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Health & Illness

This morning I want to talk about how we handle health and illness. Usually, Zen is said to concern itself with the Great Matter of Life and Death, but until we're actually up against it, the Great Matter for most of us remains an abstraction, while what we do about our health and how we handle illness is the stuff of our everyday lives.

Most of us these days -- and perhaps especially people who come to Zen centers -- are pretty health conscious, in the sense that we are aware of our diet & nutrition; we often seek out organic rather than processed foods or may be vegetarians and so on. This awareness is all for the good, and has arguably been one of the most important and influential changes to take place in our generation. But like so much of what we do, it all too easily becomes a project. And that means we begin to think that can guarantee some outcome by our efforts. If only I eat all the right things, avoid all the bad ones, take the right combination of vitamins, do the right exercises and so on, I can stay healthy forever! And there is no denying that all that may make us healthier, but there are no guarantees. Sometimes we simply don't know what factors will lead to an unexpected illness (not to speak of accidents) or the relevant factors, like a genetic heritage, may be completely out of our control.  Often with complex systems like our bodies, very minor changes may perturb  the system in unforeseeable ways. The danger here is that we treat illnesses when they inevitably occur as failures, proof that we've done something wrong. Then we suffer not only the illness itself, but the self-hate that accompanies the sense of having failed at our project, we haven't lived up to the picture of health that we thought we were achieving by all our right living.

I'll give you an example from my own life. For a long time, I had very labile blood pressure, meaning it was subject to large swings, both up and down. And I did what I thought were all the right things to try to stabilize it, in terms of diet, salt restriction, and the like. At one point my wife introduced me to an elderly Chinese herbalist who prescribed various herbs. Maybe all that helped a bit, maybe not. At one point the Chinese doctor suggested I try meditating! I explained that I had been meditating regularly for the past 25 years or so. And his immediate response was, then you're not meditating right! So I asked him how I should mediate and he said sit quietly and empty the.mind. Well, OK.

Now I'm sure that for a lot of people meditation does help control hypertension, but for all the changes practice has brought to my life, that just hasn't been one of them - though I suppose you could always say that my blood pressure would have been worse without it. It simply seems in my case that this is something I'm prone to. Eventually, my internist gave me a pill to take that for now has made my blood pressure perfectly normal. I'm very grateful for that pill --even though some part of me would no doubt prefer to be able to say that through meditation or diet or some other virtuous habit, I had healed myself all on my own. But we have to watch out for that grasping after control, that desire for autonomy.

Another way this issue comes up, is that I'm often asked what I think of Zen students taking Prozac. Shouldn't practice all by itself quiet the mind and stabilize our moods? Isn't it another sign we're not doing something right if we need a drug like Prozac? As far as I'm concerned, practice is fundamentally about one thing: Are you living a self-centered life or a selfless life? And all those questions about shouldn't I be able to handle this on my own, what are they? Self-centered, of course. The real issue ought to be, What allows me to function and respond best to those around me? Everything else is a matter of pride & self-image.

One of the basic tenets of Buddhism has always been the inescapable fact of impermanence -- and that means that fundamentally there will always be a limit to how much control we can exert over the way our lives go. There's no technique for attaining and holding onto some perfect, unchangeable state of mental or physical health, though everybody inevitably comes to practice with some fantasy of that sort in the back of their minds. True practice entails letting go of that fantasy, and learning to accept our Life as it is, and ourselves as we are.