Does it work?
Not infrequently, when I am teaching a mindfulness based stress reduction class, someone will say, “I tried it”, (meaning mindfulness of breathing perhaps ),” during a stressful moment, and it worked”. Or “I tried it to go to sleep” (or to relieve my pain) “and it didn’t work.” At this point I may ask, “what does that mean to you- that it worked or didn’t work?’ The answer often lies in whether a symptom or a feeling went away. It also suggests that a particular outcome was desired, and there may have been a certain striving for that out come. Meanwhile other things that may have been occurring go unnoticed.
As we continue to look at this working/not working idea together, I may point out how tremendously significant it was that in the middle of the family dinner, when their stomach cramped up-as it usually does during such events, that they excused themselves , went into another room and tried the body scan meditation. Or that instead of lying awake thinking about how terrible tomorrow is going to be with out sleep, they tried bringing attention to the body in the bed and the breath. Simply the act of trying something different is itself the healing act. The outcome may be more subtle. Or is the outcome the choice to try it in the first place? When I suggest that making a different choice is itself revolutionary, I am often met with an expression of confusion mixed with a pleased sort of delight.
We’re used to thinking very linearly when it comes to our difficulties. The medical model functions in part on the basic idea that a symptom is a sign that something is broken and needs to be fixed (rather than understood at its source). As I’ve heard people say the philosophy is, “for every ill there is a pill.”
I had a vivid reminder of the subtle mystery of healing that may be going on when we practice mediation, myself recently. I had been feeling ill for about three weeks, trying different modalities, and not really seeing much improvement. The opportunity to attend a short retreat at my local Zen Center –Yokoji Zen Mountain Center (where I have practiced for years), arose, so I packed a bag, rolled up my sleeping bag and drove up the mountain.
During retreat we sit in three thirty minute blocks broken by ten minute periods of walking meditation. The first period, I primarily focused on how rotten I was feeling and my mind kept wandering to problem solving. : “maybe it’s this, maybe I should try that. Maybe a different acupuncturist. Maybe try eliminating something from my diet…” On and on with occasional return trips to the present moment of just sitting. I then moved to judging. “I’m not meditating, I’m just resisting how I feel, ‘what we resist persists’ didn’t I hear that some where? I should not resist. Just allow…” Thankfully the bell rang about then and I engaged in the walking meditation.
The next period, I abandoned my body entirely and moved up into my head. A fevered period of intense planning ensued. Before I knew it the bell went off. I did get an insight this time; I saw that often my discomfort in the present – whether it’s physical or emotional, will send me off into the imaginary future, seeking refuge in something that may never happen, but seems like it will be better. Still, was this meditation? I think not!
I stood up to walk before the next period, and looked out the window at the trees outside the meditation hall. I saw the large granite boulders, and heard the wind, and the blue jay’s squawking. Suddenly this thought arose as clear as the meditation bell ; “God I love this.” I laughed out loud. All the while I was suffering, thinking, planning, resisting and judging, something in me was practicing. A deeper part was actually “just sitting”, “Just seeing, hearing, feeling, breathing.” And something in me was settling, letting go, and simply being.
Perhaps underneath the current maladies, the layer of worry and discomfort, was the years and years of coming to the Zen center or to my cushion at home. Something that knows that in the flash of a single moment “I love this” is going on. Something in me is just sitting, even when on one level it seems that I’m doing it so badly and it’s “not working”.
The following periods were a bit quieter inside. The work periods, chopping vegetables and washing dishes with monks in silence were sweet. Walking down the road and resting on a break was peaceful. Listening to the dharma talk by Tenshin Roshi before we left on Sunday was engaging and enlightening. And for reasons unknown to me, later, when I drove down the dirt road towards home, I felt entirely well.
Please join us for our annual mindfulness meditation and yoga retreat in Southern California. this July 18-20