(NB – This post was originally done in 2010 as a quick offering for a group koan salon. I rewrote it in Spring 2014)
I was not separated from people,
grief and pity joined us.
We forget—I kept saying—that we are all
children of the King.
Czeslaw Milosz (trans. Robert Hass)
Sickness and medicine are in accord with each other. The whole world is medicine. What am I?
When the Buddha was growing up, his father kept four sights from him. The forbidden sights were a sick person, an old person, a corpse, and a pilgrim dedicated to the meditation path. The young boy snuck out of the palace and immediately stumbled upon a sick person. This was the first sign that something was being hidden.
Sickness is memorable, though often we forget its pains, frightening, discouraging, disgusting, shocking, and as in the Buddha’s story, a discovery. Seeing through into that secret is the beginning of a new world. At that moment, the palace turned into a prison. Instead of becoming an emperor, the Buddha, as his father had feared he might, left home and took up the meditation path.
Sickness tells me that no matter how interesting or clever I may be, I am also a body. Like other bodies, like dogs, trees, and stars, my body is made of stuff. Stuff in turn is made of smaller bits of stuff. You can recombine the bits in various ways. If a Tasmanian devil ate me, that would be a recombining process.
Illness is a recombining process too. It turns out that the cells that make me up can be hijacked by other tiny creatures which start rearranging me to make more of themselves. Very exciting.
It is well known that we are guests in the body’s house and cannot stay. Though there are ways of distracting ourselves from this knowledge, even a king cannot conceal it. It is less well known that sickness can be a gate into vast, interior realms. Sickness is like the locked door in the fairy tale that we are told not to open. It holds the possibility of changing our course utterly.
Chemistry is us
When I was an undergraduate in Canberra, I had an intense experience of being reduced (or possibly expanded) into the physical. There was a period when I meditated every day outside under a Chinese elm tree, and also, a few times a week had a fever (a tropical residue, apparently hard to diagnose), which led me to rush outside and throw up. And I became close to the elm tree in the garden, so that as I write I am there again, consoled by its mild, reassuring bulk in the night, it’s delicate, serrated leaves, the progress of the moon in its branches, the twigs and leaves under my knees.
Sickness also took me beyond the idea that I must get back to being well. There wasn’t the energy to dislike or to dread my state so I was just given over to it. While in the rest of my life I was striving to complete reports, band birds, get weekends over with, beneath the tree I was not on the way to somewhere else. Whatever had gripped my body might have been disgusting, but because it was disgusting, it became an initiation. Time spread out so that there was enough of it. In the suburban garden in the most boring of capitals, I was in the underworld, and the glowing powers that move heaven and earth were visible above me. In my own way I was happy there and lacked nothing. Which is why I remember kneeling under my guardian tree.
During the days, I was often in a biology lab where I was struck by electron microscope images of mitochondria. Mitochondria among other functions, provide power in every cell in the body. They are us, and at the same time, not us; they are organelles with their own DNA, which is passed down outside the nucleus of the cell. And I wondered about my awareness of myself, which seemed precious and interesting, at least to me, and at the same time was entwined with the physical world in the most ordinary way. What I thought of as myself could easily be a mere agreement among very small organisms, a treaty they entered into for their own purposes. I felt myself to be like the mitochondria, hopelessly unclear about whether I was an independent whole or a part of some greater process, and was at a loss how to describe my true identity.
We had been taught that there was a big bang after which the universe expanded rapidly and came into being. That sounded like it could have happened. Then, eventually, consciousness—along with kangaroos, theories of beauty, advertising, and art cars on the Playa at Burning Man—appeared as an emerging feature of
complexity. It wasn’t like that under the tree, though. I was in a realm in which everything was being created as I watched. I gave up, I knelt on the roots, enjoying their lumpiness, and the most material thing—a virus, a spirochete, a pebble, the leaf of a Chinese elm tree—was apparently part of the same order that my mind was part of. It’s reasonable to question whether viruses are even alive—they are just a sort of lego construction made out of a few genes shaken in a bag. Sometimes we die in their embrace but they too are part of the scheme that produced us all. My mind appeared to be a property of things, just like my hand.
Years later during a zen retreat, a woman told me that when she sang, she could see the universe being created as the notes came out of her mouth. I had seen Chinese bronze sculptures of meditators chanting with Buddhas coming out of their mouths. ‘The universe does this sort of thing,’ I thought, ‘It will do that when you sing, or throw up. I’m coming out of the mouth of the universe too.’
Sickness Is For Us
Usually, casually, I think of myself as being well. When I am sick, wellness is the me I imagine I’ll get back to.
There are many situations in which it’s natural to think of myself as something I need to get back to after—after the war ends, the situation is explained, the chemotherapy is finished, the divorce is complete, the baby arrives, the exam is passed, justice is achieved. But the journey always changes me; even if I get the outcome I want, I can’t go back to the previous edition of myself. We are already ourselves in any circumstances, and something is always flowering in us.
There are many kinds of sickness—cancer, love of the unattainable person, the isolation that cruelty and meanness imposes on cruel and mean people—and they are life too.
I can’t always be sure what is healing and what is the opposite. I explain things to myself but don’t always believe my own reasons. We take the job or go on the date or turn down an offer because we are hopeful or because we are scared or because…well, we don’t know why.
Outcomes are not certain, finding the path by walking it. Let’s say you are a teenage girl with your first boyfriend. You intend to go away to college and know you will have to break up; you have a carefully considered plan about how to do it and stay friends and you have both talked about it. But your boyfriend isn’t happy about that plan and makes a preemptive strike—he breaks up now and you can tell from Facebook that he’s with someone new. You had no idea that romance could hurt so much and you cry for days. But now has certain advantages over later; because of those tears you see more of your father, and your neglected friends, you volunteer to teach in a school, you practice baroque music, you travel, you visit a university in another country.
When I was a child and had pneumonia I remember lying in bed with the winter sunlight coming through the window and hearing the other children go to school. This marked the exciting moment at which the day had become mine, and I began a voyage inward to an unknown territory where secrets were waiting. This is true for adults too; even a dark diagnosis can arrive with an intoxicating sense of freedom, of being able to turn toward the jungle where the great and sought after beast lurks. Here’s a conversation in that direction. A friend calls.
“I’ve been sick.”
“How are you now?” I ask.
“It’s been marvelous! I stopped imagining what’s next. I had no idea how much energy I spent projecting a future.”
Sickness is for us.
Who Or What Am I?
The great, restless, irritating, question of who we are dangles from the end of this koan like a door into another galaxy. It’s the last thing, it trembles with curiosity, and absurdity, with wanting to encompass the whole of life. Wanting to get better is just a part of sickness. But a question might help when nothing else will. If I have a question, I’m beginning to wake up in the thick dark. If I wonder who I am, that is the faint beginning of a path through the tree trunks in the middle of the night. If I begin to walk, that path keeps showing itself, step by step.
Koans have a status as luminous fragments, little stories that are doorways. The phrase ‘the whole world is medicine’ is a short form, convenient and portable, that opens into something beyond itself. The question “What am I?” has this property too.
If we have become so desperate as to ask “Who am I?” we have given up on the usual solutions and are looking for help at in the bowels of the universe. This implies that we are open and that help or healing might come from anywhere, and probably not from an expected direction.
Yes It’s Out Of Control
At my house, there’s an old chicken shed behind the barn; sheep take shelter there in winter storms. Long ago, someone nailed a four by four redwood beam across the roof. It somewhat holds down the rusting, reddish brown, corrugated iron. Bark and grass and twigs catch against the beam and a couple of geese made a nest there.
They seem exposed on their roof but it’s unclear how much. A couple of great horned owls live in those eucalyptus. I’m pretty sure those owls ate the barn owls and perhaps the red tail hawks who used to be here. There are other interested parties too. Raccoons, foxes, an occasional bobcat or even mountain lion wanders by. The geese however carry on. The gander watches from a high vantage on the barn and threatens sheep and dogs, proving he’s bad, he’s dangerous, watch out for him. Other birds cross on invisible roads in the air, swooping and whirring, bearing grass and insects. Robins, yellow-gold finches, black and white finches, steller’s jays, martens, mourning doves, hummingbirds in green and turquoise armor, it’s as if they are all part of a large, swirling device. Sometimes their calls change pitch together and the air roads move around. The geese float in this invisible, shifting net.
There’s a gate in the mind and stepping through is like leaving the palace that has come to feel like a prison. On the other side of that gate, silence fills the spaces. Nothing is happening but what’s happening. There’s no urgency, nothing more is needed than what’s here. In that silence and plainness, things step forward and shine by themselves. Though I enjoy seeing this, I don’t make it happen; it’s not something that can be controlled. Help is unexpected.
With a friend, I’ve been working on a new translation of this medicine koan, which you see above: ‘Sickness and medicine are in accord with each other.’ ‘Sickness and medicine heal each other’ is also a possibility. But recently when I was teaching, an older version came out of my mouth — ‘Sickness and medicine correspond with each other.’ Afterwards, someone said, “I was deep in meditation and my thinking was down deep too. I took the word ‘correspond’ to mean ‘write a letter to’ and I began to do that in my mind. ‘Dear Sickness,’ the letter began, and it ended, ‘Your friend, Medicine.’”
If I look around it can be hard to find something that isn’t medicine. I go outside and check on the geese. They are still there. They seem happy, waiting. So far so good.
- If you think of a time when you have been ill, what do you remember? What was it like? How did it change you?
- Jung said “The Gods have become diseases.” If an illness you have had was a god who would it be, what did (or does) it bring you?
- What is sickness for you?
- What are your own personal medicines? What works for you? Have you ever been surprised by something that helped you?
- If you close your eyes and feel your way way into your body what images rise for you?
- If you imagine your body, what comes to your mind first?