"..... and what Nursing has to do, in either case, is to put the patient
in the best possible condition for Nature to act upon him."
– Florence Nightingale
The Instinct to Heal
As part of life on Earth, your body is permeated with the adaptive wisdom of the ages. Whether you think of life as a gift from God or as an emergent property of complex molecules, the trillions of cells you call yourself are masters of survival. In every moment, without your noticing it, many millions of tiny processes are occurring which guard your health, maintain your inner equilibrium, and give you the energy to go after your goals.
The atoms your body is made out of are virtually immortal. They were formed billions of years ago and will persist until the end of time. The lighter elements in your body such as hydrogen were formed in the first moments of the Big Bang. The heavier elements in your body such as calcium in your bones and the iron in your blood were formed in stellar synthesis, and in spectacular, galaxy-rattling explosions. All the processes we call life and the very cells of your body cells are the fruit of this cosmic blossoming. If that isn’t stunning and awe-inspiring, I don’t know what is.
Life is a dance of matter and energy, continually regenerating and evolving. And as life adapts itself to different conditions, it transforms not only itself but the face of the world. Nowhere is this more tangible than in this vehicle we call our bodies. Our bodies, by and large, heal themselves without our help. For every ache you have ever consciously noticed, billions of tiny injuries were recognized by the body and repaired without your even becoming aware of it. The body’s mechanisms took care of it. Mostly the body repairs itself on the fly, while we are in the midst of our everyday activities. And every day the body knocks us out for hours, anesthetizes us, in the process called sleep, so that it can conduct deeper repairs of a physical, emotional, and mental nature.
You had many tiny cuts which healed and you barely noticed. You were exposed to innumerable kinds of virus and potentially infectious bacteria which the many layers of your immune system took care of. Perhaps you walked a longer distance than usual one day, and your legs were a little sore the next day. Your body recovered without your attending to it. Even when there are major medical events, the surgery or medication is usually a temporary measure that helps the body get a handle on the event, and then nature does the healing.
Take a breath right now and recall some little cuts you had in the past that healed by themselves. Now remember some emotional wounds, losses, or setbacks you suffered in the past, and have healed from. Next, recall a time you got very tired, had a good night’s sleep, and woke up refreshed. Continual self-healing is the normal way the body functions.
Sometimes the injury is greater and the healing cycle lasts longer, and the body needs our conscious cooperation in order to heal. The wound needs our attention and care. Wounds, whether they be physical or emotion, call us with the signal known as “pain,” and demand that we learn how to help restore balance and health. When consciousness becomes involved in cooperating with life in search of healing, then we are on a quest – a quest for wholeness.
Meditation is a powerful tool on this quest. It’s widely known that meditation allows a profound rest and repose, which has a healing effect. For thousands of years in many lands meditation has been cherished because it helps tune your intuition and clarify the signals you are getting from your body, the signals that tell you what you need to do.
What is not widely appreciated is that each meditation is itself a journey of healing and discovery, in which we answer the call to go within, and fall through our inner gateways into the depths of being.
You probably picked up this book because you feel a need to care for yourself in some way. One way to approach these words is to care for yourself in how you read - breathe easily as you read, and take pauses to reflect, so that right from the very first, you set a tone that gives your body the freedom it needs to heal deeply. Develop a style of reading that lets you own the knowledge you want. This may mean reading only a paragraph sometimes, then taking a walk and thinking about it, or taking a nap, or talking it over with a friend.
Almost everything in meditation is common sense, or should be, and you instinctively know it. Sometimes a few words of instruction are all a person needs for years. You do not need to know everything in this book to meditate. In fact, you may only need a couple of sentences, and then apply that to your inner world. What those sentences are is different for everyone. I have been sitting with people, thousands of them, for 30 years and each person is different.
When you find something you like in your reading, give yourself time to explore it in your inner world. Close your eyes and breathe with the thought and let it permeate you. Make up your own way of saying it and visualizing it.
There is an old saying, “Knowledge that is in the books stays in the books.” Whatever you want to have as a skill, you can, because the skills of meditation are all about using your senses. Read slowly, use all your senses. Breathe with the sentences you like. Let the words fade away and be in your inner silence.
When you challenge your body to work, you get fatigued, and then the body rebuilds itself and you come back stronger. Athletes and bodybuilders work this action/rest cycle constantly: it’s called training, and it’s how muscles grow. When you challenge your muscles, the body rebuilds them stronger than before. That is what “working out” is. Lifting weights, exercising, working the body, breaks the tissue down. There are micro-tears. At night, and on your rest days, the body rebuilds the muscles. It can take two days to recover from an intense workout. You may feel sore the next day, and really sore two days later.
I remember being surprised when I learned it is rest that makes you stronger. I’d always assumed it was the workouts that built you up. The trainers say it’s actually rest plus having sufficient nutrition circulating in the body to provide the raw materials for the repairs. The play of opposites is that you want to challenge the body and break it down, just the right amount, and then rest those body parts through sleep and normal use for a couple of days. That’s what makes you stronger.
Working out week after week without sufficient rest time can result in overtraining injuries, which means the body does not have enough time to repair the injuries before you stress it again. This is a known phenomenon in all form of athletic training, and coaches and exercise physiologists have done brilliant work in revealing these rhythms. Athletes who follow their training rhythms get better results with fewer disabling injuries.
In daily life, we do many kinds of workouts, on emotional, social, and informational levels. We challenge ourselves to cope with environments at home and at work, and we can get worn out on many levels. Our rest time is when we heal up and become stronger. I think we can suffer from a kind of “overtraining” fatigue on these other levels, such as emotions and information. Sometimes, we ache with fatigue, tension, or just plain pain that is not just physical. Mostly the pain goes away by itself. There are some forms of pain that stay, and we wonder what that is. This is more than just the usual pain, we find ourselves thinking.
This is where meditation comes in. Among other things, meditation can be a rest much deeper than deep sleep, which we can access in the midst of our day whenever we want. When you rest more deeply than sleep, you can heal more deeply also.
Meditation feels like time out, time off, a brief vacation in which you don’t have to do anything. You pay attention almost idly, in the gentlest way possible, to some aspect of the body’s self-renewal process, such as breathing , the heart beating, or the relationship of your body to infinity, or any of a million other things. In meditation we enjoy whatever the focus is and rest in it. We do so little that the entire doing structure of the body can reset its circuits.
You place your attention in some aspect of how life renews life, and you rest there. Feed on it, bathe in it, explore it, delight in it, play with it. Nest there. Bond with it. That’s about it. The technique is extremely simple, but what can be elusive is finding the approach you love so much you want to do it, or that is so natural to you that you can do it under almost any circumstance.
Meditation As Healing Attention
Being tuned to the body gives us the information we need to stay at our best. When the body needs our help, we feel pain or discomfort, or we get desires, hankerings, urges and instincts. If the body is low on water, we will start to crave a drink of something. We get the sensation we call hunger, or we start daydreaming about food, when we are beginning to run low on fuel. If the body is fighting an infection, it usually signals us by making us feel tired so we want to rest more. Once in awhile discomfort persists, and we become aware that something is amiss, that the body needs our conscious cooperation in order to maintain itself. We become aware, in other words, that we need to heal from something. We need some medicine.
The word “medicine” comes from the Indo-European root “med” which means to measure, to take appropriate measures, to look after, attend to. “Med-” is about “attending to so that balance is restored.” There is a musical sense of “med” as well – a measure is also a measure of music, a beat, and the root means to restore the harmony. The word “meditation” comes from this same root and means “paying attention in such a way that harmony is restored.”
Meditation is often presented as otherworldly or spiritual, but if you look at the techniques themselves, you find something very different – earthy, primitive, sensual, and rhythmic. Meditation techniques always call our attention to how life renews itself, through the ebb and flow of breathing, night and day, silence and sound. To meditate, just think of any aspect of nature you love, the sun, the wind, a mountain, a waterfall, a tree, and cherish all the subtle sensory impressions that come. For healing meditations in particular, rest your attention in an aspect of how life renews itself. What does the body do many times each moment to sustain itself? The breath flows in and out; the heart beats, the muscles make tiny adjustments to position and orient you within Earth’s gravitational field. Placing the attention into these processes is the basis of meditation techniques known the world over.
Because meditation is built-in, the way to evoke it is quite straightforward. You pick a spot to sit, select some aspect of life’s dynamics to focus on, and enjoy it. When your mind wanders, which it will, return to your focus. The key is to pay attention in a restful way, and then let the beauty of life’s subtle motions allure you. When your worries come to mind, let them. Although this can be disturbing in the short run, in the long run this is the only way to stay relaxed – by facing your worries and feeling them through.
If you are hurting, emotionally or physically, the pain calls your attention. Usually we distract ourselves if we can, and use a bit of effort to keep going. When we just sit there and let the pain call us into itself, and dwell there, that is meditation. Almost everyone I have ever met who is practicing meditation is doing so out of a search for healing of some emotional, spiritual, or physical wound or discomfort. This book is their story, what the people I have talked to find works, and where they have gotten stuck and refused the healing.
Meditation is a meeting ground for all of life’s self-renewing instincts. It is not a singular state, like resting, but rather a wide-open space where all your instincts can meet and integrate with each other. In successive moments meditation may take on the quality of resting, hunting, feeding, playing, singing, nursing, and homing. Attention rides these tones like waves and sometimes is transformed into pure being. What are all the ways life renews itself? Feeding, gathering, resting, fighting, fucking, exploring, migrating, building shelters, nesting. Each of these is in fact a major focus of meditation.
The central instruction of meditation is: “Be awake, in a sensuous way, to how life renews life.” Find some aspect of life’s self-renewal that enchants you and is discernable to your senses, and revel in it. Let it carry you away into rapture. In other words, to meditate, find ways to enjoy the basic processes of life as you do your favorite music. Be there for awhile, savoring. Rest in that awareness. The magic of meditation is not in the meditation – it’s in what life is and we are attending to life.
It may sound too simple, is that all it is? “In meditation, pay attention to some aspect of your everyday life experience with appreciation.” What you will be forever learning are the subtleties of attention, for attention is love – or it can be. Attention is mysterious, and no one knows what it is. For a focus you can select anything you love so deeply that you want to surrender to it, merge with it, or just listen to it for awhile in your inner being.
The natural rhythm of meditation is that people sit there and get renewed, and then they want to get up and go take this energy and apply it to their lives. This is what I see, sitting with meditators the last 30 some years. The impulse at work is to restore the body, as much as is possible in the moment, to a “good to go” status. Meditation is not about hiding from life. It’s a tool to help you tackle your issues head-on and bring your best self forward.
If you are reading this book because you are hurting or aching from one of life’s outrageous slings and arrows, welcome. Take a breath and breathe easily as you read. Remember that the human body is hardy and resilient. Your body is the genetic gift from all your ancestors, who survived famine, drought, plagues, earthquakes, wars, pogroms, crop failures and climatic shifts. Life is itself a self-healing system. Meditation is a name we give to deep cooperation with life.
This book is about how to develop good instincts in meditation, so you can find the techniques that work the best for you. These meditations are about becoming more attuned to your needs, and those of others, so that whatever you need for your healing, meditation can be in the service of that.
Being sick or hurting in some way and on a Quest for healing is a great situation for meditation because your symptoms call your attention anyway. In meditation, you let the symptoms call you inward, into the core of your being where healing is. Meditation is a skill of cooperating with your own healing. Our bodily symptoms are always important clues to what we need to heal, and in meditation our symptoms become clarified as the extraneous anxiety is filtered away. You get better information from your body, and the total relaxation of meditation is usually very helpful in the body’s self-healing. The healing is not something you “do” by an act of will. You cooperate with what your body is doing, is all.