In this article I interview Zen Master Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi about:
- What is Zen?
- Integral Zen vs traditional Zen
- The Wilbur-Combs Lattice
- Right vs Left Brain
- Soto Zen and Rinzai Zen
- The highest percentage chance of awakening
- Zazen, Dzogchen, LSD
- Dying before you die
- Death meditation
- Shadow work
- How to practice shadow work
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi intro
Michael Frank: Give us a quick introduction to yourself…
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: I was a student in graduate school in the 80s in the field of social sciences, and I found myself in a position where I went through a crisis of faith.
I had been obsessed with one question my entire life: “What causes war?”
and for some crazy reason I naively thought I’d be able to find the answer to that question in graduate school. Surely some of these brilliant PhD’s would understand what causes war, and it was a great crisis of faith to me when I realized that they had no idea whatsoever what causes war.
You’re not going to find the answer to this question in books. You’re going to find it inside searching in the darkness within you. But I didn’t understand that at the time. So I fled graduate school and I ended up in the business world. I spent 20 years in the desert of American business. I had a global position with Nike as a network engineer, and right on schedule at 50 years old, the corporate world spit me out. I was too old, I didn’t learn quickly enough, I would make way too much money, and I could be replaced by three younger, smarter, more responsive people.
So there I was, I realized I had to reinvent myself, that I would never work in the high tech field again at 50 years old, so I thought, well, I’ll be a motivational speaker. That would be fun. I’ll try that. So I set out on that path. But things didn’t go well (laughs), actually things went perfectly, and I ended up running into a Zen teacher.
Jun Po Denis Kelly
I’ve been fortunate enough to run into five what I call great teachers. You know when you run into a great teacher because they change the direction of your life completely. My Zen teacher, Jun Po Denis Kelly was such a teacher. I realized that I had been so fortunate to stumble blindly into a teacher of this caliber. This man had something that others Zen teachers didn’t have. He had the balls to break away from traditional Zen, not completely, but just in the way that mattered to bring it into our culture and our time.
And when I realized what this man had to offer, I sat down beside him and he couldn’t get rid of me. As he told Ken Wilber one day, “I turn around and this Doshin guy was there, he was sitting right there, and every time I turned around there he was, I stumbled over him and I couldn’t get rid of him. It was like falling off a log for him”. Well, the reason it was like falling off a log was that I’d been meditating for 30 years already, but I’d never run into a great teacher that could say it in a way that I could hear it, and would say it again and again and again and again and again until I finally heard it. And that was a few years ago. The only way he could get rid of me was to make me a Zen master. A so-called called Zen master I would add.
What is Zen?
What is Zen? What isn’t Zen?
Zen is the attainment of no attainment. It’s the realization of freedom from the delusions of ego-mind, and it’s freedom from the perceptual illusion that there is a permanent self, that I’m here and you’re there, and we’re not just one unitary field of pure awareness dancing. Suchness. This suchness is Zen. And it’s not enough just to talk about it. You must realize it. And that takes extraordinary amount of work, and it’s an accident that you can’t make happen.
Integral Zen vs traditional Zen
Michael Frank: What’s the difference between traditional and Integral Zen?
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: No difference. Just a newer version of the same nothing.
There’s a lot that has happened in the last 500 years that has been very significant. We’ve had the renaissance, the age of enlightenment, the explosion of the industrial age and the age of science, we’ve had the great explosion of knowledge and technology, but the Dharma, the teachings of Zen, haven’t been updated to go with the times. Now the job of a Zen teacher, a Zen master, a Dharma heir, it’s their job, each one of them, to bring these teachings back to life in the context of the world and the culture in which they live. So that’s what Integral Zen is, it’s just another attempt to integrate these ancient teachings, this ancient wisdom, into a postmodern culture in a way that can become a path that students will stumble into and stick with until they realized the deepest truth of who we are.
Now that involves this idea that became very popular a couple of hundred years ago. It’s called the idea of evolution. A rather significant idea.
We haven’t had many significant ideas of this caliber and I had another great teacher I ran into about the same time that I ran into Jun Po Denis Kelly, my Zen teacher. I stumbled into the writing of a man by the name of Ken Wilber, and I’ve had the good fortune, my Zendō that I have had for about 17 years was about 18 blocks from where Ken lives in this high rise loft. So I was fortunate enough that I got to study directly with Ken. I was invited to, and again, he was another great teacher that profoundly changed the direction of my life.
The Wilbur-Combs Lattice
Ken came up with an idea that I believe is as significant as the idea of evolution, and like the idea of evolution, it appeared in two minds at the same time, Darwin got credit for evolution, but there was another gentleman by the name of Alfred Russel Wallace that didn’t get credit for it that had expounded at about the same time.
A gentleman by the name of the Allan Combs, he and Ken came up with this idea at the same time, and Ken named it the Wilbur-Combs Lattice.
Now essentially what this idea says is there’s not one process of awakening, there’s two independent processes occurring at the same time. One is a process of evolution, evolution of personality, of consciousness, of culture, whether we’re talking individual or collective. And the second thing that’s happening is there’s a process of awakening, and these two processes must be viewed as separate processes in order to appreciate what is really going on. And that is very core to the teachings of Integral Zen.
This idea has its roots in the doctrine of two truths in Buddhist thought, there is a relative truth and there is an ultimate truth. We call it emptiness and form. And as Nagarjuna came up with in about the second century CE:
I can’t say that I’m empty.
I can’t say that I’m not empty.
I can’t say that I’m both empty and not empty.
I can’t say that I’m neither empty or not empty.
It’s best if I say nothing.
But if I must say something, poetry is the most efficient way to talk about emptiness and form.
And as the 12th century Japanese zen master Dōgen wrote who founded Soto Zen:
The empty boat is flooded with moonlight – Dōgen
Isn’t that lovely? It’s so descriptive. Poetry is the best we can do.
Michael Frank: When I think of Zen, I think of Kōans and meditation. What is the purpose of Kōans? How do they work?
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: Well, the problem that you first stated is an attempt to think about Zen. Impossible. But if you must do it, that’s why we have Kōans. We give you an enigmatic question that the thinking mind can’t answer, and you keep thinking and thinking and thinking until finally your industrious thinking mind ties itself in knots and suddenly thinking stops and you’re filled with this euphoric feeling of unreasonable joy that has no cause, it’s the most natural thing in the world that happens when thinking stops and seeing starts.
Right vs left brain
When you experience a Kenshō or this euphoric joy that comes when you suddenly fall into the void and you go beyond thinking, beyond feeling, beyond self-referencing ego mind. There’s just pure selfless awareness.
Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroscientist with a Ted Talk on YouTube called My stroke of insight where she describes an experience where she was getting ready for work one morning, and all of a sudden she had a stroke in her left hemisphere and the discursive thinking mind that’s connected to language, and the type of discrimination that tears things apart and then assembles them in an interpretation, a representation of the whole that it has just disassembled, when that discursive mind shut down because she was having a stroke, her right hemisphere opened up in a euphoric experience of wholeness and insight.
She describes it beautifully. She wrote an excellent book with the same title, and you really begin to get the feeling, a blow by blow description from a neuroscientist of what happens when the left hemisphere shuts down and the right hemisphere comes alive, and it has changed her life forever as a Kenshō experience often does as well. But it doesn’t usually take just one Kenshō, it takes many. That’s the accident. You can’t make the accident happen, but you can make yourself accident prone, you can practice and practice and practice until finally one day out of nowhere the accident happens.
Emptiness is impossible to take apart. Try to dissect nothing. That’s what the left brain does. It takes things apart, and then it makes a model of them by reassembling them in a representation of the whole that it just disassembled. That’s according to Iain McGilchrist who’s a fascinating psychiatrist that wrote a book called The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The right hemisphere is the gestalt, the instantaneous whole picture, the holistic mind that just sees things as they are.
Soto Zen and Rinzai Zen
The two hemispheres communicate all the time, but they have a specialty. The left hemisphere’s specialty is to take things apart, and the right hemisphere’s specialty is to just see things as they are. Zen is most interested in seeing what is, and there are two forms of Zen that migrated from China to Japan. They’re commonly known as Soto Zen and Rinzai Zen. These are the Japanese names. The Chinese names are Linji (Rinzai Zen) and Caodong (Soto Zen)
Shikantaza is the the form of meditation that Soto teaches and it’s considered a gradual school of awakening. It’s the Zen that was taken up by the farmers in feudal Japan who were very patient. They just sit there and tend the crops and wait for them to grow.
Rinzai Zen is the Zen of the Samurai, not so patient. So the Soto Zen people look at those Rinzai Zen people, the farmers look at the Samurai and say, “Oh, that’s an inpatient Zen! When are they going to learn? You just have to be patient!”
And the Rinzai Zen look at the Soto Zen and they say, “That’s lazy! Why don’t you make something happen?!”
So Soto Zen practices Shikantaza. It’s just sitting. That’s the only instruction you get. You go into the temple and they show you how to sit and then they say, “Just sit”. For 20 years you sit with that instruction until you figure out how to make the accident happen. Lazy Zen. It takes about 20 years of disciplined, devoted practice, just sitting every day. Now they look at Rinzai Zen and they say, “Oh, impatient Zen”, you know, this is the sudden path of awakening. In Rinzai Zen, we hit you, we yell at you, we slap you, at least we used to. You have to be very careful. You can get sued very easily today (laughs). But they call us impatient Zen and you know what? It takes about 20 years as well.
But if you look at these two methods, the Kōan training of Rinzai Zen, and the just sitting of Soto Zen, and you understand a little bit about the split brain. The master is the right hemisphere, the emissary that now thinks it’s a master is the left hemisphere. You know, that’s narcissism (laughs) and it’s a cultural narcissism. It’s learned we’re indoctrinated into this form of narcissism.
So in Soto Zen you’re told to just sit and you’d go off and sit and then you go through all of these elaborate rituals that you have to devote yourself to.
In Rinzai Zen, it’s a one on one relationship, in a very formal setting with a Zen teacher. He presents a Kōan and you answer it. And then he rings a bell and you go back to the Zendo and you sit with a Kōan again.
What was your true face before your parents were born?
Michael Frank: Can you share a Kōan?
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: Here’s one of my favorite Kōans:
“What is your true face before your parents were born?”
So as I described before, this struggling, thinking, the left hemisphere is trying to dissect this question that the thinking mind can never answer, and trying to put together and assemble a model of the question, trying to answer it and answer it. And the Soto Zen is just sitting. What we’re doing is we’re learning gradually over that 20 years to relax the thinking, and to merge the discriminating thought of the left hemisphere which must totally relax and let go of it’s grip until the right hemisphere opens.
So there are really two ways of doing the same thing and experiencing this deep insight into what is. Ramana Maharshi said that the only thing that’s real is that which is present in deep dreamless sleep.
“That which is not present in deep dreamless sleep is not real.” – Ramana Maharshi
This became a Kōan for Ken Wilber that he just sat with, it took him about a year and a half to sit with this Kōan. What is it that’s present in deep dreamless sleep? Interesting.
Falling into infinity
I experienced my first Kōan about the age of five. Now of course, nobody gave it to me. I stumbled into it and didn’t even know that it was a Kōan until many years later. But my older sister was in a spelling bee and I heard this word “infinity” and it fascinated me. So as she spelled it, she told me what it meant. “Infinity”. I just couldn’t get my thinking mind around: What is infinity? What lasts forever? What’s eternal? What never ends? I couldn’t conceive of anything that never ends, anything that’s ever present, I didn’t know the difference between those two things, they’re very significantly different, and all of a sudden I would think myself to sleep, and one night my thinking mind just tied itself in knots and I fell into infinity.
The problem was that I decided I needed to to tell the parish priest about my experience. This was not a good idea. And I was beaten. (Laughs) Those were older times, different rules than we would have today. So I learned to keep these mystical experiences, and I had many, to myself.
But that’s essentially what we’re working with here, this mind that tries to figure everything out, that is responsible for this great explosion in technology and knowledge and all the knowledge of science, this emissary of the left hemisphere, this is not going to help you attain an awakened state of mind, it gets in the way.
The highest percentage chance of awakening
Michael Frank: The mind wants a formula. It wants a recipe. It wants a step by step process…
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: Slow down. The left hemisphere wants that, not the right, the right hemisphere doesn’t give a shit about any of that.
Michael Frank: Well let’s say the analytical mind wants a formula, a recipe, a step by step process. In your opinion, in your experience, what practice has the highest probability of awakening an asleep human being? Is it meditation, psychedelics, Kōans, seeking out an ego death, a dark night of the soul? What is it?
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: What is the accident? You mean? That’s what you’re asking me.
Michael Frank: How do you make that accident more likely to occur?
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: You can’t make the accident occur.
Michael Frank: More likely to occur.
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: There is a natural way that’s very effective. It’s called having a brush with death. Hearing that you have a short time to live will make you extremely serious. Going through this process with someone you love who is dying, will rearrange your priorities and you will get with the goddamn program.
What is the most important thing? The most important thing, I asked Ken Wilber this question one day and he said, “The most important thing is becoming one with emptiness”.
Now there are different ways to do this. You can have a brush with death. When Ken’s wife Treya died, I suspect that was the most significant event that ever happened in his life that contributed to his awakening, even though he studied Zen for 15 years and Tibetan Buddhism for another 15 years.
Zazen, Dzogchen, LSD
So things that you can do, you’re not going to run out and have a brush with death. Not very likely. And if you are crazy enough to do that it probably won’t it be helpful. But the thing that you can do is meditate. And the two most advanced forms of meditation, in my view, are Zazen and Dzogchen. They focus on becoming one with emptiness.
Now I’m not opposed to psychedelics. My teacher Jun Po Dennis Kelly was the head of the Windowpane LSD family in the 60s. He was the most wanted person on the drug enforcement agencies list of wanted people. They didn’t know what he looked like. And I remember one of my real awakening experiences was when I was 17. I was doing a radio interview and this very conservative young man asked me a question, “How can you do drugs and hide from reality?”
And the realization that I’d had on LSD was, “Oh my God, there is no reality! Are you crazy?” So I asked him, “How could you hide from what doesn’t exist?” And of course he had no idea what I was talking about, but I learned that I couldn’t trust people that hadn’t done LSD cause they all still thought there was a reality. And a reality is kind of like the fake news. We each have our own version of reality and none of it is real. It’s just a system of beliefs and values that we were indoctrinated into and how we’ve modified it to fit our own narcissistic tendencies. (Laughs) That’s what we think reality is, it’s a left hemisphere model of what the right hemisphere intuitively knows. And because it’s a model, it’s a lie. It’s just a belief system.
Zen is about letting go of your BS (belief systems) and then that becomes a belief system too. We call that the stink of Zen, believing in emptiness. This isn’t that hilarious.
Michael Frank: It’s one of those paradoxes like the desire to have no desire.
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: Yes. The attainment of non-attainment!
Die before you die
Michael Frank: Let’s go into into death a little bit.
What does it mean to “Die before you die?”
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: Oh, isn’t that a great question. It’s a Kōan you know, and you need both the direct experience, and the ability to articulate that experience in words and sentences.
So there are four possible combinations and this is really significant when you’re doing Kōan work with a Zen teacher because there’s only one adequate combination that will pass a Kōan.
The first combination is: I haven’t had the experience and I can’t say shit about it.
The second combination is: I haven’t had the experience, but man, I can tell you all about it! I’ve read several books! Also not adequate and you know people that do that kind of thing, oh my God, they’re hard to be around, aren’t they?
Michael Frank: Know it alls that know nothing.
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: Exactly.
The third combination is: I have had direct experience. But I can’t articulate it yet. Also inadequate.
The only combination that will pass a Kōan is: I’ve had the direct experience and I can articulate it succinctly and spontaneously.
“The empty boat is flooded with moonlight”.
So what was your question again?
Michael Frank: What does it mean to die before you die?
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: Yes. So have you had the experience where you’ve gone beyond thought, beyond feeling, beyond a sense of self, beyond ego addictions or allergies or anything that drives them? Have you fallen into the void?
This is what it means to die, and if you’ve had this experience, it’s unmistakable. You will never fear death again. And it’s not enough just to have the experience. You must be able to spontaneously answer the Kōan: “What does it mean to die before you die?”
It means you’re finally free to live. No more being a Zombie.
Michael Frank: A lot of spiritual teachers, awakened teachers, enlightened beings, they recommend the practice of meditating upon one’s death, and contemplating the finiteness, the shortness of life. Do you have any recommendations in that regard?
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: Traditionally in Zen, we meditate in cemeteries for exactly that reason, and usually late at night with no moon, or maybe a sliver of a moon. I love New Orleans because the coffins were all above the ground, because the swamp land, you couldn’t bury people that just didn’t work out. That was the best meditation cemetery I’ve experienced. It was perfect. Big tall walls. No one could see in.
It’s not enough just to contemplate. It’s a great beginning. You must really go into the darkness. You must stick your head in the demons mouth, that demon of death and feel your toes curl. Then you’ll get a flavor of the experience of the void if you stick with it long enough.
Sticking your head in the demons mouth
Michael Frank: What does it mean though to stick your head in the demons mouth? What does that actually mean in practical terms?
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: It’s a metaphor. So you’re still thinking, aren’t you? (Laughs) That won’t help. Thinking must stop.
Michael Frank: But just so that I clearly understand as much as possible what is being communicated, you said “Stick your head in the demons mouth” is a metaphor for facing death, and that the contemplation of death is a good starting place, but that’s only the beginning. How do we then go beyond that? Maybe in addition to meditating in a cemetery.
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: Let go of everything that you think is important to you. Go into a monastery that is really an ego deprivation tank. They don’t give a shit what you feel. They don’t give a shit what you think. They only care about one thing, that you follow the rules, and there’s only one rule: Follow the form, and you don’t have time to shit from three o’clock in the morning when you wake up til 11 o’clock at night when you go to bed, all you do, every moment is choreographed. You are busy. That’s sticking your head in the demons mouth. There is absolutely no time for your ego to get what it wants. Try that.
Michael Frank: A pressure cooker situation.
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: Well, it’s an ego deprivation tank. Whether it’s a pressure cooker or not, depends on you.
There has to be a breakthrough. There has to be a point of surrender of the need to control things. When I do a deep prostration, bow down, forehead on the ground, and I lift the Buddha’s feet above my precious ego, in some of the traditional schools of Tibetan Buddhism, after you’ve completely surrendered to the teacher, you’re doing everything the teacher asks you to do, you’ve given up your own free will and you’ve submitted to the teacher, is you need to do 108,000 full body prostrations bowing down to that great mystery, which is greater than you are. Call it whatever you want. It’s a surrendering. It’s what Christ said on the cross, “not my will by thine be done”. It’s a total submission of egoic power. This is that moment of surrender. This is that moment of death, of the will of the ego, the will to control everything. This is what die before you die means. Give up the ghost, give up your need to control every damn thing and surrender to the mystery that’s greater than you are. Whatever you want to call it. Buddha nature. God. Mystery. It’s best to call it nothing.
Michael Frank: Let’s talk about shadow work. What is shadow work and why is it important?
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: Well, this relates to your question of demons. You know, if you have a simple belief system like, “I believe in God, you don’t, I’m going to kill you”. It’s pretty easy for you to look at me as a demon. I would look at someone who’s psychologically disturbed and willing to die for what he believes or willing to kill. So a way of looking at shadows is in previous cultures, they’re demons. Now because we’re a psychologically more sophisticated and we have the benefit of science and psychology than looking at things as supernatural entities doesn’t work for us anymore.
The me that I can’t see
Carl Jung, I believe, borrowed the word shadow from Nietzsche, and the simplest description of a shadow is actually one that one of my students came up with, he asked me this very question, “What is the shadow?” and I went into this pontificating explanation of shadow work and he says, “Oh, I get it, Shadow is the me that I can’t see”. It’s the me that I can’t see. That’s what a shadow is.
How the shadow comes about
Now, how the shadow comes about is when we’re growing up, our parents are doing their best to indoctrinate us into the world in which we’re going to need to live. So we need to have a belief system that is congruent with the belief system of the other people that populate the world we’re going to live in. So they will do their best to have us behave in a certain way, say a certain thing, and display the agreed upon proper emotions. So let’s take an emotion like anger. You know, children who grow up in this postmodern culture that we live in are not allowed to get angry.
So if they’re yelled at or shamed by their parents early in their development when they get angry, they are not stupid. They will learn very quickly to suppress that emotion of anger. Now, emotions can be suppressed, but they’re doing more than that. They’re actually denying a whole part of themselves that is a subpersonality that sets boundaries. So that subpersonality of the boundary setter will not get a chance to develop, and that subpersonality who displays anger and excitement, will get disowned. That disowned part of the personality is a shadow.
Carl Jung very clearly articulated this when he said, “This ego is a complex. It has a light side and a dark side”, very much like the Chinese Taoist philosophers. They would look at a stream and they noticed that the stream had a light side and a dark side. You know, you could see the fish in the light side, but you couldn’t see what was in the depths and the dark side. This is very much like the ego complex. He called the light side of the ego, the part of ourselves, the me that I can see, he called that the persona in honor of the actors masks, the mask that I wear when I interact in the world, the part of me that I want you to see.
He called the dark side, the shadow, and it’s unconscious. It’s the me that I can’t see, and both of these are active, and they have an impact on everyone around me. If you want to know what my shadows are, ask my wife, I can’t see them, but she sure can.
Shadows: Can’t see or don’t want to see?
Michael Frank: Shadows are your blind spots that you can’t see – or don’t want to see?
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: Technically a shadow you can’t see. Now as you begin to see it, you might decide you don’t want to see it, so you stuff it down more and repress it more deeply. But usually my experience is, once you see this despicable part of yourself, you may suppress it momentarily, but once you’ve had a glimpse of it, it’s coming into consciousness. Get ready. Here it comes.
And interestingly enough, if you really cultivate pure witnessing mind, not discriminating mind, but witnessing mind, this holistic right brain that just sees the flash of the whole, the gestalt, the whole picture, the whole self, including the dark shadow, this is very useful because when witnessing mind bears witness to the despicable part of myself, it inevitably starts the journey of coming into consciousness and healing, and it may take a while, it may take some suffering, it may take a lot of work, but the more you can rest in this pure witnessing awareness, the easier the integration of the shadows becomes. This is why Integral Zen shadow work from pure Zen mind is a path of awakening.
How to practice shadow work
Michael Frank: How does one practice shadow work?
Look at your conflicts
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: Oh, have I got a lot of answers to that question!
One of the best ways to practice shadow work is to look at your conflicts. We usually can see, we can feel the conflict, and we’re identified with one side of the conflict, the side of the conflict of the persona, the mask that I wear. So let’s say that I’m in conflict with you. Let’s say that I have this belief that people that are always nice are suppressing a really dark side of themselves that’s coming out passive aggressively. Let’s say for argument that I may have that belief.
So I would look at you and I would see you’re always nice and it would bother me. Now the benefit of people that bug us is they’re pointing to our shadows. We’re trying to rid the world of that which bugs us and we’re looking in the wrong place. And the only thing we could really rid the world of is in us.
Now let’s say that you’re just a nice person most of the time, but you are passively aggressively suppressing this angry self that didn’t get a chance to get angry. And that anger is coming out sideways passive aggressively in ways that you can’t see that would be your shadow. And the fact that it bothers me is pointing to that same condition that exists in me. I’m passive aggressive in ways that I haven’t admitted. And the fact that it bothers me that you are too nice is an indication that I’m too nice.
Now if I do the work and I uncover my own passive aggressive shadow and I think, “Oh, that’s so disgusting”, and I finally bear witness to the ways I’m being passive aggressive and I heal them, you still could easily be too nice and passive aggressive, but it will no longer bother me because I will have withdrawn my projection of my own disowned niceness and passive aggressiveness. I will have withdrawn that projection from you and owned it in myself. So this is a real good way to practice shadow work.
Byron Katie’s 4 questions
The work of Byron Katie is also a wonderful practice of shadow work.
- Is it true?
- Am I absolutely certain that’s true?
- What do I experience when I think that thought?
- Why should I keep having that thought that’s having all these negative impacts?
The turnaround: Can you express that thought in a way that’s equally true or truer? Which usually involves turning it around from blaming other people to owning it yourself.
Voice dialogue is another great way to practice shadow work. It was invented by a Jungian psychotherapist by the name of Hal Stone, and his wife Sidra who is also a psychotherapist, not a Jungian, and it’s based on the notion of Carl Young that the ego is a complex, that there’s a light side and a dark side. There’s a persona and a shadow.
Hal was the head of the C.G. Jung Institute in Los Angeles, but he decided that he didn’t want to be a psychotherapist anymore because there’s too many rules. It’s really hard to help people when you have to follow all these laws. So he just stopped saying he was doing psychotherapy and said, I’m going to do something else. Let’s call it voice dialogue.
So what he discovered is if you ask the ego to speak to these different subpersonalities in this day and age, they’re dying to talk. Have you noticed that? Everybody wants to talk, nobody wants to listen. So he would ask to speak to these different voices and some of the voices that he found had a lot to say, he called them primary selves, this is just another name for persona, and opposite every primary self he discovered there is a disowned self. This is another me that I can’t see.
Let’s say I’m a businessman in Los Angeles and I have a subpersonality that being successful is very important, so we could ask to speak to the voice of the achiever, the one who really wants to achieve something. And so all of a sudden you shift positions and you just put yourself in the place of that voice of that subpersonality. And man, he has a lot to say. You get him going and he’s telling you how important it is to be a winner. But then we notice that it’s hard for this person to stay in this voice, as a voice dialogue facilitator we’re listening very carefully to everything they say. And when they’re in their voice of the achiever, they talk in a very specific way. But ever once in a while, something that doesn’t fit that persona, that voice will pop out.
And we notice it even though they don’t, like let’s say there might be a voice of compassion, or the person that has compassion, if I’m a winner, then somebody is a loser. So all of a sudden this voice of compassion leaks into the conversation and the voice dialogue facilitator catches it. The person doesn’t because it’s unconscious. They don’t even notice that they’re feeling badly for the losers. You know, it’s winners and losers, it’s black and white. So I would notice that and I would ask to speak to the voice of compassion, the voice that stands up for all of the losers. And we would both be shocked that there’s really a whole subpersonality that feels terrible when the winner creates losers, and has great compassion for these losers. So this would be a way of bringing this whole disowned self into awareness. And we begin to talk to both parts, both sides, the light side and the dark side of the stream of ego consciousness.
So this becomes a very effective way of doing shadow work and that’s voice dialogue. And you could go a lot deeper because the shadows have deeper roots in our earlier development. So when we move out of the psychological shadows, that really begin when personality starts to form. The roots of those shadows are developmental trauma that the young child incurs when their parents try to civilize them. So when the parent yells at the young child, “Don’t do that!” The child is traumatized. That’s the beginning of a shadow. Right there they’re learning to suppress emotion. And they’ll repress a whole aspect of themselves that is not acceptable in that family dynamic.
And then you can go back earlier to shock traumas. You know, the accidents that happen. Birth must be pretty traumatic. Maybe an experience in the womb and that’s not even getting into the Karma, you know the things that happened before we got here. That’s a whole different discussion.
So these early attachment issues, attachment theory has become quite popular now. Trauma work, somatic work has become quite popular. These are the earlier conditions that give rise to the shadows. They’re the roots of the shadows. So when we’re doing shadow work, we have to have an understanding of this whole flow from Wilhelm Reich and his character armor to Carl Jung and his archetypes, whereas Ken Wilber says his prototypes of evolving consciousness.
Michael Frank: What other shadow work practices do you recommend?
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: Well, my favorite is the one that I developed, and I developed it because I have so many shadows, and it actually grew out of the teaching that my teacher came up with, which is a modern way of doing Kōan work. He called Mondo Zen.
The first part of Mondo Zen is a process of deconstructing the ego.
“Who are you really?”
That’s the Kōan. And then every time you open your mouth I say, “Interesting. I ask you who you are and you tell me what you think. Isn’t that strange?”
And then you think about it and so you try it again and now you’re telling me what you feel. And I say, “Isn’t this interesting? I asked you who you are, first you tell me what you think. Is that all you are, what you think? And then when we get beyond that, you tell me what you feel. Isn’t that interesting? Beyond thought, beyond feeling, who are you really?”
So gradually we’re cutting through all the stories, all the thoughts, all the feelings, and finally when we’ve cut everything away, the only thing that’s left is nothing, and you admit the truth: “Oh my God, I don’t know who I am!”
What a refreshing opening. So simple. I thought I had to know who I am and I don’t know who I am. Isn’t that great! In fact, I don’t need to know who I am. I can just be. What a great opening of the right hemisphere and a release of all the bullshit of the belief system of me needing to know who I am that I’ve been indoctrinated into.
So then we shift the nature of our relationship to our emotions. You know, in modernity, thinking came online. We worshiped at the alter of reason. Everything that wasn’t reasonable got rejected and put in the rubbish heap, all religions, all supernatural beliefs, all demons, everything got relegated to the rubbish. This is the left hemisphere, the emissary thinking it’s the master.
Then come the sixties, rock music gets the stand, our emotions come back with a vengeance because they’d been degraded to the rubbish heap. Emotions aren’t important. They’re not reasonable. We were worshiping at the altar of reason, and that’s the world that I was indoctrinated into after Catholicism. So the 60s came online and man, that rock music began to beat and our emotions came alive. So post maternity is all about feelings and meaning, emotional content. So by deconstructing the ego, by cutting away what we think, what we feel, and getting to the deepest truth of who we are, just pure unpolluted awareness. Unpolluted by thoughts, unpolluted by feelings, unpolluted by stories, just suchness. Now here we reevaluate the nature of emotions, and emotions are information.
The sixth sense, which is discriminating mind, begins with liking and disliking, and then it moves into concepts and arranging categories of the these things we like, these things are good, the things we dislike, these things are bad. This is thinking and feeling. The beginning of emotions. What Carl Jung called the feeling function. It’s not emotions. It’s a discriminating function that makes decisions. I like that. I don’t like that. I’m going to do this. I like it. I’m not going to do that. I don’t like it. It’s a discriminating function. So if our emotions are information, what does it mean when I get angry? Well it means I deeply care about something. I care about something so much, I’m willing to throw a temper tantrum to get my way. What does it mean when I’m sad? Well it means that I have a need to do something and I’m not doing it, so I’m going to be sad until I do it. What does it mean if I’m depressed? Well, it means that I’m sad and I’ve lost touch with what I need to do that I’m not doing, so I’m depressed.
This is a very different way of looking at our emotional body that we’re taught in this culture and it’s the beginning of a resolution of conflicts. So the continuation of this, what my teacher called an emotional Kōan, is a conflict liberation process. If I look at a conflict, I can see my side of the conflict, but I can’t see the other side of the conflict. It’s just I’m at war with you. I’m in conflict with you. I know I’m right. Therefore you must be wrong. And what I’ve lost touch with is what I’m projecting into you, that wrongness that I can’t hear, that I can’t look at as an object is a projection. It’s what Jung called a transcendent function. There’s one conscious content. That’s what I, my side of the argument, my side of the conflict. There’s an unconscious content beneath the surface. This is the shadow that I’m projecting onto you that I’m at war with.
So if we can bring both of these sides of the conflict into consciousness, the tension, the polarization, if we can bring it into consciousness, then we can transcend the conflict and arrive at a new view that includes both sides of the conflict. We’ve again, withdrawn the projection, so this is a process that is just so powerful when we’re working through it in real time with real specific conflicts. It’s not something we can just talk about abstractly. You must experience it for yourself and then we can talk about it, then we can articulate it.
Michael Frank: Let’s come back to enlightenment. Why do so few people wake up?
Doshin: You’re asking a thinking question that can’t be answered by thinking mind. It doesn’t have any meaning. It’s just blah, blah, blah, blah. This question, Linji, master Rinzai, one of his students in the golden age of of the Zen in the Tang Dynasty in China, about 600 CE after the Christian era, his student asked Master Rinzai, “What is enlightenment?”
Master Rinzai got a real sour look on his face. “Enlightenment! How do you pound a stake into the sky?”
You have an idea of enlightenment. That idea will keep you from experiencing it. It’s like a prison that you’re stuck in. Let it go. There is no enlightenment. There’s freedom from your thinking, feeling mind that makes up bullshit stories. Surrender to this.
What makes the accident happen? It’s a mystery.
I’ll tell you what helps is extreme discipline and devotion to the practices that have been effective for thousands of years that have helped millions of men and women obtain this elusive enlightenment. Whatever the hell it is to whatever degree they have. To reduce it into a formula, is ridiculous, it’s the worst thing you could do, you’re grabbing what doesn’t exist.
The only thing that matters when you’re facing death
Michael Frank: Doshin Nelson, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Any final thoughts? Anything you’d like to say in closing?
Doshin Michael Nelson Roshi: Yes. After all is said and done, it’s all about love, that’s the only thing that matters when you’re facing death.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Doshin Hannya Michael Nelson Roshi is the founder and abbot of Integral Zen. Doshin started studying Zen in the late 60’s, but without the guidance of a good teacher, he was confused and discouraged by the teachings. In earnest he began studying other meditative practices and martial arts which were difficult but less obscure. It wasn’t until he met JunPo Kando Denis Kelly, Roshi that the disciplined practice and eloquent simplicity of Zen suddenly took root and began to penetrate the dense clouds of his stubborn conditioned mind, revealing the ordinary, openness of vast empty sky. Doshin was recognized as a Zen Master and received Inka from JunPo, Roshi in 2011 in Loveland, CO.
Doshin is a poet, troublemaker, and teacher – a Zen Master of no rank. He is the founder of Integral Zen. the Colorado branch of the Hollow Bones Zen Order and co-founder of the Poetry of Dying Project, which uses the mirror of death to point to the essence of life. Doshin worked directly with JunPo as he first released and then developed the Process of Mondo Zen. He has been fully trained and is adequately skilled in this incredibly transformative practice.