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

Share

Wavelessness

Zhao De wrote, “If water is still enough, everything is reflected clearly.  If mind is calm, then wisdom grows.”

A key goal in the practice of Buddhist meditation is to develop a calm mind.  We call the practice mindfulness but mindfulness is also a state of mind.  And calmness does not mean absolute stillness.  There is movement in calmness.  According to the T’ai Shang Ch’ing-ching Ching (“Cultivating Stillness”), a text attributed to Lao Tzu, “Movement is the foundation of stillness.”

Sometimes we engage in metaphor:  Still water is our mind.  The stillness of the water is disturbed when the wind blows and makes waves.  Waves are our sufferings.  The nature of water is stillness, while the nature of waves is movement.

When we gaze upon a calm sea, we see that the surface is tranquil, smooth, waveless.  Because there is no surface movement to distort the reflection, in still water we see a clear reflection of things as they are.  A calm mind reflects the world without distortion.  In addition, this mind does not try to seize and cling to everything it sees, and when there are waves, it is not smashed by their impact.

You know the theory:  If a person’s mind is profoundly still, he or she becomes aware of their true nature and the real aspect of things.  Like still water, when the mind is calm it sends back a clear image of the non-duality of the world, and we discover that a wave is not separate from water; it is water, in movement.  It’s a rather obvious conclusion but remember water and waves are metaphors.

In meditation practice, to develop this non-dual realization fully, we consider the mind to be water and sufferings as waves, and we meditate to become waveless.

Being present in the moment, mindfulness is wavelessness.

Being aware, of course, that movement is also present.

A certain sage from Texas maintains that “Still is still moving to me.”

Share

PBS Mindfulness Goes Mainstream

A few nights ago, I watched a new PBS documentary Mindfulness Goes Mainstream.  The program explores the spreading mindfulness movement and the transformative power of mindfulness practice.  It features remarks from such people as singer Jewel, journalist Dan Harris, “mindfulness” pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, Don Siegel,  Jack Kornfield, and clothing designer Eileen Fisher.

Viewers will learn about how many different sectors of our society are embracing mindfulness.  For instance, the NBA, NFL, corporate America, US Marine Corp, and law enforcement.  There’s also a nice summary about the scientific evidence behind mindfulness benefits.

The modern mindfulness movement has received criticism for being a diluted form of Buddhist meditation.  I am more or less in agreement with this, and yet, I find it hard to disparage the idea of so many diverse groups learning to calm their minds.  Police officers using mindfulness to resist anger and stress seems a very positive thing.   I am inclined to agree with Dan Harris who remarked, “I do believe that if you get a broad enough swath of people to do this it has the potential to change the way we are as a society.”

It did bother me that the program did not once mention the Buddha, Buddhism or dharma.  I feel that a sort of creative commons license applies to mindfulness and other aspects of the teachings – you are free to use any portion you like as long as you attribute it to Buddha-dharma.

And while I’m all in favor of corporate America getting mindful, I do wonder if the real purpose isn’t just to make more productive employees.  To me, they have some warped notions.  One person, Chade-meng Tan, former “Jolly Good Fellow” at Google, talked about mindfulness in corporate American and made the argument that compassion leads to better business.  He said, “The way to do that is align compassion with success and profit.”

Right.  Two values the Buddha routinely affirmed were success and profit.  So, here is one of the possible dangers of mindfulness sans Buddhism, distortion.  What is intended to dispel illusion because a creator of illusion.

Another problem I had with the program was that the filmmakers seemed to oversell the practice. Several time they tell viewers that mindfulness can change “every aspect of your life.”  And in as little as 2-8 weeks.  While studies have shown that short periods of exposure to mindfulness practice can produce neurobiological changes, improve concentration, reduce stress, and so on; to change every aspect of your life, to affect lasting change in how we think and feel and how we deal with persistent life tendencies, takes patience and a real commitment to the practice.

Mindfulness Goes Mainstream is the kind of show you’ll find on 20/20 or Dateline NBC.  It struck me as representative of the mindfulness craze itself.  Kind of lightweight.  However, to be fair, it was a lot of ground to cover in one hour.  Viewers would be better served if each segment of the show were a 30-60 minute episode.

Watch it if you’re looking for a pleasant way to kill some time.  You may be encouraged by some of the personal stories.  But if you’d like a more detailed and realistic explanation of mindfulness, you would be better off reading a book like Henepola Gunaratana’s Mindfulness in Plain English.  The first chapter of the book begins with these words:

“Meditation is not easy.  It takes time and it takes energy.  It also takes grit, determination and discipline.  It  requires  a  host  of  personal  qualities  which  we  normally  regard  as unpleasant  and  which  we  like  to  avoid  whenever  possible.  We can sum it all up in the American word ‘gumption’.  Meditation takes ‘gumption’.  It is certainly a great deal easier just to kick back and watch television.”

Share

Dalai Lama in the USA, Prayer, and Meditation

Tenzin Gyatsu, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet is in the United States this week to give teachings and public talks in six cities, including Westminster here in Southern California.  He met privately with President Obama today.

1139bMonday, the Washington Post published an opinion by the Dalai Lama, “Why I’m Hopeful About the World’s Future”.  In the piece, he wrote, “It is not enough simply to pray. There are solutions to many of the problems we face; new mechanisms for dialogue need to be created, along with systems of education to inculcate moral values. These must be grounded in the perspective that we all belong to one human family and that together we can take action to address global challenges.”

Also on Monday, speaking at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, the Buddhist leader asked the audience to observe a moment of silence for victims of the deadliest mass shooting in US history:

“Yesterday, very serious tragedy, Orlando. So let us some silent prayer, OK . . . Although, one Buddhist monk grows quite skeptical about the effects of prayer.”  He added that serious action, such as non-violent conflict resolution was the key to affecting real change.  “Then on top of that, some prayer is OK, no harm.”

This is not the first time the Dalai Lama has expressed skepticism about the power of prayer.  Responding to the terror attacks in Paris last November, he said, “We cannot solve this problem only through prayers.  I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying.  But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it.  It is illogical.  God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

It is difficult to tell from brief remarks if there has been a significant change in the Dalai Lama’s thinking – as he says above he believes in praying, and in the past, he has often been enthusiastic about the idea of prayer (see this) – or whether the message is essentially that prayer alone is not sufficient.  I’ve long been skeptical about the value of prayer myself and feel torn about its inclusion in Buddhist practice.

The initial definition of prayer is “petition.”  Prayer comes from Latin prex or précis, meaning “to ask”, which, interestingly, has a Sanskrit root, pracch that also means “to ask.”

The Buddha did not teach his followers to pray, and it seems he was rather pessimistic about prayer.  He was critical of the religious rites of the Brahmins, rejecting the authority of the priestly class to stand as intermediaries between ordinary people and the “divine.” But at the same time, the Buddha did not admonish the people for their religious ideas and practices.  He did not endorse prayer; he did not openly oppose it either.  As usual, the Buddha took a middle path.  We are to assume that he did not adopt this position out of some kind of political correctness but rather it was an unfolding of wisdom.

I’ve used prayer to augment meditation, but more like reciting aloud the Four Bodhisattva Verses or verses from Shantideva.  Reciting the Metta Sutta or Heart Sutra can be forms of prayers.  Prayer is related to meditation but I don’t see it as equivalent.

DalaiLamaInMeditationMeditation is method-oriented.  The efficacy of the various ways of meditation is in calming the mind, realizing inner peace, and awakening our inherent inner potential for compassion and wisdom.  As the Dalai Lama said the other day, “Genuine peace must come from inner peace.”  Meditation is about change.  Within the framework of a non-theistic practice, I am not sure about the usefulness of prayer.

Prayer is not a necessary part of the process of mental exercise as taught in the [Buddhist] tradition. We discuss these matters in completely different terms . . . We don’t regard the Buddha as universal spirit, or self as universal self, or personal self. We don’t discuss things in those terms. We don’t have any power beyond dhamma. Dhamma means things as they really are . . . That genuine knowledge . . . can be used to improve our condition.”

– Wadawala Seelawimala, professor at the Institute for Buddhist Studies and the Graduate Theological Seminary in Berkeley

Share

What the Mind Carries

On September 10, 1950, exactly 65 years ago today, Beat nomad Neal Cassady composed a letter to future Beat chronicler Jack Kerouac. He wrote from the engine of a train and shared with his friend his thoughts about becoming more absorbed by the landscape and the people he saw, noting:

neal-jack-01cNow, eyeball kicks are among the world’s greatest, second to none actually in terms of abstract thought, because it is thru the way you handle these kicks that is what determines your particular conclusion (in abstraction in the mind) to each moments outlook . . .

One’s mind carries at all times the pressure of its own existence, and remembers previous eyeball views to recall what its previous life has been & feeding on this stuff, carries a heavy understanding of things it is capable of knowing & this knowing is blocked from coming out, because while one’s mind carries one’s life’s past constantly, it also carries before it all day the world which comes in thru the eyeball.” *

It was Cassady who, in a roundabout way, was responsible for stimulating Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism, but in 1950 I don’t think either of them knew much about it, and anyway Cassady never got into it like Kerouac did. Nevertheless, Cassady’s thinking in this passage seems to me rather dharmic.

Vision (“eyeball kicks”) is not free from conceptual or abstract thinking and how we think about what we see dictates to a large degree our view in each moment. This is true for the practice of mindfulness as well, because when we meditate we are not completely liberated from our senses.  Not to mention that meditation is “seeing” with the inner eyeball.

Additionally, we are not separated from the past or future while we are in the “present moment.” When discussing Buddhist meditation, particularly mindfulness, we are fond of saying that the aim is to let go of the past and have no anticipation for the future. Certainly, we wish to release our attachment to the past and not obsess about things to come, but actually the past is always present, and in each moment and with each thought we shape the future.

In meditation, we center ourselves in the present by focusing attention upon some object, often our breath. Nyanaponika Thera, in his book The Heart of Buddhism Meditation, wrote

If there is any further interest in the object, or if its impact on the senses is sufficiently strong, closer attention will be directed towards details . . . This will enable the mind to compare the present perception with similar ones recollected from this past . . . This stage marks a very important step in mental development . . . It also shows us the close and constant connection between the functions of memory and attention (or mindfulness), and will thereby explain why in Pali, the language of the [early] Buddhist scriptures, both these mental functions are expressed by the one word sati.”

[Sati is a Pali word we translate as “mindfulness.”]

We can take this further to say that meditation involves not only the recollection of past perceptions but also past experiences. I think at times some folks are so focused on “letting go,” another phrase we are very fond of, that it becomes escapism.  Perhaps we need to let go of this idea of letting go. Without the past there is no present, so we have to deal with it to develop ourselves. And rather than letting go of sufferings we should embrace them, for without suffering we could never know happiness.

I was making up all kinds of sayings as I went along. I was started on my new life with my new equipment: a regular Don Quixote of tenderness. In the morning I felt exhilarated and meditated first thing and made up a little prayer: ‘I bless you, all living things, I bless you in the endless past, I bless you in the endless present, I bless you in the endless future, amen.’”

Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

– – – – – – – – – –

* Neal Cassady, The First Third, City Lights Books, 1971, 196

Graphic based on the 1952 photo taken by Carolyn Cassady

Share