Timeless Wisdom for Health and Healing
Most dictionaries define “health” as “sound physical or mental condition” –– a condition of wholeness or well-being. From our usual point of view, health is considered being free of sickness. But actually, we can look at health from a broader perspective.
In the Buddhist tradition, there is a presentation of three aspects of health: 1) innate, or intrinsic, health, 2) acquired, or conditioned, health, and 3) healing.
Buddhist tradition considers intrinsic health, or being healthy, as being in a state of innate wholesomeness. When one is in the original state of perfect balance, with body and mind synchronized in a state of being, that is the innate, intrinsic health. It’s a state of being that is fundamentally perfect and good in itself, as well as being indestructible.
When body and mind are fully in sync, it’s like a perfectly tuned instrument. The music it produces is pleasant to the ears and blissful to the heart. Nevertheless, beautiful music depends on the musicians. When they play in perfect harmony, the instrument’s potential fully manifests, and the experience is amazing. Whether it’s music by Bach or Schubert, or the Rolling Stones or Alabama Shakes, when we hear that music, it takes us to a different level. Some music even takes you into a kind of trance experience. That’s just one example of an experience of body and mind in sync, in a space of wholeness.
Our basic state of intrinsic or innate health is always present, regardless of circumstances. Even though it’s always there, we may not be aware of it, or have not found a way to connect with it. Therefore, it is important for us to note that health comes first, and sickness is secondary. Our original state of health is indestructible.
To bring forth the full effect and the full benefit of that experience of innate health, our minds need to have some degree of confidence or trust in this reality. It’s the same with anything we do, isn’t it? When we take a Tylenol, we begin by thinking, “This is going to work, this is going to help me.” We need to have some trust in that little tablet or capsule.
The kind of trust we’re talking about here is not like a strong religious conviction, or faith in someone else. It is a simple recognition of your own innate state of health, or true being. At minimum, we need to have some willingness to explore this intrinsic health as a possibility. We don’t need to believe in anything, we just need a sense of inquisitiveness.
We can develop confidence in the reality of our innate health on the basis of our own experience. To bring about that experience, we use different methods of meditation and contemplation.
The first important meditative technique for synchronizing mind and body, for getting in tune with our intrinsic health, is simply being in the present moment. Like a musician playing their part in a symphony in which all the musicians are playing their instruments in tune and on cue, when our mind and body are in tune with intrinsic health, then we are unobstructed and have access to unlimited resources, because we are joining with the innate reality of perfect balance, also known as Buddha Nature.
When that happens, we have a deep sense of coming home, free of confusion and full of relaxation. That relaxation positively affects our physical health and gives our mind strength and confidence. We know from research science that stress negatively affects our physical wellbeing as well as our mental health. As our mind and body are truly interdependent, If we can relax, free of stress and confusion, that will result in perfect health.
When body and mind are synchronized in the present moment, in that experience there is no sense of internal and external, no confusion of the mind and body going separate ways. Instead there is the experience of oneness, or wholesome reality, which is the nature of all things.
To stay in the present moment, we use meditation techniques. You can also use techniques involving movement such as Tai Chi or yoga, or running, as long as you’re not listening to music or a podcast at the same time, because then you can get distracted and it could be dangerous. There are many stories of runners getting hit by cars while wearing a high-quality headset: the noise-cancellation feature was so effective, they didn’t hear the truck coming up behind them or just around the corner. So if you are running, it’s better to use low-quality headphones, because then at least you can hear what’s around you in the present moment.
So from the Buddhist point of view, health is intrinsic. In this state of perfect balance and synchronization, health is perfect. But when our body is not attuned with our mind, or vice versa, then we drift away from this original state of being and lose that balance. That is how we begin to experience the secondary kind of health in which we begin to experience challenges.
Acquired, or Conditioned Health
The second kind of health is acquired, or “conditioned,” meaning that it depends on many different causes and conditions. We know that, in a relative sense, everything has its own time limit, after which it will not really function. In Buddhist teachings, we call that time limit impermanence and decay. That is part of the nature of conditioned health, or conditioned reality. It’s in the fine print that you probably overlooked or ignored when you signed the contract to acquire this body. The fine print says: “It’s impermanent.”
So what, exactly, is this acquired health? When harmonious causes and conditions are present, we experience acquired health. You could also call it wellness, wholeness, wellbeing, or good health. When the conditions become disharmonious, however, then the acquired health faces some challenges. This is what the Buddhist view calls the interdependent nature. Good health and poor health alike are dependent on many different conditions, such as what we inherit in our DNA, for example, as well as our physical and mental habits, the environment where we live or work, and so forth.
When we talk about this second type of health — the conditioned or acquired health — it’s important to keep in mind that conditions are either harmonious or disharmonious, balanced or imbalanced. What are we talking about here? We’re talking about the physical elements in our body that have a positive or negative effect on our mind. We’re also talking about the activity of our mind, which affects our physical elements.
This second layer of health is determined by two key points: the immediate cause and the long-term cause.
Acquired health: the immediate cause
The Immediate Cause includes, for example, the bacteria in our body, or our bodily elements, as well as our habits and tendencies, and our environment. In order to gain the health we desire, we need to have a good, balanced, and harmonious relationship with all five elements, as referred to in Asian medicine, such as the traditions of Indian, Chinese, and Tibetan medicine.
When immediate causes and conditions are in harmony, we experience good health. For example, I learned from my friends in the medical field that all bacteria are not necessarily bad. Some bacteria are beneficial in the right amounts, but if you have too many or too few of them, you have problems. You need the perfect balance. In Indian Ayurvedic or Chinese Medicine, they say the same thing. They use different terms, but basically they are all talking about balance and imbalance. Imbalance, then, becomes the cause for sickness. Perfect balance becomes the cause for health and happiness.
Often we know very well what is balancing, and what causes and conditions are harmonious for us. However, our habits do not necessarily put that knowledge into action. We may have great knowledge about the positive causes and conditions for perfect health, but our habits can still take us on a different route.
We all know that coffee’s good for you. But if you drink too much, it may not be so good. It’s the same with all the food or drinks we consume, as well as our environment. It’s not about taking tea or coffee, or dairy products or whatever. It’s about striking the right balance in body and mind.
Therefore, we need to pay great attention to our habits and our environment, and then see what adjustments we can make to our habits. We may have some really excellent, positive habits, but still we can look to see what can be improved. For example, we Tibetans drink too much tea, or coffee, and it’s not good to drink too much of either one. It may be good when you’re in Tibet, but not elsewhere. We need to make adjustments to our habits based on the local conditions. What you eat and drink in hot, tropical weather, may be very different to what you eat and drink in colder weather such as in Scandinavia or Norway.
So we need to reflect and contemplate, to see what’s good for us. There’s no one habit that’s good for everyone, in every place or situation.
Buddha taught that you need these three things for balance:
2. Nutrition and medicine
We all know very well the value of good sleep, nutrition, and medicine. There’s nothing I can add to elucidate those, but I will talk about the third one: meditation. Meditation becomes important in this context because meditation is nutrition, it is medicine, and it is sleep for our mind; meditation is resting. It isn’t only our body, it is also our mind that needs these three things.
We usually only think about our body and forget about our mind. When we do consider our mind, we’re only thinking about the objects of mind: our thoughts. But we don’t really take care of our mind as much as we take care of our body. I always use the example of how we care for our cell phone, because it’s quite clear. We worry more about losing our phone than about losing our mind. We’re constantly checking our cell phone; we feel it to see if it is too hot or too cold. We check to make sure it hasn’t been harmed, that it’s fully charged. And we make sure we carry an extra battery pack for our phone. But when it comes to our mind, we’re really not doing much to care for it on a regular basis.
How often do we check to see where our mind is? Maybe once a day? Some of us check on our mind, some don’t. But we definitely check our cell phone, don’t we! We do that every hour, or sometimes every ten minutes. For me, this makes it obvious how little attention I pay to my mind, and how much attention I pay to my phone, to the news, or whatever is popping up in there.
Meditation is a way to develop panoramic awareness, and it’s also a way to rejuvenate or recharge our mind. Through the practice of meditation we can develop a fully functioning mind — a mind that can be present, can concentrate, and can be aware, not only of yourself and your environment, but also of others’ sufferings and their needs.
When our mind becomes fully panoramic in its awareness and concentration, then we can have anything we want. We can have a good relationship with our partners, and remain aware of their needs, for example. Sometimes when we don’t have that awareness, we get in trouble with our partners.
So it’s important to synchronize body and mind in order to develop this sense of health and wholesomeness. That is the function of meditation. It brings forth so much benefit in our relationships, in our personal growth, in our professional achievements, and of course, in our spiritual journey. That must be why meditation is universally available these days.
Acquired health: the long-term cause
The long-term cause of acquired, or conditioned, health is connected with what we have inherited from the past. To see the long-term cause, we need to look a little deeper, as it may not be obvious merely from looking at the outer situation. When there is a deeper imbalance, it is connected to the mind and mental afflictions. So the physical phenomena of our acquired health is a result of certain mental actions.
The physical reality is deeply connected to our mind and its afflictions. We can see that many people in our world today, especially many professionals, are under great stress, and how that stress affects their physical health. They also talk about how working with the mind has positive effects on hypertension, and that it even helps in dealing with pain. It is said, for example, that meditation helps in dealing with shingles –– not to cure it, but to control the discomfort of shingles, for example. And now we’re learning how meditation also helps with conditions such as asthma and epilepsy. Therefore, regarding the long-term cause, when there is a lack of control of the mind, we experience more intense manifestations of these different effects of sickness. When you have shingles, for example, it may be more intense if you don’t know how to work with that experience mentally.
The Buddha taught that all our sufferings related to our health and wellbeing, are caused by mental afflictions such as anger, jealousy, ego-clinging, and emotions.
If we take a moment to deeply contemplate these long-term causes of health and illness from a more subtle perspective, we will see that the roots, of illness in particular, are to be found in the disturbed mental states and the state of self-fixation, or the state of our mind. Therefore the Buddhist teachings emphasize that, when we find ourselves struggling with a health problem or illness, it’s good not to reflexively focus only on the short-term causes, but also to look into the long-term causes, the background of that health situation.
What has the greatest impact on our mind, and therefore on our health, is when our mind gets into states of disturbance or upset. In Buddhism we call these mental afflictions, and they can exert a problematic influence on our physical health. We know from experience that our body and mind are mutually dependent and mutually supportive, and that when our mind becomes disturbed, it can exert a negative impact on our body. And similarly, when we get into physical states such as lethargy or heaviness, these can cause our mind to feel cloudy.
To bring about good health, we need to relate with and nourish not only our body by itself, and not only our mind by itself, but to work with body and mind as an integrated union. We need the balance between these two factors. Therefore, we not only need to exert ourselves in working with body and mind, but at the same time we need to develop a sense of relaxation. Relaxation becomes the key for attaining perfect, or good, Acquired Health.
When the mind gets tense, the body isn’t relaxed either. So the key is a good, strong sense of relaxation. We can attain that just by bringing some humor into our life. We don’t have to be so serious. With a little humor, everything becomes workable. I like this quotation from the American comedian Art Buchwald. When he was on his deathbed, he made a joke: “Dying is easy. Parking is hard.” It’s fun. When we bring in a sense of humor, it helps our mind and body relax and become perfectly synchronized. That perfect synchronization will bring us to a state of natural, intrinsic health. Of course, you cannot force the natural state of intrinsic health. You have to bring it about by way of a mind-body balance.
When our body and mind fall out of synchronization, if we lose this sense of humor, then we lose the balance and begin to experience various health issues. So the reason why we experience health issues is the lack of a sense of humor. I’m just kidding. That is part of it, but it’s not the whole picture.
So first comes the Intrinsic Health and second, the Acquired Health. And third, there is Healing. Healing, in Tibetan Buddhism, is called sowa, which carries a meaning of restoring, revitalizing, and perhaps reawakening. And in one English dictionary, the definition of “healing” is “to make whole and healthy.” That’s nice, isn’t it? So healing is a process of restoring the innate, wholesome state that already exists –– our intrinsic state of health.
If there’s nothing innately, originally healthy, then there’s nothing to go back to, or restore. If there is no original health, then what is there to bring back? There must have been something there to begin with. So the idea of healing here is that, through a wide variety of methods, we try to get back to the original state of innate health. We try to reawaken the potential, and the power, of the genuine state of our subtle elements, and the Buddha Nature mentioned earlier. So generally speaking, the process of healing is concerned with avoiding harmful conditions by maintaining, and constantly creating, beneficial conditions. Healing is not about “fixing” anything. Healing is not a matter of patching something up.
Restoring, or healing, works the way a physical wound, such as a cut, heals. It heals from inside. Slowly a scab appears, then it becomes dry, then you throw it away and it’s okay again. When I was little, I liked playing with knives, so I had many experiences of cutting my fingers and watching them heal.
Rather than merely fixing something or patching it up, healing is allowing the body-mind to heal itself, to bring back the original, intrinsic health by applying different methods. When you place a patch or a band-aid over a cut, the patch may help to protect the cut from getting infected, but the healing of the cut takes place from the inside. Medical treatment is very important and helpful, of course, but in this context we’re talking about inner healing. So instead of looking at temporary fixes or temporary ways of numbing our pain and getting rid of some symptoms, here we are looking for a solution at a deeper level of healing.
In this sense, healing can begin with changing our attitude towards health in general, as well as toward different conditions of health. Healing, therefore, is not like fixing your broken radio. It’s a process of restoring and reawakening the power of your subtle and coarse physical elements, as well as reawakening your mind’s full potential.
So for healing, we can begin by reflecting on our habits, the environments we spend time in, and our mental afflictions. We try to change our negative habits and establish some positive habits. We try to change our environment from a negative to a positive environment. Our environment –– the air, water, and earth, surrounding us –– is quite important. But that doesn’t mean we can expect to preserve the same environment all the time. Because it changes, doesn’t it? Last year’s tomato is no longer here, so we cannot eat that tomato. And yesterday’s flowers have already bloomed; we cannot prevent them from withering away.
Why do we need to take care of our outer environment? In order to take care of each other. It’s not like we’re doing the environment a favor. By taking care of the environment, we’re taking care of our own health.
There’s so much literature describing negative bias, as well as different ways of developing positive habits. I’ve spoken about that research in the past, but here I’m referring to “habit” in a deeper sense. If we really want to look into our deepest core habit, then from a Buddhist perspective we would say our deepest habitual tendency is the thought of “I” or “me,” the sense of self-centricity.
When we let this habit get out of hand, by allowing it to develop into an attitude that thinks, “I am more important than others, nothing matters except what I want,” then that type of attitude can inflict quite a lot of harm on our health and on the world around us. And it’s actually a very dangerous source of harm. Of course, we all have this sense of “me” or “I,” there’s no problem with that. But when that becomes our primary focus, it becomes a problem. With that attitude, we will never be satisfied or content, with anything. With that kind of mind, we will experience a constant sense of irritation, discomfort, and unease.
When we’re coming from that self-centric attitude, we do things that are not too clever. Our actions are not guided by a wise mind, or a wise heart. We are not guided by a compassionate heart, or a mindful heart. And in that state, we do things that cause harm to ourselves and to our world. Therefore, when we consider healing and how to restore intrinsic health from this point of view, it is important for us to reflect on that deeper kind of habit, and to see how we can have a healthy sense of “I” or “me.”
So these are the three ways of looking at health and healing, from a Buddhist perspective: the innate or intrinsic state of health, acquired or conditioned health, and the healing process.
The innate health that we all possess is also the source of ultimate healing. All other kinds of healing we engage in are simply temporary forms of healing that may only address the symptoms and not the root cause of an illness or other health condition.
True Healing, the ultimate healing power, is something we all possess at the core of our being. For example, you can see how your body heals itself when injured. And this is the case for many other beings, such as insects and some animals, as well: if one of their limbs is cut off, it can grow back. So even from the surface level point of view there is a natural sense of healing or restorative power there. But the deeper, genuine healing is the power of our mind. The source of that true or genuine healing is the intrinsic reality of innate wholesomeness. Conditioned or acquired health, on the other hand, is working with environmental circumstances, and that type of healing, as mentioned earlier, is merely temporary. However, there is a kind of healing that is connected to its root, to restoring the basic, or innate, health.
Medicines, Awareness, and Mantra
Just as the restoration of wholesome balance can restore our innate health, there is also a kind of healing that helps us address the acquired, or conditioned, health. The latter type of healing can be brought about through medicines and other physical substances. From a Buddhist point of view, this type of healing can also be brought about through awareness, and through the practice of mantra. Furthermore, there is the practice of engaging in aspirations to support all of the above kinds of healing.
To a certain degree, we can restore our health with the help of medicines and physical substances, through nutrition or supplements. However, that restoration or healing process is limited when it is not accompanied by the power of mind, awareness. We can also rely on the power of mantras. In Sanskrit, mantra literally means “protection” or healing of the mind. It has two syllables: manas, or mind, and traya, meaning protection or healing. Awareness is a way of working with the fundamental health of our mind so that we may regain its basic strength and power. In the context of ultimate healing, then, it is essential to strengthen our awareness.
To rejuvenate or restore a full sense of healing, we may rely on various substances containing nutrients, minerals, and vitamins to provide beneficial effects. For example, if you use cannabis the right way, to heal, it can help ease pain and many other health conditions. In Indian Ayurvedic or Chinese medicine, as well as in alternative Western naturopathic medicine, we rely on plants and substances to revitalize health. These substances not only affect us physically but, indirectly, they also affect our mind. Therefore, even as we rely on physical medicines or supplements, we need to pay similar attention to mind healing and mental rejuvenation. The scale cannot be tipped one way or the other; these two types of healing –– mental and physical –– must be in balance. On their own, physical substances have limited ability to heal. But when we put the two together, restoring the mind as well as the physical body, we can attain the intrinsic health that is indestructible.
At the same time, we must keep in mind that this physical constitution we have acquired has its own ultimate limit, from the relative point of view. So we’re not talking here about avoiding impermanence, avoiding change, or avoiding death and dying. But if we can find a way to get back to the innate, basic state of health, then even at the time of death, so to speak, our journey can actually become peaceful and even joyful.