There is a Zen story which opens an avenue of inquiry into the location of the source of suffering and sanity. What is it that creates illness? What is it that heals? What is the golden thread, the continuum that unites the various experiences of healing in Western and nonwestern cultures?
Many years ago, a monk in a very famous Zen monastery in Japan was struggling with his meditation practice. His problem was that each time that he sat, he saw and was threatened by a giant spider. After experiencing much anxiety and losing much sleep, he finally decided to kill the creature. As he was walking toward the meditation hall with a big knife in his hand, his teacher saw him and asked what he was intending to do. The young man explained his plight and told the Zen master of his plan.
The Zen master listened attentively and recommended a strategy to the young monk. He told him to first get his calligraphy brush and carefully paint a cross on the spider's belly. He then instructed the monk to put the knife into the intersection of the cross the following day. The monk entered the meditation hall with his brush and ink. When the spider appeared, he carefully painted its belly. Feeling quite satisfied, he bowed and left the zendo to discover on the front of his robes a huge painted X. His laughter was heard everywhere.
In the case of this monk, he had placed his monster somewhere outside of himself. In the case of another, the monster well could appear within. In the practice of mindfulness, we are encouraged to notice that the mind has a strong tendency to create love and hate, birth and death, sickness and sanity, even monsters and magic. It is taught by culture and society to play hide and seek with itself, a game of forgetfulness in the constant flow of the diversionary activity of thinking mind, feelings, and physical sensations, pleasant, unpleasant and neutral.
These obsessions or fixations drive us into patterns of greater or lesser suffering and illness that are difficult to escape from. In Buddhism and shamanism, one is trained in the art of lucidity, of awareness, of mindfulness. This cultivation of awareness is rooted in the ground of motivation or intent. This is where healing begins, and this is where suffering begins to cease. Ultimately, the experience of intent needs to be completely penetrating for the body/mind to reorganize itself out of its pattern of suffering.
The unfolding of intent occurs within the experience of the individual becoming genuinely familiar with the content and movement of the mind. In Buddhism, this can arise through the practice of meditation, the practice of mindfulness. In meditation practice we discover that there are realms that open for us as practice mind develops.
In entering the zendo, we have chosen to be physically still and silent. We have left the activity of our ordinary lives and are in voluntary seclusion. From one point of view, entering the zendo and entering the hospital are not so very different. In both cases, a cure to suffering is sought. But like the Native American apprentice who prays for vision on the mountaintop, the meditator chooses sacred seclusion. The hospital patient, however, frequently has not made that choice consciously. Rather, illness has made it necessary to withdraw from ordinary life. Yet in each case, there is withdrawal from the activities and social domain of daily life and a retreat into solitude.
In the experience of practice, we begin to quiet ourselves, to calm ourselves. We see that this calm and clear state is one which we hope to realize. We usually discover, however, that we are neither calm nor clear. In stopping our usual activity, we notice how the relentless flow of the mind drives us. Through the experience of stilling and calming we begin to get a glimmer of the nature of change, of impermanence. Later through physically stilling ourselves, we become internally quieter as our capacity for self-observation deepens.
The next realm of practice begins to open as we continue to sit through the question of intent. When we have ceased to wrestle with time and have approached the border of accepting the usefulness of "non-doing, the spaciousness of patience begins to open before us. As we accept and surrender to practice, we also begin to accept our own suffering and in deeper states of absorption, our deaths. In the experience of healing, the surrender to pain, the surrender to sickness, the surrender to suffering is often the route through it. Also, here one can experience the surrender to healer and teacher. Through the experience of surrender, we begin to work more concretely with impermanence. We accept practice as a way to approach positively the experience of change. One student noted, "change is inevitable; growth is optional." Accepting practice as medicine to cure suffering and intending practice to foster pure understanding, pure awareness opens the way for these conditions to actually happen.
One of the most important effects of mindfulness practice is that it can produce a synchronization of mind and body through the union of breath and awareness, and then of mind and body with reality. Here we find strong evidence of the golden thread that unites healing methods of all types. It has been repeatedly observed that illness and suffering in general flow through the gap in the mind/body relationship. When there is no synchronization of mind, body, and the outside world, when there is an absence of the awareness of the interconnectedness of inside with outside and the consequentiality of causes, the experience of alienation pervades the mind.
The meditator deepens concentration through a more vivid connection with practice. The observer becomes one with breath, with fewer mental diversions arising. The body and mind ride the ebb and flow of breath. The mind and body begin to recognize each other; they have long been partners but turned their backs on each other a long time ago. The mind began to push the body about like an animal trainer who does not consider the well-being of his or her charge. The body's desire or aversion set began to create patterns of craving or dislike in the mind. The reunion between body and mind is sewn then with the thread of breath in the light of concentration. This realm of mindfulness practice thus opens the experience of synchronization or harmonization of mind and body with the world.
The next realm of practice that relates to the experience of insight, of realization, or understanding. Until now, the mind has been ruled by conditions. When the mind's capacity for discernment awakens, it is possible to perceive, to realize, to understand directly. In the case of healing, realization of the source of illness, its purpose and cure arises when the culturally conditioned mind has lost its grip on the deeper mindfield. Understanding and reorganization of entrenched patterns can thus occur through conditionless cognition, or direct perception. This is the experience of "stopping the world" or stopping the mind. The mind here is still for change. In shamanism, this is called "seeing." In Buddhism, this is called mindfulness.
Mindfulness practice takes on a social dimension when the meditator sees clearly the suffering of the world. In Mahayana Buddhism, there is a great emphasis on doing what is correct not only for oneself but also for others. The well-known promise "I vow to attain enlightenment in order to save all sentient beings from suffering" becomes a reference point in the direction of sanity for the Buddhist. This aspect of practice takes us into the market place. The emphasis here is on the experience of engagement. Here we find healers, shamans, teachers, and peacemakers, those who have made a commitment to transforming social institutions that are fostering disease and helping individuals, cultures and environments that are suffering. Engagement practice indicates that we have developed the capacity to act with complete appropriateness in the face of all eventualities and to work with each moment in an enlightened way.
In Zen, we often hear, "when you are hungry, eat; when you are tired, sleep!" Only do what is correct and necessary. This is being in harmony with the world. When we have wrestled with the enemies of our own lives and minds, making them allies, we then have the potential to befriend the enemies of the world. This is called reconciliation. This is called peace. Mindfulness then needs to be in the field of social as well as personal action. It is the ground where compassion is born. This compassion is not the self-aggrandizing messianic form of saviorism. It is sober and even ruthless, precise and economical. It is context sensitive and aware of consequences. Often it is invisible. and this leads us to the ultimate realm to be realized in practice, that of secret practice. Here we have fully realized ordinary mind, ordinary life. Mind, body, reality have become one. Big Mind penetrates each moment, each thing.No obstacle, no enlightenment, no death, no big deal.
In conclusion, mindfulness is seen as the golden thread or the substrate of healing. It is viewed in fact as synonymous with healing. The word "heal" comes from the same root as whole and holy. Disease and suffering arise from a mind that is divided by passion, hatred and confusion. To be healed means to have been restored to one's Original Nature where mind, body, and the world are one. Joan Halifax, Ph.D., is an anthropologist who has worked with shamans and healers the world over. She is President of The Ojai Foundation and one of the founders of The Foundation School. She is author of Shamanic Voices and Shaman, the Wounded Healer, and co-author of The Human Encounter with Death. She is a practicing Buddhist.