What Time is Now?
What Time is Now?By: “Clock time has to do with where we are not. Timing has to do with being where we are, paying attention to what is appropriate to the moment at hand.”
A great walnut grandmother’s clock hung above the mantelpiece in our living room when I was growing up. Its movement was governed by a pendulum and three brass weights decorated with fine scrollwork that hung down on thin cords. My father would open the wood-framed glass door and take a little key and wind up the weights from three cranks in the clock face. It chimed once at each quarter hour and then a separate set of chimes for the hours, so 12 o’clock was heralded by 16 chimes in all. It was in no way digital. Its resounding tick-tock and mellifluous chimes were my introduction to recorded time.
It was monks, they say, who first introduced mechanical clocks as a way to signal prayer times, but timekeeping has advanced far beyond such simplicity. It is a double-edged sword. It provides us with tremendous precision and the ability to do things according to schedules, such as the magazine deadline I face right now, and yet as we know so well, it enslaves us in arbitrary rhythms. With computers, we have evolved the notion of “real time,” which so far as I can tell means right away and fast, but real time as we experience it defies the clock. Time crawls or flies or languishes, in keeping with our state of mind.
The Japanese concept of ma refers to the ability to stretch and bend time according to the movements of a human body dancing. If we watch dancers adept at ma, they create time for us as we witness their movements through space. They are the watch face or the weights on the clock. This is time management on a grander scale than the proficient use of an electronic organizer.
Scrupulously measuring the passage of time presents no inherent problem. It certainly makes it easier to make a lunch date or to know when to show up at the airport, but when timekeeping develops into time addiction it can limit development of one of the greatest human attributes: timing.
Clock time has to do with where we are not. When we ask what time it is, we are not trying to find out where we are but rather where we ought to be or ought to be next. Timing has to do with being where we are, paying attention to what is appropriate to the moment at hand. When someone looks at their watch just as you are about to get to the point of what you are saying, it says to you, “I don’t have time for this. I am on a different schedule.” Their sense of clock time may be well tuned, but their sense of timing is clumsy and rude. Adding the “ing” makes time less a matter of math and more a matter of intuition and sensitivity.
Our marriage to the clock and the calendar can breed a false sense of knowing time and place. We know that we are of a certain age and have had a certain job and a certain relationship for so long and we know what day and month and hour it is, but the chaos that governs existence does not let us know when illness, disaster, or good fortune may strike to radically alter our current stack of reference points. We call this unpredictability, but nothing is more predictable than that our schemes and schedules will be disrupted. Yet we often react with panic and throw our sense of timing to the winds. When my father died suddenly, I raged against the schedule disruption, but in the greater scheme of things it was time to do something else.
Measured time gives the illusion of solidity and linearity, but a close look at our lives lets us know that events are much more fluid and hard to pinpoint. On what day were we no longer young? At what precise hour on exactly which day did our relationship to someone change its character? When did our child turn the corner from teenager to adult?
To truly be kind to others (and ourselves for that matter), it helps to abandon time slavery and try to notice what kind of time others are keeping, to notice their face and their gesture, to know when they are ready to say something, ready to be quiet, ready to come, to go, to be led, to be followed. So many times I have been unable to listen or to notice what someone was going through or where they were headed because it didn’t meet with my schedule. Patience and timing are inextricably linked. Patience, which we can regard with such excruciation, offers a hidden reward. When we stop watching the pot, we may learn that it boils right on time.
Sometimes my father would forget to wind the big clock, the weights would fall, and time would stop. We wind the clock. It does not have to wind uss
Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication: http://www.victorycommunication.ca
A Time to Find Meaning
A Time to Find MeaningBy: “Even when disease cannot be cured, there is often a way to use this difficult experience to know more intimately the value and purpose of your life.”
It is only quite recently that illness has been defined as a function of the body. At the beginnings of medicine, the shamans or medicine men defined illness not in terms of pathology but in terms of the soul. In this older wisdom, illness is seen as “soul loss,” a loss of direction, purpose, meaning, mystery and awe. According to these ancients, healing required an attention not to the body but to the realm of spirit, a recovery of the soul.
Illness and suffering draw the soul and its issues closer. Much of what I know about spirit I have learned from listening to people with cancer in my work as a physician and from my own experience with chronic illness. These experiences have taught me that spirit is not just a human capacity; it is a human need. This seems especially true in times of loss, in times of illness and crisis. At such times, spirit is strength.
What then is spirit? Spirit is the basis for the value of every human life; it is the source of our dignity and the foundation of our experience of integrity despite bodily change. The capacity for spiritual experience is so universal that every language has its own name for it: the Atman, the Ne-shuma, the Ra, the Ru-ach, the Divine Spark. We call this capacity the soul.
The language of the soul is meaning. We may first discover the soul when life events awaken in us the need for meaning. In the setting of a chronic illness, even people who have never considered this dimension of experience before instinctively reach for personal meaning. Meaning helps us to see in the dark. It strengthens the will to live in us.
Many years ago when I went to medical school, the meaning of illness was seen as irrelevant. But we did not know much about healing then; our focus was on cure. But these things are mutually distinct; expertise cures but it is meaning that heals us. Many things that are beyond cure can still heal. I suppose one might even say that there is a healthy way to have a disease. Even when disease cannot be cured, there is often a way to use this difficult experience to come to know more intimately the value and purpose of your own life. An illness will mean something different to every person who is touched by it.
Experiencing spirit and meaning does not require us to live differently; many of us already live far more meaningful lives than we realize. Meaning does not change the particulars of our lives; it changes our experience of those particulars. Finding meaning requires seeing beyond the superficial to the essential, seeing what is familiar and even commonplace in new ways. When this happens, many people who have seen themselves as victims are surprised to recognize they are heroes.
Illness often naturally initiates a movement towards greater wholeness and perspective. As a physician, I have accompanied many people as they have discovered in themselves an unexpected strength, a courage beyond what they would have thought possible, an unsuspected sense of compassion, and a capacity for love far deeper than they had ever dreamed.
Through illness, people may come to know themselves for the first time and recognize not only who they genuinely are, but what really matters to them. In illness, people sometimes abandon values they inherited with their family name—values that they have never questioned before—and find the courage to live in new ways.
Often these ways are more soul-infused. In all the years that I have listened to people with cancer, no one has ever said to me that if they died, they would miss their Mercedes, even if such a car and all that it represented had been the focus of their lives for many years.
The capacity for spirit and meaning are present in all human beings. My experience as both physician and patient has led me to believe that illness is often an awakening to this capacity and a profound spiritual path. What challenges and even diminishes the body can evolve and strengthen the soul.
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. She is the author of Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal and My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging.
This column is adapted from Dr. Remen’s foreword to Meditations on Diabetes: Strengthening Your Spirit in Every Season, by Catherine Feste, published by the American Diabetes Association.
The Teacher in the West
The Teacher in the West
Styles of relationship are subtly embedded within cultural contexts. Asia has Confucius; we have Oedipus. It should be no mystery that we have so far been unable to successfully transplant this subtle mode of practice: Norman Fischer on the teacher-student relationship in Western Buddhist practice.
In most traditional meditation-based forms of Buddhist practice there is a tremendous emphasis on the centrality of the teacher. The idea is that Buddhism cannot be learned from books, nor is it a matter of spontaneous personal insight or mystical intuition. In order to be liberated from self-attachment, the student needs to let go of self-view, and this is nearly impossible to do alone, since self deception is so natural.
It is all too easy to substitute a transcendental spiritualized ego for the garden variety; I have seen it happen. So the teacher is needed. In order to ensure that the practitioner’s understanding is really accurate, and not just some delusionary enthusiasm, he or she needs a contact point, a way to check. In some forms of Buddhism the teacher is this check, and even more: it is through the ineffable relationship to the teacher, with its devotion and merging of identity, that the transformation to be affected by the Buddhist path is said to occur.
But the transmission of this intimate tradition of teacher-student relationship from Asia to the West is not a straightforward thing. Styles of relationship are subtly embedded within cultural contexts, and they aren’t subject to explanation. Relationships are what we do and what we live, not what we figure out.
In Asia, although there may be a variety of ways in which students and teachers relate to each other, the basic style is generations-old and flows naturally from the traditional Asian family system. In the West, by and large, traditional family systems are no longer operative and, even where they are, the Western template is quite different: Asia has Confucius, we have Oedipus. It should be no mystery that we have so far been unable to successfully transplant this subtle mode of practice!
It would be tempting to want to throw the whole thing out as inherently abusive or infantalizing and reaffirm our strong Western sense of individualism and self reliance. But I do not think we can do that. We have to work it out. This will take time and a lot of trial and error. We will have to rely on the goodwill, wit and understanding of dharma students and their teachers over time, but we ought to be able to do it, as long as we are clear that the main point is the transformation of the individual, not the protection of institutions, traditions or personal authority.
For me, the magic of the teacher-student relationship lies in trust. Lately I have been thinking that trusting one’s self and the world completely and absolutely, no matter what comes, is the essence of liberation. This trust is achieved in large measure through our relationships with our teachers. Having confidence in someone whom we look toward as an example, as an inspiration, seems necessary if we are to do the hard lifetime’s work of transformation. And once we develop that confidence in another, even through all our imagined and perhaps not imagined betrayals, we begin to see that the confidence we have is actually in ourselves, our real selves.
I have found in my life of practice that in the end I could always trust my teachers—could trust them to be themselves as they actually were, not as I would have liked them to be. To remain trusting of them was perhaps the greatest thing I learned, not because they turned out to be perfect and all-wise, but because I came to realize that trust was my practice and my responsibility, not theirs. There’s one story of an old Zen master who was asked why he venerated his teacher so much. He said, "I respect him not for his great grasp of dharma but because he never taught me anything. And that was the greatest gift."
The job of a student, then, is to practice trust. The job of the teacher is to be as truly trustworthy as he or she can be, which means to be wise enough and well enough established in the dharma as to not be so easily caught by self-centeredness. And to be willing to show up.
In Zen there are said to be two ways of teaching—the granting way and the grasping way. The granting way follows the heart of the student, gently letting the student find her way. The grasping way emphasizes the absolute in all things, snatching away ego whenever it appears. This way seems more exciting (because dangerous), but frankly I wonder whether it is really effective with Western students. So far I have not seen many good results, and plenty of bad results. And I wonder whether there are any Western teachers who are really mature enough to use this method, or any Asian teachers who understand the Western mind deeply enough to use it.
There is a lot of interesting lore in the Zen tradition about the student-teacher relationship. Many of the Zen tales involve students and teachers probing each other’s understanding, sometimes in a rather rough and tumble way. This is a good idea. Teachers are said to occupy the "absolute position." This means they sit in the dharma seat; they are stand-ins for the Buddha. We give them this role, which they occupy on the strength of our faith, because we know it is of benefit to ourselves. But sitting in that seat doesn’t make a teacher into a god or a superhuman.
Every teacher is a person who is still walking the path. His or her perfection or transcendent wisdom is an assumption we might make for the purposes of our study, but we should never be confused about the provisional nature of that assumption. So it’s always a good idea to argue, complain, yell at, and challenge the teacher sometimes. It keeps everyone honest. Sometimes the teacher seems scary, and that is good as long as it is only sometimes. Other times he or she should be like a pussycat, just some old sweet person hanging around. The flexible ability to assume a variety of roles according to conditions seems to me a true test of a good teacher.
In Zen there’s also a tremendous emphasis on the independence of the student. Similar to the completion of the transference process in psychotherapy, the Zen student is enjoined to, finally, stand up alone, letting go of the teacher’s support. "Teacher" and "student" are ultimately seen as roles, as positions, not as fixed individuals. Sometimes the student is the teacher and sometimes the teacher is the student, and in the Soto Zen dharma transmission, this is enacted as part of the ceremony. In the Zen lineage charts the line of succession goes from Buddha, through the many generations of teachers, to the present disciple, and then back up to Buddha again. So each one of us, when we find our feet in the dharma, are not only the teacher of our own teacher, but the teacher of Buddha and his successors.
There’s also the often repeated notion that, "If the student does not surpass the teacher he is not a true student." I contemplated this saying for years but could never make sense of it: by its logic each generation must be wiser than the last, so a teacher in my generation would have to be almost a hundred times wiser than Buddha! But of course the meaning of the phrase is, "Each student must be completely himself or herself, find his or her own way, express his or her uniqueness in the dharma."
This is finally what the teacher wants, and if she doesn’t want that, then there is something wrong; she has more work to do (and this is a common failing of powerful teachers). Once someone asked a monk, "Do you agree with your teacher or not?" And he responded, "I half agree." "Why only half?" he was asked. "If I agreed completely then I would be ungrateful."
In the end it is not clear who is the teacher and who is the student. Yes, we must be able to see persons and harmonize with the roles that they occupy, according to circumstances. But if we really understand the teacher then we see him or her everywhere.
Here is an old Zen poem on the subject. The poem turns on the image of a chick (the student) pecking her way out of her shell (of ego), with the mother hen (the teacher) helping by pecking at the same spot at the same time. Together, their efforts produce freedom for the student.
The chick breaks out, the mother hen breaks
When the chick awakens, there is no shell.
Chick and hen both forgotten,
Response to circumstances is unerring.
On the same path, chanting in harmony,
Through the marvelous mystery, walking
—The Blue Cliff Record, vol. II, p. 109,
translation by Thomas Cleary
Zen priest and poet Norman Fischer is the author of The Narrow Roads of Japan (San Francisco: Ex Nihilo, 1998).
The Rain and the Temple
The Rain and the Temple
"Pushing the dripping hair from my face, the rain running down my cheeks, I speak to my old teacher. ‘I’m here. It took me a while, but I made it.’ Natalie Goldberg visits the tomb of her teacher Katagiri Roshi in Japan.
I just returned from Japan a week ago. I had never thought of going before. I had my own little Japan when I studied with Katagiri Roshi, a Japanese Zen master, for six years in Minneapolis. But when he died I had a great desire to see where he came from and the country that produced him. I should say, that produced the Japanese Zen that I was studying, but I had a heart to heart connection with him, and that personal connection is really what carried me. So I wanted to go to Japan, but I was scared. They didn’t speak English, I didn’t know how to get around, and their signs were in kanji. I had bought airplane tickets two times in the eight years since he died and then I forfeited them. But this time I decided I had to go. I had a friend who is a good traveler and she said she’d come with me.
Right before we went, I visited Katagiri Roshi’s wife, Tomoe, in Minnesota. I asked her for exact directions to his old temple. When his teacher died it became his temple. No one since had been abbot there. When I studied with Roshi I’d heard stories about it all the time. Only he and his teacher practiced in this temple. There were no other students. And so I got the directions, and this is how precise Tomoe was: she not only told me where to get the bus after I took the train, but she then opened up a photo album and showed me photos of the train station, the bus stop where I should get off, the spot where I should turn at the corner. And I thought, oh, Tomoe, you’re being silly, I’m quite sophisticated.
And so I arrived in Japan on a Thursday and we went to Kyoto and the following Thursday I got up my courage to go out into the country. It was pouring rain. Pouring may be no big deal to someone who lives in San Francisco, but I live in New Mexico, where rain is an auspicious event. You might want to remember that, next time it rains, wherever you are. But the rain in Kyoto scared me—it was flooding the streets. I thought, should I go today? And then I thought, well, I planned to, okay, I’ll go. My friend came with me. We wore our green slickers. The Japanese only carry umbrellas, and they think it’s very American and cloddish to wear these big plastic things on public transportation where you have to sit all wet next to someone else.
We traveled first in Kyoto on the subway, climbing four deep flights down. You don’t realize how deep someone can dig. Really, when you think about it, it’s a tremendous thing—a subway under a city. We took that subway to the train station where we would catch the train to a town called Tsuruga. It was going to leave at 9:31. Well, you’d better believe in Japan it leaves at 9:31. And that was really the only way we knew that it was the right train. It showed up at 9:31 and we jumped on. Then I asked people sitting in their seats with newspapers and box lunches of pickles, rice, sushi and seaweed on their laps, "Tsuruga? Tsuruga?" To get their attention I called out, "Hey!" But it’s not "Hey"; it’s "Hai!" "Hai!" I corrected myself and tried to act Japanese. Then I’d forget and say "Hey!" again. And they’d say, "Hai! Hai!" "Tsuruga? Tsuruga!" "Hai." Yes, we were on the right train and it was pouring hard and the clouds were dark gray.
In about half an hour we passed a big lake on the right and I heard the conductor announce, "Biwa." I looked harder—that was Lake Biwa, where Ikkyu in a rowboat at twenty-seven years old in the sixteenth century heard a crow caw overhead and became fully enlightened. I touched the window glass for a moment. I knew that lake, and even in the storm it was icy blue.
The train ride was altogether an hour and ten minutes and we got off in a little town. I thought Tsuruga was going to be a big town. We went to the small tourist station, but they didn’t speak a drop of English and I didn’t speak a speck of Japanese. I had the name for the next destination. I said, "Kitada?" "Kitada," they nodded. "Kitada?" "Kitada." I wanted to ask, "Bus Two? Three? Where?" I held up fingers. They pointed to two. After ten minutes we figured out it was bus two, leaving at 12:25. They wrote down "Kitada" in kanji on a slip of paper for us, so we could match it with the sign on the front of the bus. The buses, unlike the trains, don’t leave exactly on time—we needed to check that the lettering was the same. We found the bus, but it was 11:25. We had about an hour to walk around.
Usually in the U.S. I don’t eat lunch at the Greyhound bus station. But when I’m in other countries I’m suddenly wide open and we were hungry, so after finding the bus, we went into a tiny—I mean tiny, one small table width—restaurant. The waiter stood by us, pen poised to take our order. We pointed to something on the menu—we didn’t know what it was. The waiter spoke quickly with hands jerking and we nodded, "Hai! Hai!", and he shook his head and went in the back room. A few other people were there and they were being served noodles, vegetables, pieces of white fish. We weren’t served and the time was going by. I whispered to my friend, "I think he was trying to tell us something important and we didn’t get it." We had 15 minutes till the bus left. I screwed up my courage and ran into the kitchen and pointed to my watch and held up my hand—I flashed five fingers three times—fifteen minutes till the bus leaves, but what my motions meant to the cook I had no idea. I went back to my seat, and Michele said, "So it’s going to come?" I said, "Oh, yeah, he understood."
Ten minutes before the bus left he placed an omelet before us. We were thrilled it wasn’t octopus. We ate it up quickly and ran to the bus. I spoke to the bus driver, "Kitada?" He nodded "Kitada." Again I said "Kitada?" I wanted him to tell us when we got to Kitada. How would we know? But he just said, "Kitada." We sat down hoping that someone would motion when Kitada came, or that I would recognize the bus stop from Tomoe’s photo in the album. People on the bus were staring at us—we were further away from the city—these giants in green slickers with no umbrellas. And it was still pouring out, the kind of rain that hits and bounces. The bus was moving through the wet countryside and the road became narrow. People in the bus continued to gawk at us. Several times I ran up to the bus driver, "Kitada?" He nodded "Kitada." Finally everyone on the bus knew, Kitada, so when we got there they yelled in unison, "Kitada!"
We stumbled out into the rain, the bus took off, and we were left on the edge of the road next to a Japanese version of a 7-11 and a car mechanic building. Kitada? I looked for the picture that Tomoe had shown me, but there was no picture. We were nervous and then we saw a road. As soon as we turned we were suddenly in the Japanese countryside of rice fields, reeds and ponds. In the distance we could see a village. No shops or bakeries, just little houses and farmed fields. It was beautiful through the slate gray of rain. A heavy, powerful bird swooped down in front of us—a cross between a feathered owl and the royal size of an eagle. I said to Michele, "What kind of bird is that?" It was the only bird out that day because it was raining so hard.
We trudged into the little town and everything was closed down. The intricate flower plots dripped with rain. Over a hill I saw the Japan Sea and I remembered Tomoe saying there was a sea. And so we kept going, and finally there was a marker in kanji. I took a chance, "This is it," and I hoped I recalled it from one of Tomoe’s photos. Behind it we saw a mud path—the old entryway, Tomoe had told me. We both hesitated. Michele nodded, "Let’s follow it," and we stepped off the pavement. The earth was soggy, and we squished with each footstep.
In the distance I see a red tiled roof—I know it is Tasoin temple. There’s one person in a paddy field in the rain, working with a hoe. He sees us walk by, and he turns and I wave, and he nods. Maybe other people have come over time to visit Roshi’s ashes. The temple is deserted, no one to practice here anymore, once Roshi left for America more than thirty years ago. So it’s closed down and the little village takes care of it. They open it, I guess, for burials. I see a little cemetery and I say to Michele, "Can I go by myself. I’ll meet you." And it’s fine. It is a really ancient cemetery with stone buddhas and other things. I don’t know anything, but it is wonderful.
Then I panic. I came all the way to Japan. What if I don’t find his tombstone? I walk around lots of old stones and then in the distance I see a clutter of rounded tops. I know the rounded part signifies the gravestones of the teacher lineage for that temple. I hurry over and at the very end is a new tombstone. I know it is Roshi’s. It is still pouring but I push off my hood and then throw off my slicker. I prostrate myself three times on the wet earth and then I kneel in front of his stone. Pushing the dripping hair from my face, the rain running down my cheeks, I speak to my old teacher. "I’m here. It took me a while, but I made it," and I cannot say how good I feel to finally be there with him.
I look around. Two rhododendron, then trees I cannot name, but I can see them even now, dark green, tall, with drooping needles. A camellia bush, rice paddies, the Japan Sea, and the village. For years with Roshi I’d hear about this place. It was just him and his teacher practicing together. As a young monk, he thought that it was silly to get up in the morning. Why bother? So his teacher kept a schedule, got up at five, sat zazen, made breakfast, and then he’d go and shake Katagiri. "C’mon, it’s time to eat." And Katagiri would say, "Oh, I’ll just sleep late." And his teacher would be quiet and say, "It’s good to follow the schedule even if no one else is here."
Every day, or every few days, they’d walk into town to formally ask the villagers for food with their begging bowls. And every time it was just the two of them, the teacher in front and the student behind. When the student decided to come to America, he told his teacher. His teacher didn’t discourage him, but Roshi told us, "When we walked into town I could tell from his back that he felt lonely."
I remember the two of them as I sit in the rain in the cemetery. I make a vow to him right then and I pick up a single black stone and put it in my pocket. I walk over to the temple, which I had been told was locked, but Michele has found a way to unlock it. We take our shoes off and go in. It is a really old temple with a brick oven for a stove. We slide open paper walls, discovering spaces with tatamis on the floor. The final place we find is formal, with a large altar and a faded picture across the room—it must be Katagiri’s teacher—and then a little photo is tucked into the bottom of the frame, very faded. I step closer. I can make out Roshi’s profile. He must have sent it from America. I stand in front of it a long time, as the rain thunders down on the roof. I’ve come a long way to see this, I think to myself.
When we leave, walking down the road, facing the Japan Sea, I know this is the path he took into the village, and suddenly that brown bird swoops down in front of me and flies right back to the eaves of the temple. I follow him with my eyes and turn and watch him open and close his wings, calling to me, as he clutches the edge of the roof with his claws. I swallow, lift my hand, wave good-bye and keep walking.
And that one afternoon was worth my entire trip to Japan, to go and do that.
Among Natalie Goldberg’s books are Writing Down the Bones, Long Quiet Highway and Living Color: A Writer Paints Her World. This article is adapted from a lecture given in the "Buddhism at Millennium’s Edge" series, sponsored by the San Francisco Zen Center.
Jon Kabat Zinn: The Prescription is Meditation
Jon Kabat-Zinn: The Prescription is Meditation
From the inner city to the executive suite, in hospitals and prisons, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s meditation courses are helping thousands handle illness stress, anger and addiction. Lawrence Pintak profiles the man who has brought meditation to the American mainstream.
John Coolidge was alone with his mind. Paralyzed and rendered deaf by a disease that had attacked his nervous system, Coolidge’s eyes were his one link with the world. And now to protect his eyes, the doctors had decreed that each night they must be covered with gauze.
He was left totally isolated—unable to feel, unable to move, unable to hear, unable to see, unable even to breathe without the respirator which kept him alive. "The good news was that my mind worked fine. The bad news was that my mind worked fine," says Coolidge, looking back on the experience.
Through the long hours of the night, Coolidge lay awake and alone, too terrified to sleep. For some, it would have been a prescription for panic. But John Coolidge knew to seek refuge in the one physical sensation he had left—his breath.
"I had been taught a meditation technique in which you watch your breath—in goes the good air, out goes the bad. The ventilator was moving my chest up and down, and it was the one solid thing I had going for me," he recalls. For Coolidge, the simple act of concentrating his awareness on the flow of air into his body provided the anchor that kept his mind under control.
Awareness, concentration and control. This is the mantra of a movement which is today helping thousands of Americans cope with pain and the emotional stresses which, medical science is proving, contribute to disease. The foundation of this movement was laid twenty years ago by an MIT-trained microbiologist who believed science did not end at the laboratory door. Exposed to martial arts, yoga and Zen meditation as a student, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn came to realize that Buddhist yogis and Western researchers had much in common.
"They were all inquiring about the nature of reality, the nature of the mind, the nature of being human," says Kabat-Zinn, "and I just didn’t see a big dividing line between one way of inquiring and another."
Kabat-Zinn took a sabbatical from medicine to head the Cambridge Zen Center, and the deeper his practice became, the more convinced he was that meditation could play a crucial role in the healing process. The key was proving it.
"This was unbelievably powerful stuff that no one was looking at from a scientific point," says Kabat-Zinn, a compact man with the face of a Brooklyn street fighter. "But then I came to see that research had been done for years—by meditators and yogis."
As author of the best-selling Full Catastrophe Living, Kabat-Zinn literally wrote the book on using the mind to help heal the body. "He was one of the first people who took Eastern disciplines and began to measure their effects from a clinical perspective," says Garrett Sarley, executive director of the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, one of the country’s leading centers for mind-body seminars and retreats. "For a doctor to go out and forge that path took a great deal of courage."
Mindful breathing is the core of Kabat-Zinn’s brand of body-mind medicine. "Mindfulness is a way of living your life and holding all of experience," he says, sitting in his office at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the UMass Medical Center in Worcester. "These kinds of practices—mindful yoga and meditation—actually have effects on the body that are in the direction of greater health and well-being."
In the two decades since Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness Center, more than 10,000 patients have been through his "stress reduction program"—almost all referred by physicians and other health care professionals. Countless thousands more have taken classes at the more than 240 mind-body stress reduction clinics that have sprung up around the world, many created on Kabat-Zinn’s template. Dramatic reductions in physical and emotional symptoms are common among course participants suffering from a broad range of chronic diseases and medical problems, even as their ability to handle pain and stress increases.
It was at such an eight-week program that John Coolidge learned to watch his breath, three years before the auto accident that left his pelvis crushed and triggered the onset of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a trauma-related disorder that causes paralysis by attacking the lining of the nerves.
"It felt like I was dying in phases," recalls Coolidge, shortly after he was released from six months of hospitalization. "I basically meditated my way all through it. My folks would literally see my heart rate and respiration rate go down on the monitors. You could literally see the relaxation electronically."
Before the ordeal was over, Coolidge would use the techniques for more than just stress management. As feeling slowly began to return to his limbs, the lumbar punctures that tracked his recovery—tests in which electrically charged needles were inserted into the nerves—became increasingly painful.
"It was like getting hooked up to an electric fence for an hour," he recalls with a shudder. Once more, Coolidge resorted to meditating on his breath.
"It absolutely helped to offset the pain," he says of the breath meditation. "You’re still aware of it, but it doesn’t control your thinking. The pain or the fear doesn’t have to be dominant. That doesn’t mean it disappears, but it doesn’t have to be the only thing going on."
Would Coolidge have survived if he had not gone through the Kabat-Zinn program? Probably, but he suspects the experience would have been much worse. "The meditation allowed me to concentrate the fight that was in me on productive areas," he explains. "I was able to fight the disease, the paralysis, the pneumonia, and not at any time fight the fact that I was in those circumstances—not spend any time being angry."
"Holding on to how it should be, rather than how it is, is a huge energy drain for most of us," instructor Florence Meyer tells a stress reduction class assembled on the second floor of the Joseph Benedict Building at UMass-Memorial Hospital. Meyer is seated cross-legged on a meditation cushion.
Two dozen people, a mix of corporate executives and blue collar workers, professionals, and middle-class grandmothers, doctors and psychologists, are scattered around the crowded room, some on cushions on the floor, others perched on chairs that line the walls. They have one thing in common: they are all trying to cope—with stress, with pain, with disease.
"Have you ever heard how they trap monkeys in India?" Meyer asks, beginning a story that is a staple of the course. "They put out a box with a hole just large enough for the monkey to fit his hand in. Inside is a banana. Once the monkey grabs the banana, he can’t get his hand out. All he has to do is let go of the banana. But he doesn’t, and he’s trapped.
"What are the things we hold on to that trap us?" she asks the group, which she has just led in a 40-minute silent meditation.
"We all have things we don’t have control over," says Meyer, one of nine staff members who teach both students and other instructors from around the country. "But there is always something we can control—when we are going to give something energy and when we’re not."
Control. The word echoes through the classrooms and literature of the Mindfulness Center. "Most days are like playing ‘Beat the Clock,’ " says Susan, an emergency room nurse who, like many in the room, is struggling to handle the pressures of work, family and life. "I used to lose control and escalate with the people I work with. Now I can step aside, take a few breaths and continue my work in a calm manner."
Judy, who is juggling two jobs to get by, says the pressure had become too much the previous day, and she finally broke down in tears.
"If you had connected with what was going on, you could have made a choice," Meyer reminds her. She recounts for the group the steps toward facing stress mindfully: "Be aware of the feeling. Go to the breath, even if it’s just for a moment. Re-connect with yourself. The cause of the stress may not go away, but that’s okay. You can now make a choice how to react."
"It was an amazing thing that I was able to get control of my stress," affirms Linda King, a self-confessed "Type A personality" who was able to discontinue her high blood pressure medication after taking the course. "It sounds very simple—it’s all about centering yourself and breathing—but physiologically it has a tremendous effect on the body."
"I’ve seen a number of people go into that course and come out more insightful, better able to deal with their symptoms, and sometimes actually having less symptoms," confirms Dr. John K. Zawacki, a UMass gastroenterologist who has referred many patients to the program.
Documenting those changes has been a prime goal of the Mindfulness Center.
"What that group did—and that’s where they really should be applauded—is they took seriously the need for well-done, randomized studies," says David Larsen, president of the Washington-based National Institute for Healthcare Research, which has helped create courses in spirituality at some sixty medical schools. "They’ve really made a difference, so that now you even have insurance companies funding this type of effort. They’re a model for the rest of us."
Kabat-Zinn and his team have published more than a dozen detailed studies on the effects of mindfulness meditation in major peer-reviewed medical journals. "Unless you are writing up these kinds of experiences in the medical literature in ways that are scientifically valid and reproducible by other places, then it’s just, ‘I hear they do great things over at UMass Medical Center,’ but it wouldn’t go any deeper," says Kabat-Zinn.
Overall, controlled clinical studies carried out by the center have documented symptom reductions of between 29% and 46% among class participants. Breaking it down by condition, people with heart disease experienced a 45% reduction in symptoms; high blood pressure, 43%; pain, 25%, and stress, 31%. Those are the kind of numbers that get the attention of health care providers trying to control costs. Insurance companies and HMOs like Tufts are now picking up at least some of the cost for about a quarter of the program’s participants.
"From our personal experience, we have found their studies to be well-designed and robust," says Dr. Tehseen Salimi, director of medical services for Cigna Healthsource Massachusetts, which is funding a trial program documenting the effects of the mind-body stress reduction course on patients suffering from three specific ailments.
But insurance companies aren’t paying for meditation classes out of the goodness of their hearts. Lowering someone’s blood pressure enough to get them off medication, or helping an ulcer patient redirect his stress, means fewer costs for them. For example, a Kabat-Zinn study published last autumn reported that the skin lesions of psoriasis patients who listened to meditation tapes while undergoing light treatments cleared up four times faster than those who did not. "The implication is that the mind can actually enhance the healing process by a factor of four, and if people need fewer treatments, it costs less," Kabat-Zinn explains.
Participants in the stress reduction classes do more than just sit watching their breath. They are taught simple yoga movements and introduced to a "body scan" technique borrowed from Vipassana meditation, in which they are guided through a process of shifting the focus of their awareness to different parts of the anatomy.
The point of it all is to "be present in your body," as the instructors constantly remind their students, in order to "see events with more clarity and directness" and thus consciously "control what is controllable, and release the rest."
"Most people don’t listen to their bodies at all," says a medical doctor enrolled in a recent course. "They’re so busy doing whatever they’re trying to do, they’re not thinking about what their body’s telling them they should or shouldn’t do."
Each student in the course, which meets three hours a week for eight weeks, is given a set of guided meditation tapes and expected to do at least forty-five minutes of practice each night.
"It’s not a cure-all. It’s not like some magical thing," insists Bob, a stressed-out Metrowest executive who was on tranquilizers and suffering from irritable bowel syndrome before taking the course. "I remember some people saying, ‘I feel ripped off, I thought this was going to be awesome and it wasn’t.’ I think that’s because people think that someone else is going to fix their lives for them. What I found is it’s really hard work, but it’s worth it."
But it is no panacea. That’s evident in the haggard face of a young mother who arrives late to a class at the Mindfulness Center’s inner city campus at a UMass hospital in one of the poorest areas of Worcester, a moribund industrial city in central Massachusetts.
The reek of stale cigarette smoke clings to her like a dirty blanket. She can’t be more than thirty years old, but worry has etched deep hollows in her frail face, adding a decade of age. Her movements are sharp, nervous. She holds her trembling hands firmly in her lap, as if consciously forcing them not to reach for the next cigarette in the chain.
"Do you manage to do the daily practice?" a visitor asks her during a brief break. "Sometimes," she hesitantly replies, eyes shyly straying toward her questioner. "Not much. I have a little daughter, so it’s hard ..." Pause. " ... and we’re homeless."
"They arrive here shaking; sometimes life and hope aren’t present in their eyes," says Fernando A. de Torrijos, director of the inner city program. "The doctors don’t know what to do with them, so they send them here."
Drug addicts, alcoholics, victims of abuse. All the pain of inner city life is present in the class, which many participants take two or three times.
"I feel like I am bound by chains that I can’t break," says Louise, a woman of indeterminate age who struggles to form the words. She appears mentally handicapped, but experts say the symptoms are actually a legacy of years of abuse, followed by lengthy incarceration in a mental institution. "They tore me down," she says.
"We can use meditation to be present in our situation and use that awareness to break out of our chains," explains instructor Melissa Blacker, a psychologist who was a grief counselor before joining the Mindfulness Center.
But can they? Is there a point at which the burden is just too great? "They come from such a difficult starting point," Kabat-Zinn acknowledges. "We’re not taking people the entire distance to anything in eight weeks. But a lot of the work that we do is planting seeds. Even if you drop out, if you’ve heard one person say, ‘I did this and my pain went away,’ or ‘I handled a very difficult situation in a positive way,’ that’s potentially life-changing."
The inner city classes are free to those who don’t have insurance and can’t afford to pay, the vast majority. Referrals come from clinics, support groups and shelters in the city. Free taxis and child care encourage attendance. Instructors make frequent follow-up calls to those who miss classes, which are also held in Spanish.
Still, since its inception, only 600 of the 2,000 participants have actually completed the inner city course. John, an on-again off-again drug addict, is one who’s made it through the program. He has been an intermittent participant since 1992 and has attended every session for the past two years. Battling a potentially deadly Hepatitis C infection, coping with depression, fighting pain, he is on a toxic cocktail of prescription drugs even as he struggles to stay "clean."
Since he has stuck with it, the meditation class has brought his soaring blood pressure down 10 points. "It’s life or death, but it’s not easy," he says, the words coming in manic, machine-gun bursts. "If I don’t do this, then I will have a heart attack and die."
The desperation is apparent in his voice. "It takes a lot of practice and I have to practice for the rest of my life. It has to become automatic and that’s what I’m working on."
"It’s one of those things that works when you work at it," confirms Sarah, a legally blind diabetic who has attended the course once before. This time she has brought her husband, whose heart is severely damaged. "When I use it, I find myself more calm, relaxed, mellow—better equipped to face the world."
But, she is asked, does it change the difficulties that surround her? "No, but it helps me to respond rather than react, and respond in a more appropriate manner, calmer," she adds with a laugh, "rather than just plunging into things."
Fifty miles and a world away, the attorneys at Boston legal powerhouse Hale and Dorr are also learning to respond more calmly. Last autumn, forty of the mega-firm’s 360 lawyers attended an eight-week course held right in the firm’s elegant State Street offices.
"They found that it improved their ability to respond to many of the challenges and stresses they encounter," reports Brenda Fingold, a partner in charge of training and development who organized the course. "They’re more focused, better listeners and have more energy."
Still, it’s hard to picture a high-powered lawyer stopping to breathe "mindfully" in the heat of a courtroom battle.
"You’d be surprised," says John Hamilton, a senior partner who is now taking one of the firm’s monthly refresher classes. "Lawyers for a long time have done that, stepped back and taken a breath, but this is a more focused and deliberate way of doing it. It’s amazing how refocused you can get. It’s like a muscle—if you keep working at it, it really does prepare you to go into battle."
What is true in the courtroom, participants in the Center’s corporate retreats claim, is also true in the boardroom. "What the practice does is help you bring attention or awareness to whatever is going on. That can be a major financial transaction, management decisions, employee issues or situations at home," says David Friedman, CEO of the Sandy River Group, a chain of long-term care facilities.
But isn’t $4,000 per person—before room and board—for a week of meditation at the corporate retreat programs tough to justify on the bottom line? "It’s mindfulness, but it’s also good business practice," insists Friedman, who has introduced mindfulness training to some of his own senior managers since taking the course.
"I can’t give a cost-benefit analysis, but I know anecdotally that it’s well worth the money we’re spending on it," says Hamilton of Hale and Dorr, which is about to sponsor a second eight-week in-house course.
And what’s good for private industry just might be good for government. A four-year mindfulness training program that Kabat-Zinn and his team ran in the Massachusetts prison system brought notable reductions in the level of hostility and confusion among prisoners who took the course—that is, until funding was pulled in the heat of the 1996 gubernatorial campaign.
"State Spent Bundle on Yoga for Cons," read a Boston Herald headline that torpedoed the program. "Weld to KO $900G Prisoner Meditation Program."
The paper reported that "a study had found the program to be virtually worthless," Kabat-Zinn recalls ruefully. "We couldn’t respond because we hadn’t processed the data at that time." The detailed response will come in a paper soon to be published in a major criminal justice journal. Based on 1,000 prisoners who took the course, the team documented a 38% increase in self-esteem and a 9% drop in hostility among women, and a 28% increase in self-esteem and 7% decrease in hostility among men.
"The larger implication is that if you are less hostile you are less likely to beat on others," Kabat-Zinn explains, getting excited, "and if you’re self-confident you might be more likely to get a job rather than rob somebody and get addicted to drugs. That ultimately translates into reduced recidivism rates."
Seated in his hospital office decorated with medical degrees and mandalas, Kabat-Zinn eyes his meditation cushion and reflects on his past twenty years in mind-body medicine: "It’s exciting and sobering that these two different worlds have come together. The book hasn’t been written about what is ultimately possible."
Mindfulness meditation may have its roots in an ancient tradition alien to most Americans, but what Kabat-Zinn and others like him have done is strip it down to an essence everyone can understand. "It’s the heart of Buddhist meditative practices, the heart of Sufi practices, the heart of all spiritual practices," he says. "We’re pointing to something that lies in the heart, not out there in history."
Is it Buddhism, or, as some critics claim, another example of Buddhism-lite? "It’s not like we’re trying to create Buddhists," insists Kabat-Zinn, whose instructors come from backgrounds that include Buddhism, Sufism, Yoga and Theosophy. "We’re trying to take that fundamental universal lawfulness that comes out of the Buddhist tradition and see how that is relevant to our lives as regular Americans who aren’t interested in becoming anything else, but might really be interested in becoming who we actually are."
Which means, he says, his clients arrive with a very different set of expectations. "None of them comes with the baggage that people often bring to a meditation center, like, ‘I’ll get enlightened,’ or ‘I’ll sit at the feet of the guru.’ People are coming because of their suffering—it’s as pure as you can get."
Kabat-Zinn calls it American Dharma: "I’ve always thought that it’s about time that we make Buddhist practices commonsensical and part of the American repertoire, so that they’re not foreign, they’re not Asian, they are American."
"Jon is a really good example of somebody who is working very hard to be a translator in the pure sense of the term, without watering down the teaching," says Sharon Salzberg, a founder of the Insight Meditation Society. "Somebody might get involved in Buddhist teaching to address the problem of their headaches, and then they find out some things about themselves and the capacity of their minds and their ability to have compassion. That can be more transforming than they ever imagined, but their initial entrée is something to do with their health."
And while some students do go on to study more advanced Buddhist practices, for most it is the fact that the teachings are reduced to their essence that makes them most valuable.
"You don’t have to go off on a retreat to a cave and do this," argues Hale and Dorr’s Hamilton. "It’s very practical."
"It’s great to have a practice and sit on a cushion and get whatever you can from that," observes Friedman, the CEO. "But for me, the real value is integrating it into my everyday life."
"I get excited about the fact that breath is something I always have with me," agrees Janet, a Massachusetts housewife. "That I don’t need an extra bag for it, that I don’t need to pay for it, that I don’t need to ask somebody for it. It’s a tool I just have and I can call on it whenever I need it."
John Coolidge, whose breath helped him survive the isolation of paralysis, can testify to that.
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