Archive for April, 2012

Who’s Responsible?

Who’s Responsible?

by Jeffrey Brooks

History is not your boss. There may be trends beyond our control but our response to them will be within our control.

Western thought assumes a flow of history. In Christian teaching there is development to an end. There will be final war and final judgment. Western philosophy is thick with world-historical forces, teleology, the inevitable resolution of class conflict in a worker’s paradise, the end of history in liberal democracy, the return of the church or the caliphate.

Buddhism explains why this is not so. There is a cycle of events in Buddhism. Great epochs arise, endure, decline and dissolve again and again. They occur on a cosmic scale, in the course of a lifetime, and in every moment.

In each era, in each life, in each moment, there may be rise or fall. These changes in our condition depend on what we have done and on what we do.

So if we live in a decadent time we can still strive to be great, to serve and to be happy.

If we live in a time when decency is derided and virtue is crushed we do not need to be discouraged by this. We persist in learning what to do and then doing it. We will set an example, plant a seed, bring some happiness into the world, and experience the result of our goodness ourselves.

People may condescend to us because of our gender, or mock us because of our race, but we are not defined by our race or our gender or by other people’s treatment of us. We can respond to this as we choose, and persevere in equanimity and in decency despite the difficulty.

There are modern writers on Buddhism who talk about a “collective karma” of countries, races, and groups. I have never seen this phrase used in classical Buddhism in this sense. Each of us has our own karma. We will each respond to our experience uniquely, based on our habits and knowledge and strength.

Even if our economy surges and everyone gets their own giant house, cars and pool, each person will experience this uniquely.

Even if our city is destroyed, each of us still will have our own experience of this and will reap the result in our own way.

Buddhism teaches that there is a rise and fall of fortune for each of us and that it depends on our actions in the context of every cause and condition in our universe. The way out of the instability is to do right, see deeply, act kindly and so enter into the endless peace and freedom and virtuous action of Buddhahood. We can all do it.

This means we are free to live fearlessly and righteously in accord with or despite what swirls around us in the street, in the media, in the impressions we receive from our moment in history.


What Is Reiki Energy, Anyway?

What Is Reiki Energy, Anyway?

by Susan Downing

When we Reiki practitioners explain what we do when giving Reiki, we tend to talk about sending energy out through our hands into the recipient’s body.  But if you ask what that energy is and where it comes from, you can get a variety of answers.  Reiki’s founder, Mikao Usui, just called it “Reiki energy”, and described his initial contact with it, during a meditation retreat, this way: “While I fasted, I touched an intense energy and in a mysterious manner, I was inspired (I received the Reiki energy.)”  He described his method of healing as “a spiritual method that goes beyond medical science.”*

Now, Usui seems never to have talked about the energy being something independent that comes from outside the practitioner and flows through him or her and into a recipient.  But I think it is probably Usui Sensei’s description of Reiki as a spiritual method that led those who began practicing Reiki in the West (taught by Hawayo Takata who learned from one of Usui’s students) to describe the energy as “Universal healing energy” or “Divine healing energy” or “God’s energy.” And so it’s not surprising that most of us were taught that we practitioners are conduits for the energy, which flows into the recipient through our hands.

I can see that there would be pluses to presenting it this way. First of all, it can help the recipient relax if he can imagine receiving benevolent energy from a non-human source, even if it’s a non-specified non-human source. The recipient can name this energy in a way that appeals to him: Universal healing energy, God’s energy, Spirit, and so on.

I think another reason the “conduit” explanation has been so prominent is that it can put recipients at ease in another way:  since they’re receiving energy that is supposedly not the practitioner’s, then they can feel confident in its goodness and ability to bring positive benefit, rather than wondering whether their practitioner embodies and is sharing goodness or compassion or other positive qualities.

But there are also drawbacks to the “conduit” explanation.  If practitioners are only conduits for delivering the healing energy that flows from some outside source, then in principle every session from any Reiki practitioner should feel the same, shouldn’t it, since it’s always the same energy that is flowing, all from one source?  And yet, anyone who’s had Reiki from more than one practitioner knows that sessions from different practitioners feel different.  We talk about how we like this or that person’s “energy”.  This would seem to call into question the idea that all Reiki practitioners access a single, independent, outside energy source when they give Reiki.

I began considering this question in earnest a couple of years ago, as my  Buddhist practice deepened, and when thinking of the Reiki energy as having a divine or independent source outside the practitioner no longer felt compatible with my spiritual practice. So, I began to reflect on how I could explain the process of giving Reiki in a way that would not depend on referring to an independent source energy outside ourselves.  Here’s what I came up with:

When people ask me what Reiki’s all about and how it works, I first ask them how they feel when they’re in the presence of someone who really loves them.  People often respond by saying that they feel very happy, relaxed, calm, soothed. Their muscles relax and their breathing eases, too.  They smile. They simply feel content.  I say that this is very similar to the way it can feel to receive Reiki: like feeling loved.

Maybe we can say that we feel the way we do when we receive Reiki because what we are receiving is deep love.  Could we call Reiki energy simply the energy of love?   If so, then what’s the source of that loving energy?  The practitioner? God? Spirit? The Universe?  Maybe what we think of as Reiki energy functions not on its own, but only in dependence on and collaboration with the hearts and minds of the people through whom it flows.  We can’t know for sure.  Nor do I think we need to know.  Think of it any way you want, in any way that resonates with you. I think that what’s important is not trying to identify the source of that feeling of joy and well-being, but rather, accepting it for the great blessing it is and being grateful that we can experience it, however it makes its way to us.

* This quote comes from an interview given by Mikao Usui sometime between 1922 and 1926, and translated and published by Frank Arjava Petter in his book The Legacy of Dr. Usui.


The Training That Gives Life

The Training that Gives Life

by Jeffrey Brooks

A central premise of Buddhism is that we create our own reality by the way we think, speak and act. If we act virtuously our lives become happier. If we act non-virtuously we suffer.

Virtuous actions are: treating others well, being generous, being patient, joyfully doing good, keeping the mind clear and stable, and seeing deeply into how things work. That is what we are taught to do with our time.

We are taught to not do the things that distract us, and which themselves cause us trouble: killing, stealing, lying, intoxication, sexual misconduct, splitting people apart, being lazy, being stingy, being angry and believing that our actions have no consequences.

These prescriptions are not special to Buddhism. Mature people everywhere know that what may feel good for a moment will soon turn to misery.

Following this advice allows us to experience inner peace and good relations with others. This is a natural state. What we enjoy about being on a team, in a family, in a squad, is the feeling that we are not separated from the other people. The more our lives are shared with other people, the more precious those people are to us.

Today many people live in a state of perpetual exile. Lonely, anxious, angry and afraid. This is a result of what they have done.  But, whether or not they see it, they are free at any moment to act kindly and rejoin humanity.

They might be reluctant to do this because they think they will be hurt or taken advantage of or thought foolish or will lose what they have.

But acting kindly is not the same as being weak.

American Zen and American martial arts both are permeated with the false and harmful teachings that came from generations of Japanese teachers who did not have a good Buddhist education, embraced an ethos of world conquest, and expressed their advocacy of suicide terrorism in words borrowed from Buddhism.

“The sword that gives life” and “If the enemy falls on your sword it is his fault” and “Treat your life like so much straw” or “Be indifferent to whether you live or die” are not Buddhism. In their writings, DT Suzuki, his teacher Soen, Yasutani, some of their American students and followers that spread out from the California Zen centers of the 60’s and 70’s, and some of their followers today, write and speak as if there is wisdom in these expressions.

In the safety of a dojo, where the worst that can happen will be breaks and bruises, wounded pride and delayed gratification, there may be some fascination with the bold sound of these expressions. But in the world of the military and of law enforcement, in the culture of people who are actually required to face danger, no one falls for this.

There may be a time when sacrifice is required by duty. And there are more important things in this world than staying alive. But to be indifferent to your own life, to instruct people not to care about whether they live or die from one moment to the next is not Buddhism and it’s not warriorship.  These Japanese Zen teachers were advocating that the young kamikaze pilots and front line troops believe in the same inverted values that the jihadi terrorists of today are encouraging their bombers and suicide bombers to believe.

There is a time to fight. But the motive must be just and the means must be in place. Placing loyalty to authority above all other virtues, filling your heart and mind with hate and teaching that it will only be relieved by killing, that blind obedience and team interest and the murder of innocents will be rewarded in the afterlife, has nothing to do with Buddhism.

There may be a time to fight. That may bring a moment of respite in a crisis. It will not be the source of lasting happiness or peace.

As human beings we can protect each other with our lives. By making our lives useful. Not by throwing them away. By being strong for each other and kind to each other. Then when danger comes we will be prepared to stop it. And when peace follows we will not descend into self indulgence but can continue to practice virtue, creating the causes of happiness and the end of suffering for everyone.

And as we live this way we see that the boundary of my self extends far beyond my body, my mind, and my stuff.


Message in A Body

Message in A Body

by Susan Downing

Today’s post is a tale of a stubborn patient with hypertension, an insistent doctor with a prescription pad, and the insights that finally helped relieve the pressure.

Okay, I’ll start by admitting that the stubborn patient just happens to be me.  When my doctor told me at the end of last summer that my blood pressure was borderline and suggested I start medication, I said, “No way.”  She was surprised by my resistance.  I said I didn’t want to start putting chemicals in my body for a borderline condition.  So we made a deal: I’d come back for a follow-up appointment in a month, and in the meantime, I’d try various “lifestyle” changes to see whether they’d make a difference.  Well, after a month of almost no salt, more exercise and losing a few pounds, my blood pressure was pretty much unchanged.  We had the same conversation: “Would you consider taking medication?” “No.”  So we made another deal: I’d take my blood pressure regularly at home and come back in six months.  I wasn’t sure what the point of this was supposed to be.  Maybe my doctor was just tired of arguing with me. But strangely enough, there did end up being a point…

I took my blood pressure every day for about… three days.   Then I stowed the cuff back in the bathroom cabinet, where it gathered dust until about mid-February.  At that point I realized I would be going back to the doctor in a month, so I decided it would probably not be a bad idea to check my blood pressure every day.

Well, the tale my monitor told was not heartening: my blood pressure really was pretty consistently high, often higher than the upper levels considered borderline.  Hmm.  I had to admit it.  But I did not want to take medication.  I just did not!!  Over my entire adult life, I’d seen my mother struggle with one medication after another and the side effects they caused.  I wasn’t about to go through that.  I didn’t want to allow a doctor to bully me into taking drugs.

But then, suddenly, it occurred to me to ask myself why I was so resistant to doing something about my blood pressure, so resistant to even admitting that it would be a good thing to address.  I take such good care of my health in every way, that you’d think I’d definitely do the same with a chronic condition that seems so potentially dangerous to the health.  So, it’s when I saw my own reticence that I sat down to do some inquiry into what really happens in and to the body when blood pressure is high.

For several years now, I’ve been in the habit of looking at any physical ailments or injuries I experience on the metaphorical level, because I believe that illness and injuries are our bodies’ attempts to communicate to us about our habits of body, speech and mind that are not serving us well.

This is a pretty radical way of approaching illness and its symptoms: instead of seeing them as enemies and rushing to mask symptoms or eradicate disease through medication or surgery, we can investigate the symptoms and see what they’re trying to tell us about our lives. Usually they are trying to show us ways in which our lives are out of balance. The body communicates metaphorically, and once we start learning to understand this language, we can begin to see our illnesses not as enemies, but as kind and patient teachers –  I say patient, because the body will persist in sending us messages as many times as necessary in order to get our attention, often in different ways, through different parts of our bodies, through a variety of illnesses, all of which generally have one underlying theme. (For a detailed guide to this approach, see The Healing Power of Illness, by Thorwald Dethlefsen.)

Once we fully understand what our body is telling us and accept our symptoms as an accurate reflection of our habits, if we stop resisting our symptoms’ messages, then we can find that our life comes into balance on its own when we make gentle adjustments to our thinking and actions. This approach isn’t always effective.  Sometimes, if the illnesses are more complex or chronic, we may find it harder to fully understand or accept and integrate our body’s messages.  And in those cases, surgery or medication really might be the best approach.  But when we are able to pay attention before an illness becomes really serious, then we can find that our symptoms and illness fade. They fade because the body has gotten our attention and we’ve listened, we’ve accepted what it has to say instead of resisting listening.  So it no longer needs to keep jabbering at us.  It’s like this: say you go to visit a friend and ring the doorbell.  Once they open the door and invite you in, there’s no need to keep standing on the porch ringing the bell.

So, I began my inquiry because I figured my body had a message for me. What could it possibly be?

I began by looking at the physiology of the flow of blood through the blood vessels and what happens to the blood vessels and the organs of the body when the blood pressure is high.  (You don’t necessarily have to look at the physiological side of your illness or symptoms, but I find it can help, and I loved the anatomy and physiology classes I took a number of years ago, but you don’t have to go this route if you don’t want to.)  Here’s a condensed version of how my thought process went: what struck me was that with high blood pressure, the overzealous action of one part of the body has a direct negative effect on one or more other parts of the body.  Specifically, it’s like one part of the body putting excess pressure on another part of one’s same body. Or, maybe I could phrase it this way: having blood pressure was kind of like me placing pressure on myself.   Oh.  Me placing pressure on myself.  Hmm.  That thought got my attention, right away.  Suddenly it all seemed very obvious that that was the metaphorical message my body was trying to send me, or at least part of it.

Once I had found this metaphorical interpretation of my symptoms that resonated with me – and it resonated very strongly – I was able to do some serious thinking about the areas of my life in which I have consistently placed pressure on myself.  It was like a bunch of puzzle pieces falling into place. By reflecting on how I was placing pressure on myself and why, I gained deep insight into patterns of behavior that have guided me for nearly my entire life.  This was not an easy process or a pleasant one, but in the end I felt that I had not only gotten the message my body was trying to give me, but had also, through my reflection, understood why I had developed this approach to life in the first place.  What’s more, I also saw how it had negatively affected certain areas of my life.

At this point I also got why I had resisted accepting that my high blood pressure was a problem at all: at the core of my approach to life lay my habit of putting pressure on myself.  It was my defense mechanism against all possible bad outcomes.  No wonder I couldn’t accept the idea that high blood pressure was a problem, much less the idea that it would be good to take drugs to reduce it – I couldn’t imagine surviving without that level of pressure.  But once I understood the metaphorical significance of my high blood pressure, I also realized that although this approach to life may have been useful at some point in the past, there was no longer any need for it.  I saw that it was no longer a useful way to live.

This process of inquiry, reflection and insight played out over the course of about three days, during which time I was both on edge and exhausted. During these three days, when I measured my blood pressure, it was even higher than it had been before!  But then, finally, one day I awoke feeling refreshed, relaxed, and energetic.  I checked my blood pressure.  It had dropped to well within the normal range.  And although it has fluctuated some since then, and it’s not always as low as my doctor would like it to be, I am most comfortable with approaching it this way, because I’ve already seen big improvement. So, I continue to do inquiry on this topic, because I’ve discovered (through using Dethlefsen’s approach) that high blood pressure is a remarkably rich metaphorical treasure trove, encompassing not only questions of pressure, but also resistance and restraint.  Leave it to me to come up with such a complex symptom!  That is so like me.

I decided to write about this process because approaching illness and symptoms this way – by interpreting them metaphorically – is turning out to be very powerful for me, and I thought it might appeal to others, too.  It feels so right to consider my body’s aches and pains as well-meaning teachers instead of enemies to be resisted.  They help me gain insight into where my thoughts and actions are out of balance, and they help me see weaknesses I might otherwise overlook or actively refuse to consider.

Certainly this approach is not for everyone. Sometimes medicine and conventional procedures really can be good options.  But for those of us who enjoy reflection and inquiry, engaging in this kind of work can offer us a new way to approach our symptoms and illness: we can invite them in, have an insightful conversation, and then walk them to the door when that conversation comes to a natural conclusion and part as friends.