In a book called Emotional Healing Through Mindfulness Meditation: Stories and Meditations for Women Seeking Wholeness, author Barbara Miller Fishman, Ph.D. tells the stories of eight women, some of whom were dealing with extremely heavy sufferings, such as an abusive relationship, the death of a loved one, and of one woman who was depressed in her marriage and wanted to seek out an old lover. In the introduction, Fishman describes how as a psychotherapist and a student of Buddhist meditation she taught mindfulness skills to these women, specifically how to observe experience through the “six sense gates” (seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, and thinking):
Reflecting for a moment, it becomes apparent that all experience has to come through these sense gates; without them, we cannot know the world. Observing experience at the sense gates shifts the focus of attention from outside us to inside us, from blame to the capacity to take responsibility for our own thoughts and feelings and the effect they have on others as well as ourselves.
It’s important to remember that while there are many external solutions to problems, the purpose of Buddha-dharma is to help us find the internal solutions. And these two approaches may at times seem to be in conflict with one another. But it is the inner world that Buddhism is most concerned with, not the outer one.
This is something I have to remind myself of constantly, even with my many years of practice, and because we have conditioned so strongly to look for solutions outside of ourselves, I think it’s is a challenge for many others as well.
Another good book that deals with this subject is Chasing Elephants: Healing Psychologically With Buddhist Wisdom by Diane Shainberg a clinical psychologist and Zen Buddhist priest. “Chasing elephants is a phrase that means looking for things outside of ourselves,” she writes. Inner healing is only possible when we quit looking for external solutions.
This doesn’t mean that we ignore or reject external solutions. They may bring justice, relief, or a sense of closure. External solutions can be very encouraging. For instance, today I met with one of my doctors to review the results of Monday’s CT scan of my liver. I was not expecting very good news. During my recent chemo treatment, they discovered 5 or 6 tumors and these treatments in the past have not been that effective. But, I was pleasantly surprised. The chemo had effectively treated all but one of the tumors, and evidently it got part of that one. This really bolstered my spirits. Even so, the encouraging news will have a short shelf life, because I still have cancer, and to put it bluntly, cancer is a real mind fuck.
I have to leave the external solution in the hands of my doctors, trusting that they know what they are doing. Obviously, as I learned today, projecting negative thoughts and outcomes doesn’t help anything. Getting angry at the doctors or their staff when things don’t go as smoothly as I like, is not good either, and getting angry at the disease is just futile. I have to work on the inner solution of healing my mind, healing the emotional wounds and overcoming the mental stress.
To fully understand disease, we have to understand [the] inner cause, which is the actual cause of disease and which also creates the physical conditions for disease. As long as we ignore its inner cause, we have no real cure for disease . . .
If the inner cause of a problem exists, the external conditions for the problem will also exist, because the inner cause creates them.”
This idea may be difficult to accept, but this is what Buddhism teaches. Personally, I am not convinced that every problem has an internal cause. Some things just happen. Wrong place, wrong time. I am willing to accept a certain amount of randomness. But I am convinced that the only way to truly change a problem or experience healing is to own a problem internally. Otherwise, we are just left with anger, resentment, and frustration, and those are not good healing agents. Not only that, but as Buddhism tell us, there is every possibility that without this inner work, we will experience the same sort of problem endlessly.
I read that Lou Reed, the former leader of that great 60s band The Velvet Underground, had a liver transplant last month. On Lou’s website his wife, performance artist, Laurie Anderson, writes,
When I was speaking recently with a journalist from the London Times, I said ‘I don’t think Lou will ever fully recover.’ We were not talking about his physical condition . . . We were talking about how a traumatic event – a surgery or calamity – can change your life. These things make you reevaluate everything in your life. And while they mark you forever, these traumas can be extremely positive. And I think for Lou this is especially true. He gets a chance to see things with enormous perspective.”
I saw Lou Reed in concert in New Orleans in 1974. During the song “Heroin” he shot up onstage, or pretended to, but I understand that in the last decade or so, he has been practicing Tai Chi, an internal martial art. I have no doubt that the perspective he has these days is from the inside out.
And Ms. Anderson is right, trauma can be positive. I told my doctor this morning that I was experiencing some pain in my liver. He said, “Pain is good,” and while I appreciated that he meant pain is a positive sign of healing after a treatment, I took it philosophically as well. Pain is good. It hurts, but without it we could never learn, we would never grow.
It is only through a relationship with my pain, my sadness, that I can truly know and touch the opposite—my pleasure, my joy, and my happiness.”
- Claude AnShin Thomas, Zen monk, teacher, and author, At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace