Photo: cc by AlicePopkorn, thanks!
Keeping the Maturation Process Alive By Priming the Internal Structure: Four Days with the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Program and Roshi Joan Halifax
BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST ASHLEY HUNT
Related Article Conversation: Rodney Yee, co founder of the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy Program
Website Urban Zen Foundation
“Cultivating a mental continuum that is non adhesive” says Roshi Joan Halifax.
I picked up my first Buddhism book 11 years ago at age 13 in the 7th grade. I was in Barnes and Noble with my mother, I wandered away as I browsed the shelves. I distinctly remember the book my small fingers pulled apart as I stood in the bookstore aisle. It was a small pocket paperback. It had a pink cover with a flower-like print on the front: Simple Buddhism: A Guide to Enlightened Living. At thirteen I read the book cover to cover, several times. It outlined foundational Buddhist concepts.
My young, receptive, and malleable mind highlighted this Simple Buddhism experience as monumental. As I write now, it is as if I am looking back in an old journal, reading text I have designated as important. The visceral experience surfaces in the mind and body, I am reliving the experience of my innocent encounter with Buddhist wisdom.
Fast-forwarding through an event-filled eleven and half years, where Buddhism and the study of spirituality has been a guiding force in every aspect of life, I find myself at the feet of Roshi Joan Halifax. I am still baffled at how and why the universe so graciously shared this gift of studying with Roshi Joan Halifax with me, I accepted with humility and gratitude that I could possibly conceive.
I sit at elated attention
Open to the subtle vibration and gross meaning of every word she speaks. Trying to understand it all, but I remind myself, I will absorb what I need.
“Relax Ash… (exhale)” I say to myself.
I am the blonde sitting directly to Roshi’s right in a group of around a hundred other students. Quoting my own Facebook status from the time I spent with Roshi Joan Halifax. “Four full days with Roshi Joan Halifax. Expressing my deepest gratitude to all of the causes and conditions that have helped to place me HERE!”
I gratefully escorted Roshi Joan every morning from her downtown Manhattan hotel to Urban Zen Stephen Weiss Studio. I had been anxiously anticipating these moments, as I sat next to her in the back of the cab. I had so many questions I wanted to ask her, when the opportunity seemingly presented itself the importance of the “answers” I had been relentlessly seeking dissolved and the mindful observation of my experience with Roshi Joan quickly took precedent.
Less searching, more being
I physically felt this internal shift.
Roshi Joan Halifax is the contemporary female embodiment of Buddhist ideals. She is a guiding light of FEARLESS FREEDOM.
As an aspiring academic in the field of contemplative neuroscience, yoga teacher, Buddhist, spiritually inquisitive young American female, and all around student of life I find these liberal and generous classifications a restriction of physical, emotional, and spiritual freedom. Fitting into these categories creates the conditions to behave accordingly in social spheres. How we present ourselves outwardly has a directly proportionate affect on our own self-perception.
I boldly describe Roshi Joan Halifax as a light of fearless freedom, because she too fits into many socially and culturally progressive, trans-disciplinary categories. But the superficiality of these constraints, we cling to so tightly, burn in the pure fire of her heart. The nature of Roshi’s work and her presence encompass the totality of the human experience to purposefully dismember the mentally constructed foundation of reality. Why do the work? To embody the light of fearless freedom that is Roshi Joan Halifax.
Compassion, fearlessness and death
Roshi quotes the wise words of the Buddha in her phenomenal book Being With Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death:
When touched by a feeling of pain, the ordinary uninstructed person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breasts, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental just as if he was shot with an arrow and right afterward, was shot with another one, so that he felt the pain of two arrows.
Roshi shared meditation practices coupled with revolutionary neurological research with the Urban Zen Integrative Therapy program that spiritually and scientifically demonstrates the ability of the individual to move from a place of ‘negative cognitive appraisal’ to ‘positively habituated compassion.’ “Fear is much more destructive than the reality of what is,” says Roshi to the group of Urban Zen Integrative Therapist trainees.
Roshi’s illustration of Zen teachings and her research on the affect of compassion on the human brain structure shapes the student’s understanding of how to objectively observe physical pain, resulting in the meta-cognitive ability to shift perceptions before the second arrow of mental pain pierces the heart.
Can we detach the self-inflicted story of suffering from the transitory physiological, emotional and mental states of being?
Flow like a river
Throughout the Urban Zen Contemplative Care weekend Roshi continued to come back to the cornerstone of a Zen practice, sitting. “Effort gives our practice depth, character, strength and resiliency,” says Roshi Joan as she describes a daily meditation practice in her book. Like a meandering river, with time and resiliency the flow of the river subtly shifts and the river changes course. Shifting perspectives through mindful engagement with existence transforms the neural substrates of the mind. A similar process occurs as practitioners dedicate themselves to contemplative practice. Habituating our mental continuum and neurological brain structure towards ethical pliancy.
How do we prime the body and mind to create a resident field of equilibrium? Roshi Joan teaches a highly effective, and extensively researched method CMC: Contemplative Mindfulness Compassion Based Care all over the globe to medical practitioners and to diverse audiences. She is a pioneer in every sense of the word working along side the His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the emerging field of Contemplative Neuroscience.
I sat in the back of the cab with Roshi Joan Halifax. She sits with strength and a sense of openness, her hands folded on her lap. I have just opened up to her about my experience with her guided meditation practice, and my being is quivering on the brink of uncertainty and insecurity. I graciously thank her for the wonderful four days she has bestowed upon the Urban Zen community and myself. Our eyes meet and she replies to my long emotional schpeal “It is not my life, it is yours, I am just interested.”
“There is your heart… and there are your feet of clay,” Roshi Joan remarks.
Roshi Joan Halifax is all heart.
You can travel with Ashley’s determination to stay with herself in stability and clarity on her blog Reflect Light and Love. Watch for more of Ash’s New York columns in our new Class Consciousness feature, where our columnists take their practice to class and break down the experience for you.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.