Health In The Buddhist Tradition

Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin

Naropa Institute, Boulder Colorado

Talk Two: July 30, 1981

In our first talk we discussed being grounded, relating with the earth, which involves the body. By "body" we mean not only the physical body, but also the body of the environment, the world we live in. Being grounded is extremely important because it brings about freedom from fantasy, from wishful thinking. In some sense being grounded has a quality of boredom. However, if we look carefully, we can see that our preoccupation with fantasy­­discursive thoughts, expectations, implications, motives and so on­­produces an unsettled quality in our life. We also discussed the notion of trust in our basic state of mind, which means that we do not separate ourselves from the environment. When we create a citadel, a fortress of who we are, so as not to partake in the energies of situations, we isolate ourselves in that way, we become weak. The last point we discussed was that in order to uncover basic health it, it is necessary to synchronize body and mind.

We could continue by talking about the psychosomatic body, or what we call the "mind-body " as opposed to the physical body. The psychosomatic body is the result of mind's interpretation of body. We look at, feel and sense things, but generally we don't do that as a single process. Our perceptions, sense consciousness and so on are intertwined with the projections of mind. Mind projects itself onto the environment, projecting our notion of a self onto whatever appears as phenomena. This process of projection, when coupled with the notion of protecting oneself, gives rise to our belief that health is something that has to be nourished, protected, and increased. When projecting and the impulse to protect oneself come together, we create a distorted version of reality, of things as they are. That distortion creates further expectations about this body, this person. For example, right now you might be sitting on a chair. You feel your body on thËe chair and your feet on the floor; if your legs are crossed, you feel the back of your leg over your knee. You have a sense of the temperature and the light in the room. All of these sensations are psychosomatic, that is to say, they are mind-body interpretations. We do not relate directly to our own body and the environment, but to a projection, an interpretation of those things. We shape the world according to our projection of the world.

That being the case, our task is to understand how to bring together mind, body and mind-body­­the interpretive factor, that which connects the actual body and mind together. We flicker back and forth very quickly between the actual experience of body and our interpretation of that experience. That flickering brings a sense of uncertainty in our being, as though something is missing, and that uncertainty causes us to think that to be healthy we must protect and nurture ourselves. The flickering also gives rise to further and further elaboration of the mind-body experience. Eventually we elaborate so much that we allow illness into our body.

Illness is not intrinsic, but the result of a split between who we are and who we think we are. Because of mind's flickering back and forth there is uncertainty; uncertainty gives rise to elaboration; elaboration gives rise to further fantasy. When we are caught up in such fantasies, we become totally fascinated by sensation and our interpretation of it. We indulge ourselves so completely that we are constantly, day by day, moment by moment, checking how we feel. "How do I feel right now? I feel irritated, I feel good, I feel...oh, I have a pain in my left knee." On and on we go, continually preoccupied with the psychosomatic body. Because we are so preoccupied, we invite all kinds of chaos into our lives. Chaos is the result of lack of mindfulness, and illness is the result of chaos. When these preoccupations, these projections of mind, continue over a period of time they become quite solid. We develop habitual patterns of relating to our body and the world in an egotistical way. That relationship becomes so solid that we actually become martyrs to the common cold. We become so preoccupied with our fascination with being Miss, Mr., or Mrs. So-and-So, that basic health is completely missed­­it's simply wishful thinking.

According to the Buddhist tradition, the excellent means of not corrupting one's basic health is the practice of being mindful. Mindfulness is based on working with the psychosomatic body. We realize that we are constantly projecting the notion of "me" and "my body" and "my world." They're not separate, yet we live in a world of separation because we haven't synchronized mind and body together. That's why we call the practice of meditation the practice of mind-full-ness. Mindfulness means mind is full, therefore it includes everything. Nothing is left out, nothing is discarded. It's a simple, direct situation. Mindfulness is not a matter of discarding projections; rather, we begin to become mindful that projecting is taking place. When we become mindful of the fact that we project, that we shape our body according to our mind, then we become more attentive to how we conduct our moment-to-moment existence. We become much clearer about how we think, how we act, how we are sensitive to the environment. We understand that the split between mind and body creates and shapes the psychosomatic body, which is what we are dealing with all the time: our version of ourselves. The practice of mindfulness works directly with the psychosomatic body, the interpretive factor of mind. The practice of mindfulness is the reminder of basic health, basic well-being. Everyone has a notion of being, but it is entirely caught up with our thought process, our emotions, and our projections. In this case well-being is that which is grounded, which does not move, does not flicker back and forth in relating with situations.

Our bodies are shaped by our mind, wherever it goes. Let's say we are at a party. Some people there are aggressive, some are pleasant and lovely, and some are bored and couldn't care less. As we project onto that situation, our mind shapes our body according to our projections, so we become either aggressive or bored or lovely or happy. Whatever the situation seems to present, whatever seems to arise, we become. The practice of mindfulness is to refrain from capriciously taking on the image or shape of the situation. By practicing in that way we develop a relationship to the ground, to the earth, and we are no longer subject to self-inflicted illness. Later we'll talk about illness that is not self-inflicted, but which is environmental. Self-inflicted illness arises because we follow projections from the point of view of psychosomatic interpretations. We shape our body because body and mind are not completely one, not synchronized. The point of mindfulness is to work with interpretation and to allow interpretation to dissolve so that the union or completeness of body and mind can be seen straightforwardly. Health does not have to be invented; it simply is.


Question: Our most celebrated meditation teachers­­His Holiness Karmapa, Dudjom Rinpoche, and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche­­have all been very ill in the last decade. Are their illnesses symptomatic of a split between body and mind? Are they self-inflicted?

Vajra Regent: I think not. When you begin to feel healthy then you see the unhealthiness of the larger situation. At that point you might have to work with that.

Q: Could you explain the stages between awareness of the unhealthiness of the larger situation­­the mental pollution of society or the physical pollution of the environment­­and the physical health and life and death of a teacher?

VR: When someone actually understands body, then they are not ruled by the fear of illness. In that case the appearance of illness is not all that important. For most of us the appearance of illness is shocking. We might simply have a rash­­nothing serious­­yet it brings a sudden flash of uncertainty: Is this body? Is this mind? What's going on? For enlightened beings, it's very different. According to the Buddhist tradition, enlightened beings are able to take on the larger illnesses of society. But if you happen to meet any of those people you find that they're never depressed about their illness. They're not in a state of euphoria induced by being so sick that you can't think clearly. Certain teachers­­like our own for example­­who have been afflicted by very serious illnesses have at the same time a completely lucid and clear moment-to-moment awareness.

I think that's what we're aiming at here­­seeing body free from interpretation. When you interpret what's happening to your body then you separate "me" and "my body," and you are always uncertain as to which is which. That fear invites further illness. When the body is understood as it is, then perhaps what's called illness, conventionally speaking, is not a big deal.

Q: Would you relate body, mind-body, and mind to body, speech and mind? In traditional Buddhist teachings speech is described as being a link between body and mind.

VR: Projection is basically an interpretive function. To interpret means to feel some basic split, so we want to make a connection. I want to make a connection with you asking this question, and you want to make a connection with me answering, so there's something in between. What is in between is our projection. That is what we have to work on to be healthy: to be mindful, to not get lost in interpretation, but to see body, speech and mind as one.

Q: So body, speech and mind are inseparable?

VR: Yes. The quality of speech, which we usually refer to as the intellect, is the connecting factor­­it connects body and mind together. In discovering basic healthiness, the intellect, the interpretive factor, is our ground, what we have to work with. From the point of view of being grounded, you dÁon't say, "I think, therefore I am." If you are actually grounded, then being­­thinking, speaking, acting­­is one movement rather than three different things.

Q: Is illness the intellect misinterpreting the situation?

VR: Generally the illness is the misinterpretation. What happens when you feel sick?

Q: I compare my state of being with some memory of another state of being, and I see there's something amiss, so then I define it.

VR: That's a very important point. When you feel sick you're very conscious of a state of being, that you exist as somebody. Generally speaking, when you don't feel ill you don't have a sense of being. When you feel out of synch, then you feel that you exist. Any little thing throws us into chaos, and as soon as we run into chaos, we question who we are. As soon as we question who we are, we experience uncertainty and ungroundedness, and we begin to float, so to speak. Then we become sick.

Q: You said that we flicker between our feeling of body and our interpretation of body, and I feel as though I've only been working with my interpretation. Could you describe a little what the feeling of body would be like?

VR: It's simply the absence of interpretation. The feeling of being grounded, of well-being, is very hard to describe. It's the absence of struggle. When there is the absence of struggle, then the body is intrinsically healthy, even if it has an illness.

Q: So when I'm flickering back and forth and I feel that absence of struggle and then start to doubt that, the doubt is the interpretation that I'm putting on the space that was free of struggle for that moment?

VR: Definitely. Then we feel guilty about the whole process so we begin to suffer. That's another very good point.

Q: You were connecting the idea of interpretation with projection. Is it possible to discover accuracy in one's mind? Is it a matter of completely stopping interpretation?

VR: Yes, absolutely.

Q: Then there's no such thing as an accurate projection?

VR:There's no reason to discuss the accuracy or inaccuracy of projections. Mind projects. That's the truth, and that happens. We get involved whether it's accurate or inaccurate.

Q: So mindfulness is just not interpreting so much?

VR: Mindfulness is certainly not interpreting. It's just being there with the projection, with the whole process. In other words, it's being still. When you see how mind and body form the interpretive body, the psychosomatic body, then you begin to experience genuine health.

Q: I read somewhere that you should consider your body as "other." It was very shocking but it made a lot of sense, in that there seems to be a tremendous sense of poverty­­when we think of our body as "me" we don't take care of it. But if we consider it as other, as a practitioner on the path, we would have to respect our body and take care of it as we would take care of others. Would you relate that to what you have been talking about?

VR: That's fine if you actually understand and see clearly how body, mind-body and mind work altogether.

Q: It seems that in our culture there's a tremendous disrespect for our bodies.

VR: That's always the result of the interpretive factor. That's why there is pollution and so on. There's no real experience of body; it's always mind-body. Everyone sees their projections as real. Then, because there's "me," there's "my health," and that has to be protected. We have to create a fortress, or otherwise our health will be intruded upon by the other.

Q: So it's a concept that we're not strong enough to withstand the disease that's outside?

VR: Yes; we have to protect ourselves or sooner or later the disease outside will get us. When you think about that, it's actually humorous, because the fundamental disease of the body is that it's going to die. Death is going to get everyone in any case. That is not to say that one should not have a healthy state of mind and body. But that doesn't come from trying to protect it from the inevitable­­which in this case is death.

Q: It usually seems you're healthy and other people are diseased and there's something­­not particularly death­­to protect yourself from.

VR: You're just interpreting that you're healthy and they're diseased. It's very arbitrary. You feel healthy simply because your projections line up with your expectations. It has nothing to do with the actual body; it's the psychosomatic body.

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