What a pleasure to be sitting once again with Than Geoff (Thanissaro Bhikkhu) late yesterday afternoon, after a long period of absence. Than Geoff (more properly Ajahn Geoff, since he has been for some time now not just a monk, but the abbot of the Metta Thai Forest monastery in Valley Center, north of San Diego. Long-time readers of The Buddha Diaries may recall that he comes up to Laguna Beach on the second Sunday of each month to lead and teach our little "Laguna sangha." Ellie and I have been away so much in the course of our remodel, and often simply unable to spend our weekends down here, that we have missed his regular sessions, as well as his occasional weekend retreats. And while I have been able to maintain my own daily sits, the sangha sits each Sunday and the monthly sessions with Than Geoff have been an important part of my practice since the mid-90s, when I first joined the group.
A glorious pleasure, then, to arrive at sunset for our hour-long sit and to be enchanted, first, by the lovely spectacle at the wide window across from where I sat, of the red glow of the setting sun over a deep purple ocean. Dark clouds and the outline of the eucalyptus trees gave depth and contour to the vista--a sight to rouse the soul before even closing the eyes for meditation. Eyes closed, I found it easy to be guided by Than Geoff's steady, familiar voice, the depth of his calm, and the knowledge of his long dedication to the practice. As usual, he guided us through the observation of the breath for a half hour, then left us in silence for the remainder of the time. It has been quite a while since I reached so intense a meditative state and so profound a relaxation.
Our hour's sit is followed by a question time, and I led off with a question about healing. During meditation, my mind had wandered off frequently to a friend who is fighting off a severe attack on her health, and had been formulating my question despite my best efforts to keep it focused on the breath. Addressing it to Than Geoff, I gave that context, along with the memory of my father's powerful (Christian) belief in the laying-on of hands and my understanding of the Tibetan healing practice of tonglen, and asked whether, in his own tradition, there was any similar healing ritual and, more particularly, whether there was anything I could do in my practice to be of benefit to my friend.
I could actually have predicted Than Geoff's response before I heard it. To his way of thinking, it's more about the state of mind than it is about the illness. Healing, then, is about developing a state of mind that serves to reduce the suffering rather than cure the disease. The practice of metta--sending out thoughts of goodwill--can facilitate the more peaceful state of mind required for a return to health. I responded that it felt somehow impertinent, to me, to wishing happiness for a person experiencing so much pain, but he reminded me that "happiness", in its broader context, embraced the notion of physical well-being, of health itself.
Still, I wondered, were there any rituals in his practice related to the healing of the sick, as in so many other spiritual beliefs? Had he himself had any personal experience of healing? Than Geoff smiled as he recalled an episode when, during meditation, he felt the pain of a bite on his finger. In the dark, he was not able to see what creature had bitten him, but within a few minutes his finger began to swell, then his wrist, then his arm... In some alarm, he consulted with his abbot, who gave him an amulet blessed by his teacher, Ajahn Lee, to place against the wound. In short order, the swelling was reduced.
Amulets, then. I suppose it is the blessing that infuses such ritual objects that is the source of their power.
As usual, though, Than Geoff had neatly turned my question back into myself. The mind, certainly, is the most powerful weapon that we have in and and all contingencies--a weapon that we too often forget when pain comes along and we turn to others to relieve it for us. It happened, yesterday, that I had put my back out earlier in the day, and I found the meditation period useful in relieving the pain. It was afterward that it began to make its presence known again. Ironically, I have found that sitting is the very thing that is the worst for a bad back--especially when the time comes to attempt to stand! Better to keep it warm, I find, by keeping it in motion. Thus it was that I decided to leave the session before the whole two hours were up. But I was extremely glad that I had decided to go.