Category Archives: healing

Just how powerful is meditation?

Some of my students have been meditating for many years, while others are new to the practice. The value of sangha, the community of practitioners that comes together on a weekly basis, is not just the teachings that are shared, but the inspiration of fellow members. This week a relatively new meditator said that, although she loved meditating in the group, it was difficult to develop a regular practice at home on her own. We all totally understood and shared suggestions as to how to proceed. But the real challenge in establishing any new habit is the lack of any tangible benefit to remind us why we are making the effort. Advanced meditators have developed the habit, and they keep going because they feel the benefits of regular practice in their lives.

Without any experiences of her own to motivate her, the new meditator was helped by hearing about the benefits that others have experienced, (while being reminded that focusing on a goal of benefits is counterproductive!) One group member talked about the difference regular practice has made in her life over the years. And then I shared a story that I recently heard from a friend of mine named Linda, a talented artist who has been meditating for the better part of a decade.

A few months ago Linda went on a meditation retreat on the beach in the Yucatan. Lucky Linda, right? She was having a lovely illuminating experience. On the fourth morning of the retreat she rose early per instructions and went out into the early morning dark and headed for the beach for a walking meditation.

She describes her experience that morning:

“On my way down to the beach in the dark, the cement path in front of me was blocked by a group of people, so I stepped to my left to let them go by. My left foot went down into a four-foot deep hole with a cement floor. It was a spot to rinse off sand when leaving beach. It was unlit and had no rail.  I fell on my side and couldn’t move so I called out in the darkness for help.

powerofmed“A couple of hours later in the hospital, the orthopedic surgeon told me I had broken both leg bones, some ankle bones, and my hip. He said that the hip must be replaced, and the ankle repaired with two metal plates and many screws. He told me that the surgery must be done at one time due to the severity and would require about nine hours.  Because I was geriatric, ‘a bad risk’ and might not survive the surgery, I had to have a family member sign for me.”

Her son was called, but he couldn’t get to her. So he called his brother, the one from whom Linda had been estranged for many years for reasons I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say that this lack of contact with her son and grandchildren has been a source of great sorrow, as any mother or grandmother can well imagine. Over the years, with the help of meditation, Linda had come to some state of equanimity around it, but of course she always held some hope of a reunion.

And here it was. In this moment of crisis, with his mother quite possibly confronting death, her long-estranged son rushed to her side, and there in the hospital they had a brief but deep conversation that did a lot to heal Linda’s heart. And as to all those broken bones, the surgery was successful! In fact, when I saw her at a party a few months later, she looked more healthy and beautiful than ever. When she told me all that happened to her, I could hardly believe it, but here’s the part that she wanted me to know:

“Stephanie, I never took any pain medications. The doctors and nurses couldn’t believe it. I credit my meditation practice. I wasn’t being brave. I just didn’t need it.”

Now, wait a minute. I’m a longtime meditator, yet I appreciated the proffered pain medication after my hip replacement surgery. But Linda’s story reminded of the woman I shared the hospital room with. We were both in pain after surgery, but she was in traction with her leg up in the air, having fallen off a horse. She cried and yelled for more medication all through the night. I always assumed the difference in our post-op experiences had to do with the fact that my surgery had been planned for and it was just a matter of waiting to be pain free after years of hip pain. So it was easy for me to simply be present with my various sensations, to accept with gratitude the kindness of the nursing staff and my husband, and to be patient, knowing that this too shall pass.

My roommate’s experience was quite different: She was perfectly fine and painfree yesterday, riding along on her trusty steed having a wonderful time, I assume, and in a split second she suddenly found herself in an extremely painful and unexpected situation. Who wouldn’t be grumpy and terrified of what the future might hold? I figured. But she was the biggest pain in my experience with her constant yelling and moaning. The nurses all night told her she already had the maximum amount of medication they could give her, and told her to practice breathing slowly.

It was a long night, and I dozed off and on, but much of the time I was groggily awake and feeling that I should help her. Some inner wisdom told me I was in no state to do so, and that I needed to focus on my own healing for now. But in the early morning hours when I was feeling clearer and more myself, I said to her, ‘I’m a meditation teacher. Do you want some help?’ She said YES!!!! So I worked with her a bit and she found the little exercises I was able to share with her very useful. But since she had never tried anything like it before, it only had limited potential to ease her pain.

For years since then I have wondered how might her experience have been different had she been a practicing meditator. Or, put another way, how might I or any other experienced meditator have managed such an experience? And now, here was Linda telling me a story that in many ways sounded far worse. She described it this way:

“After surgery I woke up in ICU.  There I had a beautiful, kind, loving nurse, an older Mexican woman, who was just an angel.  A week and two transfusions later, my surgeon filled me in on my adventure. He told me that I had never gone into shock, which was amazing considering the trauma, and pain. He said that I never asked for pain meds, and that I was amazing.

“Four different new friends I met at the retreat came to visit me in the hospital,  A good friend from home flew down to be with me, as my son had to return to work, and stayed with me for a week at the hotel, which was good enough to give us a room until I was well enough to fly home.  My surgeon gave me a gift of a walker. My ICU nurse came and gave me a present, saying I had touched her life!! I flew home and was greeted with loving friends and my son, and I never lacked for food, or help, or visitors.

“My neighbors were there every day, with food, or a call just to check on me, and ask what I needed.  I am truly filled with joy, and love; blessed beyond belief!!  I am now walking, need no more surgery, and, much to my therapist’s disbelief, I am walking without a limp.

“I am certain that after four days of meditation, and the joy and peace I felt, I came through all of this with an ease that amazes people.”

So that is Linda’s story. By her own account, it would have been a very different story, and in many ways a significantly different outcome, if she had not been meditating. I know, I know, if she hadn’t been at a meditation retreat, none of this would have happened! But falling down and breaking bones happens all the time to women of a certain age. The difference here is quite significant. Perhaps you are thinking that Linda is just a naturally resilient and indomitable spirit who looks at life that way. But no. When I first met Linda she was in quite a different space, with quite a different vantage point. She credits the regular practice of meditation for her ability to be present with this experience in a way that not only made it easier for her, but uplifted those around her. Now that’s something!

So if you don’t have the habit of meditation practice, let this story inspire you. It is said that we practice not just to feel better in our lives now, but for those moments in life when we are most in need: moments of loss, moments of pain and the ultimate moment of our own transition. Our meditation practice supports us now and always.

Does Linda’s story bring up anything for you? Please comment, share your own stories, comments or questions.

Taking Refuge

I continue to read Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson, and I really appreciate learning the scientific findings of the value of meditation, how it “increases gray matter in the brain regions that handle attention, compassion and empathy.” He says that reports show that “It also helps a variety of medical conditions, strengthens the immune system, and improves psychological functioning.” This has certainly been my experience, and the experience of so many regular meditators I know, but it is fascinating to see the science of it. When I think of how often I was sick as a child and a young adult before I took up meditation, and how strong my immune system is now, according to recent blood work, I have to believe that meditation is a key reason. One of my students, upon hearing that I haven’t had a cold or flu in years said, “Just wait ‘til your granddaughter’s in day care!” She’s right. The health benefits of meditation will be put to the ultimate test!

Back in the 1980’s when I was an ad exec, I remember telling myself I was ‘too busy’ to do any meditative practice, even though I knew full well how nourishing the practice was for me. After a while I got so ill with chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome that I had to quit my job and be flat on my back for the better part of the day for nine months! Who’s too busy now? I had to quit my job and one of the things I still could do was meditate. So I had myself a very deep and extended personal ‘retreat.’ I was very fortunate to have the practice in my life again, for I healed from this usually chronic and life long condition in record time. I’ll never know what part of my treatment effected the cure, but I know that my inner journey at the very least made me available for healing. Now reading the scientific finds, I can allow myself to give the meditation even more of the credit for my well being. And the inner journey resulted in the book Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.

There was a week in 2007 when we were buying our casa in Mexico and running around stressing out, feeling very deadline-driven, trying to get the house sufficiently furnished with diminishing funds before our return flight to the US, so we could rent it out, when I was suddenly stricken and bed-bound with a strange dizzy disease. Again, I had had ‘no time’ to meditate! So maybe the illness was just a note to self to slow down and return to regular meditation practice.

While I feel perfectly healthy right now, and have a strong meditation practice in place after being less consistent during our recent stay in Mexico, I am noticing that I have been feeling an incredible amount of physical pressure as I work towards deadlines on taxes and other projects. Sitting with it I notice that it feels like I am being ground and put into sausage casings! Ugh! But what a useful thing to notice. Another note to self.

So it was very helpful to me to come upon Rick Hanson’s mention of the Three Refuges. I realized that I have not addressed them in any dharma talk but they are so important!

They are important to me right now as I go through not just tax time but a period of transitioning back into the American way of life after the easy flow of Mexican living, and trying to be fully present at this time of holding great joy at the birth of my granddaughter and some worry at the same time as a close family member is scheduled for surgery.

When we are skillful enough to be able to hold both extremes of our current experience in an open hearted balance, the result is Upekka, the fourth of the Four Brahmaviharas, the heavenly abodes that are the precious gifts of the practice of meditation.

But what does ‘skillful’ mean? It means that instead of grasping at the joy and pushing away or avoiding thinking about the fear, we are simply aware of them, aware of the effects of them in our lives, our bodies, our thoughts and emotions. Skillfulness is making room for them to exist in our experience without over-dramatizing them, discounting them, getting lost in them, or using them as leverage to catapult some inappropriate behavior out into the world. Instead, through meditation, we create an interior spaciousness for all of our experience to be noticed and acknowledged. This is skillfulness.

When we do feel overwhelmed by what arises, we are encouraged to take refuge.

A person without the benefit of meditative awareness training might be more likely to take ‘refuge’ in things that lead away from mindfulness and potentially become addictive. Typical examples of this are going to extremes with eating, drinking, drugs, gambling, escapist books, computer games or chats, movies, television, computer, exercise, work, shopping, socializing, etc. When we pursue these extreme routes we literally lose ourselves in them, and thus we feel a temporary sense of relief from whatever is bothering us, whatever fear we are trying to avoid. But the route itself creates even more problems and doesn’t allow us to deal with and heal from the experience we are so desperately trying to avoid.

The Buddha advised taking refuge within the experience itself. It may seem counter-intuitive, but being with the experience is the most powerful healing tool we have. But how do we stay present with the experience if it is so painful? How do we cope with this sense of being overwhelmed or not in the driver’s seat of our lives?

We take refuge. Real refuge.

How I experience this in my body is easier to demonstrate than to describe. But I’ll try: Imagine a normal stance. Then imagine that you see a great weight coming your way that you will have to receive and carry. How do you adjust your stance? Well, a skillful adjustment would be to have a solid footing, then let your knees flex, your hips drop a bit, so your whole stance deepens, so that your arms rise up from your core when they open to receive and carry this extra weight. There is also an alert presence to changing conditions.

This is a good way to think about how we cope with emotional weight as well. A solid footing, greater flexibility, a deepening, and working from the core, and staying fully present for our experience.

The Three Refuges don’t talk about stance, but you can see how they too provide a solid footing, flexibility, deepening and staying present with the core of our experience. Perhaps you’ll see that too as we discuss them. Perhaps not. But here they are:

First we take refuge in the Buddha. We take refuge in the historical Buddha’s generosity of spirit, thinking upon how he shared his wisdom freely for forty years as a dedicated teacher. We take refuge in knowing about the struggles he went through, allowing ourselves to be inspired by his dedication to liberate himself and all beings from suffering. We take refuge in the fact that for over 2500 years in this tradition, and in many other traditions as well, there have been other awakened beings, and many practitioners and teachers from whom we can draw strength and inspiration.

We take refuge in the faith that, given all who have trod this path before us, we too have the seed of Buddha nature within us, the potential to wake up to this moment in every moment, if only we set our intention to be available for it’s wisdom to inform us. This is taking refuge in the Buddha.

Secondly we take refuge in the Dharma. Dharma is the Sanskrit word that means ‘truth’ or ‘the teachings.’ (In Pali it is dhamma, and even though the Theravada tradition is based in the Pali language, dharma is often used because it was introduced to the West earlier and it stuck, so either one is acceptable.)

Dharma is the recognition that suffering exists in the world, and in ourselves — the First Noble Truth.

It is the recognition that the cause of suffering is our grasping and pushing away — the Second Noble Truth.

It is the recognition that while pain is unavoidable, it is possible to not amplify the pain by the suffering we cause ourselves and others through our unskillfulness — the Third Noble Truth.

And it is recognizing that the path to skillfulness in overcoming suffering is The Eightfold Path: Right (or Wise) View, Intention, Mindfulness, Concentration, Effort, Action, Speech and Livelihood — the Fourth Noble Truth.

These Four Noble Truths form a solid foundation of Buddhist teachings. We take refuge in this solid foundation for our own exploration of the truth for ourselves in each moment.

Third, we take refuge in the Sangha. Sangha is the pali word for the community of meditation practitioners whose presence helps us to stay on the path, whose wisdom and insights in their own lives helps us to see more clearly when we are suffering or unskillfully trying to escape from the pain in our lives. Like the network of roots in a redwood grove, the sangha supports us all, allowing us to be flexible and resilient.

The Three Refuges are also called the Triple Gem or the Pali word tisarana.

At the beginning of each Buddhist retreat, the assembled retreatants together take these Three Refuges, in a chant. To see the chant, click here.

But we don’t have to be on retreat, the refuges are available to each of us in every moment, and it was so nice to be reminded as I was reading Buddha’s Brain, that this might be a time for me to take refuge.

If the Pali or Sanskrit words don’t resonate for you, or the Buddha isn’t your cuppa, it’s worth taking a little time to determine first of all, the inspirational figure whose wisdom and values you aspire to. This is not in order to be like them, but to notice and strengthen the resonant qualities in yourself through recognition and appreciation.

Accessing the dharma is to tap into the universal wisdom from which the dharma springs. During my almost year-long period of illness back in the early 1990’s, I meditated so intensively that I accessed this universal source of wisdom, through my own quirky lens, and chronicled it in my book long before beginning to study Buddhism.

So it’s not that Buddhism has the corner on the wisdom market. It’s just that it expresses it with such clarity, and has transmitted these teachings through millennia with great success at retaining the original message and inspiring us to look within rather than requiring us to trust blindly in the findings of others.

In different cultures this will take on different forms of expression, but there will be an underlying clarity of truth that brings forth compassion for ourselves and others, a sense of interconnection so that we know that we are not alone in the world, and how that brings both comfort and responsibility, and a willingness to be with whatever arises in the moment with an open heart.

So find the words of wisdom that speak most clearly to you.
Whatever teachings resonate truth for you, work with them in a state of curiosity. Question ‘Is this true?” and sit with the answer. Insight meditation is this active openness to exploration. It is this continual opening and exploring that keeps spiritual life alive. To simply memorize and spout words is not taking them in in a meaningful way. Certainly there are religious personages throughout history who insist that dogma be force-fed and taken on their word alone, but this is not the tradition that the Buddha taught. He taught his own findings along with the means for each of us to find out the truth for ourselves. His way was to empower each of us to find our way, rather than use his knowledge as power over others.

The third refuge, the Sangha, is the people in our lives who support our practice and our spiritual well being. It’s worthwhile to consider who those people are, so that when we are feeling overwhelmed and less able to make such considerations, we will have a ready idea of whom we might call upon to be a refuge in time of need.

When we ourselves are feeling overwhelmed is not the time to spend with those whose energy depletes us. When we are feeling more in balance, we can be there for them, of course. But for now, we send them metta, loving kindness, but take refuge in company that nourishes us.

I have heard it said that taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is the only requirement to be a Buddhist. And although we’re not about ‘being’ Buddhists, but about studying Buddhist concepts and practicing Buddhist techniques for awakening, we can still see that this act of taking refuge is a valuable one, whatever words we use.