Can Meditation Bring About a Process of Healing?

When we suffer we experience pain.  Whether it is mental, emotional, and/or physical, pain is a message that something is out of balance, that we are lacking harmony.  Healing is the restoration of harmony.

In Taoism, everything is energy.  Pain and stress arise when energies are off balance or when they clash.  Taoism teaches how to achieve harmony.  Balance or harmony is also important in Buddhism, which holds that the main disturber of harmony is the false concept of “self,” “I,” or “ego.”

Both philosophies prescribe the same cure:  meditation.

Can meditation really bring about a process of healing?  That was the precisely the question posed to the great   philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti during a 1969 talk.  He answered,

“Most of us have had pain of some kind – intense, superficial, or pain that cannot be cured.  What effect has pain on the psyche, the brain or the mind?  Can the mind meditate, disassociating itself from pain?  Can the mind look at the physical pain and observe it without identifying itself with that pain?  If it can observe without identifying itself then there is quite a different quality to that pain…  The more you are attached to the pain, the more intense it is.  So that may help to bring about this healing, which is an important question and which can only take place when there is no `me’, no ego or self-centered activity.  Some people have a gift for it.  Others come upon it because there is no ego functioning.”

Krishnamurti considered meditation “the natural act [that] brings about the harmonious movement of the whole.” Healing is about becoming whole.

The word ‘whole’ comes from the old English ‘hale’, which means to be in good health, to be whole and healthy.  The original meaning of ‘whole’ implied “keeping the original sense,” “that which has also survived,” and “to heal.”  The prehistoric German root of whole is also the origin of ‘heal’, ‘health’, and ‘holy’.

To heal means to be whole and to be whole means to heal.

I don’t think we should ever expect to achieve complete wholeness or perfect harmony.  Because we are human beings, we will always be incomplete, imperfect.  Completion is the journey of life, and perfection, an endless further.

But we can expect to heal.  And naturally I am going to tell you that meditation, or what in the T’ien-t’ai/Tendai tradition is called kuan-ksin (Jp.  kanjin), “observing the mind,” is a powerful healing tool on all levels – mental, physical, emotional, spiritual and social.

“Meditation develops your innate energies. With practice, you can take charge of your mind and body, preventing disease before it arises. Shouldn’t everyone make an effort to learn something like this?”
– Yin Shih Tzu, Tranquil Sitting

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Death to the Concept of Death: Lama Zopa Rinpoche on Labels, Disease and Death

Lama Zopa Rinpoche is a scholar and teacher in the Tibetan Gelug tradition and the spiritual director of The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition.  I’ve gotten a lot out his teachings on Medicine Buddha and healing.  However, with this teacher it is sometimes necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff.  By that I mean he might suggest as a way to evoke protection from natural disasters, you should make offerings to the beings who control the weather.  That’s a bit too mystical for me.  But if you can get past that kind of stuff, he has much wisdom to share.

Here is an excerpt from Medicine Buddha Retreat in which Lama Zopa offers a grounded and insightful explanation of one of the biggest obstacles to healing, and awakening.  The prayer he mentions is the standard “Going for Refuge” with an additional verse:  “I will lead all beings into the heart of enlightenment.”

The words you say in the bodhicitta prayer include your parents, your family and your enemy.  It includes the person you call your enemy, the person who has abused you and toward whom you have built up hatred because of your projections.  You put a negative label,” bad,” on that person and “abuse” on that person’s action.  Your mind made up the label, believed in that label… and you then allowed your mind to believe in that label.  That then made you generate hatred in your heart. I will say here… that when you analyze the situation, you find that the abuse actually came from you.  Why?  Because it came from your mind.  If your mind hadn’t labeled and you hadn’t believed in your label, you wouldn’t see yourself as having been abused…

It’s difficult to heal. Because you never change your concept, your problem never changes; your hatred never changes. The hatred is always there, because you never change your mind, your concept.

This explanation is talking about only this life, about how this problem of abuse came from your present life, from your mind making up the label “abuse” and believing in it. Here we’re not talking in terms of reincarnation and past karma.

Labeling is a problem.  According to Lama Zopa, labeling not only gets in the way of healing, it actually helps to cause disease.  Labeling leads to bias, seizing, clinging.  For Nagarjuna, the tendency to label things (prapanca) is one of the major roots of suffering.  Yet, we live by labels.  If we did not label or name things, we could not communicate.

So we label labeling as “bad.”  But it’s not all bad, there is a positive side:

Everything is created by the mind.  Everything is labeled by the mind.  The existence of a label does not mean there is an actual reality for something labeled, because all things and labels are empty (sunya).  In Ultimate Healing: The Power of Compassion, Lama Zopa tells us that disease is a label.  Death is just a label too.

Death is a concept, something that comes from our mind… death itself is not the problem; it is our concept of death that is the problem.  We have a concept of death as something that exists from its own side… that makes us frightened of death and does not allow us to relinquish our attachment to this life…  Death is merely labeled by our mind in dependence upon its base, the consciousness leaving the body.  This is all that death is.  Therefore, there is no death that exists from its own side.  There is no death in the sense of one that exists inherently.  It is a hallucination.

Disease and death are empty.  From the view of ultimate truth, they are only thought constructions, concepts produced by the mind, created by us.  We can learn to control our thoughts.  We can transform them.  Understanding this should by empowering.  As Lama Zopa suggests, “Knowing how much freedom we have should inspire us and give us hope.”

 

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My New Tumor

Two days after Senator John McCain announced he had a brain tumor, I underwent a biopsy to diagnose a new mass in my left leg and determine whether it is cancerous.

Medicine Buddha statues at Land of Medicine Buddha, Santa Cruz

It is.  It’s a big fat ugly tumor the size of a baseball.

I’m still in the dark about treatment.  My oncologist has mentioned something about an experimental drug.  Personally, I am leaning toward a drug that is non-experimental, one known to work.

When I know exactly what my options are, I will consider them with the knowledge that I am terminal.  Nothing is going to save my life.  That being the case, if my doctor’s plan is to subject me to an aggressive therapy that will make me sick and miserable, on top of the pain and misery I am already experiencing, further degrading the quality of my life, I am not sure that I am interested.  If the treatment might save my life, I would think differently.  But it’s just to keep me alive a while longer.  My feeling is that quality of life is more important than longevity.

Needless to say, I hate all this.  While it is tempting to bemoan my rotten fate, I have to look at this as an opportunity.   It’s as if the gods of destiny, fate, karma, whatever you want to call them, decided that I am just too lazy these days to practice on my own accord so they figured to give me something really serious to practice about.  They keep doing this and I wish they’d just leave me alone.

“With a good heart, compassion for others, whenever a problem arises, you experience it for others, on behalf of other sentient beings. If you experience happiness, you experience it for others. If you enjoy a luxury life, comfort, you dedicate it to others. And if you experience a problem, you experience it for others—for others to be free of problems and to have all happiness up to enlightenment, complete perfect peace and bliss. Wishing others to have all happiness, you experience problems on their behalf.”

– Lama Zopa Rinpoche, The Joy of Compassion

Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s teachings were very instructive and encouraging to me a few years ago when I was preparing for a liver transplant.  Based on Medicine Buddha practices, some of it steeped in Buddhist mysticism, much of it practical and empowering.  He makes clear that healing begins and ends with our hearts and minds.  He maintains that there is no healing without compassion, and indeed, compassion itself is an important source of healing.

“The best healer is someone with the realization of bodhicitta, the altruistic thought to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all living beings…  Every single breath of someone with great compassion is medicine…”

What the immediate future holds I don’t know – but I have made a decision on the end.  I do not want to die in a hospital, or here at home, I want to die in a Buddhist setting, in fellowship with other Buddhists.  My thought is to conduct the end of my life as though it were a personal retreat.  I’ve been looking into Buddhist hospices.  Unfortunately, there are not many.  I’ve only found three:  Zen Hospice in San Francisco, Tara House at Land of Medicine Buddha, and Enso House in Washington state.  If you know of any or if you are a Buddhist caregiver, please contact me.

In the meantime, may you be happy and at ease, and free from suffering.

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Unbounded Wholeness

Holistic medicine is a still relatively new approach to healing in the West, and yet it has ancient roots – in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, and even in the teachings of Hippocrates, the so-called father of medicine, who lived in the 4th century B.C. and emphasized the healing power of nature.  This approach to healing is called holistic because it looks at the whole person; joining all the different elements of the physical, mental, emotional, nutritional, social, and environmental into a whole system.

The term ‘holistic’ comes from the word ‘whole’, from the old English word ‘hale’, which means to be in good health, to be whole and healthy. The original meaning of ‘whole’ implied “keeping the original sense,” “that which has also survived,” and “to heal.” The prehistoric German root of whole is also the origin of ‘heal’, ‘health’, and ‘holy’. In addition, the word ‘wealth’ (‘weal’) has associations with words heal, health, holiness, and happiness.

To heal means to be whole and to be whole means to heal. To be wealthy is to be healthy and whole. To be holy is to heal and be whole. It is said that true happiness is only possible when we achieve complete wholeness and maximum health.

“Unbounded wholeness” is a concept in Dzogchen, a teaching traditional of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a rather complicated notion identified with Samantabhadra, one of the names of the Primordial Buddha. Professor Anne C. Klein, with Tenzin Wangyal, wrote a book on the subject, Unbounded Wholeness: Dzogchen, Bon, and the Logic of the Nonconceptual. In it, they offer this passage from The Great Profound Bliss Sutra:

Mind of mine, dwelling in the present
Uncontrived, uncoarsened, and untouched
Heart essence of all that is,
Dwells solely as wholeness unbounded.

We can find wholeness in the present because the present is always whole. The present may seem to have separate parts and dimensions but from the ultimate view, we find that it is indivisible. In the now, the past and future join the present to form a timeless reality. It is timeless when our mind is no longer tethered to the idea that the present must be divided into past, present and future.

A Healing Buddha mandala
A Healing Buddha mandala

The catalog of word forms above progressed in a circular motion, one definition leading into another and then back to the previous. A Buddhist symbol for wholeness is the mandala, which is often circular. Jung, in fact, called mandalas “archetypes of wholeness.” He saw the geometric pattern of the mandala as displaying a preexisting condition of consciousness. With this in mind, we might say that our journey to wholeness is a journey of rediscovery – uncovering the wholeness that has always been whole, and unbounded.

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Cancer Again (Naturally)

In December, I started having knee pain. I didn’t think too much about it, even though the pain was intense at times. I’ve had intermittent knee problems for some years, and figured it was probably arthritis or age. It went away after about a week, but then it came roaring back in January – deep throbbing pain that would not go away. I went to a couple of orthopedic surgeons and a rheumatologist. They discovered a lesion in my left femur. Possible cancerous. Possibly not, said one orthopedic oncologist.

The only way to know for sure was to do a biopsy. Last Wednesday, they drilled a hole in my bone, went into the left femur, removed tissue from the lesion, and the pathologist on hand during the surgery declared it cancer. Metastasis, to be exact, cancer that spreads from one part of the body to other parts. We, meaning I and the doctors, thought all the cancer was removed when they took out my old liver and gave me a new one.  But, I’m not getting that easy.  There must have been some cancer cells hiding somewhere, perhaps in bone marrow.

Needless to say, having a hole drilled in your bone is extremely painful.  They put a rod in to prevent fractures and make the leg weight bearing. Still, it hurts like hell and pain medication does not provide total relief.

Next is to get with the oncologist I worked with before and decide how to start fighting this thing. From what I understand there are three modes of treatment: radiation, chemotherapy, amputation.

And two battlefronts: the external one, involving the treatments I just mentioned, along with any others that might be available, and there is the inner front, the battlefield of bodymind and spirit. In future posts, as I did before, I plan to share a few of the highlights of my wayfaring through these stages of cancer.

I do have mixed feelings about putting my personal business in front of the public. But, ancient Buddhist texts describe two kinds of illness: those of the unenlightened, and those of the enlightened. The latter are for the purpose of providing opportunities to teach. I would never claim to be enlightened (I can pretty much guarantee you I’m not), nor am I egotistic enough to think I have much of anything to teach anyone.  Yet, if sharing more of my healing journey can be of benefit to others, so be it.

My approach to inner healing is centered on the Healing Buddha (whose image appears in the new header above), and my way is a bit unorthodox. In Tibet, Medicine Buddha is among the Highest Yoga Tantra. I received a Medicine Buddha Empowerment from Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche in 2002, but I am not convinced that such empowerments are necessary.

In Teachings from the Medicine Buddha Retreat (Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, 2009), Lama Zopa Rinpoche says that in Healing Buddha teachings, “The person has to practice Medicine Buddha and have a good heart, with a sincere wish to help others.”

That is the only requirement, and this sentiment fully captures the essence ofBuddhist practice. Just do it. Try to help others. All awakening stems from that.

Now, for some reason, the song, “Alone Again (Naturally)” has been in my head lately.  There are some nice versions available (Sarah Vaughn, Diana Krall) but I chose the original because I liked it when it was first released and it has a beat.  Since I started letting folks know about this new development, the most frequent response I have received from family and friends has been, “I am so sorry you have to go through this.”  I’m sorry about it, too. It’s a real drag, and I am very tired of the pain, but what can I do? I got it. It’s mine.  I own it. I have to heal it.  Actually, that makes it sound as if cancer were something completely external.  It’s not.  I am the cancer.  I have to heal myself.

I have to admit, though, there are times when I feel downhearted.  So, dear readers, here is about the only self-pitying you will get from me, and it will be over in three minutes and forty-two seconds:

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