In response to the coronavirus pandemic, I have written an introductory booklet about Medicine Buddha – a powerful, healing practice we use in Tibetan Buddhism. You’ll find the first two sections of the booklet below.
I hope you find this inspires you to tap into the limitless capacity for wellbeing which we all possess.
You can download the booklet, free of charge, from the “Free Stuff” button above.
The words ‘medication’ and ‘meditation’ are only one letter different for good reason: they both come from the Latin root, medeor, meaning ‘to heal,’ or ‘to make whole.’ Whether we medicate or meditate, our purpose is the same.
While advances in Western medicine have been extraordinary, their focus has been primarily been on humans as biological systems. Less well known, but no less extraordinary, the healing practices of Tibetan Buddhism have had a similar but opposite focus on humans as energetic systems.
It is our immense good fortune to be living at a time when we have access to the best of both East and West.
Body and mind: two aspects of the same whole
The interplay between energy and matter, or mind and body, is increasingly accepted. No medical eyebrows would be raised by the suggestion that stress is a cause of cardiac arrest or that anxiety can lead to digestive problems. Dis-ease of the mind manifests in physical form. The only question is: how much?
The onset of disease may therefore present us with an intriguing invitation. What if illness isn’t simply accidental, but rather has come about because something in our inner state is out of kilter? Many of us may be exposed to a virus but only some of us will be affected by it and to very different extents. Why so?
In the West, when we become sick our first instinct is often for medicine – an external, physical fix. Even when our symptoms are of the mental variety, such as depression or insomnia, we are just as likely to emerge from our doctor’s rooms with a prescription for a drug, as we would with a referral to a psychologist. We may believe we’re on the road to better health, clutching that prescription. And who knows, perhaps that belief will do as much for us as the drugs themselves? But unless we use the power of our own minds, it’s like going into battle against disease with one arm tied firmly behind our back. Why would we choose to do that when we also have such powerful inner tools at our disposal?
Illness as a pathway to inner growth
In my early thirties, for the first time in my life I started breaking out in small, angry welts which, as the weeks progressed, developed into full-blown rashes that might appear on my leg, arm or torso. After an especially bad case when my whole back was a welt of hives, I went to the doctor who correctly diagnosed an allergy of unknown origin and prescribed anti-histamine pills. If you start feeling itchy, he told me, just take a pill and it will clear up.
It did. But several months later, popping yet another pill, I recognized I was merely masking the symptoms and doing nothing about the cause. I still had no idea what the cause actually was. The fortuitous arrival of a leaflet from a local naturopath saw me sitting in her office one afternoon. Unlike the doctor, she had the time to ask about everything I typically consumed on a daily basis. Once we reached my fifth cup of coffee of the day, she gently suggested that I may have a caffeine intolerance. She also observed that I was highly stressed. Her prescription was a rigorous detox – and meditation.
It is no exaggeration to say that her suggestion has transformed my life. Decades later I am actually grateful to have gone through that time of caffeine intolerance. It turned out to be the path by which I came to experience a much more relaxed, panoramic, outwardly-focused and benevolent reality than the intense and tightly-grasped version I inhabited before. My physical disease turned out to be the catalyst for inner growth.
I know it’s the same for many others. I’ve been told by people how grateful they feel even for having had life-threatening conditions like cancer or heart attacks. We can reframe physical illness as a motivator to reassess who and what really matters to us, or to make changes we may have already have sensed should be made. Vicktor Frankl, the psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, who experienced, first hand, what it means to lose everything made the observation: ‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’
Illness may leave us diminished and frightened. Or more empathetic, compassionate and authentic. Physical suffering may be used to propel us on a journey of transcendence. As it is understood in the East – no mud, no lotus.
Mind training for healing and transcendence
How, exactly, do we transform mud into lotus? What, precisely, are the methods by which we use mind, as well as conventional medicine, to help prevent and counter disease? Tibetan Buddhism provides a number of healing practices, with perhaps the best known being Medicine Buddha – a powerful, holistic package of meditation, mantra recitation and visualization.
Before going further I should emphasize that Buddhism is a non-theistic tradition. There is no belief in an external, benevolent, omnipotent being who, asked the right way, will free us of disease. The Buddhist view is that if such a being existed, it would already have acted. Which one of us, despite our limitations, wouldn’t end disease forever, given the chance?
It’s more helpful to think of Medicine Buddha as embodying qualities symbolic of potent energies to which we can gain access by following the same practices used by others for millennia. An understanding of the Buddhist concept of sunyata supports an accurate understanding of this notion.
Our main challenge as we approach the practice is our tendency to sell ourselves short. In a society which still unknowingly clings to the outmoded ideas of Newtonian physics, we believe that matter is all that exists, and as a result have a tragically diminished idea of who and what we really are.
Tibetan Buddhist masters of consciousness, like quantum scientists, have a different perspective. What if solid matter really is more illusion-like than real? If the way that things exist has a fluidity and interconnectedness and depends as much on the mind of the observer as on what is being observed? What if our consciousness isn’t, in fact, the size of our heads, but has no boundaries at all? If particle is also wave, and the way it manifests can be influenced by intention? Such possibilities open up an entirely complementary pathway to healing.
The founder of the Tibetan Buddhist Society which I attend, Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden often used to lean forward on his teaching throne, with the index finger of his left hand curled tightly.
‘Your problem is that your mind is like this,’ he used to say. ‘The size of a sesame seed!’
Geshe-la was constantly inviting us to think bigger, to expand our view of consciousness and what was possible – practices he exemplified himself.
It is my privilege to extend his invitation onto you. Your mind is not the size of a sesame seed. You consciousness is capable of far more than you may think. When it comes to healing, you don’t have to swallow the capsule or receive the chemo and just hope for the best. There are also other things you can do besides. Through the Medicine Buddha we have the extraordinary opportunity to unlock the power of our own minds – and to emerge from whatever challenges we face with more gratitude, lightness and an expanded sense of possibilities than anything we may currently imagine.
HOW DO TIBETAN BUDDHIST HEALING PRACTICES WORK? A WESTERN PERSPECTIVE
When Tibetan Buddhist lamas teach healing practices like Medicine Buddha, they don’t usually talk in terms of evidence-based research, however compelling that research may be. The profound impact of meditation on endorphins and telomeres may be exciting to those of us who seek proof that these exotic, Eastern practices really work. In the Himalayas, however, where Medicine Buddha has been practiced for centuries and Tibetan Buddhists have a natural reverence for their teachers, they are happy to take such practices on trust.
We may smile indulgently, at this idea. But how different is it from the same trust we invest in our pharmacists or doctors? If they tell us that some kind of medicine will help us, chances are we’ll believe them. We have no way to question whatever technical explanation they may offer. We take the medicine because we trust that they are more educated in the subject than we are, and that their motivation is benevolent.
While long accepted in the Himalayas, mind-based healing practices are, nevertheless, still relatively new in the West. So for those of us who are naturally inclined to empirical rigor, it is reassuring that when studied through the lens of scientific inquiry, abundant evidence has been found to show that they work. Interestingly, it is only in recent years we have had technology sufficiently sophisticated enough to measure just how profound some of their impacts are, because they mostly occur beneath our conscious awareness.
In this section I explore a number of different ways we can account for the effect of mind-based healing. Some of these are strongly measurement-based. Others are more hypothetical. Feel free to take on board those you find useful and put to one side those you don’t.
Meditation is intrinsically healing
Meditation is a healing activity. The simple act of sitting in meditation posture while focusing the mind has a profound impact on mind and body.
Back in the 1980s Harvard Medical School cardiologist, Dr. Herbert Benson, began investigating how to help his patients’ bodies do what they do best: repair themselves. Exploring a variety of different methods, meditation was the one that best optimized self-repair. He found it particularly striking that self-repair was boosted well beyond any specific meditation session, and that over a period of time its benefits were cumulative.
A huge volume of research shows that when we meditate, we hormonally shift gear, producing significantly less cortisol, a stress hormone, and dramatically increasing endorphins, which boost our immunity. Endorphins are our front-line defense against viruses and other foreign organisms. It’s no accident that we’re more likely to fall victim to cold and flu viruses when we’re feeling run-down.
In this current time of coronavirus, being anxious and worried isn’t simply an unhappy place to be mentally. It almost certainly means that our endorphin production is way below where we’d want it to be. Even if we are unable to fend off a highly contagious virus, the severity with which we are affected will be determined in part by our own immune defenses. Taking control of our mental state is therefore of vital importance.
Another immunity-boosting hormone, which markedly increases when we meditate, is melatonin, a powerful antioxidant that destroys harmful free radicals, which cause huge destruction at a cellular level.
Seratonin, a neurotransmitter turbo-charged by meditation, helps regulate mood, appetite and sleep. While it may not directly impact on our immune response, it plays an important support role. Intriguingly, most anti-depressants prescribed today are Selective Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitors or SSRIs which work by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain. How about we give ourselves a daily anti-depressant by meditating?
Recent studies show how meditation can help manage chronic inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, asthma and inflammatory bowel disease. It can slow the rate of ageing by elevating levels of telomerase – the enzyme supporting the resilience of the telomeres that cap our DNA.
Evidently, meditation changes our body chemistry measurably and significantly for the better. But how? In simple terms, our bodies are highly effective at physiologically translating whatever is going on in our mind. Horrified thoughts cause the prefrontal cortex of our brain to shut down, our amygdala to ramp up, and we are instantly primed for fight or flight. Sexual thoughts cause an altogether different chain of hormonal and physiological reactions. As we think, so we become – sometimes, almost instantly.
When we meditate, we are deliberately optimizing our state of mind – and our body responds. Calm, confident and serene translates physiologically in ways we are only now able to measure. What is known for sure is that regular meditation supports the most happy, healthy, immune, well-adjusted and pain-free version of ourselves. And its side-effects are entirely positive!
What we imagine has the same biological impact as what is real
In a now-famous experiment by neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone, people with no piano-playing experience were recruited and taught to play a simple melody of just a few notes. The subjects were divided into two groups with one group allowed to practice on a piano, and the other allowed to sit at the piano but only imagine playing the melody.
Using Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, Pascual-Leone mapped everyone’s brain activity before, during and after the experiment. What he found was that people who only imagined playing the melody showed exactly the same brain changes as those who actually did. Their brains responded to the imagined as though it was real.
In a different study by Professor Karen Olness, children were shown a video in which policemen puppets – personifying the immune system – battled against virus puppets, with a simple explanation of what was going on. The video was followed by a guided visualization during which the kids were asked to imagine lots of policemen puppets throughout their bodies. When saliva samples were taken, their immunoglobulin levels were substantially higher, as though they had been fighting off a real infection.
For minds and bodies, what we imagine can be real. We experience pure terror, with all its physiological impacts, walking along a country path and stepping on what we think is a snake, even though it turns out to be a branch. We may be aroused by the imagined presence of our lover, even though he or she is in the next city. Our minds are suggestible.
The focal point of all healing practices in Tibetan Buddhism is a powerful visualization. In the case of Medicine Buddha, for example, healing lights and nectars stream from the Buddha’s body and bowl into one’s own body, eliminating all negativities, disease, and harmful viruses, as well as immeasurably strengthening one’s own immunity, energy levels and resilience. We are always encouraged to make this process not only as vivid as we can, but also personal. If, for example, we are battling with cancer in a particular organ, then a visualization focusing on that particular organ is recommended.
We experience what we expect
Although we believe ourselves to be impartial observers of the world around us, the neuroscientific reality is that we are much more the creators of our own reality than we suppose. Our experiences are shaped to a large extent by expectations and beliefs – a dynamic responsible for a significant level of healing.
The placebo effect is what happens when a person is given a sugar pill with no therapeutic agent and told it will relieve their pain – and a short while later the pain has gone. Repeated tests show placebos to be as effective as real drugs in anywhere between 15% – 70% of all healing. Placebos have been studied as treatment for a wide range of conditions, from chronic pain and depression, to Parkinson’s disease. Studies have shown that placebos are effective irrespective of factors like intelligence, or even because people really want them to work. And their result is not purely subjective – studies of asthma patients showed less constriction of the bronchial tubes, and patients suffering from chronic pain had higher concentrations of endorphins after taking a placebo. Significantly, the more contact with a physician or doctor, the greater the placebo effect.
In our Western culture, faith healing has had an established place among some religious groups, where spontaneous remission and other miracles continually occur. These are attributed to God, angels, the Holy Spirit or other powerful and external agencies.
Growing up in Zimbabwe, I was familiar with the powers of the N’anga, or traditional healer, in Shona society, who was believed to possess not only curative abilities, but also the sinister power to put the curse of death on people – who might unaccountably waste away or develop a terminal disease.
The common theme running through all these is that belief, trust or expectation, in itself, can be enough to create healing. Whether we place our confidence in the doctor in the white coat, the priest in the purple robes or the N’anga in his leopard-skin, or the agencies they invoke – science, God, spirits – the process is the same.
One thing I like about Tibetan Buddhism is the way it cuts through all this to what is really going on. Yes there is an important role for a leader – in our case a teacher – to communicate confidence in the process. Ritual, too, has it’s place. But healing isn’t arising from a force outside us, even though it may be helpful to objectify the process in such a way. The power resides in our own mind. So let’s place our confidence in that, and in the specific practices evolved to tap into some of our own under-utilized capacity to heal.
Actions undertaken in the past become easier and more effective for living beings to carry out in the future. For example, if rats are taught a new trick in a laboratory in USA, rats in laboratories in other parts of the world will learn that same new trick more quickly (Rupert Sheldrake, Morphic Resonance). Over time, people score higher and higher on standard IQ tests – a phenomenon known as the ‘Flynn Effect’. Average scores of 100 rise steadily over a period of years. There is no indication that people are becoming more intelligent, merely that they are getting better at doing intelligence tests. When the tests are revised, as they are periodically, scores once again return to 100.
The theory of resonance – and it is still a theory – suggests that when we do something that has been done before, we become linked, through an organizing pattern of influence, or a field, to others who have done the same thing. We resonate with them. Like other fields—electric, magnetic, radiation—the field may be invisible, but its effects are not.
What happens when we recite a mantra that has been repeated by millions of people for thousands of years? When we focus on the same image that they have focused on and conduct the same process of energetic invocation? We bring ourselves into resonance with them. We benefit from their cumulative influence – and in turn, contribute to that influence for the benefit of those who follow.
As we sit in our room reciting mantras, we may be physically alone, but in a different way we are tuning into an influence and community, an energetic field reaching through time and space in ways beyond what we generally consider.
The energetic power of mantras
From the earliest of times, sound has been regarded as a subtle manifestation of energy. Pythagoras taught that just as one plucked string can cause another to vibrate, our own mind resonates when exposed to certain sounds. We all know how certain pieces of music make us feel happy or moved, and studies show that sound can change our physiological functioning too.
Tibetan Buddhist healing mantras are usually in Sanskrit, the 4000 year old Indo-European “mother language,” and origin of a surprising number of our own words in English. The word “mind,” appropriately, comes from the Sanskrit “man.” And mantra, short for man-traya, translates literally as mind protection.
Sanskrit arose initially as an oral, rather than written, language, with the emphasis on sound. Ancient meditation practitioners from the time of the Vedas understood that we comprise not only physical systems, but energetic systems too – the channels and chakras of a subtle body. It is believed that mantras embody specific sounds and rhythms to impact on our subtle energy or prana, which in turn has a physical manifestation. The way that we move our mouth and tongue to form mantras, as well as the sound of mantra itself, has a subtle, energetic impact, whether we chant mantras aloud or whisper them under our breath.
Mantras can be used for a variety of purposes besides healing – to invoke energy, confidence, harmony and equanimity to name just a few. And they are always repeated a number of times – 21 and 100 being common mantra counts, with wrist malas – or rosaries – and standard size malas designed for this purpose.
Repetition of any action has been shown to change brain functioning. In the words of Canadian neuroscientist Donald Hebb, “neurons that fire together, wire together,” and over time create neural pathways that make certain patterns of thought or states of being more habitual and easier. What happens when we repeat mantras over days, weeks, months? From the perspective of neuroscience, we create conduits for specific states that will ultimately change the structure of our brain, triggering changes in our physiology. From an energetic viewpoint, the sounds we create changes the state of our subtle body in a way that can become physically manifest.
To summarize, mind-based healing in Tibetan Buddhism, from a Western perspective, is founded on meditation, a practice already amply demonstrated to boost immunity, promote wellbeing and support longevity. Visualization harnesses the proven power of suggestibility, while mantra invokes sound healing or shifts at a subtle, energetic level. All of these combined, with repetition, change our brain functioning, creating fresh neural pathways mirrored by broader physiological change. These are holistic practices with holistic outcomes.
What’s more, the impacts of the practices on our attitude towards coping with disease have yet to be fully explored. But it seems likely that they give us tools for empowerment. For reframing what we are experiencing from that of a victim, to someone capable of emerging with greater insight and even gratitude. Someone who has used the mud, to whatever extent possible, to transform into the lotus. Such transcendence, when attained, may well be the most important outcome of all because our mind stream, unlike our body, continues beyond death.
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