"The whole world is medicine, what is the illness?"
When some individuals 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, in fact they deal with
suffering in a radically different way. It’s fascinating to notice what prompts one person to go to a
psychologist, while another seeks out the practice of Zen.
Roger, considered himself fortunate. He’d built a prosperous business, had a good marriage and was close to his family and friends. There was nothing to prepare him for the pain and restlessness that began to overtake him as he grew older. Day by day he started to wonder, "Is this all there is? Nothing more?"
A deep sense of bleakness invaded his life and he was soon diagnosed with depression. Anti-depressants and psychotherapy were prescribed, which Roger eagerly tried. They helped the surface pain he was feeling, but Roger’s persistent question – is this all there is? continued. The question was diagnosed as obsessional thinking, possibly the beginning of a deeper decline.
In Zen practice this very same question – is this all there is? - is considered to be symptomatic of health. Students are told to dwell upon this question continually. The question is called a koan. Koans are questions which help burst the bubble of illusion we live in. They are questions which cannot be solved logically or rationally. The answer reveals itself, arises from a deeper part of our being. As we practice, we become one with the koan, welcome it completely into our life.
From the Zen point of view, all beings are ill. They are in the grip of the three poisons, greed, anger and delusion (ignorance). However, by seeing these afflictions for what they are, not chasing after them or making them real, their power over your life is broken.
For example, greed causes us to be insatiable. No matter how much we have, we want more. Our life is spent accumulating and craving develops, along with attachment and addiction. We cling to what we have and become fearful of losing it. Our precious life energy is thus used up, grasping and holding on.
Holding on causes great pain. No matter how tightly we grasp, life gives and then takes away. As we embark upon Zen practice, we receive the great medicine of learning how to let go and become grateful for whatever life then brings.
Anger is another poison, not to be indulged in, or justified, but seen for what it is. It carries tremendous energy which must be transformed. Rather than seek to protect ourselves, or get back at our enemies, the Zen practitioner does not blame others, but instead, focuses upon and becomes fully aware of what is going on within. They do not struggle to get what they want in opposition to another. Instead they learn to open their hands, and give freely. Zen healing comes out of letting go and giving, not out of receiving more and more.
Roger’s depression continued and he finally decided that it was time to find a Zen Master and try something else. When he arrived at the Zen Center, he told the Zen Master that he knew he had a rotten personality and that’s why he was feeling so bad.
The Zen Master shrugged. “What’s wrong with a rotten personality?” At the Zen Center, Roger's suffering was normal, just a part of everyday life. No need to make much more of it.
“Pain is just pain,” the Zen Master continued, “don’t turn it into suffering. “Just take off your shoes and place them carefully on the wooden shoe rack.”
Roger had no idea what that had to do with anything, but the simplicity of the Zen Center, the incredible silence and cleanliness struck him. He shoved his shoes, one on top of the other, onto the rack.
"Place your shoes on the rack carefully," the Zen Master scolded. "Pay attention to what you're doing. Messy shoes, messy mind."
For the Zen Master, the quality of even the smallest act was of enormous importance. Rather than spin out daydreams, and analyze every action, he instructed Roger to pay close attention, moment by moment, to whatever he was doing right now. Feelings and thoughts came and went like the wind, weren’t taken seriously. Like everything else, when they came, he welcomed them, when they left, he did not pursue.
Roger was then instructed to sit down on the floor on a round, black cushion, straighten his back and not lean on anything. He was being asked to sit still, not move, be with himself silently, and get in touch with his own strength. To stop running away and react automatically to whatever came along.
“But what if I start to hurt?” Roger demanded.
“If you hurt, you hurt. If you don’t, you don’t,” the Zen Master replied.
"Is that all there is?" Roger asked in amazement.
"What more were you expecting?" the Zen Master asked.
"But how will this help my misery?"
"Who said something's supposed to help your misery?" the Zen Master replied kindly. “Just welcome whatever comes.”