True maturation on the spiritual path requires that we discover the depth of our wounds. As Achaan Chah put it, “If you haven’t cried a number of times, your meditation hasn’t really begun.”
Almost everyone who undertakes a true spiritual path will discover that a profound personal healing is a necessary part of his or her spiritual process. When this need is acknowledged, spiritual practice can be directed to bring such healing to body, heart, and mind. This is not a new notion. Since ancient times, spiritual practice has been described as a process of healing. The Buddha and Jesus were both known as healers of the body, as well as great physicians of the spirit.
I encountered a powerful image of the connection of these two teachers in Vietnam, during the war years. In spite of active fighting in the area, I was drawn to visit a temple built by a famous master known as the Coconut Monk on an island in the Mekong Delta. When our boat arrived, the monks greeted us and showed us around. They explained to us their teachings of peace and nonviolence. Then they took us to one end of the island where on top of a hill was an enormous sixty-foot-tall statue of a standing Buddha. Just next to Buddha stood an equally tall statue of Jesus. They had their arms around each other’s shoulders, smiling. While helicopter gunships flew by and war raged around them, Buddha and Jesus stood there like brothers expressing compassion and healing for all who would follow their way.
Wise spiritual practice requires that we actively address the pain and conflict of our life in order to come to inner integration and harmony. Through the guidance of a skillful teacher, meditation can help bring this healing. Without including the essential step of healing, students will find that they are blocked from deeper levels of meditation or are unable to integrate them into their lives. Many people first come to spiritual practice hoping to skip over their sorrows and wounds, the difficult areas of their lives. They hope to rise above them and enter a spiritual realm full of divine grace, free from all conflict.
Some spiritual practices actually do encourage this and teach ways of accomplishing this through intense concentration and ardor that bring about states of rapture and peace. Some powerful yogic practices can transform the mind. While such practices have their value, an inevitable disappointment occurs when they end, for as soon as practitioners relax in their discipline, they again encounter all the unfinished business of the body and heart that they had hoped to leave behind.
One man I knew practiced as a yogi in India for ten years. He had come to India after a divorce, and when he left his home in England, he was depressed and unhappy in his work as well. As a yogi he did years of deep and strict breath practices that led to long periods of peace and light in his mind. These were healing in a certain way. But, later, his loneliness returned, and he found himself drawn back home, only to discover that the unfinished issues that had ended his marriage, made him unhappy in his work, and, worst of all, contributed to his depression, all arose again as strong as before he had left. After some time, he saw that a deep healing of his heart was necessary. He realized he could not run from himself and began to seek a healing in the midst of his life. So he found a teacher who wisely guided him to include his depression and loneliness in his meditation. He sought a reconciliation (though not remarriage) with his former wife. He joined support groups that could help him to understand his childhood; he found communal work with people he liked. Each of these became part of the long process of healing his heart that had only begun in India.
True maturation on the spiritual path requires that we discover the depth of our wounds: our grief from the past, unfulfilled longing, the sorrow that we have stored up during the course of our lives. As Achaan Chah put it, “If you haven’t cried deeply a number of times, your meditation hasn’t really begun.” This healing is necessary if we are to embody spiritual life lovingly and wisely. Unhealed pain and rage, unhealed traumas from childhood abuse or abandonment, become powerful unconscious forces in our lives. Until we are able to bring awareness and understanding to our old wounds, we will find ourselves repeating their patterns of unfulfilled desire, anger, and confusion over and over again. While many kinds of healing can come through spiritual life in the form of grace, charismatic revivals, prayer, or ritual, two of the most significant kinds develop naturally through a systematic spiritual practice.
The first area of healing comes when we develop a relationship of trust with a teacher. The image of the statues of Jesus and Buddha in the midst of the Vietnam War reminds us that even in great difficulties healing is possible. It also reminds us that healing cannot come from ourselves alone. The process of inner healing inevitably requires developing a committed relationship with a teacher or guide. Because many of our greatest pains come from past relationships, it is through our experience of a wise and conscious relationship that these pains are healed. This relationship itself becomes the ground for our opening to compassion and freedom of the spirit. Where the pain and disappointment of the past have left us isolated and closed, with a wise teacher we can learn to trust again. When we allow our darkest fears and worst dimensions to be witnessed and compassionately accepted by another, we learn to accept them ourselves. A healthy relationship with a teacher serves as a model for trust in others, in ourselves, in our bodies, in our intuitions, our own direct experience. It gives us a trust in life itself. Teachings and teacher become a sacred container to support our awakening.
Another kind of healing takes place when we begin to bring the power of awareness and loving attention to each area of our life with the systematic practice of mindfulness. The Buddha spoke of cultivating awareness in four fundamental aspects of life that he called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. These areas of mindfulness are: awareness of the body and senses, awareness of the heart and feelings, awareness of the mind and thoughts, and awareness of the principles that govern life. (In Sanskrit these principles are called the dharma, or the universal laws.) The development of awareness in these four areas is the basis for all of the Buddhist practices of insight and awakening. This excerpt is taken from the book, “A Path With Heart”