Attention & Inattention in Zen and Psychoanalysis

By: Paul C. Cooper, LP, NCPsyA    


"One day a man of the people said to Zen Master Ikkyu:  "Master, will you please write for me some maxims of
the highest wisdom?" Ikkyu immediately took his brush and wrote the word "Attention." "Is that all?" asked the
man. "Will you not add something more?" Ikkyu then wrote twice running: "Attention. Attention."  "Well,"
remarked the man rather irritably, "I really don't see much depth or subtlety in what you have just written."
Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times running: "Attention. Attention. Attention." Half-angered, the man
demanded:   "What does that word 'Attention' mean anyway?" And Ikkyu answered gently: "Attention means

[Zenso Mondo  (Dialogues of the Zen Masters), trans. K. Matsuo & Steinilber-Oberlin, In: P. Kapleau, 1965: 10-11]

The above mondo, or question and answer dialogue between a student and a Zen master, points to importance of
attention in Buddhist practice. Attention techniques engender an “alteration in perception” (A. Klein: 1987)
whereby, according to Buddhist thought, the transparency and insubstantiality of what appears permanent, solid
and eternal becomes exposed.  This wisdom cuts through everyday sense and thought perception and is described
as prajna [“quick-knowing” or intuitive understanding].

In this respect Buddhism functions as a perceptual psychology.  Alterations in perception engender a liberating
knowledge of reality as a result of a clearing away of the perceptual distortions. The false perception of reality
as seemingly solid promotes subject-object dichotomies, endless grasping, greed, envy, exploitation, and at the
extreme, the horrors of war, genocide, terrorism and holocaust. Perception interacts with attention. This
relationship between perception and attention renders Zen master Ikkyu’s enigmatic response to his student’s
queries understandable.  

Psychoanalytic Attention

Similarly, despite shifts in emphasis over the years since Freud's first formulations, attention forms the nexus
of the psychoanalytic inquiry.  Freud speaks of "free association" to the contents and flow of mental processes
as the "fundamental psychoanalytical rule" (1914: 147).   He defines the optimal stance of the analyst as “evenly
hovering attention” and asserts that this stance aims “at creating for the physician a complement to the
“fundamental rule of psychoanalysis” for the patient” (Op. cit: 160).

Wilfred Bion (1970), who is often quoted in the literature on Buddhist meditation and psychoanalytic attention,
and Heinz Kohut (1971, 1977) both make radical departures from Freud in unique and diverging directions.  
However, they both place attention at the center of the analytic inquiry.  Freud, Bion, and Kohut describe forms
of attention that not unlike Buddhist attention, moves beyond the senses in their efforts to capture and
understand the essence of human experience, to promote psychic change, and to alleviate suffering.
Freud describes a “bending toward” of the unconscious of both the analysand and the analyst.  Bion speaks of
“intuition” that facilitates the experience of “at-one-ment.”  Kohut  “empathy” with the inner life of the
analysand as the only source of psychoanalytic data. Despite differing formulations, bending toward, at-one-ment
and empathy all point to a temporary dissolution of the subject-object dichotomy described by Buddhists.  This
point holds important implications for understanding limitations in the contemporary literature on the use of
Buddhist meditation to promote psychoanalytic attention. Namely, therapeutic listening, not unlike any other
phenomena, is also transitory, transparent, insubstantial, lacking any permanent, solid or eternal quality and
arises, changes and falls within the context of the therapeutic encounter.  At any given moment, the
psychotherapist might be more or less attentive to any given internal and/or external experience.

Contemporary Psychoanalytic Literature

The importance of attention in both Buddhist and psychoanalytic endeavors reflects in the increasing number of
papers on the technique of Buddhist attention that have appeared since the mid-eighties. One predominant theme
in this conversation centers on Freud's (1912) description of evenly-hovering-attention and the Theravada
Buddhist meditation technique of mindfulness or "bare attention" (Epstein, 1984,1988; Coltart, 1992, 1996;
Rubin, 1985; Speeth, 1982).  One consistent point of convergence between the two techniques centers on the
shared emphasis on an essentially passive, non-judgmental stance.  Speeth, for example, observes that:  "Freud
described the inner work of free-association as the twofold effort of paying attention to the process and the
content of the mind and simultaneously eliminating all criticism or censorship of what arises.  The requirement
for lack of censorship makes this practice akin to Buddhist mindfulness." (1982: 153).

Consider the following oft-quoted definitions of these two attention strategies. In his influential and popular
book, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, the Theravada master Nyanaponika Thera writes:
"Bare attention is the clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us, at successive
moments of perception.  It is called 'bare', because it attends just to the bare facts of a perception as
presented either through the five physical senses or through the mind which for Buddhist thought, constitutes
the sixth sense  . . . attention or mindfulness is kept to a bare registering of the facts observed, without
reacting to them by deed, speech or by mental comment which may be one of self-reference . . . judgment or
reflection" (1973: 30).  
Similarly, in his discussion of psychoanalytic technique,

Freud writes:                 

"The technique, is a very simple one.  It disclaims the use of any special aids . . . and simply consists in making no
effort to concentrate the attention on anything in particular, and in maintaining in regard to all that one hears
the same measure of calm, quiet attentiveness of "evenly-hovering attention, …" [And]  “All conscious exertion is
to be withheld from the capacity for attention, and one's "unconscious memory" is to be given full play; or to
express it in terms of technique, pure and simple; One has simply to listen and not to trouble to keep in mind
anything in particular" (Freud: 1912: 112).  

Freud's instructions for evenly-hovering-attention and Thera's definition of bare attention clearly demonstrate
the descriptive parallels between the two techniques.  The recommendation that bare attention practice can
enhance the therapist’s capacity for therapeutic listening derives from these comparisons. For example, Rubin
writes that "… meditation can be of immense value to psychoanalysis in general and psychoanalytic listening in
particular, providing a systematic and efficacious technique for cultivating precisely the capacity and state of
mind that Freud recommended for optimum listening" (1985: 602).

Closer examination of this technically oriented literature reveals that, despite an important positive shift in
the psychoanalytic perception of Buddhist meditation, serious theoretical and technical limitations exist.
Namely, this literature does not consider the unconscious processes so central to the theory and practice of
psychoanalysis.  Nor does it consider the basic Buddhist experiential insight that all phenomena are empty of any
permanent quality or essence and arise subject to causes and conditions.

This neglect, as I see it, inhibits radical developments regarding the integration of Buddhism and psychoanalysis.
In these studies, Buddhist meditation becomes merely an “add-on” to psychotherapeutic technique. The
implications extend to basic treatment issues such as the clinical use of unconscious processes, (Cooper: 2000);
the conceptualization and use of the transference and countertransference dynamic, (Cooper: 1997, 1999); the
shifting object of analytic attention, and the understanding and processing of the therapist’s experiential
states (1997, 2001, 2002).   Clinical material presented below will demonstrate the latter point.

This stance also leaves unanswered readily observable questions. Most notably, given this assumed deficit in
psychoanalytic training, how does one account for those highly attuned and sensitive therapists who have no
interest in spirituality or meditation practice?  Paradoxically, not unlike a Zen koan, the answer lies within the
analyst's own analytic process and experience.

The candidate's requisite training-analysis, addresses unconscious issues and can account for  the high degree of
attunement enjoyed by many non-meditating analysts.  Hopefully, psychoanalysts undergo a “good enough” analysis
and develop through this requisite process the capacity for adequate therapeutic listening skills. However, not
unlike the unconscious, this experiential nodal point of psychoanalytic training has been consistently neglected in
the literature on the use of Buddhist attention strategies to improve the analyst's capacity for evenly-hovering-

More importantly, this exclusively technical emphasis ignores the broader brush strokes painted in the multi-
colored palette by psychoanalysts who have struggled with and extended Freud's early outlines onto the larger
canvass envisioned but left incomplete by Freud.  In either case, both implicit and/or explicit devaluations of
either Buddhism or psychoanalysis (or both) overlook, if not foreclose, the wider dimensions of subjective
experience that both disciplines have the potential to address. Such a limited approach interferes with access to
the potential radical transformational capacity inherent in both systems.   For instance, a failure in attention,
when taken exclusively as the result of inadequate technique in listening skills, as these studies imply, fails to
consider unconscious issues that clearly interfere with therapeutic efficacy. (Cooper: 1997). We will return to
this issue below.  For psychoanalysis, the unconscious, and the experience of the analyst's own analysis provides
the matrix for this exploration. When excluded from the discussion, this oversight results in a view of
psychoanalysis as "limited" "lacking" or  "deficient" and Buddhism as "adjunctive."

The Role of Unconscious Processes

Experience suggests that meditation practices that evoke the necessary alterations in perception associated
with Buddhist notions of salvation do rely on unconscious processes that they unlock (Cooper: 2000). Nina
Coltart, for example, observes that “During meditation, there is a lowering of the threshold of consciousness,
and in the steady inward looking that accompanies conscious focusing on the breath, the energy withdrawn from
our usual centre of consciousness, the ego or I, activates the contents of the unconscious . . . being unhampered
temporarily by conscious assumptions, we can see the law of Dependent Origination.” (1996: 132).   Coltart makes
a distinction between primary and secondary processes and implies that meditation accesses the former. She
writes, “The conscious intellect may have knowledge, but it is the great sea of the unconscious that is the
source of wisdom.” (Op. cit: 133).

The meditative and psychoanalytic unlocking of unconscious processes also generates an alteration of perception
and an accompanying processing and experiencing of the treatment in unique and often dramatic ways. Variations
are evidenced, for example, in the writings of Bion (1970) and Milner (1987). Here is an example of how repressed
unconscious factors can interfere with the therapist’s capacity for attention.

Meditating Therapist

A meditating therapist who consulted with me described feelings of extreme dread and intense anxiety stemming
from what she described as “witnessing my client’s graphic descriptions of physical and sexual abuse.”  Further
she found herself consistently “actively and intentionally moving our conversations away from this disturbing
material.” As a result, she reported feeling “guilty” and “inadequate.”  Further analysis of her inner states
revealed her own aversion to this material that was in part rooted in childhood traumas she had to suffer and
forced to keep to herself.  Once her own traumatic experiences were brought into consciousness, and her need to
defend against her own inner feelings dealt with, continued work led to the awareness of the “induced” (Roland,
1981) aspect of her countertransference reaction.  That is, that a collusive parent refused to “hear” or respond
to the patient’s complaints and pleas for help during childhood.  By not listening to the patient, the therapist
was acting in the role of the inattentive parent. This co-created relation was now manifesting in the treatment.  
This example graphically illustrates how unconscious dynamic issues can impede effective and clear
psychoanalytic listening. The point here, which we will explore more deeply below has to do with internal, often
unconscious, factors that can enhance and block an individual's attentional capacity that have nothing to do with
any quick recipe for enhancing attention that this group of authors imply result from the practice of bare

Confrontation with Self-Experience

As noted above, confrontation with the false perception of an inherently existing self forms the center of the
Buddhist analytic enterprise. This Buddhist formulation makes it clear that the analyst's resistance can
function as an avoidance of the catastrophic, albeit requisite confrontation with self.  Ignorance, the process
that maintains separation is an active process of “not-knowing” (avidya) that is not readily relinquished despite
one’s conceptual understanding or inventory of learned techniques.

From an integrative stance, self-confrontation requires a more comprehensive view of evenly hovering attention
than Freud developed. This is not simply a pragmatic issue. Awareness of the analyst's identification with the
patient's self states requires an approach that simultaneously supports and places on equal footing, a
constructive use of countertransference and a constructive response to the dissolution of relative subject-
object separation.  When unobstructed, analysis moves toward unitive experiencing and the possible dissolution
of boundaries.  This requires the analyst's willingness to allow and acknowledge identification with self and
object representations that constitute the patient's self state. The analyst must remain open enough to become
one with the patient.  In Zen parlance, to be the “one and the two” of the patient.

This stance informed by these foundational Buddhist principles departs radically from Freud’s assumptions and
an accompanying working approach that entails the tracking down of the fragments and pieces of content in an
effort to uncover latent meanings. The above studies neglect this fundamental emphasis in both Buddhist and
contemporary psychoanalysis.

Being Conscious

One might profitably question the value of being more conscious. Bion, for instance, argues that this state of
mind may not suffice to unfold the evolving Truth of the analysand’s inner experience.  He notes that “we try to
be as conscious as wide awake, as logical as we know; to have all our wits, all our experience about us to do the
work of psycho-analysis.  But is that the state of mind one which can make contact with a different state of
mind?” (1977: 20).  For Bion, the requisite state of mind entails a leap of faith.  He confronts both the analyst's
and the analysand’s resistance to experiencing “at-one-ment.” He "participates" with the patient by facilitating
the "existential leap" that finds liberal expression in the Zen literature.  D.T. Suzuki provides a  gripping
description. He writes: “At first the seeker knows of no way of escape, but get out he must by some means . . .
before him there yawns a dark abyss.  There is no light to show him a possible way to cross it . . . the only thing
he can do in this crisis is simply to jump, into life or death, but living he feels to be no longer possible.  He is
desperate, and yet something is still holding him back; he cannot quite give himself up to the unknown . . . Here
begins a new world of personal experiences, which we may designate ‘leaping’ or ‘throwing’ oneself down the
precipice!’ (1994: 52).  

Pushing Edges

What will emerge if one pushes edges out of what  Ron Sharrin describes as “. . .  the Procrustean bed of
Western psychology” (2002:1)  and beyond the narrow perimeter of technique?  For example, what is the
experience of the analyst who attempts to and/or succeeds to “. . . give himself over completely to his
unconscious memory” as Freud suggests and to leap off of the precipice described by Suzuki?  Would the analyst
become subject to the sway of unconscious processes and access radically different experiences? One could
reasonably argue that such a leap would result in a potentially creative and transformational impact on both
analyst and analysand.  Most significant to this discussion is the movement toward unitive experience.

For example, as noted above, Bion (1970) describes a process of “intuition” that results in “at-one-ment” with
the experience of the patient. Bion's recommendations to “eschew memory, desire and understanding” and to
“participate in hallucinosis” become increasingly relevant.  He addresses the dualistic value judgement implicit in
the notion that listening and distraction are fundamentally different, the latter being separate and
contraindicated.  What do listening and non-listening mean? What functions do attention and inattention serve
at any given moment?  What relationships might evolve out of attention and inattention?

The Shape of Attention

Meaning, despite it’s importance, functions as one narrow current in the wider stream of potential experiencing.
The pursuit of latent meaning with certain patients at certain stages of psychotherapy, not unlike premature
interpretations, can foreclose valuable experiential states and frequently reflects the analyst's resistances to
deepening unitive experiencing.

Pushing the edges of attention and inattention requires an awareness of form and process.  The analyst's
associations and impressions take on specific “shapes” with different patients.  These shapes, when examined
holistically, can reveal the patient's self and object identifications, associated affects and accompanying
relationships. More importantly, they reveal the patient’s present state.  Much of what one needs to
communicate might not be accessible to free-association or to language. For the individual who does not have the
capacity to free associate, what initially appear, as associations, upon deeper examination of their wider shape
and form, constitute fragments of inner reality.

Vignette: Ben’s World

At 50, Ben presents as a little boy struggling to connect, to be heard, understood, and, most importantly, to
exist.  Ben looks like a “falling apart” person.  He is disheveled, clothing not fitting right, shirt not quite tucked
in or out, books, magazines, papers seem to fly everywhere around his awkward gait.  He clumsily knocks things
over as he enters the room his sessions. While marital strains brought Ben into treatment, his primary complaint
centers on what he describes as “a fall from grace” in his political organization.  Ben lost his position as staff
writer and lecturer due to budget cuts.  Ben speaks of radical politics. During his sessions he has a captive
audience.  His monologue dominates the space. Our initial meeting leaves me feeling stupid. Over time my
stupidity intensifies. The stupider I feel, the more treatment seems to progress. Ben frequently interrupts
himself to say, “you know what I mean” and understands his question more as a statement.  “A psychoanalytically
trained therapist”, he says, “would know the latent meanings behind my manifest words.”  This becomes a double-
edged sword.  I could rescue him from his life and his problems. However, this assumes the existence of a
rescuer and a “rescuee”. With Ben one can't make this assumption. It is not clear that Ben's mother could
provide him with what is necessary for a self to emerge. He appears to remain in an unintegrated state
characterized by the scattered and diffuse fragments of both his inner and outer experience. Ben’s father
rescued him from a series of foster care situations after his mother was rescued from herself through
permanent institutionalization for paranoid schizophrenia when he was nine.

Actually, I have no idea what Ben talks about most of the time. I do not feel like a rescuer. Ben's narrative
keeps him in control and nulls me out of the space. Unlike his father, Ben is helpless and passive. Ben was the
passive almost inert recipient of the care taking ministrations of both his wife and the political organization.
His wife took care of the household, their child, and the family budget. The political party arranged his job and
his family housing.  Ben holds a graduate degree. However, he works as a laborer. He was hired as a technician,
became overwhelmed by the responsibility, and quickly reassigned to a less demanding custodial task.

Ben did not have the capacity for free-association. When put to the task, he became anxious. He would draw a
blank, become increasingly hostile, and would eventually withdraw completely. Despite Ben's inability to free-
associate, I noticed what initially appeared as my associations to his narrative. This experience took on a
chaotic form with specific contents emerging in a circular process that frequently left me feeling bewildered
and my head spinning. My associative process entailed assigning meaning terms to the contents of Ben's political
analysis.  First there would be an elaboration of a rudimentary meaning system of parallels.  When he talks about
the dialectic, I would posit, he is feeling ambivalence. Jane is his mother.  When he speaks A he really is talking
about B. Mary is Ann and his nephew is his father.  Ben’s child becomes himself.  The inner process would expand,
mushroom, explode, pop! Recycle.  

A system of private meanings developed.  I would think at these times, “What is he really talking about?” “How
can I formulate an interpretation?” I would then ignore his narrative and only hear instantaneous translations
into the meaning system.  We get stuck. Time goes by.  He leaves no openings.  There is no contact. I begin to
feel lost following my associations and translating his language into my inner constructions. My efforts do not
further the treatment.  Intense drowsiness and drifting set in. This preoccupation derails the possibility of
connection and of dialog.  I feel lost and overwhelmed in this inner world.  My feelings shift rapidly between
interest and disinterest, alertness and drowsiness, attention and preoccupation, claustrophobia and diffusiveness.

Over time, I begin to question my inner reaction to his narrative.  Initially, I attribute my lack of
understanding to the reality of my inexperience as an analytic candidate, disinterest, lack of understanding of
political issues, and an unstated difference of opinion.  I live in a political vacuum.  I should understand these
things, and then I could help Ben. However, I am stuck and can't respond. Ben's remarks “you know what I mean”
might more accurately be translated as “You don't know what I mean!” My insights remain isolated and trapped
within this idiosyncratic and convoluted meaning system.

Stepping back, the larger shape of these internal associations resembles Ben's experience of his mother. She
lives trapped within what Ben refers to as “the confines of a paranoid delusional system.”  He says: “She
experiences life in a vacuum.” Ben recalls his mother's breakdown. His world fell apart. Both Ben and his brother
were placed in a series of stormy and unhappy foster care situations. This was horrible for Ben. He remembers
and longs for his mother's love and caring before her deterioration. He decides to call her and reports that she
said, “I am not in this world.”  He recalls his experiences during her episodes that she seemed to operate from
her own reality.  He says: “this had nothing to do with the real world.”  The larger shape of my free-associative
process revealed this identification with his mother and his own self-experience in relation to her. My initial
preoccupation, in retrospect, seemed to function as an enactment of the early mother - son relation.  The
contents of my evenly-hovering-attention are not amenable to free association in the sense described by Freud.
It is not clear that there exists the capacity for containing meaning. They might be fragments of a catastrophe
of what might have - but has not evolved into a cohesive form.

The larger shape and my emotional reactions reveal the image of his internal mother.  Ben holds on to this image
and to his lost mother. What appeared initially as free-associations represent the fragments of his mother as
object and with Ben as self, contained in my mind both as one and in pieces. Opening into the experience and to
the impact reveals my emerging internal experience of Ben's self and object world.

Implications & Conclusions

The implication of the movement between distinctions and unity, charted by Freud, Matte-Blanco, Suzuki, and
others with regard to integrative studies and to clinical experience such as described above, can be summarized
as follows:  Whether or not one chooses to concentrate on identities or differences, between psychological and
spiritual disciplines, and associated techniques such as evenly-hovering-attention and bare attention, the
Buddhist / psychoanalytic conversation is faced with various aspects, perhaps starting points of fluid
relationships. These relationships appear to continuously form and dissolve.

Recently, the trend has shifted increasingly toward an emphasis on identities. However, authors who focus
exclusively on comparisons represent an unsettling trend in psychoanalysis that Matte-Blanco comments on.  He
writes: “That psychoanalysis has neglected to a considerable extent its initial purpose of exploring the
psychology of the unconscious, and of that mysterious world where everything is different from what we see in
conscious life . . . [thus] psychoanalysis has lost its most distinctive characteristics” (1975: 9).  Matte-Blanco
echoes Freud's earlier criticism.  Freud speaks “of the embarrassment that still comes over us when, accustomed
as we are to the atmosphere of the underworld, we move in the more superficial, higher strata of the mental
apparatus” (1933: 68).

My point can be further clarified by going back to the relationship between avidya [ignorance, literally “not-
knowing”] and impermanence.  Both Buddhist and psychoanalytic thought demonstrate sensitivity to the fluidity
of psychic life.  The conversation between Buddhism and psychoanalysis, in as much as it is a human conversation,
is not immune to reification processes.  Thus similarities and differences can easily become absolute. However,
when taken out from behind an exclusively scientific lens and given equal footing in the conversation, different
images emerge.

Outcomes such as merging and interchangeability of subject and object, the realization of the simultaneity of
ultimate and relative existence, are experiences that speak to this fluidity.  They are fundamentally different
experiences than those that imply pathology associated with regressive merger characteristic of the “oceanic
feeling,” traditionally used in the early psychoanalytic literature to describe meditative states.  This
realization renders moot the point made by contemporary writers that bare attention and evenly-hovering-
attention bear certain similarities. Considering the identity of the relative and the absolute, and from the point
of view of unconscious processes, same or different is not the issue. Both aspects of experience are relative,
highly subjective and fluid.  Identity serves as a poor rationale for ripping a technique such as bare attention
from the larger fabric of Buddhist experience and attempting to make a simply technical and conceptual
imposition into a seemingly "deficient" psychoanalysis.

This approach renders an incomplete picture of meditative processes and functions. Rayner (1995) argues in a
similar vein that “same” and “different” can function as obstructions. While useful to a point, this emphasis
ignores the role of primary processes or unitive modes of being  (processes that Buddhists acknowledge by
statements such “same and different”) and their influence on meditative states of consciousness. Considering the
fluidity of psychic processes, perhaps it would be more accurate to view bare attention and evenly-hovering-
attention as elements of an equivalence class or set with certain similarities, differences, and identities, rather
than describing them simply as “identical states of mind.” This conceptualization more accurately describes and
validates the experiences of Buddhist meditators as described in Buddhist texts, as observed in my own
meditation practice, and as reported by patients, colleagues, and peers.  

Analytic reductionism results in an incomplete picture of Buddhist meditation practices.  However, critics of
the early psychoanalytic view of meditation as solely indicative of pathology rely on a faulty argument.  This
argument hinges on distinguishing between “good” and “bad” meditation forms. Simply stated: “insight, good –
bliss, bad.” This creates a dichotomized and hierarchical ordering of meditation techniques that ignores
conscious and unconscious dynamics so essential to the psychoanalytic inquiry. This position thus maintains
distinctions between “pathological” and “non-pathological” meditation techniques and depends exclusively on
secondary processes. An exclusive reliance on secondary processes conceals underlying identities. When
practiced improperly, meditation can engender the difficulties that Freud identified. However, one might
profitably argue that the problems are not inherent simply in the meditation techniques but are mediated by the
student's and/or the therapist's relation to the method.

These articles, utilize a language that attempts to fit or translate Buddhism into the linear terms of
psycho/logical scientific discourse.  The endeavors to equate bare attention with evenly-hovering-attention,
while of value in such a context serves as an example. As a result this series of articles are a product of the
scientific-logical discourse. While fully respecting and understanding the need for such linguistic and conceptual
modifications, the result is a loss of access to the non-linear, intuitive and creative value of a hybrid Buddhist
and psychoanalytic discourse.  


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Copyright Paul C. Cooper 2002