Book #3 – Zen Beyond Mindfulness

Jules Shuzen Harris, 2019

My third book in the 2022 challenge is Zen Beyond Mindfulness: Using Buddhist and Modern Psychology for Transformational Practice by Jules Shuzen Harris. The book satisfies Category 4 of the challenge, a book on psychology or personal development. Harris is both a practicing psychotherapist and a Buddhist teacher in the Soto Zen tradition. Full disclosure: I am also a Zen practitioner, albeit in a different tradition.

The book

This is not the first book I have encountered combining ideas from Zen and psychology. However, it might be one of the first I’ve encountered that doesn’t equate the two. I’ve seen a lot of books and articles that suggest modern psychology can replace Zen practice, or vice versa. Harris, by contrast, takes concepts from both areas and shows how they can complement each other.

The main psychological framework that Harris uses is called the Identity System, or I-System, from a larger model by Stanley Block. There are parallels between the I-System and what Buddhists call the skandhas, or aggregates of tendencies and experiences. Both models argue that these collections of tendencies and experiences are what each person perceives to be the self. Both models also argue that these collections have no permanent reality.

Harris recommends combining regular Zen meditation practice with a technique used within the I-System that is a version of mind mapping. In case you’re unfamiliar with mind mapping, the idea is to put a key word or phrase in the center of a page and then just write down whatever comes up for you in association with that. This blog post from MindMeister offers a more in-depth explanation of mind maps, along with some examples.

Harris recommends creating mind maps around questions surrounding your identity, such as, “What am I attached to?”, “How do I defend my happiness?”, etc. But it’s not just a one-and-done affair. After you create your map, you do a relaxation exercise and then recreate the map, but instead of focusing on your feelings about the content, you focus on the sound of your pen on the paper and any sensations you might feel in your body. Your answers might be the same as before, but approaching the issue from a different angle might change your perspective on it in some way.

What I liked

I liked that Harris took the time to dispel a lot of misconceptions that people outside the Zen community have about the practice. For example, a lot of people use “Zen” interchangeably with words like “calm” or “content.” This is a complete misunderstanding of what Zen practice is. As Harris points out:

I cannot stress enough that we do not practice Zen in order to be happier more often. If that is your goal, I suggest exercise or getting a pet.

Zen Beyond Mindfulness, page 67

What is the goal, then? I’m so glad you asked:

The goal of Zen is nothing less than completely dismantling the delusions the self creates to feel unique, special, and separate from the rest of the world.

Zen Beyond Mindfulness, page 152

When you put it that way, Zen practice seems a lot scarier, which explains why people tend to be more familiar with some diluted marketing perception of it than the real thing. I like that Harris didn’t try to sugarcoat things. I’m also glad to say that I’ve had similar experiences in the Zen tradition where I practice.

While I’ll confess I didn’t have time to do the exercises shown in the book, I’m intrigued enough to make a note to incorporate them into my practice. Self-inquiry is hard, which is why a lot of people don’t do it. It’s nice to have a systematic way of doing it that aligns with Zen ideas of being present with whatever you’re experiencing.

Another thing I really liked about this book is that Harris is very scrupulous about citing his sources, both ancient and modern. All too often in books about spirituality or self-help, authors act like they’ve invented everything they’re describing, when most times they’re repackaging things Buddhists and Hindus have known for millennia.

What I didn’t like

I didn’t love the structure of the book. There’s a lot of introductory material in the opening chapters, which means it takes a while to get to the meat of the book. I feel like Harris could have woven the introductory material into the more practice-heavy chapters.

Overall verdict

I almost feel like the way Harris addresses misconceptions about Zen is worth the price of admission by itself, but of course, that’s not the point. This book is great for its intended audience, but that audience might be quite small.

However, the book might be part of a trend in Buddhist circles. When Buddhism first took hold in the West in the 20th century, many Western practitioners wanted to strip away the more ritualistic and devotional elements of Buddhism, branding them as superstition. The idea was to get to the core of what was helpful about Buddhism, but now we’ve seen that such an approach can lead to a practice stripped of its ethical context and only useful to the extent it makes practitioners feel better about themselves. If that’s what you want to practice, go ahead, but it’s not Buddhism, and I fear that’s all too often the perception people have of Buddhism.

That said, I don’t want to make it sound like I’m the expert on Buddhist practice, as I’m definitely not. But Western society seems to be coming back to an understanding of the value of ritual, which is a step in the right direction for me.

What’s next?

I mentioned last week that I’d be adding a twist to the challenge for the month of February. Since I’ve started the month with a Black author, and it’s Black History Month, all the books I read for the challenge this month will be by Black authors.

This was also inspired by an Instagram challenge, so maybe I’m just really susceptible to Bookstagram suggestions at this point. But seriously, it seems like a fun way to encourage people to read more books by Black authors.

To that end, my next book will be Beloved by Toni Morrison. Yes, I’m a little embarrassed that I’ve gotten this far in life without reading it already. This book satisfies Category 10 of the challenge, a book that received a national literary award; namely, the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.





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