For thousands of years, the primary way that Eastern spiritual disciplines dealt with the problem of the barrier of the controlling ego mind was basically to exhaust it through long hours of meditation, chanting, no sex or other human physical contact, little sleep, etc. This is basically the monastic model that was transmitted to the West in the 1960’s and 1970’s. These methods work provided the practitioner is willing to go through excessive physical and mental hardship.  You could say that when we are exhausted in body and mind, our ego is also exhausted, and occasionally this will result in the ego just letting go, which is the definition of awakening, or “enlightenment,” in Zen practice.

Most of my own training was in very traditional Japanese Zen settings, which attempted to replicate the Japanese monastic system in America. The problem with this system is that it is not oriented to the lay practice lifestyle of maintaining a family, work and home life, but rather, was developed for monks and nuns practicing full time with no outside responsibilities.

However, over the last 20 years, we have found a way to bring a person to an initial awakening experience without doing battle with the ego.  Although there are several stages to this process, it starts with a method we call Zen Dialogue, which is based on the notion that it is the controlling ego itself that must be “enlightened” as to its proper position for the self to be at peace. The deluded ego always sees itself as the center of the universe, with all others and all other things rotating around it, much as the earth rotates around the sun. Once the ego has been awakened, it can see that it is just one planet in the universe, rather than the center. This results in giving up the constant attempt to control what cannot be controlled, which in reality is almost everything, and frees up tremendous energy to control what can be controlled, which is basically how we treat ourselves  and others.

Zen Dialogue is led by a trained facilitator who asks permission from the Controlling Ego to speak with different “voices” or aspects of the participant’s Self.  The participant then speaks from the perspective of whatever voice is being spoken with. Although ultimately all these voices are simply parts of the Self as a whole, breaking them down in this way gives one an amazing shift of perspective that reveals much about the workings of the controlling ego. The end result of this process is that by the end of the first session, which lasts about 2 hours, many of the previously hidden methods of the controlling ego are revealed, and the participant has had an experience of what we call Buddha Mind or the Mind of Awakening.

The controlling ego will acquiesce in this journey if:
1) it does not feel threatened and
2) it feels it is in own self interest to do so.

The fact is, it IS in its own self interest, as the ego has a much easier job when other aspects of the Self are not in resistance mode. This happens when ALL parts of the Self are given voice and allowed to express the information they possess. Voices that are suppressed generally will find some neurotic way to express their needs, and the more hidden they are the more neurotic their message becomes. These neurotic patterns produce the stress and anxiety that many people experience way too much of in their lives today.

The Zen Dialogue approach is to see that the controlling ego is simply part of the whole rather than a world onto itself. The Aware Ego is one that clearly sees that merging with Buddha Mind, or Universal Consciousness, is an essential part of what it means to be human.  In fact, without this realization, we are extremely one-sided. Operating from Buddha Mind, the Self can manifest wisdom and compassion, which serve as bridges to an expanded sense of purpose.   This frees the aware ego to have access to whatever aspects of the larger Self are needed to understand and accomplish the true life purpose of the individual.

As this happens, our whole being begins to experience the ecstatic union of personal purpose and universal energy.  “When the student is ready the Guru appears,” is an old Hindu proverb.  Recognizing that the “Guru” can manifest in anything at any time is a key part of understanding Zen.

Sensei Al Rapaport is Director of Open Mind Zen Center in Melbourne, FL. He is an authorized Zen Teacher who continues to experiment with melding ancient eastern and modern western techniques for awakening. For more information, email