Mystery and Mindfulness
When I started my own meditation practice, I was young and physically healthy but in great internal, that is mental and emotional, pain. The teachings on paying attention in the present moment with a kind curious attitude, were fairly simple to experiment with and implement, and offered an almost immediate interruption in my repetitive painful thoughts. That gave me some relief. I didn’t know exactly what was happening. I noticed that when I focused on what was right in front of me- chopping carrots, feeling my feet while walking, I got a bit of peace and was able to put the thoughts down, even for a little while. This led to actually sitting still and feeling my breath (meditation). Which led to meditation retreats and working closely with a Zen teacher.
Meanwhile my work was the practice of medicine as a Physician Assistant. I was constantly in contact with human suffering, both physically and emotionally. I was introduced to the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn through a PBS special which took Bill Moyers and a group of patients through an eight week program based on Meditation and Yoga and education in stress physiology and mindfulness as a way to manage stress more effectively and without the side effects of the things we usually use, like over eating, drinking, overwork, just to name a few. I was excited about offering this to my patients in my community and at my local hospital. In order to do this, I became very well informed about the science and research on the health benefits of mindfulness, so I could- first of all- know them for my own development, and secondly to present it to Physicians and psychologists and patients so they might engage in the program. At that time no one where I lived had heard of Mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn or even meditation. Yoga was done by young bendy healthy people, but not the older folks suffering from a variety of illnesses who I saw in my medical practice. So to put it bluntly- I had to “sell mindfulenss” with Power Point presentations, full of graphs and pie charts. I mean the research was impressive. But the real research is what happens in the fascinating laboratory of one’s own body, mind and heart.
When I started teaching, I started seeing things in the classroom that did not fit in with the research or have any scientific explanation… In this way the students became my teachers.
One powerful lesson came from a participant named Jack. Jack was referred by a pain specialist colleague of mine. He had terrible back pain and was on multiple medications as well as trying various procedures and yet he was still in pain.
What I learned in the first class was there was a lot more going on than the degenerative discs in his back. He had had a long career as a homicide detective, and when he retired from that, he was prison guard. He had years of being exposed to a very dark aspect of life and humanity. But what was really on his mind which he shared at the first class, was his tremendous grief over the loss of both his wife and son to cancer who both died in the last few years.
He showed up every week, did all the practices, and sat quietly through the discussion portions with his arms crossed over his chest. I didn’t really know how he was doing.
Then came the daylong retreat which is part of every Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program. This retreat comes after the 6th week of an eight week program. It is a seamless day of practice done in silence (except for the teacher of course). Jack also showed up for the all day retreat. At the end of the day, we have a time for gently coming out of silence and then whole group sharing. This day, Jack was eager and willing to share. He said, “Something happened today. I remembered that there is goodness in the world. You all are such good people.” He began to cry and smile at the same time. “I love all of you. I love you. I forgot about the goodness of people.” He continued to repeat this for a while through sobs and smiles.
For the final two weeks, Jack was a changed man and every class he told everyone that he loved us. At the end he happened to mention that he was also off all of pain medications almost as a casual aside. Of course I was new to teaching and was eager for that kind of feedback, concrete measurable things I could know and tell my colleagues. But I was deeply moved and mystified by what had transformed Jack. It happened many years ago, and I have never forgotten it. Jack lives in my heart. I can feel his “I love you” to this very day.
What he validated was what the Buddha taught, which is that we are already intrinsically wise and whole and essentially good. But, he said, “We don’t see it because of our upside down views”. Somehow when we meditate and when we bring the mind back to what is here and now, these upside down views are turned aright. Despite terrible conditions, we can find our way back to our hearts and feel this boundless love that Jack taught us all about.