A “Health Sesshin”

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 old.
I am of the nature to get sick, there is no escaping getting sick.

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 situation:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Open up 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.