Zen, Cinderella and the Art of CAT

Doyle, J., 2000. Zen, Cinderella and the Art of CAT. Reformulation, ACAT News Spring, p.x.

I have long suspected that I might be a closet Cinderella, but, ever since watching a rather scary great aunt play the role of Ugly Sister in a provincial Pantomime 40 years ago, I have had a natural aversion to the envious role.

In my many years of personal therapy, therapy training and therapy practice, despite this aversion, I am only too aware that at times I have attracted the envy of more than my fair share of Ugly Sisters, sometimes to the extent that I have feared for the survival of my very soul.

Recently, and not surprisingly, in my work as a therapist and GP counsellor I have also attracted clients who are either being destroyed by the envy of others or by their own envy of others or, in some cases, both. Clearly I was now ready to address the problem. I drew SDRs, I laid out narcissistic split-eggs on the table, I voiced and taught others to voice the pain inherent in being envied and the impossibility of giving the other what they most wanted, that idealised, admired something, that I / we apparently had. But it was always difficult to do this without simply swapping reciprocal roles and, horror of horror, being seen as abusive, denigrating and, (oh that awful word) contemptuous.

I tried another way. I read and waved copies of Nelson Mandela’s inaugural speech and insisted it was my / our right and duty to shine and that my / our light did not diminish the light of others but gave them permission to shine too: but still they insisted on being diminished.

I began to ask people who, by the nature of their job, stood on pedestals - teachers, doctors, etc. But here too I met a brick wall - apparently some people are completely unaffected. Was I just too sensitive?

I tried yet another path. As well as practising psychotherapy I also practise meditation. At about this time I took myself off on a Zen Buddhist retreat. For anyone who doesn’t know, Zen practice involves long hours of sitting in meditation, or zazen, facing a blank wall. Zazen means, "just sitting" whilst observing the mind, accepting whatever comes into the mind without value or attachment and letting it go. Mind here includes whole body -mind awareness, involving all five senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting). From previous experience I knew that this sitting with myself, with only a blank wall to blame was the most powerful (and painful) therapy around for me.

Half way through the retreat I had an interview with the teacher, an American woman and Zen Master, who could have been anyone’s grandmother (and was). I explained my envy problem and asked her advice. She sat in silence for a while then said: "I have two questions:

Are you watching your own thoughts about the other?

Are you looking for the light in the other?"

She told me to go and think about this as I sat in zazen. I returned to my wall and spent a very painful day "watching" the anger and hatred I "felt" for those who envied me. I was indeed abusive and contemptuous. I too was an Ugly Sister. I too had my place on the SDR. I owned my contempt, experienced my shame, and let it go.

On my return home from the retreat I found a letter waiting for me. It was a reply from another meditation teacher of whom I had asked the same question. She said, very diplomatically: "I’m sure you’re already doing this, but just check that you’re focussing on the light in others; if not, keep looking until you see it."

That evening I went to my supervision group where I traditionally played Cinderella to my two Ugly Sisters. I allowed myself to shine, inasmuch as I talked about some work I was happy with, and I watched as a colleague offered her usual invitation to me to put myself down for showing her up (she declared she was feeling unskilled, unmotivated and generally a crap therapist). Instead of feeling guilty at my good fortune and complying with her invitation I remembered the advice I had been given and whilst maintaining my awareness of the light in me I looked very hard until I could visualise a light shining in her.

As soon as I could see ‘her’ light I also became aware of the cloud of darkness she was throwing out as she voiced her self-contempt, a cloud which threatened to engulf and hypnotise me. I suddenly realised I was ‘seeing’ projective identification in action. I was being invited to both identify with the cloud and reflect it back to her, to confirm her Ugly Sister and my Cinderella roles. In the extreme imbalance of the view that I had all the light and she had all the darkness I also recognised the root of my fear that her darkness might be responsible for destroying my light (hence my extreme anger, fear and contempt verging on paranoia noted whilst sitting in zazen).

This time, however, things were different. I kept my own light shining and persisted in ‘just seeing’ hers - the result: I had no need to feel fear or guilt and either extinguish my light or withdraw to safety and she ‘brightened’ noticeably, and began to talk about the good work she had been doing.

Magic? No. Just the silent illumination inherent in the Observing Self.

Neither visualisation, nor the concept of ‘light’ seem to be much used in CAT, but for me they provided the vital clue in understanding my role in this destructive cycle and have given me an exit from it.

In my understanding, light is in essence free of value. It simply illuminates. By standing back and watching the light, in self and other, I identified with my Observing Self, free from the danger of colluding whilst modelling a non-destructive non-dualistic role. I’m O.K. and so are you. The light is in me and in you..

For me this also illustrated the importance of having positive healthy reciprocal roles on the diagram. In CAT it is, of course, necessary to have an accurate description of the problem, but the cure does not lie in this description of the negative gloom. It lies in the tilt of the reformulation to incorporate hope into the equation, a hope that there will be ‘light’ at the end of the tunnel - or even in the midst of the darkness if you just look in the right way.

So, in summary, in all our doings in the therapy room, seeing the light within ourselves and others would seem to be a vital component in maintaining an Observing (or illuminating) Self, avoiding colluding in negative reciprocal roles and in maintaining an equal and collaborative relationship. I am also wondering whether zazen, with its non-judgmental, non-discriminating watching or seeing, is indeed the ‘being’ of the Observing Self in an otherwise very actively ‘doing’ and discriminating model of therapy, and whether the ability to ‘just sit’ with the client in this way is the ground for the therapy relationship.

So, do Zen and CAT have anything to offer each other? Watch this space.

Jan Doyle

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Full Reference

Doyle, J., 2000. Zen, Cinderella and the Art of CAT. Reformulation, ACAT News Spring, p.x.

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