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The Four Healing Powers Of Mind Print
Shambhala Sun | May 2000

The Four Healing Powers Of Mind

The key to health and happiness, says , is a mind that is peaceful and positive. This respected Buddhist teacher and author offers insights and meditations to help us access the natural healing power of mind.

            To find true well-being, the best place to look is close to home. We could travel around the globe a hundred times, turning over every stone on earth in the quest for happiness. Yet this would not necessarily give us what we seek. Money does not necessarily grant well-being either, nor does a youthful or healthy body. Health and money can help us, of course. But the real source of peace and joy is our mind.
            The mind wants to be peaceful; this is really its natural state. But there are so many distractions and cravings that can obscure our peaceful nature. A characteristic of our time is the speed of our living, especially in the West. Everything is a rush. Meditation can slow us down so that we touch our true nature. Any meditation can help us. The object of our contemplation could be a flower, a religious image, or a positive feeling. Or it could be our own body.
            One especially rich way to develop a peaceful mind is to meditate upon the body. By doing this we promote the welfare of our whole being.
            Through meditation, we can learn how to encourage our mind to create a feeling of peace in the body. This can be as simple as relaxing and saying to ourselves, “Let my body be calm and peaceful now,” and really feeling that this is happening. It is the beginning of meditation—and of wisdom, too.
            This approach is a kind of homecoming. We are reintroducing ourselves to our bodies and establishing a positive connection between mind and body. Quite often, people have a rather strained and distant relationship to their own body. We think of the body as unattractive or ugly, or maybe our health is not good. Or else we like the body, cherish it, and foster cravings around it. But even if we cherish the body, we worry that it could be better than it is, or that it will get sick or grow old. So we are conflicted and ambivalent. The body is an object of anxiety.
            Mind and body are intimately connected, and the relationship of mind to body in meditation is very interesting. When we see the body as peaceful and beautiful, who or what is creating these feelings? The mind is. By creating peaceful feelings in the body, the mind is absorbed in those feelings. So, the body is the object to be healed, but it also becomes the means of healing the mind. The healing of the mind is the ultimate goal of meditation.

The Peaceful Mind
            True healing and well-being come down to enjoying an awareness of peace, the ultimate peace, the ultimate peace of existence. The mind is not passive in the sense of being half-asleep. Instead, the mind is open to the thought and feeling of total peace. An unrestricted and uncontaminated awareness of peace is the ultimate joy and strength. When we are truly aware of peace, our nature blossoms with full vigor.
            Some people are so fully open to the true nature of existence that they are peaceful no matter what the circumstances. For the enlightened mind, peace does not depend on any object or concept. Awareness of the absolute nature of things, the universal truth, is not limited or conditioned by concepts, feelings, or labels such as good and bad. A mind that is free can transcend dualistic categories such as peace versus conflict and joy versus suffering. The enlightened mind does not discriminate between a subjective or objective reality, or between liking and disliking. Time is timeless, and everything in existence is perfect as it is.
            Before this begins to sound too theoretical, I should say that there are many people who are enlightened, to one degree or another, and we can be inspired by tales of enlightenment, where peace is everywhere and even turmoil is okay. But for most of us, the goal should be to work with our ordinary minds and just try to be a little more peaceful and relaxed in our approach to life. If you are a little more peaceful, it will help you to better handle problems, even if big problems are still difficult.
            It can be helpful to remember that the enlightened mind and the ordinary mind are two sides of the same coin. The mind is like the sea, which can be rough on the surface, with mountainous waves stirred up by ferocious wind. But at the bottom it is calm and peaceful. Sometimes we can catch sight of this peaceful mind even in times of trouble.
            These glimpses of peace show us that we may have more inner resources to draw upon than we realize. With skill and patience, we can learn how to be in touch with our peaceful selves.

Noticing the Peaceful Mind
            It can seem daring to open the door to healing. And yet cultivating peace of mind is actually not so strange or alien. Peace of mind is not something we save for meditation or for the contemplation of past experiences, as if it was some special feeling separate from everyday life. We can encourage the mind to be more peaceful all the time; this is how to improve our outlook and assure our well-being. In the ups and downs of life, the opportunity is always there to cultivate an awareness of positive feeling.
  When I talk about peace, people sometimes mistakenly think that this means detaching yourself from the stream of life. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The way to truly heal your life is to be awake to its simple joys, and to develop an open, welcoming attitude toward all your activities and encounters with other people. We should enjoy ourselves and be fully engaged in what we do.
            Notice when you feel open and peaceful. Be aware of any feeling of freedom. Awareness is the key. If you are aware of peace, it has a chance to become part of your life. When you feel peaceful, enjoy it. Don’t force your feelings, or chase after them, or stir up false excitement. There’s no need to grasp. Simply be aware, and let the feeling blossom and open. Allow it to expand. Stay with any positive feeling; allow your mind to relax in it. You may find your body feeling peaceful too. If your breathing feels more relaxed, or you feel a sensation of warmth, pause to notice that as well and enjoy it.
            It is possible to feel calm and joyful for no reason at all, or under challenging circumstances. The enlightened mind does not need an object or sensation for peace to spontaneously arise. For the ordinary mind, however, it is better to use positive feelings as a starting place, as follows:
            Be Aware of the Positive: At the beginning, we should focus on positive situations and images, and rejoice in their healing power. It could be the sight of a toddler proudly taking a few awkward steps under the watchful eye of a parent. Maybe an open-hearted person has said hello with a cheerful smile, or you might have freely done someone a small act of kindness. The simple acts of taking a walk or enjoying a cup of tea can grant us contentment, and even joy, if our attitude is open and receptive. Develop an attitude of appreciation.
            See the Positive Side of the Negative: After gaining some strength in our minds, we should focus not only on the positive objects but also on the positive qualities of negative objects. Look for the positive side of negative situations, the silver lining to the dark cloud. One excellent common sense approach is humor, which can shift our perspective and suddenly turn a supposedly negative situation on its head!
            Many people have overly sensitive minds and therefore feel the negative more strongly. This allows anxieties to take root and grow. The remedy is to develop a less sensitized mind. We can actually decide “not to mind so much” when negative situations come up, in which case they will be easier to handle. The Third Dodrupchen writes, “If we are not sensitive, then because of our mental strength, even great pain will feel easy to bear, light and flimsy, like a piece of cotton.”
            See All as Positive: See the positive in everything, and everything as positive. Then it is possible to realize true peace beyond positive and negative. Ultimately, everything can be a source of healing, without discrimination between so-called positive and negative.
            The main support of healing for most people should be a focus on the positive situations and images. However, if we immerse ourselves in the positive, we can gradually but spontaneously embark on the second and third ways, first indirectly and then directly.

Positive Perceptions
            Pessimism can be so deadly. The habit of worrying about problems or seeing only the negative aspect of a situation hardly leaves any room for healing. When the mind becomes encrusted and rigid with this attitude, then everything that happens appears tainted by pain and negativity.
            The mind can choose between positive and negative; it’s all in the perception. A central practice in Tibetan Buddhism is positive perception. It’s an approach that’s been proven over the centuries to yield an amazing harvest of spiritual realization, as well as happiness and health in everyday life.
            Problems can become stepping stones on the path to freeing our minds. Even if we are not a great spiritual master, we can start by seeing small problems as acceptable. Try to see a difficulty as an interesting challenge. Then if you can solve it, or learn how to tolerate it, be sure to congratulate yourself on doing so. Feeling the satisfaction can bring a surge of joy, which has a positive ripple effect in the rest of your life.
            A spark of peace and joy can be found in every situation, if we care to find and apply it. Even if we are having a hellish life, there will always be some moments of peace that we could certainly use as the source of healing. So, even if our lives are painful, we can find something to use as our focal point of healing, the best out of the worst situations, if we care to look for it.
            According to Buddhism, the nature of the mind is enlightened. So our nature is good. The big problem is the negative habits of the mind, how we look at everything. These mental patterns can get quite built up and rigid, and they color and influence our perspective. Everyone has the capacity to be happy, but you have to change the habits of your mind and way of perceiving things.
            Try to reduce the degree of resentment toward the so-called unhappiness; that will be a big achievement. Change what you can to improve your situation, and don’t worry about what you can’t change. Be more accepting of things at this very moment. Find humor or a spark of enjoyment wherever you can. That begins to move you toward more happiness.
            Don’t make happiness an obsession, like some object you simply must get hold of and keep. If you can relax the obsession about happiness just a bit, then spontaneously you might be happier.
            Finally, when we deal well with a problem, it’s important to acknowledge this to ourselves. In daily life or meditation, any time we heal some suffering we have felt, we must recognize this. By such recognition, the powerful energy of joy can flare up. That could be a great focal point for further healing. The Third Dodrupchen writes, “You must recognize that the suffering has actually transformed as the support of the path. Then you must feel a strong and stable stream of joy that is brought about by that recognition.”

A Meditative View of the Body
            Our physical body is a precious treasure. It’s an amazing machine: elegant, complex, and beautiful. It is also ours for a limited time. Buddhism talks about the body as a guest house for the mind, and takes a quite realistic view of the body’s aging and decay. Mind and body are together only for a while; all the more reason to treasure their true well-being while we can.
            When we bring awareness to the body, doing so can call forth powerful positive energies. There are three reasons to meditate upon the body.
            First, our own body is a very effective support in regaining the healing energies of the mind, since the body is so intimately connected to the mind.
            Second, much of the time, the goal is to heal the ills of body. So, choosing the body as the object to be healed is practical. Meditation can be an effective remedy for these problems, depending on the skill of the meditator and the particular illness. It is also true that, compared to emotional problems, physical ills can be difficult to heal through meditation, especially for a beginner. But even if our physical ills don’t go away, they can often be eased. At the very least, our minds can learn to better tolerate the woes of the body and carry them more lightly.
            Third, by bringing healing energy to the body, we can also improve our lives. The mind, the main actor in healing meditation, is absorbed in positive healing energies. This loosens the grasping of the mind. It becomes easier to develop a more open and relaxed attitude toward problems, including how to get along better with others. Our focus here is to simply become more accepting of our bodies as they are. In the West, the body tends to be worshipped unrealistically. Even “perfect” supermodels seem to worry that their bodies should be better than they are, ever more perfect, and never changing. In the East, the body tends to be viewed more as something filthy and unworthy. Asians are not friends with their bodies either. East and West, so much negative energy is attached to the body, and negative perception blocks the healing of body and mind. It’s better to take a more balanced view, and by making a practice of meditating upon the body, gradually and after many sessions, you can go beyond attachment or resentment of the body.
            Most of us are so attached to our bodies; we identify so closely with them. It can help in meditation to see our bodies as boundless, like the sky. We don’t necessarily get attached to the sky. The sky is there, and when we think about it, we accept and appreciate it. If we began to see the body with something like this kind of relaxed appreciation, we could genuinely approach all of life with more enjoyment.
            The healing meditations I teach focus on the technique of positive visualization. To that end, the mightiest weapons in our arsenal are the four powers of seeing, recognizing, feeling and believing.

The Four Healing Powers of Mind
            The four healing powers are positive images, words, feeling and belief. When we bring these qualities of mind to our meditation, the power to heal our mental, emotional, and physical afflictions grows stronger.
            Positive Images: When we visualize positive objects, the exercise of our imagination engages and absorbs our mind. If we can maintain the images in our mind for some duration, the healing will be more intimate and effective. The mind tends to wander about, especially if you are new to meditation. Practice staying with the image as long as you comfortably can, and eventually your concentration will improve.
            Although visualization is a pillar of Tibetan meditation, many Westerners find it rather strange at first. Forming mental images is universal, even if we are not used to doing it as part of meditation. With few exceptions, we all visualize constantly in daily life. Most of the time, our minds are occupied with neutral images or negative ones. Instead, if we build a habit of seeing positive images, the peaceful nature of our mind begins to emerge and we give joy a chance to flourish.
            One of the practices of Tibetan Buddhism is to visualize positive images at every opportunity throughout the day, except when practical business is being conducted. In your own life, you can bring meditation and its images and associated feelings into your life, during a short break at work, for example. This encourages the positive feelings to take hold.
            Since many of us are predominantly visual, the focus is on positive images. Yet we could also use sound, smell, taste and touch as healing objects, if more appropriate. Some people are more auditory, so they could emphasize chanting, or incorporate music as part of their prayers and meditations.
            Positive Words: Words can have great power, for good or ill. As thinking creatures, words and inner dialogues are constantly going on in our heads. We put labels on things and name them. It is our way of recognizing and confirming the quality of something.
            Meditating upon an image is made all the stronger when we recognize it as positive, and even comment to ourselves on its positive nature. For example, if we are visualizing a flower, you might think about its positive qualities: “This beautiful flower is blossoming,” or “Its color is spectacular, the whole atmosphere is radiant with its brilliance,” or ‘‘The dew is dripping from its healthy, fresh petals,” or “It is so pure, as if made of rainbow light,” or “I wish everybody could enjoy such a feast for the eyes.”
            Sometimes just the conscious recognition of positive qualities is enough, without a label. But a label can help open your mind to an image, such as just simply saying to yourself: “It’s beautiful,” or “It’s red.” The point is to confirm in your mind the power of the positive. In this way, we begin to transform the negative mindset we have built up. We can choose positive or negative perceptions. Recognizing the positive can be a strong ally in transforming our minds, both in meditation and daily life.
            In addition to positive images, we can incorporate positive sounds and scents, or use gestures or touch. By recognizing the positive qualities of any of these means, we can expand their power.
            Positive Feeling: The mind not only thinks and recognizes, it feels. If we involve our awareness of the positive qualities of an object through emotion, the healing of mind and body is much stronger.
            For example, in meditation if we imagine a beautiful flower, we might just think in our heads, “How beautiful that flower is,” but then the positive impression is a shadow of what it could be. Instead, open up to the flower on the level of feeling. Feel the enchanting beauty, the freshness of dew dripping from it, the clarity of its colors like immaculate light. Feel the qualities of the flower in your heart and body and celebrate it, instead of just thinking of it intellectually.
            You can bring this same open-hearted approach to appreciating the beauty around you every day of your life. Opening yourself to feelings in meditation can bring more zest and enjoyment to everything you do.
            Generally we need to feel our emotions; it’s healthy to do so. But at times we may want or need to protect ourselves from harmful emotions generated by negative situations and images. To do this, try to deal with them at the level of thinking and intellect, rather than getting overwhelmed by the emotion of the moment. You don’t necessarily need to allow negative perceptions to be driven deep into your heart at the level of feeling.
            In meditation and all of life, we can bring the awareness of feeling to the positive qualities as perceived through any of our senses: seeing, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. We feel the vastness of the sky, the refreshing power of the wind, the comforting warmth of the sun, and so on.
            Positive Belief: If you do not trust in the power of your meditation to heal, its strength and energy will be weak. Belief gives the meditation a firm foundation; it engages the mind in a way that is effective and total.
            This is not blind faith, but a faith and trust based upon knowledge that the healing power of mind can be fully called forth with the help of images, words, and feelings. We need to believe that we actually can improve our lives in this way. Even if meditation moves you one step forward, you can fall right back if you are always harboring doubts in your mind.
            Intellectual and material-minded people like ourselves can find it hard to trust and believe in anything. We need to remember that the mind is a powerful source of healing, and that the purpose of healing meditation is to awaken our inner resources. We need to rely on the help of mental objects, and believe in the power of the mind.
            By applying the four healing powers in a positive way, we can help ourselves now and also reap the benefits later. According to Buddhism, the seeds of all experiences are sown in us at the level of unconsciousness, or universal ground. Our mental and physical deeds, both positive and negative, accumulate in what Buddhists call karma.
            Karma is like seeds planted in our unconscious mind where it can hibernate, hidden in us. Eventually, karma blossoms in its consequences, for good or ill. Karma can take the form of physical symptoms, emotions, or memories. Meditation with the four healing powers is very effective as a remedy for a harvest of negative consequences.
            The four healing powers are also applicable to daily life. We can see the positive in ourselves and around us, confirm this quality in our minds by recognizing it, rejoice in any positive or peaceful feelings, and believe in the healing power of this way of looking at the world. This approach to life can reap a great harvest of benefits.

Reprinted by permission of Shambhala Publications. ©Tulku Thondup 2000.
Tulku Thondup Rinpoche is a teacher of the Nyingma (Dzogchen) school of vajrayana Buddhism. He lives in Cambridge, Mass. Tulku Thondup is author of The Healing Power of Mind, Healing Meditations and Masters of Meditation and Miracles. This article is from his forthcoming book, Boundless Healing: Meditation Exercises to Enlighten the Mind and Heal the Body, to be published in October, 2000 by Shambhala Publications.

The Four Healing Powers Of Mind, Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, May 2000.


The Practice Of Love Print

The Practice Of Love


"By allowing yourself the space to be as you are, you discover a self-existing sanity that lies deeper than thought or feeling," says John Welwood. "For many of us this may be the hardest path of all—opening our hearts to ourselves.”

Freud once admitted in a letter to Jung that “psychoanalysis is essentially a cure through love.” Yet while many psychotherapists might privately agree that love has some kind of role in the healing process, the word “love” is curiously absent from most of the therapeutic literature. The same is true for the word “heart.” Not only is this term missing from the psychological literature, the tone of the literature itself also lacks heart.

My interest in the place of heart in psychotherapy developed out of my experience with meditation. Although Western thought often defines mind in terms of reason, and heart in terms of feeling, in Buddhism heart and mind can both be referred to by the same term (chitta in Sanskrit). Indeed, when Tibetan Buddhists refer to mind, they often point to their chest. Mind in this sense is not thinking mind, but rather big mind—a direct knowing of reality that is basically open and friendly toward what is. Centuries of meditators have found this openness to be the central feature of human consciousness.

Heart and Basic Goodness

Heart, then, is a direct presence that allows a complete attunement with reality. In this sense, it has nothing to do with sentimentality. Heart is the capacity to touch and be touched, to reach out and let in.
Our language expresses this twofold activity of the heart, which is like a swinging door that opens in both directions. We say, “My heart went out to him,” or “I took her into my heart.” Like the physical organ with its systole and diastole, the heart-mind involves both receptive letting in, or letting be, and active going out to meet, or being-with. In their different ways, both psychological and spiritual work remove the barriers to these two movements of the heart, like oiling the door so that it can open freely in both directions.
What shuts down the heart more than anything is not letting ourselves have our own experience, but instead judging it, criticizing it, or trying to make it different from what it is. We often imagine there is something wrong with us if we feel angry, needy and dependent, lonely, confused, sad, or scared. We place conditions on ourselves and our experience: “If I feel like this, there must be something wrong with me… I can only accept myself if my experience conforms to my standard of how I should be.”
Psychological work, when practiced in a larger spiritual context, can help people discover that it is possible to be unconditional with themselves—to welcome their experience and hold it with understanding and compassion, whether or not they like it at any given moment. What initially makes this possible is the therapist’s capacity to show unconditional warmth, concern and friendliness toward the client’s experience, no matter what the client is going through. Most people in our culture did not receive this kind of unconditional acceptance in their childhood. So they internalized the conditions their parents or society placed on them: “You are an acceptable human being only if you measure up to our standards.” And because they continue to place these same conditions on themselves, they remain alienated from themselves.
The Dalai Lama and many other Tibetan teachers have spoken of their great surprise and shock at discovering just how much self-hatred Westerners carry around inside them. Such an intense degree of self-blame is not found in traditional Buddhist cultures, where there is an understanding that the heart-mind, also known as buddhanature, is unconditionally open, compassionate, and wholesome. Since we are all embryonic buddhas, why would anyone want to hate themselves?
Chögyam Trungpa described the essence of our nature in terms of basic goodness. In using this term, he did not mean that people are only morally good—which would be naive, considering all the evil that humans perpetrate in this world. Rather, basic goodness refers to our primordial nature, which is unconditionally wholesome because it is intrinsically attuned to reality.
This primordial kind of goodness goes beyond conventional notions of good and bad. It lies much deeper than conditioned personality and behavior, which are always a mix of positive and negative tendencies. From this perspective, all the evil and destructive behavior that goes on in our world is the result of people failing to recognize the fundamental wholesomeness of their essential nature.

Meditation, Psychotherapy and Unconditional Friendliness

While studying Rogerian therapy in graduate school, I used to be intrigued, intimidated and puzzled by Carl Rogers’ term “unconditional positive regard.” Although it sounded appealing as an ideal therapeutic stance, I found it hard to put into practice. First of all, there was no specific training for it. And since Western psychology had not provided me with any understanding of heart, or the intrinsic goodness underlying psychopathology, I was unclear just where unconditional positive regard should be directed. It was only in turning to the meditative traditions that I came to appreciate the unconditional goodness at the core of being human, and this in turn helped me understand the possibility of unconditional love and its role in the healing process.
The Buddhist counterpart of unconditional positive regard is loving-kindness (maitri in Sanskrit, metta in Pali). Loving-kindness is unconditional friendliness—a quality of allowing and welcoming human beings and their experience. Yet before I could genuinely express this kind of acceptance toward others, I first had to discover what it meant for myself. Meditation is what allowed me to do this.
Meditation cultivates unconditional friendliness through teaching you how to just be—without doing anything, without holding onto anything, and without trying to think good thoughts, get rid of bad thoughts, or achieve a pure state of mind. This is a radical practice. There is nothing else like it. Normally we do everything we can to avoid just being. When left alone with ourselves, without a project to occupy us, we become nervous. We start judging ourselves or thinking about what we should be doing or feeling. We start putting conditions on ourselves, trying to arrange our experience so that it measures up to our inner standards. Since this inner struggle is so painful, we are always looking for something to distract us from being with ourselves.
In meditation practice, you work directly with your confused mind-states, without waging crusades against any aspect of your experience. You let all your tendencies arise, without trying to screen anything out, manipulate experience in any way, or measure up to any ideal standard. Allowing yourself the space to be as you are—letting whatever arises arise, without fixation on it, and coming back to simple presence—this is perhaps the most loving and compassionate way you can treat yourself. It helps you make friends with the whole range of your experience.
As you simplify in this way, you start to feel your very presence as wholesome in and of itself. You don’t have to prove that you are good. You discover a self-existing sanity that lies deeper than all thought or feeling. You appreciate the beauty of just being awake, responsive, and open to life. Appreciating this basic, underlying sense of goodness is the birth of maitri—unconditional friendliness toward yourself.
The discovery of basic goodness can be likened to clarifying muddy water—an ancient metaphor from the Taoist and Buddhist traditions. Water is naturally pure and clear, though its turbulence may stir up mud from below. Our awareness is like that, essentially clear and open, but muddied with the turbulence of conflicting thoughts and emotions. If we want to clarify the water, what else is there to do but let the water sit?
Usually we want to put our hands in the water and do something with the dirt—struggle with it, try to change it, fix it, sanitize it—but this only stirs up more mud: “Maybe I can get rid of my sadness by thinking positive thoughts.” But then the sadness sinks deeper and hardens into depression. “Maybe I’ll get my anger out, show people how I feel.” But this only spreads the dirt around. The water of awareness regains its clarity through seeing the muddiness for what it is—recognizing the turbulence of thought and feeling as noise or static, rather than as who we really are. When we stop reacting to it, which only stirs it up all the more, the mud can settle.
This core discovery enabled me to extend this same kind of unconditional friendliness toward my clients. When I first started practicing therapy and found myself disliking certain clients or certain things about them, I felt guilty or hypocritical. But eventually I came to understand this in a new way. Unconditional love or loving-kindness did not mean that I always had to like my clients, any more than I liked all the twists and turns of my own scheming mind. Rather, it meant providing an accommodating space in which their knots could begin to unravel.
It was a great relief to realize that I did not have to unconditionally love or accept that which is conditioned—another’s personality. Rather, unconditional friendliness is a natural response to that which is itself unconditional—the basic goodness and open heart in others, beneath all their defenses, rationalizations, and pretenses. Unconditional love is not a sentiment, but a willingness to be open. It is not a love of personality, but the love of being, grounded in the recognition of the unconditional goodness of the human heart.
Fortunately, unconditional friendliness does not mean having to like what is going on. Instead, it means allowing whatever is there to be there as it is, and inviting it to reveal itself more fully. In trying to help clients develop unconditional friendliness toward a difficult feeling, I often say, “You don’t have to like it. You can just let it be there, and make a place for your dislike of it as well.” Similarly, letting myself have my whole range of response and feeling toward my clients allows me to be more present with them. The more maitri I have for myself, by letting myself be, the more I can be with others and let them be themselves.
This of course holds true for all relationships. For instance, it is only when we can let our fear be, and hold it in a friendly space, that we can be present with our loved ones in their fear, or when they are doing something that stirs up our fear. We only react to others with blame and rejection when their experience mirrors or provokes some feeling in ourselves that we cannot relate to in a friendly way. In this way, developing loving-kindness toward the whole range of our own experience naturally allows us to have loving-kindness toward others.
The health of living organisms is maintained through the free-flowing circulation of energy. We see this in the endless cycles and flow of water, the cradle of life, which purifies itself through circulating, rising from the oceans, falling on the mountains, and rushing in clear streams back to the sea. Similarly, the circulation of blood in the body brings new life in the form of oxygen to the cells, while allowing the removal of toxins from the body. Any interference with circulation is the beginning of disease.
Similarly, when loving-kindness does not circulate throughout our system, blockages and armoring build up and we get sick, psychologically or physically. If we fail to recognize the basic goodness contained within all our experiences, self-doubt blooms like algae in water, clogging up the natural flow of self-love that keeps us healthy. But if we can extend unconditional friendliness toward our own or another’s whole range of experience and very being, this begins to penetrate the clouds of self-judgment, so our life energy can circulate freely again.
This understanding allowed me to approach psychotherapy in a new way. I found that if I could connect with the basic goodness in those I worked with—the underlying, often hidden longing and will to be who they are and meet life fully—not just as an ideal or as positive thinking, but as a living reality, then I could start to forge an alliance with the essential core of health within them. I could help them meet and go through whatever they were experiencing—as frightening or horrifying as it might seem—just as I myself had done on the meditative cushion. Orienting myself toward the basic goodness hidden beneath their conflicts and struggles, I could contact the deeper aliveness circulating within them and between the two of us in the present moment. This made possible a heart-connection that promoted real change.
I was inspired in this approach by the example of the bodhisattvas in Buddhism, who, in their commitment to help all sentient beings, join compassion with the discriminating wisdom that sees through people’s suffering to the embryonic buddha within. For me, seeing the buddha in others is not a way of denying or minimizing their suffering or conflicts. Rather, in the words of Robert Thurman, “A bodhisattva sees simultaneously how a being is free from suffering, as well as seeing it with its suffering, and that gives the bodhisattva great compassion that is truly effective.”
When bodhisattvas engender this kind of all-seeing compassion, according to the Vimalakirti Sutra, they “generate the love that is truly a refuge for all living beings; the love that is peaceful because free of grasping; the love that is not feverish, because free of passions; the love that accords with reality because it contains equanimity; the love that has no presumption because it has eliminated attachment and aversion; the love that is nondual because it is involved neither with the external nor the internal; the love that is imperturbable because totally ultimate.”

Honoring Our Experience

The poignant truth about human suffering is that all our neurotic, self-destructive patterns are twisted forms of basic goodness, which lies hidden within them.
For example, a little girl with an alcoholic father sees his unhappiness, and wants to make him happy so that she could experience unconditional love—the love of being—flowing between them. Unfortunately, out of her desire to please him, she also winds up bending herself out of shape, disregarding her own needs and blaming herself for failing to make him happy. As a result, she ends up with a harsh inner critic and repeatedly reenacts a neurotic victim role with the men in her life. Although her fixation on trying to please is misguided, it originally arose out of a spark of generosity and caring for her father.
Just as muddy water contains clear water within it when the dirt settles out, all our negative tendencies reveal a spark of basic goodness and intelligence at their core, which is usually obscured by our habitual tendencies. Within our anger, for instance, there may be an arrowlike straightforwardness that can be a real gift when communicated without attack or blame. Our passivity may contain a capacity for acceptance and letting things be. And our self-hatred often contains a desire to destroy those elements of our personality that oppress us and prevent us from being fully ourselves. Since every negative or self-defeating behavior is but a distorted form of our larger intelligence, we don’t have to struggle against this dirt that muddies the water of our being.
With this understanding, work with our psychological blockages becomes like aikido, the martial art that involves flowing with the attack, rather than against it. By recognizing the deeper, positive urge hidden within our ego strategies, we no longer have to treat them as an enemy. After all, the strategies of the ego are all ways of trying to be. They were the best we could do as a child. And they’re not all that bad, considering that they were dreamed up by the mind of a child. Realizing that we did the best we could under the circumstances, and seeing ego as an imitation of the real thing—an attempt to be ourselves in a world that did not recognize, welcome or support our being—helps us have more understanding and compassion for ourselves.
Our ego itself is testimony to the force of love. It developed as a way to keep going in the face of perceived threats to our existence, primarily lack of love. In the places where love was missing, we built ego defenses. So every time we enact one of our defensive behaviors, we are also implicitly paying homage to love as the most important thing.
As a therapist, meditation was my aikido teacher. As I sat on the meditation cushion with a whole range of “pathological” mind-states passing through my awareness, I began to see depression, paranoia, obsession and addiction as nothing more than the changing weather of the mind. These mind-states did not belong to me in particular or mean anything about who I was. Recognizing this helped me relax with the whole spectrum of my experience and meet it more inquisitively.
This helped me relax with my clients’ mind-states as well. In working with someone’s terror, I could honor it as the intense experience it was, without letting it unsettle me. I also took it as an opportunity to meet and work with my own fear once again. Or if I was helping someone explore an empty, lonely place inside, this gave me a chance to check in with that part of myself as well.
It became clear that there was only one mind, though it may appear in many guises. While this might sound strange and mystical, I mean it in a very practical sense: The client’s awareness and mine are two ends of one continuum when we are working together. Fear is essentially fear, self-doubt is self-doubt, blocked desire is blocked desire—though these may take on a variety of forms and meanings for different individuals. Realizing that I shared one awareness with the people I worked with allowed me to keep my heart open instead of retreating into a position of clinical distance.
Whenever two people meet and connect, they share the same presence of awareness, and there is no way to divide it neatly into “your awareness” and “my awareness.” This basic fact—that other people’s experience resonates in and through us, whether we like it or not—is why other people can grate on our nerves and “drive us crazy.” Yet this “interbeing” is also what allows us to feel genuine empathy for what someone else is going through. Before we can truly embody this vast space of empathy and compassion for others, where we can totally let them be who they are, we must first be on friendly terms with our own raw and tender feelings. For many of us this may be the hardest path of all—opening our hearts to ourselves.

JOHN WELWOOD, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist in San Francisco, associate editor of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, and author of seven books, including Journey of the Heart and Love and Awakening. This article has been adapted for the Shambhala Sun from his book, Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation, published by Shambhala Publications. © 2000 by John Welwood.

The Practice Of Love, John Welwood, Shambhala Sun, May 2000.


Kindness to Ourselves and Others Print


Kindness to Ourselves and Others


Suffering is more than the first noble truth of Buddhism. To see our own and others' suffering is the first step on the path, the birthplace of compassion. Judy Lief offers guidance on the journey.

When the Buddha was a young child, he led a sheltered life, brought up in a wealthy family. His father was a regional king, and as such, officiated at ceremonies and state occasions. One of these annual celebrations was the planting festival, which took place when the farmers were about to sow the year’s crops. It was a big event, with booths and games and entertainment, and the local farmers and villagers would come from all around to celebrate. The highlight of the ceremony was the ritual plowing of the first furrow. Only after this official opening of the planting season and the blessing of the crops would local farmers begin to sow their fields.          

At one of these planting ceremonies, when the Buddha was just a young boy, he was happily playing with his friends until he saw the plow go into the earth. As the plow cut through the soil and made a furrow, he became upset. The young Buddha was touched by how much life was disrupted and destroyed in the simple act of planting food. He saw the little bugs scurrying away from the plow and the worms cut in two. He saw lots of confused little grubs and other beings that were down below abruptly thrust to the surface, and beings that used to be on the surface buried down below. As their world was flipped upside down they seemed to be totally disoriented and unhappy. So many beings were suffering.
The Buddha was so struck by this experience that he left the festivities and sat by himself under a tree to think about what he had seen. It appeared to him that just to survive on the earth, we must inevitably cause other beings to suffer. No matter how kind we try to be, we cannot avoid it. And seeing the suffering of others, we experience suffering ourselves. We could stop eating meat, we could be vegetarians, we could wear screens over our faces like the Jains, but nonetheless we can’t go through a day without causing someone harm. Even the seemingly innocent act of growing food inevitably causes some beings to suffer and die.
That realization, which took place when the Buddha was just a boy, was like a seed that later ripened and inspired the Buddha to begin his personal search to understand the nature of suffering, why there is so much suffering in the world, and whether anything can be done about it. The awareness of suffering had touched his heart and awakened his kindness.
When we open ourselves to others, we are also opening ourselves to pain. As in this story of the Buddha, when we are aware of the suffering of other beings, as well as of our own suffering, kindness arises as a natural response. But we have a tendency to shield ourselves from pain and cover over that awareness. We reject those parts of our own experience that are painful and we also avoid facing the pain we see all around us. By distancing ourselves from pain, we distance ourselves from one another. We lose the ground of connection that makes kindness possible.
The only way to maintain that connection is to extend our awareness to include all of our experience, not just the parts that we find comfortable. Meditation practice is a good way to begin because it is a process of becoming aware of whatever comes up in our mind, both good and bad, painful and pleasurable. We are learning to be open to who we are, and whatever we are experiencing. So meditation practice is not just a mental exercise; it is a way of making friends with ourselves at a very basic level. Step by step we are learning more about ourselves and accepting and integrating those parts of ourselves we had rejected.
As we learn to accept ourselves, we are at the same time learning to accept other people. It may seem that there are always other people around and we have no choice but to accept them, unless we throw everyone out or become a hermit, but just putting up with people is not the same as accepting them. Acceptance is the tender and gentle process of opening our hearts to others, to ourselves, and to our common ground of suffering. Kindness begins at this immediate, personal level of experience.
By cultivating an attitude of acceptance and fundamental friendliness, we can lessen not only our own fear and tension, but also that of the people around us. We can actually shift the atmosphere in the direction of relaxation and kindness, and in that way be a force for healing. To the extent that we are relaxed and open ourselves, the people around us begin to pick up on it. It is like putting a drop of water on a blotter—one little drop just spreads and spreads.

Exercise: Accepting One Another

This exercise takes two people. To begin, sit quietly together, either next to one another or facing one another. Take some time to settle your mind, placing your attention lightly on the breath. Do not rush, but allow enough time to settle and to be at ease simply sitting together in proximity.
The next step is to consciously include your partner in your practice. As you breathe out, extend your attention out to her and as you breathe in consciously include her in your awareness. Be as straightforward here as possible. You are not analyzing your partner’s state of mind or trying to figure her out, but simply being aware of her presence.
Finally, pay attention to the space between you and your partner and your connection to one another. Into that mutual space, as you breathe out, project a quality of acceptance and simple friendship to your partner. On the inbreath, take in and receive the acceptance and friendship that you partner is extending to you. Feel the energy of acceptance and friendship circulate between the two of you.
To conclude, spend a few minutes simply sitting together quietly.

When we sit quietly like this with another person, we gradually become more aware of that person’s presence. We begin to accept and appreciate her or him. Those two qualities, awareness and acceptance, are the ground of kindness. But we keep getting absorbed with ourselves, and losing our awareness of others. When we are caught up in our own concerns, our appreciation and awareness vanish. They completely disappear—poof!
We might prefer to ignore our tendency to focus on our own concerns and ignore the concerns of others. However, if we want to cultivate kindness, we first need to understand our own selfishness. That is where we begin. We need to stop and take a good look at this fixation with ourselves.
Most of the time, we are so used to being selfish that we hardly notice it. Our self-interest is like a background noise we no longer hear. It is a constant buzzing that we cannot seem to shut off. As we go about our business we are always saying, “What’s in it for me, what’s in it for me?” That undertone is there whether we are robbing banks or working in intensive care. Because of it, our actions always have a twist.
With children, selfishness is more on the surface. If you ask a child to cut two pieces of cake, one for her and one for her sister, it is likely that her piece will be a little bigger—or if not bigger, it will have the icing flower on it. Clever mothers have one child cut the cake and the other one choose which of the two pieces she wants. In that way you get surgically exact cake cutting.
By the time we are grown-ups we have been told about sharing and we know better than to let our selfishness display itself so blatantly. This does not mean it is gone, however, only that we are more sneaky. We may just put one little extra particularly yummy looking mushroom in our rice, or we might graduate to a more advanced form of selfishness and give away the best mushroom in order to bask in how virtuous we are.
Our fixation on ourselves may not be so crude; it could be as subtle as the unquestioned assumption that we are the center and all else is the fringe. Our approach is that although other people matter, we happen to matter just a little bit more. If you look at a room full of people, chances are that each one has her little circle around her, of which she is the center and everyone else is the fringe. So everybody is looking out and checking back, looking out and checking back, each from her own little world. It is like a game I used to play with each of my daughters in which I would say, “I’m ‘me’ and you’re ‘you.’” And she would respond, “No, I’m ‘me’ and you’re ‘you.’” Of course this game could go on and on forever, because no one would budge from their position as the center of things.
When we are in the greatest pain, we have the hardest time stretching beyond our own concerns. There is a famous story in which the Buddha encounters a grieving woman carrying the body of her only child. This woman was completely stricken by grief. She had lost everything—her parents, her husband, all her family, and now she had lost her only son. She would not let her fellow villagers take him or bury him; she refused to even acknowledge that he was dead.
When her friends heard that the Buddha would be passing through their area, they suggested that she go and see him and ask him to cure her son. In desperation she traveled to the Buddha and asked for his help. The Buddha told the grieving mother that he could indeed help her, but only if she brought him a sesame seed from the home of a family that had not experienced death.
In great relief, the woman set out to find that seed. But as she went from house to house, she did not find a single one that did not have a tale of loss. In her search for the sesame seed, she was gradually drawn out of preoccupation with her own pain as she realized the level of suffering all around her. And when she went back to the Buddha, she was ready to bury her child.
The contemplative practice called tonglen in Tibetan, or “sending and taking” in English, works directly with this powerful tendency to focus on ourselves. The practice of tonglen exposes the depth of our self-absorption and begins to undermine it. It is a practice specifically designed to remove that obstacle and the many other obstacles that stand in the way of our natural impulse towards kindness.
The practice of tonglen is sometimes described as a practice of “exchanging self and other.” This is because the goal of tonglen is to flip that pattern of self-absorption around completely, to the point where instead of putting ourselves first, we put others first. So if I were continuing that game with my daughter, it would go differently: “I’m ‘you’ and you’re ‘me.’” No, I’m ‘you’ and you’re ‘me.’” Tonglen practice goes from the starting point of putting ourselves first, through the middle ground of viewing ourselves and others equally, to the fruition of putting others before ourselves.
If our view is to focus on ourselves, then our actions will tend to feed that view by grabbing on to whatever builds us up and getting rid of whatever threatens us. Our habitual activity is to protect ourselves by constantly picking and choosing, accepting and rejecting—but in tonglen practice once again we reverse our usual approach. Instead of taking in what we desire and rejecting what we do not, we take in what we have rejected and send out what we desire—basically the opposite of “normal.” Tonglen practice completely reverses our usual way of going about things.
Why in heavens would anyone want to do tonglen? For one thing, our usual way of going about things is not all that satisfying. In tonglen, as we become more aware of the extent of our self-absorption, we realize how limited a view that is. Also, self-absorbed as we may be, we cannot help but be affected by the degree of pain and suffering in the world and want to do something about it. All around us we see people suffering and, on top of that, creating more suffering for themselves daily. But so are we! In fact, we are they—that’s the whole point. The confusion we see—that’s our confusion. When we see all those people suffering—that’s our suffering. We cannot separate ourselves out from others; it is a totally interconnected web.
In tonglen practice, we are cultivating the same tenderness of heart that started the Buddha himself on his journey to awakening. If we are losing heart, tonglen is a way of reconnecting with it. Tonglen has nothing to do with being a goody-goody, or covering up our selfishness with a patina of phony niceness. The point is not to berate ourselves or force ourselves to be kinder. If we think we are not kind enough, it may not be that we are less kind than other people but that we are more honest. So tonglen begins with honesty and acceptance and goes on from there.
In the same way that it is possible to cultivate mindfulness and awareness through meditation practice, we can cultivate kindness through the practice of tonglen. Through tonglen practice we learn to work straightforwardly with the difficulties we encounter and extend ourselves more wholeheartedly to others. Tonglen is training in how to take on suffering and give out love. It is a natural complement to mindfulness practice, a natural extension of the acceptance and self-knowledge that comes as a result of sitting meditation.

Tonglen Practice

Each time you practice tonglen, begin with basic mindfulness practice. It is important to take some time to let your mind settle. Having done so, you can go on to the practice of tonglen itself, which has four steps.
The first step is very brief. You could think of it as “clearing the decks.” You simply allow a little pause, or gap, before you begin. Although this first step is very brief and simple, it is still important. It is like cracking the window to let in a little fresh air.
In the second step you touch in with the visceral world of feelings and emotions. Each time you breathe in, you breath in heavy, dark, hot, sticky, claustrophobic energy; and each time you breathe out, you breathe out light, refreshing, clear, cool energy. With each breath the practice shifts direction, so there is an ongoing rhythm back and forth. You are taking the habit of grasping and rejecting and you are reversing it.
The third and fourth steps take that same approach and apply it to specific topics. Start as close to home as possible, with something that actually affects you personally. You should work with a topic that arouses real feelings, something that actually touches you or feels a little raw. It does not need to be anything monumental; it could be quite ordinary. For instance, maybe someone screamed at you when you were driving to work. You could breathe in the aggression they threw at you and you could breathe out to that person a wish to free them from the pain of that anger. If you yourself have just come down with a sickness, you could breathe in that sickness, and breathe out your feeling of health and well-being. The point is to start with something that has some reality or juice in your life.
Once you are underway, it is good to let the practice develop on its own and see where it takes you. In this case, no matter what comes up in your mind, you breathe in what you do not like and you breathe out what you do, or you breathe in what is not so good and breathe out being free of that. For instance, after you breathe in that driver’s aggression and breathe out your soothing of that anger, what might come up next is your own anger at being so abused first thing in the morning when you had started out in a pretty good mood. You could breath that anger in and breathe out the ability not to take such attacks so personally. In that way your thoughts follow along naturally, revealing more and more subtle layers of grasping and rejecting.
In the fourth step you expand the practice beyond your own immediate feelings and concerns of the moment. For instance, if you are worried about your friend, you expand that concern to include all the other people now and in the past who have had similar worries. You include everybody who has suffered the pain of seeing someone they are close to in danger or trouble. You breathe in all those worries and breathe out to all those countless beings your wish that they be freed from such pain.

Tonglen practice is a radical departure from our usual way of going about things. It may seem threatening, and even crazy; but it strikes at a very core point—how we barricade ourselves from pain and lose our connection with one another. The irony is that the barricades we create do not help all that much; they just make things worse. We end up more fearful, less willing to extend ourselves, and stunted in our ability to express any true kindness. Tonglen pokes holes in those barricades that we create.
Tonglen is always about connection: making a genuine connection with ourselves and others. It is a practice that draws us out beyond our own concerns to an appreciation that no matter what we happen to be going through, others too have gone through experiences just as intense. In tonglen we are continually expanding our perspective beyond our small self-preoccupied world. The less we restrict our world, the more of it we can take in—and at the same time, we find that we also have much more to give.

Judy Lief is a senior teacher (acharya) in Shambhala International. She is the executive editor of Vajradhatu Publications and editor of the Dharma Ocean Series of teachings by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. This article is from her book, Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Mortality, published in 2001 by Shambhala Publications.
Reprinted by permission of Shambhala Publications © 2000 Judy Lief.

Kindness to Ourselves and Others, Judy Lief, Shambhala Sun, May 2000.


Moving through the world with ease. Print
Shambhala Sun | May 2000

Moving Through the World with Ease

By: The classical yoga scriptures say that yoga postures, considered to be physical preparation for sitting meditation, should be done with ease. The dictionary defines ease as freedom from pain, labor, discomfort, anxiety or great effort; a quiet state of mind.  But how do you get there from here?


            The other day my dad, who like many recent converts to yoga is full of curiosity about the practice, saw me sitting crosslegged on the floor and asked, “What’s the name of that pose?” I told him it was called Sukhasana, which means easy pose. His reply to that was a snort followed by, “Easy for who?” Good question, Dad.
            The classical yoga scriptures say that yoga postures, considered to be physical preparation for sitting meditation, should be done with ease. The dictionary defines ease as freedom from pain, labor, discomfort, anxiety or great effort; a quiet state of mind.
            But how do you get there from here? And how do you stay there for more than a few breaths? Is it possible to experience ease in yoga or in meditation? Is it really possible to live our lives without great effort, pain and anxiety?
            Yes it is, with practice. That’s why we use the word “practice” to describe the act of doing yoga and meditation. Yoga and meditation are paths for developing specific skillful means—breathing, non-judging, patience, compassion, mental concentration, and precise physical alignment—that enable us to move toward spaciousness in our lives. The notion that it is actually possible to move through the world with ease is somewhat radical, and that’s why we have to practice it.
            This easeful living can begin purely with the physical level of existence. In the first Teisho of the millennium at the New York Zen Society, Eido Roshi introduced the Four Dignities: walking, sitting, lying down, and dwelling or being. Yoga postures prepare us for more balance in these areas through exercises that balance front with back, upper body with lower body, strength with flexibility, inhalation with exhalation. But even in yoga, if we don’t have a blend of wakefulness and openheartedness in our approach, our experience will still not be one of ease.
            Meditation teaches us how to pay attention to our breathing as a reference point for being in the present moment. It is a practice of noticing when we are not present, letting go of our distracting thoughts, and returning without judgment to following the breath in and out.
            The practices of letting go, non-judging, and taking a new beginning over and over again are of great benefit, and when we apply this relaxed wakefulness to yoga, we begin to experience the dance of equanimity—in body and mind, on and off the mat. This takes practice, such as the following mini-yoga program designed to be a simple, immediate way to begin to practice ease.


Begin by sitting down. Place one ankle in front of the other, not one under the other. Your knees should be slightly lower than your hips, so feel free to use cushions to elevate your pelvis as much as necessary. We want to let our lower body drop earthward, allowing our breath to nourish our internal organs. If we can surrender our weight instead of hoisting it up, our breathing will deepen, our nerves will be soothed, and we will start to experience balance, space, ease.
            Now lift the sides of your rib cage, letting your heart feel light and bright. Close your eyes, let the front of your face fall to the back of your head, and let go of your opinions, just for a little while. Soften your throat. Let your palms rest on your thighs just above your knees.
            Begin to follow the path of your breath with your mind. Notice where each exhalation ends and each inhalation begins. Slowly begin to deepen your breathing, little by little, so each inhalation grows slightly deeper and each exhalation extends a bit further. Let your deep breathing evolve organically, so you can experience the nourishment of oxygen without tightening at the top of the inhalation or pushing at the bottom of the exhalation.

Calming Breath with Arms

Now we will begin to balance body, breath and mind with an exercise called the Calming Breath with Arms. Breathing in and out for an equal length of time is another way to experience expansiveness and balance. Inhale for 4 counts as you lift your arms all the way up next to your ears, and exhaling for 4 counts, lower your arms back down by your sides. Let your arms and your mind ride on the wavelike motion of your own wind energy.

Calming Breath with Twisting

After 4 sets of the Calming Breath, add a twist. Inhale and lift arms up for 4 counts, and as you exhale for 4, twist your spine to the right, letting your left palm land on your right knee and your right hand on the floor behind you. Then, inhale and lift the arms up as you turn back to face front, and repeat to the other side. Practice the Calming Breath with Twisting at least 3 more times. Twists massage both the back and abdominal muscles, relieving headaches, backaches and digestive problems.
            After completing this little yoga class, come back to Sukhasana and live there. Sukha is sometimes translated as space. The opposite is dukha, which is sometimes translated as suffering, or by Krishnamacharya as “a dark room.” In The Solace of Open Spaces, Gretel Ehrlich writes, “Space represents sanity, not a life purified, dull or ‘spaced out’ but one that might accommodate intelligently any idea or situation.” Isn’t that where we want to live?

Cyndi Lee is founder of the OM Yoga Center in New York.

    Moving through the world with ease., Cyndi Lee, Shambhala Sun, May 2000.

Meaning & Beauty Print

Meaning & Beauty

By "There is a deep connection between meaning and beauty," says Rachel Naomi Remen. "Neither is a function of the intellect, both can enrich a life, and perhaps we develop an eye for meaning in the same way that we develop an eye for beauty."

Few of us pursue meaning deliberately. Most of us focus our attention elsewhere, accumulating knowledge in the belief that we will be able to trade it for a good and fulfilling life. Knowledge enables us to build a box to put our life in, but the box is itself empty. Only meaning can fill it up.
Over the years it has seemed to me that there is a deep connection between meaning and beauty. Neither is a function of the intellect; both can enrich a life. Meaning feeds and strengthens the soul in the same way that beauty does, and perhaps we develop an eye for meaning in the same way that we develop an eye for beauty.
Recently, I found myself in someone’s kitchen listening to a discussion between an art teacher and some friends about the nature of “aesthetic perception.” As the only non-artist there I was mystified by this idea, and when the others drifted away I asked the woman who had first used this odd phrase what it meant. She laughed. “It’s a way of seeing,” she said, and told me how a friend of hers teaches it to a class of seven-year-olds.
He begins the class by giving each child some water in a clear glass. Then he tells the children that something is going to happen in their glass of water. They must watch what happens carefully, but they cannot talk about it right away. First they will spend a few minutes just looking, and afterwards everyone will have the chance to tell the whole class what they saw. Then he walks through the classroom with a bottle of red ink and puts a single drop of red ink into each child’s glass.
The children are entranced, and the discussion that follows is very lively. Some children have seen an angel in their glass; others have seen the wind, or a flower, or the face of their grandma. They are delighted with these differences and listen to each other with rapt attention. The excitement builds and then the teacher presents them with the real lesson for the day. “Well,” he says, “What is all this about? Angels and grandmas and the wind? After all, it is only a drop of red ink in a glass of water… isn’t it?” But of course, in certain important ways it is not.
We all live far more meaningful lives than we know. Uncovering this meaning does not require us to live life differently but to see life differently. Finding meaning in the events of your life is not very different than seeing the angels in a glass of water. It requires a sort of double vision; an openness to living simultaneously in the world of ink and water, and the world of mystery and the soul.
Robert Assagioli, the founder of Psychosynthesis, tells a parable about the power of meaning to transform our experience of life. He invites us to imagine an interview with three master stone cutters who are building a cathedral in the Middle Ages. Before speaking with these workers, you take a moment to watch them cut stones into blocks. As each man finishes cutting a stone, others take it away and replace it with another stone, which too is cut into a block.
After a while you approach the first man and ask him what he is doing. He turns on you in anger and says, “Idiot, use your eyes. I am cutting stones into blocks. When I finish one they bring me another. I have been doing this since I was old enough to work and I will do it until the day that I die.”
Stunned, you back away and approach the second man to ask the same question. But his response is quite different. He smiles and says, “I am earning a living for my beloved family. With my wages we have built a warm little house, we have food on the table every day, the children are growing strong. I am building a safe place for those I love.”
Going on to the third man you ask him your question. He stops his work and the face he turns towards you is radiant. “I am building a great cathedral,” he tells you, “that will offer comfort to those in pain and sanctuary to those lost in the dark. And it will stand for a thousand years!”
All of these men are doing identical work. Meaning does not change our lives, but it does change our experience of our lives. Finding a personal meaning, and especially one that is transcendent in the midst of routine tasks, opens our daily work to the experience of joy.
Seeing the familiar in new ways may come through intention or practice, a cultivation of the capacity to reach beyond the cage of the ego to feel and know the life around us. But meaning may also come to us in moments of illumination, bearing with it a sense of grace. A sudden shift in perception may cause the world to change unexpectedly and offer us a glimpse of the deeper nature of things. Finding meaning in this way may take us beyond an experience of satisfaction and offer us a sense of gratitude. At such times we may feel blessed by something beyond our control.
A seasoned and rather cynical physician discovered this unexpectedly during a busy shift in a large city hospital emergency room. About halfway through the evening a woman was brought in by ambulance about to give birth. Jeff had delivered hundreds of babies in his years of working emergency rooms and he knew the routine well. Everything went perfectly, and he felt a familiar sense of competence and satisfaction as he began to suction the infant’s nose and mouth. Suddenly her eyes opened and she looked deeply into his eyes.
For Jeff, it was a defining moment, a sort of a doorway.  He stepped through it past all of his expertise and pride of accomplishment and realized that he was the first human being this child had ever seen. He could feel a thick armor of cynicism and numbness that had built up over the years fall away, and he felt his heart open to her in welcome from the whole human race.
Jeff is a fine physician. He had made many personal sacrifices to become a doctor and often wished for a simpler, less demanding life. But in this moment all that fell away and he felt a simple gratitude for the opportunity to do this work. He says, “Suddenly, I knew that it had all been worth it.”
The moment has changed him in a subtle but permanent way. Reflecting on what happened he says that he has long known what to do for his patients but he had somehow forgotten why he was doing it. “I guess I remembered what I was serving with my expertise,” he says. “Who would not feel grateful to be able to serve it?”
Ultimately, we are sustained not by our work but by its meaning. The meaning we find in a common task is often highly particular, but all genuine meaning has the same power: it enables us to know who we are and what we stand for. In the end it will help us to live a life worth remembering, no matter how difficult or challenging our life has been.

Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. is a clinical professor at UCSF School of Medicine and co-founder and medical director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program. Her new book is My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging, from Riverhead.

Meaning & Beauty, Rachel Naomi Remen, Shambhala Sun, May 2000.

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