Thursday, April 5, 2007

being awake and healing

I am often asked about how to use meditation and Buddhist practice to heal old wounds. The question reflects a misunderstanding.

In Buddhism, our intention is to be present in what arises in experience. Healing is often a side-effect of that presence, or a side-effect of the practices we do in order to be present, but it's not the objective. You may think this is hair-splitting, but it's actually quite important. When we are focused on healing, we are inevitably concerned with a result, a goal, and the goal-orientation introduces an appraisal of experience that takes us out of direct experience.

Rather than working toward healing, our effort is to trust what we are. To echo Suzuki Roshi, "Our practice is about absolute confidence in our fundamental nature." I've come to appreciate the depth of this sentence more and more over the years. Absolute confidence in what we are! Then, as Uchiyama Roshi says, "we have neither a need to be swayed by someone or something we think exists outside ourselves nor do we long for things that we project as pbeing apart from ourselves."

From a practice point of view, the key is not to harden when difficult or painful experiences arise. The moment we harden, we have set "I" against "it" and are reinforcing whatever conditioning is generating the difficulty. Thus, Thich Naht Hanh's advice about holding difficult or painful feelings tenderly in attention. Sometimes, this feels like letting the feelings scream while you hold them in attention, not trying to remedy them, control them, make them go away, or change them.

Working with difficult feelings, I've found, is best done for short periods, so attention is active and awake. Too long an exposure and we inevitably fall into conditioning. Hence, the old meditation adage "Short sessions, but many of them". Touch into the feelings for a few moments, then relax, return to the breath, then touch into them again, staying with them awake and present rather than fighting with them.

None of this is easy. Simple and easy are not synonyms. We will fall down again and again, not trusting the open clear awareness that is what we are, not being able to just experience old wounds and pains. But we pick ourselves up, dust off our clothes, patch the skinned knees, and keep going. After all, this is what the word practice means. It's not a test, it's not a contest -- it's our life.