Zazen as Medicine?

“We can put the drug companies out of business if we learn to tap into our own natural highs through meditation.”  This is what I told the patients at the residential drug and alcohol treatment program that I worked at.  During my priest training at Mount Equity Zendo I offered zazen and yoga for those in recovery once a week for three years between 2010 – 2013. 

I consistently heard feedback from the residents going through opiate withdrawal how much better they felt after engaging in meditative practice, and this made me realize what a service meditation could be – whether in stillness or in movement – for folks dealing with drug addiction.  I don’t see zazen as THE answer, but it’s certainly an important piece.

Sitting upright itself, can help us go a long way in feeling our best self.  How are you sitting right now, as you read these words?  What if you were to change your posture, look away from the screen for a moment, and turn your mindfulness towards your breath and body? Try it for 10 seconds, then continue reading.

Did you notice anything change?

Don't look at the frog. Be the frog.

When I first began sitting with my teacher, I felt better than I’d ever felt without taking any drugs or drinking alcohol.  I knew this was the path for me.  Zazen was medicine.  I had been looking everywhere outside myself – in friends, in family, in relationships, in studies, in work – for happiness.  Mindfully observing what was literally right under my nose held a key to unlocking my own internal medicine cabinet.

Stability and joy can be found by stopping our search for stability and joy, and turning our attention back to our self – to our physical body, sitting upright, with eye’s cast down and a soft focus. 

Life and death come and go, but your body itself is the truth.

Dogen Zenji in "The Real Form of All Things"

We generally think of medicine as something we must ingest.  We take a pill, for example, to cure what ails us.  In the same way, we think we need to hear something from a wise person to know the truth.  What if, however, our body itself contained its own medicine, as well as the truth?  The problem is not whether it’s there or not, but how to access it.  How about sitting upright in this moment.  What changes?  Can we put the pharmacies out of business through this practice?

I’m in no way suggesting we stop taking whatever medicines we need to cope with our illnesses, nor that we don’t receive wisdom from sages.  I am, however, suggesting a reorientation to how we understand healing.  The Soto tradition emphasizes that we are already, as we are, perfectly healed.  This is the starting point for practice.  In other words, we don’t use practice to heal, but as an affirmation that healing has already been accomplished.[1]  This is a counter narrative to how most of us, including myself, understand mindfulness practice – namely as a tool to improve oneself in some way. 

Is zazen medicine?  Are we already healed as we are?  Can it be both?

[1] For a fuller understanding of this, read Paula Arai’s book Bringing Zen Home: The Healing Heart of Japanese Women’s Rituals

The words Zen Fields and a signature stamp next to a spare ink pen outline of a meditator in a field

Newsletter

Subscribe to receive Dharma teachings and
Zen Fields updates to your in-box weekly!