The Zen of Verbal Behavior: A Look at the Verbal Behavior of Zen Master Hyon Guk Sunim

Photo by Faye Cornish on Unsplash

Angela Cathey, MA, LPC

ENSO Group & bSci21Media, LLC

Many traditionally trained behavior analysts initially struggle to incorporate a functional view of verbal behavior into their repertoire. Today, I will push you to be a bit more flexible in identifying how specific types of verbal behavior and alterations of normal contingencies may influence us. I have chosen the work of a popular Zen Master, Hyon Gak Sunim, for illustration of these concepts. To benefit most from this article, you will want to watch at least parts of the video described in this article available here.

In the video, Zen Master Hyon Gak Sunim describes Zen practice and its purposes. Hyon describes how Zen practice is a continual practice of gaining awareness of the ‘self’.  Zen is in some ways itself akin to Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) practices, with its inclusion of meditation, perspective-taking such as previously described, and other practices. This is, in part, because some of the founders of ACT were avid attendees of various practices. In the process of their own development and the development of ACT they sought to bring together effective elements of Zen and other practices under the logic of an expanded behavior analytic account of the functions of verbal behavior.

Despite this interesting history, our focus with the current article is not to review these historical roots of ACT but to examine the speaking behavior of a particular Zen Master in a specific video. His video makes fluid and pervasive use of a variety of otherwise uncommon speaking behaviors that are likely to alter the functions of verbal behavior for the learner. This is likely done, just as it is in ACT practice, to evoke new behaviors on the part of the learner. Hyon makes excellent use of repetition, pacing, rhyme, and rhetorical device, such that mere words are likely to briefly transform the stimulus functions of normal verbal behaviors for the listener.  For example, he noted “before I was born where did I come from?” and stressed going to the place “before thinking arises”.  In ACT, we call this “defusion” – a brief alteration of the contingencies evoked by a stimulus that allows the individual room to see thoughts and experiences as simply behavior in context rather than as literal “truth.” It is also important to note that when we speak about how stimuli are likely to function to for the listener, that we do so based on behavioral principles. The actual functions of stimuli for any individual will, of course, be determined by their learning history and cannot be fully determined without a thorough functional analysis.

An ACT therapist frequently makes use of a variety of similar techniques to evoke defusion, mindfulness, perspective-taking, and awareness of ‘self’ in relation to values. An ACT therapist may similarly have their clients repeat words that are painful for them (e.g., “rape”, “victim”) or that may represent fused self-concept (e.g., “mother”, “wife”) in order to create brief changes in function. These techniques, notably, only create brief alterations of verbally-driven contingencies but brief and repeated learning experiences that break-up fused behavior often provide much needed space for change to occur. As one helps a client briefly defuse or shift perspective, new flexibility in verbal behavior is often evidence in either the clients speaking patterns and/or their willingness to engage in challenging therapeutic tasks (e.g., contact with feared stimuli in the process of exposure therapy).

To learn more about ACT, you can schedule a consult with Angela to tailor a curriculum to your specific needs.  You can also check out our many ACT related CE events for BCBAs here.

Make sure to check out the full video, and to subscribe to ENSO Group’s YouTube channel to see in future videos. Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Angela Cathey, M.A. is a writer, consultant, entrepreneur, and Owner, Director, and Team/Leadership Development Consultant of Enso Group. Her background is in processes of change and intervention development. She has trained with experts in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Functional Analytic Psychotherapy (FAP), cognitive-behavioral exposure-based treatments, and Relational Frame Theory (RFT). Her interests are in process, innovation, and development of solutions for sustainable large-scale change. She has published in numerous academic journals on process, measurement, and intervention development. Enso-driven analytics systems are used to inform leadership and team building interventions, culture design, and research in the behavioral sciences. Angela can be reached at [email protected]. Stay up-to-date with Enso Group at and LinkedIn.

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