By Thanissaro Bhikkhu January 2004 Meditation, by developing a solid centre of awareness within, can help us maintain our peace of mind in the face of pain, aging, illness and death. It provides tools to accept these inevitable facts of life so that we can begin to deal with them in such a way that we don’t suffer from them It’s only when people are faced with a fatal illness that they start thinking about meditation, and often by that point it’s too late to get fully prepared. It’s best to be prepared, to practise the skills you’ll need when medicine can no longer help you and you’re on your own. The only way to develop these skills is to train the mind. If you are caring for someone with a fatal disease, meditation offers you one of the best ways to restore your own spiritual and emotional batteries so that you can keep going even when things are tough. What I’d like to present today is a user’s manual for meditation to help you when the chips are down. Three steps Books that deal with meditation in treating illness tend to focus on only two aspects—relaxation and visualisation. Meditation as a complete process involves three steps. The first is mindful relaxation, making the mind comfortable in the present, for only then can it settle down and stay there. The important word is ‘mindful’. You have to be fully aware of what you’re doing, of whether or not the mind is staying with its object, and of whether or not it’s drifting off to sleep. If you simply relax and drift off, that’s not meditation, and there’s nothing you can build on it. If, however, you can remain fully aware as the mind settles comfortably into the present, it develops into the next step. As the mind settles into the present, it gains strength. You feel as if all the scattered fragments of your attention—worrying, remembering, anticipating, whatever—gather together and the mind takes on a sense of wholeness and unification. This gives the mind a sense of power. As you let this sense of wholeness develop, you find that it becomes more and more solid in all your activities, regardless of whether you’re formally meditating or not, and this is what leads to the third step. As you become single-minded in protecting this sense of wholeness, you become more sensitive and gain insight into the things that can knock it off balance. On the first level, you notice that if you do anything hurtful to yourself or others, it is destroyed. Then you notice how the simple occurrence in the mind of things as greed, lust, anger, delusion and fear can also knock it off balance. You begin to discern ways to reduce the power that these things have over the mind, until you reach a level of awareness that is untouched by these things, or by anything at all. It’s these higher stages in meditation that can be the most beneficial. If you practise meditation simply as a form of relaxation, that’s okay for dealing with the element of your disease that comes from stress, but there’s a lot more going on in illness, physically and mentally, than simply stress, and if you limit yourself to relaxation or visualisation, you’re not getting the full benefits that meditation has to offer. In sicknessNow we come to the topic of what meditation can do for you as you face serious illness and death. On the one hand, there are books that tell you that all illness comes from your mind, and you simply have to straighten out your mind and you’ll get well. Once a young woman suffering from lung cancer asked me what I thought of these books. I told her that there are some cases where illness comes from purely mental causes, in which case meditation can cure it, but there are also cases where it comes from physical causes, and no amount of meditation can make it go away. If you believe in karma, there are some diseases that come from present karma—your state of mind right now—and others that come from past karma. If it’s a present-karma disease, meditation might be able to make it go away. If it’s a past-karma disease, the most you can hope from meditation is that it can help you live with the illness without suffering from it. At the same time, if you tell ill people that they are suffering because their minds are in bad shape, and that it’s entirely up to them if they want to get well, you’re laying an awfully heavy burden on them right at the time when they’re feeling weak, miserable, helpless and abandoned. I know a lot of people who believe that the state of their health is an indication of their state of mind, which is fine when they’re feeling well. As soon as they get sick, though, they feel that it’s a sign that they are failures in meditation, and this sets them into a tailspin. The purpose of meditation is to find happiness and well-being within the mind, independent of the body or things going on outside. Your aim is to find something solid within that you can depend on no matter what happens to the body. If it so happens that through your meditation you are able to effect a physical cure, that’s fine, and there have been cases where meditation can have a remarkable effect on the body. My teacher had a student, a woman in her 50s, who was diagnosed with cancer more than 15 years ago. The doctors gave her only a few months to live, yet through her practice of meditation, she is alive today. She focused her practice on the theme that although her body may be sick, her mind doesn’t have to be. A few years ago I visited her in the hospital the day after she had had a kidney removed. She was sitting up in bed, bright and aware. I asked her if there was any pain, and she said yes, 24 hours a day, but that she didn’t let it make inroads on her mind. Cases like this are by no means guaranteed, though, and you shouldn’t really content yourself just with physical survival for if this disease doesn’t get you, something else will, and you’re not really safe until you’ve found the treasure in the mind that is unaffected even by death. Your most precious possession is your mind. If you can keep it in good shape no matter what, then you have lost nothing, for your body goes only as far as death, but your mind goes beyond it. So in examining what meditation can do for you, focus more on how it can help you maintain your peace of mind in the face of pain, aging, illness and death, for you’re going to have to face these someday. Actually, they are a normal part of life, although we have come to regard them as abnormalities. We’ve been taught that our birthright is eternal youth, health and beauty. When these things betray us, we feel that something is horribly wrong, and that someone is at fault. Actually though, once we are born, there is no way that aging, illness and death can’t happen. Only when we accept them as inevitable can we begin to deal with them intelligently in such a way that we won’t suffer from them. Transcending painHow to use meditation to face these things and transcend them? First, pain. You first have to accept that it’s there. This in itself is a major step, since most people when they encounter pain think they can avoid it by pushing it away. The way to transcend pain is first to understand it, get acquainted with it, and this means enduring it. Meditation can offer a way of detaching from the pain while you are living with it, so even though it’s there, you don’t have to suffer from it. If you master the technique of focussing on the breath and adjusting it so that it’s comfortable, you can choose where to focus your awareness in the body. You can focus it on the pain, but in the earlier stages, it is best to focus on the parts of the body that are comfortable. Let the pain have the other part. You’re not going to drive it out, but at the same time you don’t have to move in with it. Simply regard it as a fact of nature, an event that is happening, but not necessarily happening to you. Another technique is to breathe through the pain. If you can become sensitive to the breath sensations that course through the body each time you breathe, you will notice that you build a tense shell around the pain where the energy in the body doesn’t flow freely. This increases the pain. So think of the breath flowing right through the pain as you breathe, to dissolve this shell of tension. In most cases, this can relieve the pain considerably. When I had malaria, I used this to relieve the mass of tension that gathered in my head and shoulders. At times I could scarcely breathe, so I just thought of the breath coming in through nerve centres—the middle of the chest, throat, the middle of the forehead—and the tension would dissolve away. There are some people who find that breathing through pain increases it, which is a sign that they are focusing improperly. The solution in that case is to focus on the opposite side of the body: if the pain is in the right side, focus on the left. If it’s in front, focus on the back. As your concentration becomes stronger and more settled, you can analyse the pain. First, divide it into its physical and mental components. Distinguish between the actual physical pain, and the mental pain that comes along with it—the sense of being persecuted, the fear that the pain may grow stronger or signal the end, whatever. Remind yourself that you don’t have to side with those thoughts. If the mind is going to think them, you don’t have to fall in with them. When you stop feeding them, after a while they’ll begin to go away. As you strip away the mental paraphernalia surrounding your pain, including the idea that the pain is yours or is happening to you, you finally come down to the label that simply says: &ls
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