arisen until those deep moments unfolded. They would report that they experienced dissolution of the “sense of self” which is usually held as such a firm reality. Their experiences went well beyond an abstract conceptualization of the transpersonal. They were living into a new reality even as they were dying. So I began to see people who were coming to me in my role as a psychologist and then asking questions that went well beyond ordinary concerns like being rejected by a girlfriend, struggling with a difficult child, or being unhappy with an unreasonable boss. These were transpersonal questions, questions of ultimate concern, and needed to be met with responses that came from a different place. I felt a need to go deeper myself, to cultivate the capacity to intimately meet and lovingly contain such questions and experiences. I still work with this in my own practice, of course.

In laying the foundation for training students in the Hakomi Way, Ron Kurtz began with a series of essential building blocks: loving presence, quieting the mind, spiritual and emotional nourishment, and wisdom without words. These four segments were all taught as aspects of applied mindfulness. These four core competencies are essential in developing the therapist’s attitude to the work and they also touch upon the four foundations of mindfulness described by the Buddha—the body and breath, positive, sensations, emotion/thought, and then the mind objects. By opening the heart, connecting with another, balancing the mind with equanimity, receiving and offering nourishment, and never forgetting the embodied reality of the present moment, a person can remain awake and aware. Such a person can also be as awake and aware resource for another in assisted self-discovery. In doing so you can begin to see how experience is organized, constructed, and how it arises and manifests as “me.” Not only that, but the “Personhood” sequence as Ron called them, also reflect the four Brahmaviharas or Four Immeasurables of the Bodhisattva: Loving Kindness, Compassion, Sympathetic Joy, and Equanimity. In the Loving Presence segment, we begin to work on softening the contraction around the self, shifting to a non-egocentric perspective, and opening to loving kindness. When we practice Quieting the Mind, we’re really talking about mindfully studying the blocks to equanimity so that we may open to spaciousness and curiosity. With this combination of skills we have loving kindness and equanimity moving together in the therapist. As we train in Emotional and Spiritual Nourishment, we look at what blocks compassion—both self-compassion and compassion for others.

Yeshe: You’re learning how to express compassion.

Flint: I believe so. In this sequence we have loving kindness, equanimity, and compassion. The remaining quality from the four Brahmaviharas is sympathetic joy, which is a thread that runs through this whole process. We can practice dropping self-importance, which shifts our energy to compassionate care for others. Wisdom Without Words is then a way of going deeper into the body, deeper into the four foundations of mindfulness, deeper into this vehicle we call the body/mind. All of this continues to cultivate engaged mindfulness. So this whole first segment of the Personhood Series is tremendously powerful and reflective of basic Buddhist training.

When you move into the second phase of Ron’s training, we learning to track you’re own self study, which in Dogen’s words is the Buddha Way, and we’re learning to track another as they self-study, which is, in effect, the Bodhisattva Way. So really training beyond the Personhood Series is the Way of the Bodhisattva. Although I realize this is oversimplified, the first segment is essentially reflective of the basic aspects of the Theravadin Buddhist tradition—cultivating mindfulness based on the four foundations—opening to everything as it is. In the second phase, we begin to work with other beings, work with ourselves, and open in service of others. This is reflective of the Mahayana Path. Together, we become skillful at seeing whatever life presents as the path to awakening, which is emphasized in the Vajrayana. I know all of these transformational challenges exist in all of three paths, but it is interesting to look at the ways in which these traditional points of view and practice traditions are reflected in a contemporary therapy training model.

Yeshe: Well when Ron talked about the state of mind of the therapist . . . the therapist is first able to open their sense of self and that becomes the foundational basis which invites another to open their sense of self. In doing so we finally see through the sense of self altogether because it has served its purpose, their upaya (skillful means). It dissolves and then a really important experience happens.

Flint: That’s my understanding as well. One becomes more available, not as an isolated separate self, but available to all beings to meet what arises in an almost Tantic way. In phase two of training, we’re learning contact, tracking, working with emotions, offering missing experiences—these are Western skillful means that help us elucidate some of the everydayness of the Four Noble Truths. How can we understand suffering and respond appropriately? We end up opening ourselves to the Eightfold Path through our actions. We are operating in the service of the relief of suffering. Even the twelve-fold chain of causation is touched upon as we begin to see precisely how we come into a solid sense of being and how we actually sustain a separate sense of self and then how we can reverse the process and relax the automatic habit patterns. We also learn to investigate the three marks of existence: the truth of suffering, impermanence, and no independently existing self. We see these as they actually express themselves in our lives and in the lives of our clients. In addition, if we open to the mind of awakening through whatever methodology, we’re naturally going to be in accord with ethical action. We organically become more sensitive to our actions and their consequences. We see the karmic momentum of our habits and behavior patterns. In Buddhism the Precepts describe core areas of awareness that influence ethical conduct.

As we work with our clients, one of the central questions which invariably arises is, “When the going gets tough, where do you go for refuge?” we have to be honest. Do you take refuge in alcohol? Do you take refuge in overwork? Do you take refuge in unconscious emotional states that keep you confused? Or do you take refuge in something that is more reliable and more trustworthy? These are the kinds of questions we are asking people who say they want to live a healthier life. These questions also map right on to the Refuges. Shall we take refuge in Buddha (the teacher or the Truth), Dharma (the deepest teachings or expressions of Truth), and Sangha (the community of practitioners and loving support that surrounds us)? These are the sources of support for a wholehearted life.

I see students at the Zen Center for practice discussion who come with questions about their practice and their lives. Sometimes they have so much moving in them, they’re not sure what to do. Helping them utilize the forms that Zen practice offers them engage in experiments in mindfulness. This is what the Zen forms are and what they intend. So the attitude I have is not that there is a right or wrong way to practice or a right or wrong way to do the forms, but through a whole-hearted entry into the forms, a student can come to notice what arises through their effort to meet the forms. This is similar to the use of a probe in Hakomi. You’re asked to do this particular form, and then notice what comes up in response? What automatically emerges is what we study? Hakomi helps people in a Western frame of reference learn to do this kind of transformative self-study. In this way they have the opportunity, and maybe a greater capacity, to go deeper. That can be a great gift.