Photo credit: FreeImages.com/Mark Butler
This piece was written for Religious Studies Professor Kerry Skora’s “Mindfulness, Meditation and Healing” course, an advanced seminar in religious studies and biomedical humanities. Inspired by Jon Kabat-Zinn’s and Richard Davidson’s pioneering work in mindfulness and healing, this course presents an in-depth study of the natural connection between medicine and meditation, mindfulness and healing. It combines third-person religious/cultural/historical/humanistic and scientific studies of mindfulness and its relation to healing and compassion, with “critical first-person” encounters of one’s own body-mind, using Buddhist-based contemplative practices.
From a religious studies/humanities perspective, students in the class studied various Buddhist-based teachings and practices connected to medicine, healing, well-being and wholeness. They focused on notions of suffering and freedom from suffering. The practices and teachings were connected to contemporary studies from the science of mindfulness on the benefit of meditation for healing and caring with compassion.
For this assignment, students drew from first-person contemplative experiences (they had to follow a rigorous eight-week mindfulness program) and third-person descriptions and interpretations, in response to various readings, thinking about the value of mindfulness and meditation.
It’s About the Ride
By Shelby List ‘17
What if we were comfortable with the unknown? What if we were unafraid of death? What would happen if we were all friends with impermanence? Simply said, we’d all be motorcyclists.
Riding motorcycles is my favorite activity. I try to do it once a week, with the help of a friend named Ed. When I first started riding behind Ed on his bike, I was apprehensive because I never knew where we were going – and neither did he. Not for sure, anyway. I, myself, have no sense of direction. Instead of planning every detail of the trip, Ed would look at a map for a few moments and take off. He’d make it up along the way. The first several trips I took with Ed, his reckless abandonment drove me crazy. After I commented on how unorthodox it was for him to get around in this fashion, he said to me something to the effect of, “It’s not about the route. It’s about the ride.” That’s how I became comfortable with the unknown.
I was upset by having uncertain plans because it was impossible for me to fully protect myself. I used a hard, inflexible front to hide my weak spine. Ed helped me learn that being open to all of life requires a soft front. Being free, living moment by moment, made my spine “flexible but sturdy” (Halifax, 17).
One time, Ed and I rode to Nelson Ledges and climbed around for a while. I had never been there before because my mother had put a healthy fear into me, “People die there all the time!” Following Ed’s lead, hopping over rocks, trudging through wet tunnels, scaling sides of small cliffs, Ed said to me, “We should be careful because people die here all the time.” We kept going and it was lots of fun. That’s how I became unafraid of death.
People can die anytime doing anything at all. As Joan Halifax, hospice caregiver and Zen Buddhist, explains in her book, Being with Dying, “One cannot – as so many of us try to do – lead life fully and struggle to keep the inevitable at bay” (Halifax, xvi). So, in retrospect, scrambling around cliffs isn’t any more dangerous than stepping on the slippery, wet floors of a shower. We’re all just “waiting in line to die” (Rinpoche, 121).
There is, of course, a difference between taking irresponsible risks and being comfortable with the possibility of death. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, Full Catastrophe Living, takes readers through his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program in order to teach people how to fully embrace life – and death. To embrace death, one must have an “appreciation for the richness of life and the inevitability of all its dilemmas, sorrows, traumas, tragedies, and ironies” (Kabat-Zinn, liii).
Death is a perfect representation of impermanence – a concept motorcyclists understand by virtue of their hobby. Riding along, at high speeds, feeling the warm and cold patches of air, smelling fragrant vineyards, hearing animals call, one has to know that “reality is not solid and permanent” (Rinpoche, 55). Even the tiny inconvenience of stopping to fill the small gas tank several times a week is a reminder to the biker that nothing last forever. But yet, the ever changing world is not a burden. It’s not something to fight or wish away – it’s “the gift of the present moment” (Kabat-Zinn, xli). Accepting impermanence is being mindful. Recognizing impermanence of all things is just the first of three phases. As Halifax describes, “the first gate reveals that everything is impermanent… The second gate, when it opens, shows us that there is no separate self. And behind the third gate gleams the luminous nature of our own mind” (Halifax, 51).
I was able to open the next two gates on one particular morning, when I saw a spider on the door to the cupboard in my kitchen. I have always been afraid of spiders. It’s not a small, manageable fear; it’s a large, spastic fear. Instead of jumping out of my skin and scurrying away when I saw the medium sized arachnid, I thought, “Excuse me, but I need to pack my lunch and you are standing between me and my food.”
I had been meditating in a seated posture for about ten minutes every night for a few weeks. Clearing my mind and focusing on my breath helped me become more aware in the present. I noticed the spider’s legs. They were curled up some, bent in semi circles, gripping the vertical wooden surface. I picked up my coffee cup and tried to decide if I wanted to risk entering the cupboard. Next, I noticed my fingers. They were curled up, bent in half circles around the straight up and down surface of my mug.
I looked back at the spider and didn’t see long, thin, creepy legs whose movement makes my heart pound. I saw two skinny, little hands.
I looked at my hands and had to put my coffee down.
I shook my head, trying to get rid of the idea that my hands were spider legs. Then it dawned on me: I wasn’t just seeing the spider in myself, I was seeing myself in the spider.
I was not separate or different from the spider. Instead of creating a fear response, I felt an “all-encompassing compassion and kindness” (Rinpoche, 105). I realized that “the earth as a whole behaves as one single self-regulating living organism” (Kabat-Zinn, 180).
Motorcyclists, whether we’re on a bike or standing in our kitchen, know a few key things that help us navigate life. Everything is always changing, we’re all going to die one day, and we don’t know what life will do to us in the meantime. But all of that is okay because everything is always connected. Acknowledging out interrelatedness instills a level of compassion that sustains us through our darkest hours. After all, it’s not about the route, it’s about the ride.
Halifax, Joan. “Introduction: Healing the Divide, Overcoming the Porcupine Effect: Moving Past Fear into Tenderness, You Are Already Dying: Realizing Impermanence, Selflessness, and Freedom.” Being with Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death. Boston: Shambhala, 2008. Xvi, 17, 51. Print.
Kabab-Zinn, Jon. “Introduction to the Second Edition, Introduction – Stress, Pain, and Illness: Facing the Full Catastrophe, Glimpse of Wholeness Delusions of Separateness.” Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. 2nd ed. New York: Bantam Trade Paperbacks, 2013. Xli, Liii, 180. Print.
Rinpoche, Chokyi Nyima, and David Shlim. “What Does It Mean to Be a Spiritual Practitioner,Examples of Enlightened Resolve, Different Kinds of Teachers,.” Medicine and Compassion: A Tibetan Lama and an American Doctor on How to Provide Care with Compassion and Wisdom. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2015. 55, 105, 121. Print.