Beginner's Mind

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." - Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi

Saturday, January 31, 2004

I started studying Buddhism shortly after learning about meditation, which I researched in an effort to help deal with migraine headaches. I think I had the notion that, through meditation, I could somehow make the headaches go away. Sadly, I have not learned how that can work, and from what I've experienced and read, meditation is not a cure for headaches. However, I have learned, as I pointed out in my last post, meditating can help stave off the consequences of stress, and can in fact help reduce stress. There is a lot of stress associated with chronic pain.

For the last few months I was the volunteer "Big Brother" in a pain management program. I saw there what I experienced myself when I took the program in 2001. Such programs do not cure you of pain, though I think it is common for people who enter such programs to think they will get a cure. Often, by the time the chronic pain sufferer is referred to the program, the tried and true techniques for eliminating pain have all been tried with (at best) mixed results. The aim of such programs is not to provide a cure, but to provide skills that will help the patient deal effectively with the pain.

Such programs struggle like a fish swimming upstream. Since pain is your body's way of telling you something is wrong, the natural reaction is to try to eliminate the pain in any way possible. But in trying to manage the pain, you are attempting to live your life while experiencing the pain. Management techniques tend to involve coming face to face with the pain, and reducing aspects of the pain that make you suffer. Along with the physical pain, there are psychological side-effects (such as stress) which, if left unchecked, will increase your pain and suffering in a positive feedback loop, until eventually you become unable to function. It is said that, "The way out of the pain is through it," which I guess applies to other problems as well.

One of the meditation techniques I have used successfully (which, in fact, has served to reduce the pain on many occasions) is a guided meditation taught by Shinzen Young. He takes an approach that it is possible to experience pain without suffering from it. In fact, pain can serve as a kind of spiritual cleansing, through which you can further your own spiritual practice and beliefs. The meditations have you concentrate on the pain and notice the way the pain changes in intensity and location. You also notice the other effects of the pain, affecting other parts of the body not in pain. Your own mental state is also scrutinized. At the beginning, such activity feels very unnatural, and your pain can actually seem to increase. However, after awhile, I have found that by becoming more aware of the pain, rather than expending mental energy in an effort to eliminate the pain, the pain "shrinks" and becomes more tolerable. I still feel the pain, and it still hurts, but the fear, anger, and frustration that goes along with chronic pain disappear, and I become more at ease. I can't say this always works, and I'm still trying to practice the technique, but I have experienced enough success that I stick with it.

Friday, January 30, 2004

I've been asked...what is a sangha? What do they do? Well, the sangha is one of the Three Jewels of Buddhism, which are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. To explain that, I must first explain that one of the goals (probably the big goal, though "goal" is not a good word) of Buddhism, one of the Four Noble Truths, is enlightenment. In it's simplest form, enlightenment is a state of mindfulness, i.e. existing in the actual moment, not in the past or future. Probably the closest thing to it in Western culture is described as "being in the zone," which can happen in sports, but can also happen in any endeavor in which you are super-concentrating. This is sometimes referred to as "being one with everything."

In order to attain mindfulness and enlightenment, the primary activity of a Buddhist is meditation. There are many forms of meditation, spanning most of the world's religions. In the West, meditation is mostly associated with Transcendental Meditation, where the meditator repeats a sacred word (a popular one is "Om") over and over, concentrating on the sound. In fact, it is this steady concentration on one object with all of your mind that is the common method in all forms of meditation. For Buddhists, the concentration is placed on following the breath.

A note on meditation: when you meditate successfully, there are biological changes that occur in your body that have been (and continue to be) well studied in medicine. You have probably heard of the "fight or flight" response in animals (including humans!) when they feel threatened. The adrenaline kicks in, and the body is prepared to protect itself. There is an opposite body response, called the Relaxation Response, which lowers the adrenaline (and its effects), and puts the body into a calm, relaxed state. Just as the effects of fight or flight are cumulative (which is called stress), the effects of the Relaxation Response are also cumulative. It therefore becomes a natural way to combat stress. This technique of eliciting the Relaxation Response (by following the breath) is taught in chronic pain programs as a way to lessen the suffering of pain. Curiously, it has also been shown that meditation (in many of its forms, including prayer) affects the part of the brain that is used to process your position in your environment (I hope that's the correct explanation); thus bringing about a feeling of expansiveness and transcendental experience.

In any event, having explained all that, a sangha in its simplest form is a group of people with which you practice meditation. It is a community of Buddhists, in a similar manner in which a congregation is a community of Christians. A sangha will study Buddhist writings (called sutras), work in the community by doing social work, hold or travel to day-long and week-long all day meditation sessions, and listen to Buddhist talks given by Buddhist teachers. A sangha may consist of monks and nuns, or laypeople, or be a combination of both.

While for laypeople most meditation is done at home alone (or with your family), meditation with your sangha is a different experience. I don't know why this occurs, and it might make a good psychological thesis, but somehow your practice is stronger, and more meaningful, with others around you. There's an "energy" that you can feel. I have a friend who went to Nepal for two months, staying at a monastery. Her experience, meditating with the monks who were chanting, was so amazing that she says now, "If I weren't married and didn't have a son, that's where I'd be." My own experience of this phenomena happened when I meditated for an hour with a group of folks in a meditation class. The feeling of relaxation, peace, and equanimity were unlike anything I've ever felt before or since.

So, anyway, that is an overview of what a sangha is and what it does.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Gosh, it's been awhile since I posted. Over six months! Well, I hope to remedy that by entering comments more often. I've redone the page to have some links, and comments, and stuff like that.

New stuff since last July? The daily pain still exists, though I have been able to get a little relief by following a diet that eliminates all known food triggers. The diet is from Dr. David Buchholz book entitled Heal Your Headache. I have learned that, like many other migrainers, MSG is a trigger. What I didn't know before I read the book is how many different sources there are of MSG that have other names. Wow! In a nutshell (an inside joke...nuts are one of the foods to avoid), as long as I stick to fresh foods and meats, I will be OK. How's that for a problem?

I have also begun the search to join a sangha, a fancy word to say a Buddhist "congregation" (there seems to be some contention as to whether Buddhism is a religion or not; it certainly is to people outside of it). More on that as the search grows.

So, family, friends, and everyone, I will do my best to keep this interesting!