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The Zen Way of Seeing and Responding
by Ellen Birx

Healing is more than curing. It involves a shift in perception so you become aware of your wholeness. A daily meditation practice expands and clarifies your vision so you see what has been right in front of you all along. You see that you are not separate. You are one with the whole universe. This is profoundly healing and opens your eyes to options and alternatives you may not have considered.

In Zen meditation, unlike many other forms of meditation, you sit with your eyes open. You come face to face with what is right here now, the whole of it. Many times, people expend much of their energy on denial of the difficult or unpleasant aspects of life. However, if you look at and embrace the whole, new possibilities open up before you. This is freeing and energizing. With this vision of wholeness, life can be lived with vitality and freshness moment by moment, in good times and bad, amidst illness and health.

A daily meditation practice cultivates the ability to see not just with your eyes, but with every cell in your body. You sit in meditation, straight and tall, alert and attentive, with all of your senses open. You see with your whole body, mind, and spirit and life becomes vibrant.

This kind of seeing leads to a greater appreciation of nature and the ordinary details of everyday life. You really savor the feel of warm, bubbly water as you wash the dishes, the juice of a peach as you bite into it, or the color of morning glories growing up the porch railing. But that's not all. A Zen teacher will encourage you to see deeply.

When you are under the guidance of a Zen teacher, he or she will point to a flower and ask, "Can you see this flower?" The question is not testing your visual acuity, or your appreciation for the aesthetic beauty of the blossom, its color and form. The question is urging you to directly experience the essential nature of the flower, manifesting in a unique way this moment. The teacher wants to see how you experience and express it. Don't discuss or philosophize about it.

This clear and expanded vision is helpful in daily life. For example, when I worked as a staff nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit, often I spent the night standing over the bed of a premature infant watching her tiny chest rise and fall, noticing subtle changes in color from pink, to mottled, to pale; following the rate and rhythm of the heartbeat on the monitor screen. This careful attention allowed me to respond immediately when the need arose. Expanded vision allowed me to connect with the bigger picture and respond to the baby and family's psychological and spiritual needs as well as their physical needs.

There's a Zen story about the kind of seeing that is required to be a healing presence in the world. There was an old woman who ran a teahouse by the side of the road on the way up the mountain to a monastery. Many monks stopped at her teahouse for refreshments and rest on their way to the monastery. Often, they asked the old woman for directions. She pointed and responded, "Go straight on." As they went off she said, "He too goes off like that." The monks were perplexed by this and talked Zen Master Joshu into going down the mountain to check her out. After drinking tea and eating teacakes with the old woman, Joshu asked her the same question the monks had asked and she responded in the same way. When Joshu returned to the monastery, he declared to the monks, "I have seen the old woman through and through." The question and answer were the same, so what did Joshu see that the monks did not? He saw a wise old woman who knew how to make, share, and enjoy good tea and cakes. He saw her essential nature. The monks were lost in their seeking and did not see the beauty of the old woman or really taste her teacakes. Joshu saw the sparkle in her eye and knew she was a woman of vision.

When I was a teenager, there was a famine in Biafra and my mother spent hours sewing dresses for her friend, a relief worker, to take with her to give to little girls there. Each dress was carefully trimmed with lace and had a little pocket on the front with a doll in the pocket. One day a neighbor stopped by to visit and commented that Mother shouldn't worry about so much detail since the children were in such dire need that they wouldn't know the difference. Mother flashed a look and said, "A little girl anywhere in the world can see the difference between a plain dress and a fancy dress." That day I saw my mother through and through.

This kind of seeing gives you the wisdom and inspiration to respond with compassionate action to what you see. True seeing moves you to respond.

Ellen Birx is author of "Healing Zen: Buddhist Wisdom on Compassion, Caring, and Caregiving For Yourself and Others" (Penguin, 2003). She is a nursing professor at Radford University and a Zen teacher in the White Plum Lineage. For more info, visit www.healingzen.com.