Many of you reading this blog post either have an established meditation practice or are considering developing one. There are an infinite variety of reasons, that we might choose to do this. Amongst these might be the wish to enhance quality of life, reduce stress and anxiety and/or to work with emotional or physical pain more skilfully. Little do we know, that when we embark on a sustained meditative practice, we are entering into a healing process. Zen teacher Henry Shukman speaks eloquently to the process of entering a mediative path and it’s healing potential:
‘All we know is that we have some kind of problem, conundrum, or quest, or unease, disquiet, angst, or whatever, and that it is driving our practice. We don’t know, and can’t know that the problem is in fact like the inverse shape, the negative space, of its own solution. The problem itself is all we need. Once we invert the process, and let our problem ‘win’ surrendering ourselves to it, it has a chance to show it’s true face – as the path of practice.’
The word ‘heal’ has it’s roots in the word ‘whole’. To heal is to recognise, and live fully into, ones innate wholeness. Warts and all. This isn’t something we do. Rather we provide the conditions within which this healing process can unfold. We set aside time to meditate. We create a space where we open to ourselves and our experience with an attitude of kindly curiosity. We rest in awareness, where the movements of ones heart – body – mind can be perceived more clearly. We get to know ourselves better. Zen master Dogen says:
‘Full moon at dawn.
I saw myself completely
No part left out.’
All is seen and known in awareness. We see when the mind is projecting into the future or ruminating about the past. We know experientially bodily/emotional sensations. Awareness can include multiple experiences at the same time. As you read this, you might notice your sitting bones touching the support below you. You might also include sounds. Awareness can receive various stimulus simultaneously. It’s open and spacious and can include everything.
Often, when people learn to meditate, they aim for a particular state of mind. This agenda gets in the way of being with experience the way it is. It’s preferential, liking this, not liking that. Meditation isn’t about getting anything, being anyone in particular, or going anywhere special. Meditating is mostly about letting-go, and letting-be. Letting-go of agendas about the future and the past, about the meditation practice itself. Letting-go can be both active and inactive. Active letting-go notices that the mind is caught in thinking and guides the attention, patiently, to the breath or some other object of meditation. Inactive letting-go is a surrender of control. It is simply being, receiving experience without needing to ‘do’ anything with it. Allowing the river of life to move through.
We rest in awareness of unfolding experience. This is what Social Scientist Stephen Stanley describes as ‘intimate distance.’ We perceive what is happening to, and through, us, without identifying or clinging to it. A common metaphor used to describe this awareness is that of an open-sky. The thoughts, emotions-bodily sensations, sounds moving through awareness like clouds. Poet, Rainer Marie Rilke puts it this way:
‘Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars.
The inner – what is it?
If not intensified sky,
hurled through with birds
and deep with the winds of homecoming.’
It’s not always easy, however. Experiences don’t always flow. Difficult, persistent thoughts, emotions-bodily sensations will at times arise. Frozen places in consciousness, habits, patterns make themselves known through bodily tensions, obsessive thoughts, tumultuous emotions. We don’t like this. We don’t want to meet these undigested, unresolved, unprocessed places in our experience. We avoid, resist, want to stop meditating. We keep ourselves busy, fearing the intimacy that slowing down and being with ourselves might bring. This may work in the short term. In the long term, it’s costly to avoid giving attention to those parts of ourselves that ‘need’ attention. The human organism seeks homeostasis and will find ways to release the pressure. This might be experienced as psychological ill health and/or psycho-somatic health conditions; migraines, allergies, anxiety, depression, to name a few. Just as water that has become stagnant attracts disease, so too does stagnant experience. It needs ventilation, movement.
‘So things clog up our whirlpool and the process gets messy. The stream needs to flow naturally and freely.
The energy of life seeks rapid transformation. If we can see life this way and not cling to anything, life simply comes and goes. When debris flows into our little whirlpool, if the flow is even and strong, the debris rushes around for a while and then goes on its way…’
The practice of meditation, is one of non-clinging. Awareness is capacious. Paradoxically, it is infinitely capacious while simultaneously providing a container in which experience can be processed, digested. Not unlike the alchemists crucible, a form within which the lead of our difficulties can be transmuted into the gold of our insight and freedom.
‘It may happen that as I soften and come into awareness I begin to notice feelings I have suppressed in my everyday life. Grief, anger, pain may arise like genies from a bottle, threatening to overwhelm me. Yet if I stay with the present moment in my body, and continue to feel it’s weight, breath and movement of sensation, what threatened to overwhelm me may slowly begin to change, transformed by tides of a richer and wider field than I had been able to see.
We can trust this process. This resting. This being in awareness. We can look to, and learn from our neighbours, the cats, dogs, birds and other creatures of the world. They know the healing power of being. They sit, rest, do nothing. Breathe.
How? When, did we stop trusting ‘earth’s intelligence’? The intelligence of this human organism? Bones made of stardust. There is mystery here…
We might consider, for example, what happens when we cut ourselves? We clean the wound. Perhaps cover it for a while and then give it air. Other than that the volitional ‘I’ is not needed. The immune system begins it’s work, blood, pus and scab. Finally, magically the skin re-weaves itself. What is that?
Perhaps we can trust that our organism knows how to heal. Just as with a physical wound, when we give it appropriate conditions, it heals itself, so too this will happen with our emotional and psychological wounds. Resting in meditative awareness, we sense, feel and know what being clogged up, being messy, is experientially like. We allow the light of awareness to slowly, gently defrost the frozen parts. We provide a space for the orphaned parts of ourselves to come home. We reclaim them, welcome them. We heal into wholeness. No part left out.
‘Enough, these few words are enough.
If not these words, this breath.
If not this breath, this sitting here.
Opening to the life, we have refused
again and again.
Note: In this blog post, I am advocating the benefits of meditation for physical, psychological and emotional healing. I do not however believe that this is the only means for undertaking this inner work. It can be equally important to engage in psychotherapy or somatic practices such as somatic experiencing. Each person will need to find the modality that works best for them.