When I discuss health with patients, family, and friends, I always talk about simplicity. When our diet is simple, we have abundant energy and digestion is easy. When our activities are balanced and in accord with the natural environment, we sleep well. Most importantly, when our mind is clear, and our thoughts positive and directed, we are able to move through life with awareness. Ultimately, it is through awareness that life becomes simple and full of wonder.
A doctor’s role is not only that of a healer, but also that of a teacher. And the most important thing that a doctor can teach is how to live fully in this world. This of course, will mean different things to different patients and a doctor must adjust the teaching accordingly. The doctor’s council may come in the form of medication, herbs, dietary recommendations, or some sort of lifestyle modification. I believe, however, that this teaching must always incorporate something that empowers the patient to see both the symptoms and life in a new way in order to facilitate a positive change.
One of my professors used to tell me, “honor your afflictions for they are your greatest teachers.” As a practitioner, when a patient walks through the door and begins to discuss their physical ailments, I try to see these things as a trail of jewels that will ultimately lead us toward a great treasure. It is through these discomforts that the body, in all of its wisdom, is actively showing us where it is out of balance. When treated as jewels instead of something to be feared or eliminated, we create space and ultimately awareness around the issue at hand. Again, it is through awareness that patients are able to recognize the causes and conditions of their aliments, enabling them to move forward feeling empowered.
This begs the question: How can we use this feeling of empowerment constructively to create more awareness in our lives?
The Buddha once said, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think, we become.”
Always taking this council to heart, I advise patients that by taking control of our thoughts we take control of our lives. Just as I use physical symptoms as jewels to lead me to the root of a patient’s physical dis-ease (treasure), we can all use meditation to observe the patterns of thought that have created and continue to create our life situation. Hence, to create more awareness, we first have to make space by clearing out the clutter in our minds.
The traditional intent of meditation is to eliminate suffering by shifting perspective. Meditation teaches one to shift attention from the mundane physical and personal experiences of the world, and turn to view life through a broader, more interconnected perspective. This process transcends and changes our sense of self so that our personal problems seem less intense and important. The point is not to immediately reduce the physical discomfort through improved health, but to change the importance we place on that discomfort. This shift in perspective naturally creates space and awareness by allowing us to actively focus our minds on the things we want instead of dwelling on the things we don’t.
To think about it another way, meditation creates simplicity. When we are able to sit quietly observing our thoughts, we not only begin to cut through the constant chatter that screams for attention, but we are able to discern which thoughts to focus on and which ones to let go. In doing so, we concentrate our thought energy in the direction of our choice, because as the Buddha said, “What we think, we become.” This idea was articulated beautifully in the Cherokee story of the Two Wolves:
An old Cherokee chief was teaching his grandson about life.
“A fight is going on inside me,” he told the young boy. “A terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil, full of anger, sorrow, regret, greed, self-pity and false pride. The other is good, full of joy, peace, love, humility, kindness and faith. This same fight is going on inside of you, grandson, and inside of every other person on this earth.” The grandson ponders this for a moment and then asks, “Grandfather, which wolf will win?”
The old man smiled and simply said, “The one you feed.”
Meditation is a process of honoring our afflictions by becoming more and more aware. When we bring awareness to the things that are holding us back from living fully, we are able to learn from and ultimately transcend our dis-eases. This is true on all levels: physical, mental and emotional. Consequently, meditation is a profound way to simplify our lives by freeing us from unproductive and unconscious patterns of thought.
As the Buddha said, “Meditation brings wisdom; lack of mediation leaves ignorance. Know well what leads you forward and what holds you back, and choose the path that leads to wisdom.”