The whole world is medicine, what is the illness?” When some people suffer they take medication, others seek therapy, a few become students of Zen. Although much has been made of the connections between Zen and psychology, to really understand Zen healing, it is also necessary to be aware of what healing means psychologically.
From the psychological point of view, emotional pain is a message from the unconscious that conflict has arisen, defenses are weakening. A patient coming to the therapist asking, “Is this all there is- could be seen as depressed, obsess ional, at the very least in real trouble.
In Zen practice this very same question is considered to be symptomatic of health. Students are told to dwell on this question continually. The question is called a koan and helps burst the bubble of illusion we live in. From the Zen point of view, all beings are ill. They are in the grip of three poisons – greed, anger and delusion (ignorance). However, by seeing these afflictions for what they are, by not chasing after them or making them real, they can break the hold they have upon our lives. By asking, “Is this all there is?” they are breaking through the limitations they live with, finding a way out of their usual responses.
From the psychological point of view, suffering arises when desire cannot be satisfied. We then must seek healthy ways to meet our needs. The deeper question of whether these so-called needs are good for us, whether we actually need them, or whether they are poisons in disguise is not taken into account.
From the Zen point of view, greed is insatiable. No matter how much we have, we want more. We truly need little, but craving develops, along with attachment and addiction. In this way most of our lives are spent accumulating goods, people, credentials, etc. Then we cling to what we have; often it becomes our identity, and we become fearful of losing it. Our precious life energy is thus used up, chasing after that which we do not need and which causes pain. Attachment causes suffering. No matter how tightly we grasp what we have, life gives and then takes away.
As we embark upon Zen practice, we learn how to let go, receive anew, and become grateful for whatever life brings. We also learn to become aware of our true needs and unnecessary wants. We do not spend as much time chasing, seeking and yearning for that which will never satisfy. Instead we learn how to become fully planted in the present moment and be able to fully taste, digest and appreciate whatever life brings our way.
Zen healing is not much interested in personality. Its sights are set on a different realm. Instead, when a person comes to the Zen Center they’re told to take off their shoes and place them carefully on the wooden shoe rack carefully. They are to
“Pay attention to what they’re doing. Sloppy shoes, sloppy mind.”
For Zen the quality of even the smallest act is of enormous importance. Rather than spin out daydreams and analyze them, rather than grab for personal attention, individuals are instructed to pay close attention, moment by moment, to whatever they are doing right now. Feelings and thoughts which come and go are like the wind. They aren’t taken seriously. The student is asked to stop reacting mindlessly and automatically to everything that comes along. Instead of developing a fancy personality, he develops awareness and patience. “But I’m hurting,” a student might protest.
“If you hurt, you hurt. If you don’t, you don’t,” the Zen Master might reply.
“But I want to know why,” the student might insist. “None of that will do you any good,” the Zen Master would explain. “Just pay attention to each moment, pay attention. your breath. ”
“But how will this help my misery?”
“Who said something’s supposed to help your misery?” the Zen Master would reply.
From the Zen point of view a great cause of suffering is that we live our lives playing with toys, never reaching for the real thing. It is rare to find someone who outgrows the need for distractions of all kinds, including comfort, advice, guidance, a restless search for answers and truth.
As we let go of all this, we discover another source of wisdom and authority that never lets us down. As this is discovered, suffering naturally ends.
About the Author
Discover a new road to peace of mind in award winning book, Jewish Dharma (A Guide to the Practice of Judaism and Zen), http://www.jewishdharma.com . Psychologist, radio show host, of A New Day with Dr Shoshanna has offered over 500 talks on all aspects of personal, relationship and spiritual growth.