Sunday, December 26, 2010

Enlightenment Therapy

I wanted to share some thoughts about the nature of enlightenment and about the deepest level of healing. I want to share this in regard to someone who I have been working with who has Parkinson's Disease. According to conventional science, there is no cure for Parkinson's Disease. The prognosis is to take a massive dopamine supplement and a tranquilizer, and then manage the symptoms until they get progressively worse, until you start choking on your food, then you get a feeding tube stuck in your belly, and then somewhere you die. The pain of the shaking is often so bad that you end up wanting to die.

In writing all this, I am going to keep out personal details so that the identity of the person in question is left unknown. It is part of my path to always keep sessions confidential in this manner, even if the person is okay with others knowing about their situation and even if the person has given permission for the situation to be known. I do not keep historical notes about the person for a similar reason, though I occasionally write down a few temporary notes that are important for a future session and then let go of those notes when whatever protocol has been done.

The Medicine Buddha Sutras in Tibetan Buddhism are about what I call "enlightenment therapy". They are an important contextual shift in understanding enlightenment, because it reveals that all illness is ultimately mental illness and enlightenment heals this mental illness by restoring sanity to consciousness. The sutras to do not deny that there are pathogens out there and do not deny that you can get infected by those pathogens, but assigns them the role of a contributing cause. By themselves they do not explain why some people get infected and some people do not get infected, particularly in the time of a plague, when everyone has some exposure to the pathogen, and some who do not get infected are even working with the infected every day.

The Buddha taught interdependence as a key understanding enlightenment and even said one time, "A person who deeply understands interdependence understands the whole of my teaching." By meditating on interdependence, all the cause and effect links in the chain reaction of sorrow can be understood and transcended. By meditating on interdependence, the illusory isolated separate sense of self which is at the root of all sorrow can be exposed as an illusion and transcended. By meditating on interdependence, we can understand our connections with each other and how we depend upon each other for survival, healing, growth, and celebration, by this meditation feel gratitude, appreciation, and compassion for each other. By meditating on interdependence, the three poisons of the mind, addictive craving, judgmental negativity, and obscuring delusion can be released and replaced with the four inexhaustible states of kind friendship love, empathic sensitive love, joyful contagious love, and eternal unconditional love.

The Medicine Buddha Sutras add an awareness that the three dosha types in Aryurveda relate to which of the three mental poisons are the strongest in a person. What this ultimately means is that our physical life condition can be improved and healed through meditation. Herbs can help. Medicines of all kinds can help. Symptoms can be relieved. But if the root inside the mind is not released, then the healing is not complete and there is the likelihood that the illness will regenerate. At this point, I have witnessed a number of people who have been treated for cancer and who eventually died when the cancer reappeared a second or third time.

The Eightfold Path is a simple teaching of a minimalist spirituality that is meant to be a foundation for complete self healing. The eight precepts are (1) right understanding, (2) right commitment, (3) right speech, (4) right behavior, (5) right livelihood, (6) right effort, (7) right awareness, and (8) right concentration. The first two are the foundation. There needs to be an understanding of the teachings and a commitment to live them. The next three are the ethical ideals and can be summarized in learning how to be kind to others and not harm others. You learn to speak kind and truthful words, not steal, not lie, not kill, not sexually exploit anyone, and not intoxicate the body, and you earn a living with serving others without scamming money from them. Buddhist ethics are not isolated to the human species and includes compassion toward animals, hence one is vegetarian, does not support the killing of animals, does not buy animal flesh, and does not work in slaughter houses. By living the right kind of ethical life, you do not create any more bad karma that needs to be erased through painful events in the future. The last three precepts are about meditation and are about wiping out all the existing karma, stored as samskaras in the subconscious mind, so that one can be free here and now. Right effort is mainly about gentle correction of thought, speech, and behavior as temptation arises to violate the ethical precepts. Right awareness is a moment to moment nonjudgmental awareness of whatever is arising, clinging to nothing, resisting nothing, and letting content flow without reaction like a mirror reflects whatever is present without getting caught up in the reflections or like watching a movie and remembering that it is only a movie and not getting too wrapped up in the drama. Right concentration is about staying in this impartial attitude and never falling into reactive states of clinging, resistance, or delusion. This is usually supported by keeping attention centered in the breathing and/or in the repetition of a mantra and/or in the visualization of a Mahasattva.

What I have learned is that Parkinson's is a Dissociative Panic Attack. The person is reacting in terror about something, shaking and trembling about it, and yet is so disassociated that he or she does not feel the emotion. In order to maintain this disassociation, the person will make the muscles chronically rigid in a perpetual effort to keep the emotion from entering conscious awareness. When certain samskaras are triggered, the person will start to shake, because the mental impression that is underlying the illness is activated and starts to overwhelm the rigid muscle structure that is trying to keep the emotional terror from surfacing. Very often it is easy to notice the fear thoughts which should have the corresponding emotion of terror infusing them, but often the person is reporting his or her emotion in a zombie voice.

For most people, meditation is about making peace with anger, fear, and sadness and the possibility of dying that is behind them. The death can either be of them or their loved ones. The death can be literal or metaphorical, like the ending of a relationship or the small death of losing a job. Some loss or threatened loss triggers the panic attack. Other emotions can be present, including rage and grief. The Parkinson's profile is not wishing to feel any afflicted emotion for any length of time. Sometimes there is a childhood history of being punished for feeling anything but what is appropriate within a rigid and authoritarian family environment. It may be related to a dogmatic religion where feeling certain things, including sexual temptation, runs the risk of burning in eternal torment forever. Such extreme teachings are considered unwholesome, delusional, and unbalanced in Buddhism. The law of karma has a sense of balance, order, and proportion in what happens to everyone. The law of karma is not meant to be feared, though a wise caution is meant to be present when we respect how this law operates. It is the same wise caution that we are meant to have when we learn not to walk off of high buildings, fall down to the ground, and break our legs.

Because of the disassociation, learning from direct experience the cause and effect connection between the inner terror and the outward shaking takes some time. I found that focusing attention in the center of the chest and doing breathing, gently expanding the rib cage on the inhale and keeping the exhale slow, soft, and smooth on the exhale, is enough to bring up the emotion, though sometimes the jaw will shake intensely as the person re-assembles another resistance pattern between the belly and the head. It is as if the emotion surfaces, chakra by chakra until released through the crown chakra, through the soft spot at the top of the head. If the jaw relaxes, the person will then tense his or her third eye. The resistance to feeling emotion is highly committed in the Parkison's profile and represents a system of learned and deeply embedded attitudes. This learned pattern was often done in childhood and even beaten into the person by a tyrannical parent or learned through extreme withdrawal of affection or approval when something was done wrong. The child learns to live in terror and eventually disassociates from this feeling just to feel a little better about himself or herself. It seems that later on in life the burden on the body towards living in this pattern is too much. One more trauma added to the body, the straw the breaks the camel's back, and the body starts flooding real emotion through the rigid defenses and makes the person shake. In the person in question, it was the death of a lover that finally caused all the defenses to become partly undone. She did not want to live anymore, had extreme grief that she did not want to fully feel, and started to show the Parkinson's symptoms afterwards. She could not talk about the death of her lover for years without starting to shake again.

The conventional medical model considers the advent of shaking to be random and episodic. It assumes the cause of Parkinson's is the progressive degeneration of the substantia negra. Yet it is paradoxical that a progressive degeneration would have episodic symptoms, rather than steadily getting worse and worse symptoms. A fair number of holistic healers have had no trouble identifying the emotional component to Parkinson's. Some have used acupuncture to help the flows open up more. But unless the terror is embraced and worked with, the treatment becomes another form of care and maintenance of an "incurable" disease. The care seems to be wiser and has less side effects, but the end result in the same. The hidden gift of Parkinson's is that the person needs to become fully enlightened in order to get healed. With most illnesses, a partial enlightenment or partial illumination is sufficient, the release of maybe one attachment may be enough. But in Parkinson's the pattern runs so deep and is generalized to every afflicted emotion, every emotion with some kind of pain associated with it. There is a learned committed response that is very immediate, uncompromising, and strong that needs to be unlearned.

What is interesting about working with Parkinson's in this manner is how much conventional medicine supports the disassociation. The diagnosis does not acknowledge the repressed panic attack, even though an aware series of conversations can pick up on verbal triggers to the shaking and see a pattern in them and even test the connections by asking the person to talk about certain emotionally charged subjects. It is easy to notice "flat affect" when there should be more emotion and notice that shaking happens rather than emoting. Once the diagnosis is pronounced upon a Parkinson's person, they are locked into a rigid protocol that is hard to break. It is strangely like the rigidity of the illness itself. The person is monitored tightly to make sure that the "meds" are taken. If a person skips his or her meds, then some notation of the violation is noted down in some invisible log that the Parkinson's person never sees and enough violations mean that there is a "discussion" and more enforcement, with more aggressive caretaking done to ensure compliance. It can become strangely like the way that a Parkinson's person was raised and reinforce the victim set that the person already feels. The response to such a protocol is a mixture of extreme internal resistance with outward slavish fearful compliance. All this is with the belief that he or she is never going to get better but is going to get worse and worse anyway. I found this interesting, because usually the tyrannical parent is believing that the child is bad and is going to get worse, never succeed in life, and fail at everything, at the same time expecting perfect obedience. These kinds of double messages further fry the poor Parkinson's person's brain. Inside the Parkinson's person is a sensitive and wounded inner child who has been buried by all this and which needs to surface, resurrect from the dead, and learn to live again.

I found that what helped the particular Parkinson's person that I worked with was "teaching the Dharma". Taking take for her to mentally understand the teachings. Behind Parkinson's is a very busy mind that is over thinking, running all kinds of fear scenarios and extrapolations so fast that a slight threat is already felt to be a big one. For instance, a doctor appointment (and anyone in authority is likely to trigger her) makes her start to shake because she is afraid of a bad evaluation and then getting kicked out of the facility for being a bad person, even though she feels a hyper-compliant personality who is terrified of asserting herself against any rule, no matter how unfair the rule is (with an unconscious personality that is resisting every rule and fighting everything in a desperate attempt to feel any kind of freedom in her life). It is easy for anyone with some background in developmental psychology to see how such a person was raised. The pattern is so extreme that it is not hard to verify either. Yet this whole inner aspect of the illness is not even looked for or double checked for in a society where the mind/emotion/body split is actually assumed. Psychosomatic illnesses are still viewed as rare, while the deeper insight of the Medicine Buddha Sutras is that ALL ILLNESSES HAVE A PSYCHOSOMATIC PRIMARY CAUSE AND ARE NOT FULLY HEALED UNTIL THIS IS RESOLVED and enlightenment cures the basis for every illness.

In witnessing and supporting her process, I have observed her stop shaking when she suddenly understands, in her experience, not just with her mind, some point of the teaching. The first point was when she understood what it meant to live in the present moment. The second point was understanding "emptiness". She said she could feel her thoughts become softer, less dense, and more flowing when she felt their emptiness. Another time is when she glimpsed what it meant that her identity was radiant awareness, rather than an ego or personality. Her body relaxed and she felt peace. The whole terror pattern fell away. I found that a phrase from Dogen Zenji helped that roughly went like this, "Better to live one day on the path, without fear, and then die, rather than to live a whole lifetime in fear, never truely living at all." Every time she gets this, she relaxes, because it embodies the attitude which is the remedy for Parkinson's.

What I find interesting is that she first needs to feel and embrace her fear, to accept her fear fully, and then transcend it. She cannot really leap from the disassociated state into fearlessness. She cannot see enough cause and effect connections to learn from her direct experience. Yet if the fear is too overwhelming, her resistance is too locked up in the fear to have enough "free attention" to learn also. In the Gendlin Focusing method, it takes some time to get the "right distance" from emotions. Not so far away that you do not feel them and not so close that you get overwhelmed. The key is the breathing and keeping the primary attention on the breathing. When the inhale is deep, full, and intentional and the exhale is soft, smooth, and relaxed, and the inhale and exhale flow into each other without pauses, then the breathing keeps the process balanced. There is also a kind of bodywork that I have done to support her that I call "neural net repatterning", a way of educating the nervous system so that trauma locks are released and a kind of neural net learning process can be freed up. It would take a whole essay, though, to explain this process, but in summary, it is like assisted Chi Kung broken down into its most basic components and tracking each meridian point.

The key thing is the quality of attention, that it learns how to watch without clinging, resistance, or judgment, stays centered in the breathing, and does not get lost in thought. The latter happens very often and as a guide I am constantly calling her back. There is a delicate walk in this process, because some contact and sharing of thought is useful and getting lost in thought and merely running her story is not useful. The key is that if the breathing is flowing then her process is useful. If she is talking while restricting her breathing, then she is merely stuck in her story and not making progress. Almost always her process has started with her being stuck, because being stuck is actually valued. Being stuck means that story is not moving any deeper into the terror that is being repressed. Very often she has stopped the process from moving forward into an actual feeling. The number of frozen faces I have seen in her has been legion. Frozen grief, frozen terror, and very occasionally frozen anger. Getting her to "breathe and feel", "breathe and feel", and "breathe and feel" (right concentration) over and over again keeps her unstuck, with many conversations about resistance to these instructions and looking at how deep the commitment is to not want to feel anything at all. When we do not feel anything, we cannot even feel alive, we become a zombie. It is better to be alive and in some pain than this. Having the right commitment to the process (the second precept) is key for a Parkinson's and needs to be revisited at intervals.

In terms of where the process is, the Heart Sutra core mantra: "Let go, let go, really let go, totally let go, awake, rejoice." The first two are practice letting go (hence repetition). She has really let go many times, but has not yet totally let go. She has already beaten the odds and has come back from the "choking phase" and has not returned to the choking phase. She can walk often and take care of herself, but still does not have a full autonomous life again, because the crippling shake does appear still at random and prevents her from taking care of herself for an unknown period of time. She is meant to go into meditation and release the inner cause of her shaking by breathing, entering her fear, and then surrendering "self clinging" (fear of death and trying to protect herself against death). When she is able to do this, then she stops shaking and can live her life. She is still more successful when I am guiding her than when she is alone. This is because to two factors. One is that my enlightenment energy is within my aura and fills the room. It allows her to more easily feel her own true nature. Two is that I can help her to notice what she is neglecting to see, fill in the missing pieces, and then she can move on. She is doing more and more of the step on her own over time. But when you have learned to repress your emotions so thoroughly and habitually, it is sometimes hard to see how rapidly and unconsciously one is doing the repression, and therefore hard to undo it. After having spent about 30 years in my own daily meditation process, I have learned how to track and release these things more quickly and easily, but even with all the practice I have had I do not take it for granted. I choose to relearn each time I work with anyone. I try to make each new person I work with a co-exploration where I learn something too.

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