When I most appreciate my practice is when I’m facing a
personal difficulty, particularly when it concerns my health. It seems like ill-health brings up my
worst fears and anxiety.
Especially it brings up that inevitably fact that human beings die. My
ego and thought patterns particularly don’t like that. My ordinary mind thinks of death as an
annihilation and therefore very scary.
My Buddhist mind has been trained to not go down that route and I
especially appreciate that when I’m in a health difficulty.
I am of the nature to grow old, there is no escaping growing
I am of the nature to get sick, there is no escaping getting
I am of the nature to die, there is no escaping death.
How many times have I repeated those phrases from the Five
Remembrances. Especially the last
few years when Clouds in Water has used them as a morning gatha for practice
period. Now, when I’m at the Mayo
Clinic, doing tests all day long for a not
life-threatening surgery, I appreciate that those phrases are carved into my
brain through repetition. It
doesn’t take much to bring them up and to help me face directly life and
death. “Great is the matter of
life and death” we repeat every night in the evening message with the
corresponding loving-kindness phrase:
May I face life and death directly.
May I be at peace with the ups and downs of life.
May this suffering turn into wisdom and compassion.
I have had a few days (or more!) of what I call a “health
sesshin”. For me, that means that
a day is so difficult personally that I have to use my practice and my
concentration all day long, intensely, like I do in one of our Zen
retreats. I have had a few days of
that lately, unfortunately.
In February, I fractured my humerus in a down-hill ski
accident, and dealt with three weeks of pain management. My funny memory of that time is
chanting in the toboggan that took me down the mountain in Colorado. I chanted the gate gate, paragate
mantra in an English translation, the mantra for Kuan Yin and for Jizo. In the twenty minutes of being cocooned
in the toboggan going from the top of the mountain to the emergency room at the
base, I had calmed myself down and reoriented my thinking. It was a blessing.
I felt the blessing of practice yesterday too. Yesterday, all day long I was in
testing with scary names like the Radioactive Medicine waiting room. I spent an hour and a half in the MRI
machine and an hour with a sonogram technician. What a miracle – western medicine can be. They can take pictures of the inside of
your body! However, I was
scared. The first photo in the MRI
which took 10 minutes, I counted my breaths. There were 60 breaths in 10 minutes. That concentration helped me calm down.
Here are some of the practices I do when I’m in an emergency
The first one is Guard your mind. I have a visual image of setting up these
ferocious guardian bodhisattvas at each end of the stream of my thoughts. As my thoughts enter and exit my
mind. The Guardian bodhisattvas
decide if that particular thought is going to help me stay calm and stay in the
present, or not. My guardians
refuse any thoughts that bring fear of the future into my brain. They protect my concentration and do
not allow unwholesome thought.
Bring your concentration
practice to the forefront. You
can’t guard your mind if you are not concentrating. So usually I do a type of concentration practice for much of
the day. That can range from
counting my breath, tonglen, to chanting practice.
Practice Tonglen. This is my go-to practice in an
emergency and I have used it many times in my life. It is best practiced before an emergency so you understand
it and get the hang of it.
Practice it in the cloistered situation of meditation. But Tonglen in activity is one of the finest practices I know of when
you are in a day of difficulty.
The practice is to breath in the dark smoke of suffering and ill-health
and difficulties on your inhale.
You let the suffering, break open your heart and allow the Buddha in
your heart to penetrate your exhale like the quality of moonlight.
Your exhale is love, peace, emptiness; any quality or image that you
think might help the situation. Do
this type of breathing over and over.
Practice using Divine abode phrases. Because
I have worked with the phrases so much in my life, many of them are memorized
and just come up as I face different situations. The Divine Abodes are
loving-kindness, compassion, joy and
equanimity. There are phrases for each abode and I choose them
according to what I need at any given time.
Chanting any number of repetitive phrases to
yourself. You can use a mala to
help you concentrate. I have
memorized various chants for Kuan Yin, Jizo, the Heart sutra, the medicine
Buddha, Avalokiteshvara, etc.
your prayer or extend the tonglen.
This is very important practice for me. I start out doing all the above for myself but at a certain
point, I extend my practice to include others. I do the practice for everyone, including myself. In a hospital, that is quite an obvious
practice, for most everyone you meet is suffering and anxious. You can do it for the whole waiting
room, or you can imagine all the people in their hospital beds. This practice really puts my own Dukkha
in perspective. It helps me join
the human race. We are all
suffering. This is what being a human feels like. Extending the prayer, really helps you release a
self-centered way of being.
Labels: concentration, guarding the mind, loving-kindness phrases, practicing with sickness, the Divine Abode phrases, the Five Remembrances, Tonglen, uses of chanting