Friday, November 29, 2013

Healing and the Three Jewels

I am healing. (Aren't we all?) I am in this space of experiencing my body in an entirely different way, of relating to my world with new perspective. Though I have spent the past 7 or so years of my life as a student of yoga, holistic health, and meditation, learning about what it means to heal, the questions that arise for me after my recent stroke are closer to home. Dancing so closely with the sharp blade of impermanence- of my own mortality- has deepened my query into what it means to heal.

The first thing I contemplate is the space in which one heals- the specific tools or belief systems that one works with in order to facilitate healing. And at this point I'm feeling like "healing" is actually just "living" because we are all suffering and all working with that suffering. So perhaps I should say that the space I'm thinking about is the space in which one "lives" most usefully.

My own space is shaped by my relationship to the practice of Buddhism. In Buddhism, we talk about the Three Jewels. These are the things we look to for guidance. They are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Three Jewels are my foundation for how I relate to my life and my own healing process. Without these, I feel I would not be doing so well in the current circumstances.

The Buddha is the awakened one. By awake we mean fully realized- fully understanding of the nature of mind, of the truth of that nature. The Buddha of course refers to the historical Buddha of 2500 years ago, the teacher who presented to us the path to awakenment. The Buddha is also our own awakened nature. Each person possesses this nature already. Awakenment or enlightenment is not some place we must arrive at in the future. It is not a destination out of our reach. Rather, it is the already present state of our being. All we have to do is touch it. The path, in that light, teaches us how. But just knowing that we possess inherent wisdom, inherent wakefulness, basic goodness, fundamental worthiness, and primordial potential changes things. It allows us to cultivate confidence and compassion.

I am fundamentally okay. 
There is nothing wrong. There is nothing bad or lacking in my experience. Illness is not an intruder that one should fight away. Illness is a natural part of having a human body. Just like old age and death. Bodies get sick; they get old; they die. And that's okay. We can relax about that because fighting it won't make it go away. We can experience these things as part of our whole human life. And beneath all of that, we possess a primordial worthiness and potency as humans. This ability to connect and create and relate and love is ours, and it is beyond any imposed idea of being bad or somehow sinful by our very nature. We are so very okay.

The Dharma is the body of teachings offered by the Buddha. It is the path to enlightenment. It is the framework for how we come to the place of being able to understand our own nature. How do we work with suffering? How do we find equanimity? How do we cultivate compassion? These teachings are rich and relevant, and allow us to relax in our world in order to experience the nature of things as they are. The potency of the path is that it can clarify confusion so that confusion may dawn as wisdom.

It's okay not to know.
Uncertainty can be uncomfortable. We want so badly to pin things down- to have reasons and explanations and to-do lists and sets of rules with predetermined outcomes. But let's be real- nothing is certain. We can do everything in our power to make something specific happen, but there's still no guarantee. There could be a tornado, or we could die, or the BART could stop running, or our car could not start. So when we relax about trying to control our outcomes, we can find peace in things as they are. We just experience what is happening now without trying to push that experience into a box. During my hospital stay, it was so amusing to see how different people reacted to what was happening with me. There were basically two approaches. Some of my friends would come in or call and say things like "How are you doing?" "How do you feel?" and then just hang out there with me in whatever was happening- noticing the quality of it and appreciating it. The other group would come in or call and immediately diagnose me "Oh, it's got to be because you are vegan. I read this article about vegans getting more strokes, so you're going to have to change your diet." Or "It's because you meditate and blood clots get formed in your legs" or it was because I do yoga, or don't do the right exercise, or am not on this or that diet, or I live in California- or, well, you get the idea. Then they would immediately fill the space with going down every single possible avenue for future action. This is exhausting! And it would stir up so much fear (in both of us). And while it's certainly necessary to think about the future, it's ridiculous to have this fear-based relationship to it. Guess what? There is no way I'll ever know just precisely what were the causes and conditions of my stroke. There are far too many subtleties in my body- in my life- to ever be able to pin it down like that. The doctors are only making educated guesses themselves. And as far as the future is concerned- I can't predict it. I'm okay with that. It's okay to not know. It's liberating, actually.

Lean into discomfort.
 This is about resistance, too. Our suffering is brought about more by our resistance to an experience than by the experience itself.  Whether it's fear or physical pain, pushing it away only makes it worse. I've been working with lots of both. The pain and discomfort and weird sensations in my body are very uncomfortable these days. But the less I fight, the more my experience changes. When I am in pain, I breathe into the place where it hurts. I meet the pain. I notice its qualities, how it moves, what it invites in my mind. And the more I am present with it, the more I notice that it is not a solid thing at all. It is a series of sensations and concepts- a twinge here, a tingling there, something dull that ebbs and flows, or something sharp that eventually releases. This kind of curiosity about our experiences can allow a lot of space for being okay. Same thing with fear. We can't obsess over the stories that the fear is telling us: "Ah, I'm going to have to have open heart surgery!" (They are all just stories, anyway.) Instead, we can examine the nature of fear. What does it feel like? Where is it in my body? Is there something underneath it? Sadness? Anger? What am I actually afraid of? The more curious I am with fear, the more it becomes less solid as well. It's not this sturdy thing called fear. It's a fluid set of sensations, thoughts, and concepts that changes all the time. Releasing ourselves from the sticky constructs of ideas allows so much freedom to feel what we feel. That's the other thing- it's okay to feel whatever we feel. We don't have to not feel it just because we are supposed to be peaceful or brave or some other way. In fact, willingness to feel how we feel is the most brave thing we can do. And it cultivates the most peace.

Every moment is an opportunity to practice.
We can approach the peaks and valleys of life as precious opportunities. Whether we are experiencing the bliss of falling in love or the pain of loss of a loved one, we can learn from our experience. We can be curious. We can pay attention to the experience. We can let go of the multitudes of stories we tell ourselves so that we can actually be present. "This will last forever," "This person is causing me to suffer," "It will take so long for me to get better," or any other number of sticky concepts can rob us of the present moment. The best times and the worst times are incredible teachers. Our bliss and our suffering can help us to open up to our world, to learn about ourselves and our own minds, to cultivate compassion for others, and to find equanimity in ourselves.  Seeming disaster is often a blessing, after all. We actually are proverbially stronger after the things that don't kill us (but I'd argue we're also stronger after those things too).  Every moment is precious, and we don't have to fall into the mania or despair of life's unfolding.

The Sangha is the community of practitioners who are on the path to awakenment. The body of monks, nuns, laypeople, and human beings who study the teachings of the Buddha and are committed to working with themselves, supporting each other, and continuing along the path.

How can I help?
Whatever happens, how can I help? How can I use my experience to benefit others? How can what I am going through be transformed into something that will uplift and nurture my fellow human beings? If we step outside of ourselves, we find that there is this big beautiful world filled with people who are also suffering. Just like us, others are experiencing pain and fear and doubt and love and passion and loss and anger and delight and confusion and confidence and sadness. We are neither alone nor disconnected. Our existence is fundamentally dependent on the existence of others. And when we look into someone else's eyes, we can see ourselves reflected back. My pain is your pain. Your joy is also mine. So when we think of our lives as opportunities to help, we become bigger. It's easier to rest in spaciousness rather than constrict around our own suffering. It's okay. If my suffering can help other people, then I suffer willingly! If what I can learn from my own experience is of benefit to other people, then may I have all the experience I need to be of the most benefit. Instead of getting mired in the throes of whatever is happening, can we transform it into something useful? We can. We can in so many ways.  Can we care enough to help each other?

Rest in the cradle of loving-kindness.
Can we allow others to take care of us? Can we ask for and receive help? I am so used to being the person who takes care of others. Both my nature and my work invite me to spend lots of my time taking care of other people, and gladly so. I love taking care of people. I love understanding what they need, sharing their experience, offering myself to them. So when it comes time for me to be taken care of... well, when is the last time that happened? I can't think of a time in my adult life before having this stroke that I fully allowed others to care for me. And then when this happened, I had to fall back into the arms of my community. I couldn't care for myself on my own. I needed help (still need help). And I ask for it. And the way that the cradle of support has nurtured me is phenomenal and powerful. We have to surrender sometimes- allow ourselves to be a little vulnerable. Trust others. Let go of our sense of control. That I am fortunate enough to have a community of loving kindness waiting there to catch me is purely the magic of being part of a sangha. A community of practitioners who walk with each other on the path of wakefulness. Never have I known community like this. Love and support in this space are boundless. The human potential for coming together to care for one another is magical beyond belief.

Turning to the Three Jewels, we can work with all aspects of suffering and illness.  These gems are of great benefit to me in my life, and they structure this journey for me.

There is such a wealth of wisdom and knowledge that we have as human beings. We can all find something that speaks to us, helps us connect with our own sense of love and worthiness, and helps us have a better understanding of ourselves and our brothers and sisters. What are the foundations of the space in which you live and heal? What are the tools that help you in times of need?

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