A Koan for Practicing Together:
Sickness and medicine are in accord with each other. The whole world is medicine. What am I?
—The Blue Cliff Record, Case 87 (Yunmen)
Healing Paths – A Poem
This poem was written at a workshop for doctors when asked to describe healing. I was working at the University of Arizona at Tucson teaching mediation and poetry for the brand new program in Integrative Medicine. Andrew Weil and Tracy Gaudet ran the program.
We took people out into the Sonoran desert. One time we invited Naomi Remen who taught in the medical school at UCSF to lead a class and I sat in. She asked us to describe healing and this is what came out of me. —John Tarrant
A Healing Meditation in 2 Parts
The first is an experiential exploration of this question: a lightly guided meditation intended to last around 40 minutes. Paragraph breaks indicate periods of silence.
The second part explores the personal aspects of this question, with the assumption that a personal spiritual practice that is non-dogmatic and empirical will lead us towards cultural healing as well. This meditation is offered for those who would like an introduction to exploring the riches of the mind and its possibilities for healing. It doesn’t go into working with koans, which is one of the most reliable ways of going deep.
Part 1: Meditation
- It is always good to begin with bare attention.
- So, just check in with your body, with your heart and your mind.
- It is also good to begin meditation, if we can, without much prejudice about the current state of our being.
- It really doesn’t matter what our opinion of our life is at this moment. Life is just life. Breath is just breath.
- So, if we attend to the breath, gradually things will become clear.
It is as if the breath lays down a path for us to walk and while we attend, while we put one foot after the other, no matter what ghosts arise, no matter what hopes and despairs appear, we are free, and we are safe. This work is also companionable. We meditate with those who have followed this way in the past and those all over the world who follow it now. We just put that one foot after the other and make a path which we walk together.
Attention to the breath is simple.
If we are happy, we return to it; if we are sad, we return to it, if we are bored we return to it, if we think we are no good at meditation, we return to it. The breath sustains us and carries us. When we breathe, the world breathes. Breath is always present. We just return to it over and over again until the breath breathes us. This breath and this breath and this breath.
When we work with the breath, everything else goes dark, everything else is cut off, and concentration deepens.
Once concentration has developed a little bit, it can be good to widen it and we can do that, when we’re ready, by mindfulness. An easy way to start along the track of mindfulness is to allow the breath to lead us to what is happening in the body — where is it happy? Where does it hurt and complain? Where is it soft? Where are there hot spots? – and you can notice the states of mind and emotion that are produced by these sensations, or that just appear on their own. So you can begin to become aware of the body and the feeling states that occur naturally along with the sensations.
Mindfulness is like the breath in that we notice without judgment, without thinking anything should be another way than it is, without deciding, “This is good,” without thinking, “This is bad.” At first it is usually hard to pay attention to our emotions, but when we do it is a relief. We can just attend to the feeling of life and allow our awareness itself to be the path through its thickness and seduction. Attention itself is the elixir that dissolves our states of mind. And when one state of mind disappears, another appears, like the next bus. And we don’t need to climb onto one state of mind or avoid another. We just need the patience, tolerance and love to attend to each state as it comes up.
We keep paying attention at deeper levels and in more refined ways.
We can notice for example, whether we are drawn to a particular state or whether we push it away, whether it seems pleasant and attractive or unpleasant and repulsive. We can also notice what is usually difficult for us to notice, according to our character. Sometimes we avoid sorrow or frustration or anger. Sometimes we avoid happiness, by clinging to sorrow, frustration and anger. And there is an antique part of the psyche that just doesn’t want to notice anything. Again, patiently and with an open heart we can bring even that resolute ignorance into the field of attention and accept it, too.
Attention is close to love since to attend we have to be open, to be willing, and to let go of everything that is in the way.
We have to be willing also to have empathy, to connect with others. So towards the end of a meditation, one good thing to do is to gather the sense of love that comes along with stillness and attention — perhaps love for a particular, intimate person, whether they are alive or not — to gather that feeling and that warmth in the center of your chest.
And let it spill into your own body and into your own life; let it soften what is difficult for you to soften, and let it warm the hard, cold places. Then let that sense of warmth and good will and light go out from the center of your own chest to the person you love, even if they are far away, and to others whom you love.
Let that warmth and energy and love also go out to those with whom you have no particular connection.
Let that warmth of your heart go out also to those you have conflict with and find it hard to forgive so that the sincerity and power of your meditation may loosen some of those knots too, freeing you from your part in the conflict.
Then, let that warmth and light go out beyond people. Let it go to the trees, to the grass growing in the rain, to the waters, the deer, the crows, the fish, the oceans and cliffs. Let it go to the planet itself which sustains us and which, in turn, needs our care.
Then come back and rest in your breath, doing nothing. Let the breath and the world carry you again.
Part Two: Comments on Meditation
There is a basic foundation which spiritual work and healing rest upon.
Four essential practices are: concentration, mindfulness, loving compassion, and koans—or work with imagination. Mindfulness is interesting because it marks a transition between the meditation of turning away from the world and the meditation of including the world. So mindfulness is important for healing. In Zen tradition, mindfulness has meant that when you dig in the garden, you just dig in the garden. There is nothing but digging happening. And that way is lovely and valuable. When you’re chopping carrots in the kitchen, nothing but chopping is happening. When you’re walking, the whole universe walks. This is similar to concentration meditation if you imagine concentration without too much separation between the subject and the object. We can also bring the same kind of attention to our inner emotional states.
At first we usually notice surface effects—the ambient noise of the psyche—but if we plod along patiently in meditation this noise dies down somewhat and we then notice the bigger waves that appear. When we begin to be mindful not just of the surface effects but of the big waves that come through the psyche, we gain a little freedom. If the emotion or thought that is coming through is strong like a bull, and we become aware of that beast, our awareness itself makes a field in which the bull appears and we have a little more freedom to dodge it or to vault over it like a Minoan dancer. Through such mindfulness we can go beyond the simple awareness of digging in the garden or talking on the phone. We can come into relationship with the conditions of heart and mind. When sadness is happening, there’s just sadness, when joy is happening, the whole earth is happy.
One trap of consciousness is to identify with the animals of the mind, on the one hand, and make a prison of being angry or sad or whatever we’re feeling, a prison with reasons and history and rules for how to live sadly or angrily.
The opposite trap is to pretend that the animals of the mind don’t matter, or will go away, or that we are not experiencing pleasure, guilt, rage, and so on. If we can allow the beasts of the interior to work in us without surrendering to them, they will give us wisdom.
Awareness is all that’s needed, and as we become aware of our condition, it begins to change and we begin to see through it.
A couple of things happen next.
One is that we are enriched and so that even if we have an emotion that we thought was negative, it isn’t such a bad thing.
We’re sad and we realize, “Yeah, I’m really sad,” and somehow we feel better for that. The other thing is that we then start to see, “Well, now I’m sad; now I’m happy; now I’m angry; now I’m bored,” and we start thinking, “Well, yes, quite so,” and we are not as impressed with the ups and downs of consciousness. That is very freeing, the prison doors start to creak open. We can see through what is happening in the mind, and keep seeing through if we really watch; then mindfulness turns into the meditation of just looking, and seeing through, and questioning. A transparence appears in the world and in us. We begin to see through into the spaces between our different moments of awareness. Eventually we begin to see through to the mystery underneath the world. But at first we don’t need to seek out that kind of depth. If we just start with noticing and being aware, then the method will take us a long, long way. Meditation is an empirical path. So as long as we pay attention to what is happening, meditation itself will teach meditation.
Another useful proposition is that it is important to be mindful with an open heart.
I think this naturally comes from mindfulness, but mindfulness, like anything else, can be done in a rigid and puritanical manner, in which you might try to manufacture a particular state of mind. Meditation with a closed heart doesn’t heal or open anything and also we’re not much fun to be around when we’re like that. If our hearts are warm, our equanimity is connected to life and we accept its gifts. And so, even if pain comes up in its many forms — acts we’re ashamed of, memories of deep hurt, feelings of betrayal, despair over the way the body seems to fail us — awareness without blame brings a grace to those moments. And that is close to the core of meditation: to have the generosity to say, “Well, this, too, is my life” and not get completely bowled over by either the awful stuff we’ve done or the awful stuff other people have done or the even more awful combination of the two, which is called being human.
So mindfulness allows gravitas, the intelligent weight of being.
We can work in the garden or at the keyboard or on the phone or in a hospital and be pretty good at attending and be pretty good at following our breath, but then an emotion will come up and at that moment we’ll throw all our training out the window. The good move here is to continue to attend instead of being overwhelmed. We can notice that emotion just the way we’d notice an owl high on a eucalyptus branch in daylight and with noticing comes a shock of surprise and interest. If this happens we have a little space and freedom — we can welcome even the painful states when they come on.
Very often we work with stories about how we’re not doing it right and we’re not good enough, which is the depressive story.
The paranoid form of that delusion is that is they’re not doing it right and they’re not good enough. This happens a lot when we have noble projects like healing. We like to ascribe our inevitable failures to these causes. But failure is just failure. There are many things that we don’t know, and failure is just the announcement of that truth. To allow it gracefully and compassionately is one the true arts of life.
Over and over again we’ll find that we have some great idea and great project going and it would really work if it weren’t for people who get in the way.
I have a friend; a physician who teaches physicians and writes. I called her to talk about a design project I was involved with, saying “I’d like to talk to you about those weird elements that creep in whenever we try to do something good for the world.” In a couple of hours I received a voicemail that started out with laughter, and it said, “Those weird elements are called human beings.” And she is right. So those strange, obstructive elements are ourselves, really. Whatever we can’t forgive in another is a little spot of ice in our own heart that stops us from connecting.
To work with this weirdness, the quality of compassion in meditation is crucial.
In the meditation we just did, we moved from the method of mindfulness into a brief meditation of compassion. That compassion meditation is structured and at first not to everybody’s taste because if some of us are asked to be loving and warm, we tend to have the opposite reaction and start grumbling to ourselves. So the cultivation of compassion is offered here as a concentration meditation, like the breath. It is valuable because it emphasizes warmth and the possibility of connecting with something greater than our small views. It also points out that in the healing work there is a natural motion from mindfulness to compassion.
It is also helpful, even though it may seem at first utterly selfish, to accept that we need compassion for ourselves, too.
You always begin the compassion meditation by allowing some of that generosity to touch yourself. There are classical sources for this, in very old Tibetan manuals, for example. The rationale is that if we’re jumping over our own experience, if we’re not practicing what we’re trying to give to others, we can’t give it very well. If we are unkind to our own souls, it will be hard to respect others and we are likely to project onto them those fragments of ourselves that we cannot yet bear.
It is obviously good to love those we love, and to appreciate them.
I think it is at least intellectually obvious that it is good to try to find compassion for those we have difficulty with. This can be a hard thing and we are not asked to succeed in every instance. Yet we are asked to contemplate the possibility, to have a shot at it. And it is a most interesting thing. What if I didn’t have my grudge about Bill or Jill or whomever? What if I didn’t hold my opinions about them — how they are blocking my project or how they don’t like me.
What if I didn’t think my circumstances or my disease was preventing me from being overwhelmed by the beauty of life? I wonder what would happen then? To let go of our grudges is as freeing as letting go of our unfavorable opinions of ourselves.
And then, of course, there is a natural movement in meditation to have compassion for creatures that are not human.
In the Zen Bodhisattva Vow, we vow to waken all beings — not just people in our immediate families and those who swear allegiance to the same flag. The cicadas, the crickets, the summer doves in the cactus, the mesquite, the oak and the swollen winter rivers. Here the love of one aspect of life leads us to a greater generosity in which we see that the rivers, the wind and the hills are intimately linked with our own hearts. They are my body, my fingers and my toes, and that is a lovely thing.
The greatest transparency is at the same time, the greatest love. I need to look after the earth and its creatures just the way I look after my body and my fingers and my toes
Audio & Video Dharma Talks
Vimalakirti and his daughter, Moon-Like Beauty, on Sickness and Medicine: with Allison Atwill Roshi, recorded 2019.
A panel discussion on Sickness and Medicine with PZI Teachers, as recorded in 2017: John Tarrant, Allison Atwill, Rachel Boughton & David Weinstein.
Two crows fight over a frog. What does this bring up about our lives, illnesses, preoc-cupations? John Tarrant, recorded 2017.