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Jon Kabat Zinn: The Prescription is Meditation Print

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.


Mind at Peace, Body in Balance Print

Shambhala Sun | September 1999

Mind at Peace, Body in Balance


The simplicity of the mindfulness meditations taught by Jon Kabat-Zinn makes them readily accessible to non-Buddhists. But healing practices are also at the heart of the more esoteric teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, and Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, a lama now living in Cambridge, is committed to making them available to a wider audience.

    "In the Tibetan tradition if you are sick, first you will go to the lama to do prayers or meditations, then you will go to a doctor to get medicine," says Tulku Thondup. "It is part of the culture and really it works."
    Tibetan healing meditations are "mainly mindfulness of the body and mindfulness of the feeling," he acknowledges, "but they are inspired by tantric meditations, especially the Vajrasattva meditation of receiving blessings and purification, and the practice of receiving the body, speech and mind in guru yoga."
    The problem is that most tantric practices cannot be taught to non-practitioners, so Tulku Thondup has developed a set of parallel healing practices built around the core Buddhist concepts. The meditations are presented in his book, The Healing Power of Mind, and he teaches them at seminars around the world.
    "If our mind is in peace, then our energy will be in peace, and if our energy is in peace, then the elements of our body will be balanced," he explains. "It’s a very simple idea but that’s the most profound Buddhist approach to meditation about healing."
    There are twelve stages to Tulku Thondup Rinpoche’s meditation technique, inspired in part by the writings of the third Dodrupchen Rinpoche, a great Dzogchen master. The technique is based on what he calls "the four healing powers"—positive images, words, feelings, and trust. It involves bringing the mind back to the body, generating peace and calmness, expelling negative sensations with the breath, grounding the floating mind, and uniting the body and mind.
    In one meditation, the student visualizes each breath as a wave of healing energy, which fills every cell. This is followed by a body scan.
    "The body is made of billions of cells of light, like rainbow light. We go into cells and see that each cell is a universe and then each cell is filled with healing energy—heat and blissfulness," he explains. "And because your body is an infinite and boundless body, you make some movements and feel energy going to every part of the body, waking the healing energy, and reconnect with every part of your body as one team. You then share that light and healing energy with the whole universe, and at the end go to oneness with the experience of the healing meditation."
    The origin of the meditation will be readily apparent to tantric practitioners. "In Buddhist meditations," says Tulku Thondup, "you visualize and pray to the Buddha, and then blessing light purifies and transforms your body into light body. Every cell is a cell of light and every cell is a pureland, filled with Buddha surrounded by an infinite number of enlightened beings and blessing energy, and that’s shared with all sentient beings."
    There are those who criticize Tulku Thondup for transforming vajrayana practices into generic healing exercises, claiming his approach is New Age, not Buddhism at all.
    "Eating food is not Buddhism," he replies, "all human beings eat. But if you eat with mindfulness, that’s one of the most important meditations in Buddhism. If you look at a tree and see the tree as a source of heat, source of joy, source of calmness, then looking at the tree becomes Buddhist. The important thing is whatever brings the awakening of peace, the awareness of peace, joy, whatever loosens the tightness of the grasping in our minds, that is Buddhism."
    Healing the self, he argues, is the very ground of the bodhisattva ideal: "If you really want to help others, you have to make yourself into a proper tool. If you are not healed or pure or peaceful, you can’t help anybody, so we have to purify ourselves first."

—Lawrence Pintak
Mind at Peace, Body in Balance, Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, September 1999.

On Spiritual Authority Print
Shambhala Sun | September 1999


On Spiritual Authority

The false prophet and the genuine spiritual master both undermine the habitual patterns of self. Yet one does this in a way that creates bondage, while the other does it in a way that promotes liberation. What is this important difference? How does genuine spiritual authority operate? This is not a simple question.

It is impossible to set up an ideal model for what a true spiritual teacher should look like, any more than we could elevate one style of therapy as the model that all others should follow. Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls and Milton Erickson, for instance, achieved therapeutic results in strikingly different ways. Each had a different personality type, style of working, and probably a different type of client with whom he might be most effective. Spiritual teachers also come in many different forms and guises,  and it is fruitless to try to spell out exactly how a good guru will behave. Instead we need a more subtle analysis that looks at what goes on between teacher and student. Two questions are particularly important here: How does spiritual authority operate in the relationship between teacher and student? And what is the source from which a teacher derives that authority?

Relative Spiritual Authority

Spiritual authority is, in part, interrelational; that is, a given teacher has such authority only for those who  espond to his or her presence and teachings. A disciple—literally, a "learner"—is one who recognizes that he or she has something important to learn from this particular teacher. Often the choice of a teacher is as unpredictable and mysterious as the attraction to a potential lover. You sense that you have something essential to learn here, something that no one else has ever imparted to you before. And this recognition is what allows the teacher to take on a certain authority for you.

Many people today question the need for spiritual teachers at all, claiming, in the spirit of democracy, that everyone should be their own master. Many traditions do in fact assert that the true teacher is only found within. Yet in the early stages of one’s development one does not know how to find or listen to the inner master, or to distinguish genuine inner guidance from more superficial wishes and preferences. Just as one would turn to an acknowledged master in any field one wanted to pursue in depth, so a person who seeks to overcome the limitations of egocentricity will naturally be drawn to someone who has actually mastered that work. The role of  effective teachers is to instruct, encourage and correct the student, as well as to provide an example of what is  possible. Effective teachers also try to see what individual students most need at each step of their development, rather than trying to fit the student into a preprogrammed agenda.

Thus spiritual teachers derive a certain relative authority through the actual help they offer their students. This is not unlike the authority that clients grant therapists in their work together. Although I may feel uneasy with the authority clients grant me as a therapist, I am willing to accept it, especially in the early stages of the work. I understand that clients can more readily enter into the process of shedding old patterns if they grant me the authority to guide them. Beyond the conventional authority granted by professional training and certification, or by transference idealizations, the real source of my authority is my focus on clients’ well-being and my capacity to help them find a deeper relationship with themselves. Granting me this authority can be a step toward recognizing their own authority— that they are indeed the authors of their own experience, rather than passive victims of circumstance. 

In a parallel, though far more profound way, a genuine spiritual master’s presence may serve as a mirror that reflects back to students qualities of their awakened being: openness, generosity, discernment, humor, gentleness, acceptance, compassion, straightforwardness, strength, and courage.

Absolute Authority

Beyond the relative authority that teachers assume through the help they give their students, true masters also have access to an absolute, unconditional source of authority—awakened being. Since this is a universal source of wisdom that is available to everyone, the genuine spiritual teacher is more than willing to help others find it themselves, if they are ready.

The genuine teacher is one who has realized the essential nature of human consciousness, usually through having practiced a self-knowledge discipline such as meditation for many years. In contrast to false teachers, who often create a condition of dependency in the student by claiming special access to truth, authentic teachers delight in sharing the source of their own realization with the student. This often involves giving students an awareness practice, along with pointing-out instructions that help them directly recognize their own nature. This kind of guidance sharpens students’ perceptions so that they can better discern whether the teacher’s words are true. Without a practice or method that gives them direct knowledge of what is true, students are totally dependent on the teacher to define their reality for them.

The more the students’ discrimination and discernment grow, the more they can recognize and appreciate the teacher’s mastery; just as when we study and practice any art, we come to recognize the skill of an accomplished master much more than we could have before. When the teaching leads to a deeper connection to one’s own being, this appreciation often grows into natural feelings of love, respect and devotion.

Such devotion may look like slavishness to the secular eye. Yet true devotion does not aggrandize the teacher or debase the student. Rather, it is a way of recognizing and honoring wisdom, awareness and truth as higher realities than the egoic realm of confusion, ignorance and self-deception. Devotion is a sign of a shift in allegiance—away from the petty tyrant of egocentricity toward the call of our larger being, whose wisdom the teacher embodies in fully developed form. Yet devotion can have its own kind of dangers, especially in our culture, and can lead to certain pitfalls on the path unless it is grounded in an awareness practice that cuts through self-deception and sharpens the student’s discernment.

Surrender and Submission

To appreciate the potential value of commitment to a spiritual teacher and teaching, it is essential to  distinguish between mindful surrender, which is an opening to a deeper dimension of truth, and mindless submission, which is a deadening flight from freedom.

The notion of surrender is widely misunderstood in our culture. It often conjures up images of "come out with your hands up"—waving a white flag, admitting defeat, being humiliated. For many people today, the idea of surrender implies giving up one’s intelligence or individuality and adopting a weak, dependent, submissive position. True surrender, however, is never an enslavement, but rather a step toward the discovery of real power. It is the act of yielding to a larger intelligence, without trying to control the outcome.

True surrender is not blind. It requires real discrimination—the capacity to recognize the necessity of completely opening oneself and letting go. Surrender does not have a finite object; one does not give oneself to something limited and bounded. If one does, then it is most likely submission—to the teacher’s personality, or the "Cause." 

Submission is a handing over of power to a person one idealizes, based on the hope of gaining something in return. One seeks approval from an idealized other in order to feel good about oneself. This is a symptom of weakness rather than strength—"I give myself to my guru because he is so great and I am so small." The more one depends on another for validation, the more one is likely to act in ways that compromise one’s integrity. And the more one’s integrity becomes compromised, the less one trusts oneself, which increases one’s dependency on the leader.

Critics of gurus see all involvements with spiritual masters in this light, failing to distinguish between submission as a developmentally regressive retreat from maturity, and genuine surrender, which is a progressive step beyond egocentricity toward a fuller connection with being. They fail to distinguish between the giving of surrender, which brings increase—of love, intelligence, wisdom—and the giving of submission, which results in decrease and loss. 

With a genuine spiritual master, surrendering means presenting oneself in a completely honest, naked  way, without trying to hold anything back or maintain any facade. How rarely we let anyone see us as we are, without hiding behind a mask of some kind. Being in the presence of a true master is a rare opportunity to let down all our pretenses, to unmask and reveal all of what we are, our egocentric failings as well as our strengths. This is quite different from submissively trying to be "good" or "devoted," to please someone in order to feel worthy.

Submission has a narcissistic quality, in that followers seek to bask in the reflected glory of their leader as a way to inflate their self-importance. The authentic teacher-student relationship leads beyond narcissism by showing students how to devote themselves to a greater power that lies within, yet beyond themselves.

The acid test is not how well the students please the master, but how fully they meet and respond to life’s challenges. Through becoming more responsive, transparent, and open with their teacher, they learn to approach all people and situations in the same way. In this way, genuine surrender helps one open toward all beings, instead of enslaving one to the parochial perspectives of an in-group.

In Search of a Genuine Master

How then does one recognize a master one can trust? Certainly no single teacher or teaching could be expected to appeal to all people, any more than any single psychotherapist or school of therapy could be effective for all potential clients. The ultimate criterion for judging teachers is whether they guide their students toward a more authentic, transparent quality of human presence and being-in-the-world.

Genuine teachers encourage self-respect as the basis for self-transcendence. And they are willing to reveal the source of their authority and wisdom to their students, so that the student’s path is based on experiential realization rather than on ideology or belief. They also recognize ambiguity and paradox, rather than insisting on absolute certitude in the One and Only Truth. They do not give their disciples any privileged status above the uninitiated. They do not manipulate the emotions of their students, but appeal to their innate intelligence. Instead of promoting herd behavior, they recognize the importance of solitude and inner inquiry. And their own realization is based not just on dramatic revelations, but on extensive testing and practice.

A teacher’s embodiment of love, truth and living presence is a much more reliable gauge than whether his or her lifestyle, appearance or personal quirks fit our image of what a spiritual person should look like. The annals of all spiritual traditions include examples of masters whose behavior and lifestyle challenges the prevailing conventions.

Great teachers also have their share of human foibles. Often they are effective precisely because they are so human, because they are so deeply in touch with the nature of the human sickness in themselves. The Buddhist sage Vimalakirti, to whom many bodhisattvas came for teachings, was always sick in bed, and when asked about this, said, "I am sick because all beings are sick." If the spiritual path is about transforming our core sickness and neurosis, then we can hardly expect spiritual teachers  and communities to manifest in a totally pure, spotless way. Yet Americans are often quite naive in their expectations of teachers, as the Zen teacher Philip Kapleau points out: 
"In the West a roshi is expected to [have] flawless conduct ... But this idealistic view can blind one to the merits of a teacher ... A Japanese long experienced in Zen once told me, ‘My roshi does have character flaws, yet of the teachers I have had he is the only one who has taught me real Zen and I am exceedingly grateful to him.’ " 

Undoubtedly the most important guideline in evaluating a teacher is the effect he or she has upon us. In replying to a question about whether a master should be "a man of self-control who lives a righteous life," the Vedanta teacher Nisagardatta Maharaj replied:

"Such you will find many of—and no use to you. A guru can show the way back home to your Self. What has this to do with the character or temperament of the person he appears to be? ... The only way you can judge is by the change in yourself when you are in his company ... If you understand yourself with more than usual clarity and depth, it means you have met with the right man."

The Buddha responded in a similar vein when approached by a group of villagers, the Kalamas, who had been visited by various monks expounding their different doctrines. They asked the Buddha, "Venerable sir, there is doubt, there is uncertainty in us concerning them. Which of these reverend monks spoke the truth and which falsehood?" To which the Buddha replied:

"It is proper for you to doubt, to be uncertain ... Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias toward a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know, ‘These things are good, these things are not blamable; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness.’ " 

The Buddha specifically advised the Kalamas that they could recognize a worthy teaching by how much it helped them reduce the afflictions of attachment, aversion, and delusion.

In sum, the question of spiritual authority is a subtle and difficult matter that permits no easy answers or hasty conclusions. True and false teachers represent but two ends of a broader spectrum of more or less spiritually mature human beings. Some teachers may have some genuine realization, but have not fully integrated it, so that their teaching remains incomplete. Some start out with good intentions, but are not ripe enough to avoid leading their followers astray. Others may be quite wise, but lacking in the skillful means necessary to communicate their wisdom in a way that truly helps their students.

To discount all spiritual teachers because of the acts of charlatans and false prophets is as unprofitable as refusing to handle money because there are counterfeit bills in circulation. As Nevitt Sanford stressed in the classic study, The Authoritarian Personality, the abuse of authority is hardly any reason to reject authority where it is useful and legitimate. In the present age of cultural upheaval, declining morality, family instability, and global chaos, the world’s great spiritual masters may be humanity’s most precious assets. Glossing over important distinctions between true and false teachers, and how the student’s relationship with them differs, only contributes to the confusion of our age, and retards the growth and transformation that are required for humanity to survive and prosper in the times to come.

John Welwood, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist in San Francisco, associate editor of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, and author of six books, including Journey of the Heart, Love and Awakening and Ordinary Magic. Material in this article will appear in his forthcoming book, Toward a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation. © John Welwood, 1999.

On Spiritual Authority, John Welwood, Shambhala Sun, September 1999.


Graceful Living Print

Graceful Living

By When you gather people together for a feast, says Barry Boyce, if you set the time and the table, the food, and the accouterments just right, it can bring grace.

Several years ago I had the good fortune to visit the refectory (dining hall) of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, which houses Leonardo da Vinci’s "The Last Supper." The original fresco is naturally more striking than the crushed velvet versions found in many truck stop gift shops. It transcends the cartoonish image that we hold in our minds based on seeing so many reproductions.

To my eyes, the most noticeable thing about the painting is not its divinity but its earthiness, its everyday humanity. People are eating. In fact the recent restoration of the fragile work revealed more elements from the banquet table than had previously been seen: a platter of fish, sparkling wine glasses, finger bowls, an orange, a roll.

The celebrants are shown taking part in a sacrament, a sacred ritual, something that binds human beings together. The idea of sacrament that I grew up with was something held apart from every day life, something possessed and doled out by a priesthood, and therefore it had no direct influence on daily life. The last supper and so many other stories were fairy tales that bore no relation to the evening meal.

The sacred existed in a vault, not in the street. As time progressed and the logics I was given for taking part grew threadbare, rites and rituals seemed to become completely emptied of their connection to human life, to become mere repetition without the spark of newness, the faces of the participants drawn and bored. Rituals are vital to human life, but they all too easily are sapped of their vitality, when they become precious curiosities. Today, many of us are inheriting or borrowing rituals from other cultures and traditions, but it is the essential nature of ritual—the sanctifying of our experience—that we must pay closest attention to. New rituals can become as empty as those we have discarded or those ritualistic aspects of everyday life that we have chosen to neglect.

"A visible form of invisible grace" is the first definition of "sacrament" offered by the American Heritage Dictionary. If we understand grace as the innate goodness of human beings, we can see the sacramental possibilities of everyday life. When you gather people together for a feast, if you set the time and the table, the food, and the accouterments just right, it can bring grace.

A professor I studied with in college, Henry Johnstone, taught me more in the meals we took together than in any other context. In those meals, I learned the art of conversation. There was a kind of light talk that accompanied a pre-meal drink, then a focused conversation, an involved give-and-take that culminated at the end of the meal. If you began to speed too far ahead, to get distracted, the food brought you back. Dessert and coffee allowed for more sublime reflection, a slow pace in keeping with the satiation one felt at that point. The pace was set by the activity, not by the clock. A mere lecture in a classroom could not allow for this visible manifestation of invisible grace. It provided an enchanting type of learning, something that transcended books and tests.

In the 1987 Danish film by Gabriel Axel, Babette’s Feast (derived from an Isak Denisson short story originally published in the Ladies Home Journal), the French housekeeper Babette completely charms the members of a small Lutheran sect in remote Denmark with a sumptuous multi-course feast, and undermines their austerity. This sacredly profane ritual of dining allows them to rediscover themselves. Likewise, in Scott Campbell and Stanley Tucci’s Big Night, the two Italian brothers, Primo and Secundo, invite many friends to a feast built around a meticulously prepared torta rustica. Each of the guests becomes fully themselves. They laugh. They cry. They let go.

It is often the curse of human life to believe that the defining moment awaits us in the future, a simultaneously self-fulfilling and self-defeating prophecy. It gives us a false sense of time, the feeling that we’re getting somewhere. It is probably more true that life consists of a continual series of ritual, rites, even sacraments that we conduct. Perhaps one of the great marks of dignified human life is to treat those rituals with care, respect and attention to detail. The haphazard chase that life has often become battles with our rituals. Too many meals are taken on the run, barely tasted. Friends’ children are born with little participation from us. People die and are unceremoniously whisked away. We don’t sit down with our family and our friends often enough.

The organic patterns of life provide us with the chances to find grace, right here in the life that we are living now. That is the beauty and poignancy of ritual, when it is more than going through the motions in order to get on with the real serious business of our lives. Every supper is the last supper from the point of view of now.

Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication:

Graceful Living, Barry Boyce, Shambhala Sun, September 1999.

Helping, Fixing or Serving? Print

Helping, Fixing or Serving?

By "Fixing and helping create a distance between people, but we cannot serve at a distance. We canonly serve that to which we are profoundly connected."

Helping, fixing and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.

Service rests on the premise that the nature of life is sacred, that life is a holy mystery which has an unknown purpose. When we serve, we know that we belong to life and to that purpose. From the perspective of service, we are all connected: All suffering is like my suffering and all joy is like my joy. The impulse to serve emerges naturally and inevitably from this way of seeing.

Serving is different from helping. Helping is not a relationship between equals. A helper may see others as weaker than they are, needier than they are, and people often feel this inequality. The danger in helping is that we may inadvertently take away from people more than we could ever give them; we may diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity or even wholeness.

When we help, we become aware of our own strength. But when we serve, we don’t serve with our strength; we serve with ourselves, and we draw from all of our experiences. Our limitations serve; our wounds serve; even our darkness can serve. My pain is the source of my compassion; my woundedness is the key to my empathy.

Serving makes us aware of our wholeness and its power. The wholeness in us serves the wholeness in others and the wholeness in life. The wholeness in you is the same as the wholeness in me. Service is a relationship between equals: our service strengthens us as well as others. Fixing and helping are draining, and over time we may burn out, but service is renewing. When we serve, our work itself will renew us. In helping we may find a sense of satisfaction; in serving we find a sense of gratitude.

Harry, an emergency physician, tells a story about discovering this. One evening on his shift in a busy emergency room, a woman was brought in about to give birth. When he examined her, Harry realized immediately that her obstetrician would not be able to get there in time and he was going to deliver this baby himself. Harry likes the technical challenge of delivering babies, and he was pleased. The team swung into action, one nurse hastily opening the instrument packs and two others standing at the foot of the table on either side of Harry, supporting the woman’s legs on their shoulders and murmuring reassurance. The baby was born almost immediately.

While the infant was still attached to her mother, Harry laid her along his left forearm. Holding the back of her head in his left hand, he took a suction bulb in his right and began to clear her mouth and nose of mucous. Suddenly, the baby opened her eyes and looked directly at him. In that instant, Harry stepped past all of his training and realized a very simple thing: that he was the first human being this baby girl had ever seen. He felt his heart go out to her in welcome from all people everywhere, and tears came to his eyes.

Harry has delivered hundreds of babies, and has always enjoyed the excitement of making rapid decisions and testing his own competency. But he says that he had never let himself experience the meaning of what he was doing before, or recognize what he was serving with his expertise. In that flash of recognition he felt years of cynicism and fatigue fall away and remembered why he had chosen this work in the first place. All his hard work and personal sacrifice suddenly seemed to him to be worth it.

He feels now that, in a certain sense, this was the first baby he ever delivered. In the past he had been preoccupied with his expertise, assessing and responding to needs and dangers. He had been there many times as an expert, but never before as a human being. He wonders how many other such moments of connection to life he has missed. He suspects there have been many.

As Harry discovered, serving is different from fixing. In fixing, we see others as broken, and respond to this perception with our expertise. Fixers trust their own expertise but may not see the wholeness in another person or trust the integrity of the life in them. When we serve we see and trust that wholeness. We respond to it and collaborate with it. And when we see the wholeness in another, we strengthen it. They may then be able to see it for themselves for the first time.

One woman who served me profoundly is probably unaware of the difference she made in my life. In fact, I do not even know her last name and I am sure she has long forgotten mine.

At twenty-nine, because of Crohn’s Disease, much of my intestine was removed surgically and I was left with an ileostomy. A loop of bowel opens on my abdomen and an ingeniously designed plastic appliance which I remove and replace every few days covers it. Not an easy thing for a young woman to live with, and I was not at all sure that I would be able to do this. While this surgery had given me back much of my vitality, the appliance and the profound change in my body made me feel hopelessly different, permanently shut out of the world of femininity and elegance.

At the beginning, before I could change my appliance myself, it was changed for me by nurse specialists called enterostomal therapists. These white-coated experts were women my own age. They would enter my hospital room, put on an apron, a mask and gloves, and then remove and replace my appliance. The task completed, they would strip off all their protective clothing. Then they would carefully wash their hands. This elaborate ritual made it harder for me. I felt shamed.

One day a woman I had never met before came to do this task. It was late in the day and she was dressed not in a white coat but in a silk dress, heels and stockings. She looked as if she was about to meet someone for dinner. In a friendly way she told me her first name and asked if I wished to have my ileostomy changed. When I nodded, she pulled back my covers, produced a new appliance, and in the most simple and natural way imaginable removed my old one and replaced it, without putting on gloves. I remember watching her hands. She had washed them carefully before she touched me. They were soft and gentle and beautifully cared for. She was wearing a pale pink nail polish and her delicate rings were gold.

At first, I was stunned by this break in professional procedure. But as she laughed and spoke with me in the most ordinary and easy way, I suddenly felt a great wave of unsuspected strength come up from someplace deep in me, and I knew without the slightest doubt that I could do this. I could find a way. It was going to be all right.

I doubt that she ever knew what her willingness to touch me in such a natural way meant to me. In ten minutes she not only tended my body, but healed my wounds. What is most professional is not always what best serves and strengthens the wholeness in others. Fixing and helping create a distance between people, an experience of difference. We cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch. Fixing and helping are strategies to repair life. We serve life not because it is broken but because it is holy.

Serving requires us to know that our humanity is more powerful than our expertise. In forty-five years of chronic illness I have been helped by a great number of people, and fixed by a great many others who did not recognize my wholeness. All that fixing and helping left me wounded in some important and fundamental ways. Only service heals.

Service is not an experience of strength or expertise; service is an experience of mystery, surrender and awe. Helpers and fixers feel causal. Servers may experience from time to time a sense of being used by larger unknown forces. Those who serve have traded a sense of mastery for an experience of mystery, and in doing so have transformed their work and their lives into practice.

Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. is Associate Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at U.C.S.F. Medical School and co-founder and medical director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program. She is author of the bestseller, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal.

Helping, Fixing or Serving?, Rachel Naomi Remen, Shambhala Sun, September 1999.

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