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The Benefits of Zen Meditation in Addiction and Recovery 

A handbook for addicts and those in recovery, and their families. 

Written by Mary Heath for the Zen Group of Western Australia.

 Foreword by Ross Bolleter Roshi 


I warmly recommend Mary Heath's article on The Benefits of Zen Meditation in Addiction and Recovery. It shows a sensitive awareness and understanding of the difficulties that people face when they decide to come off drugs and gives a range of strategies for helping this process, ranging from traditional Zen work with the breath and mindfulness and walking meditation, to her own discoveries. Taken together these provide a kit from which people in recovery can choose. Its presentation is vivid and straightforward making it an illuminating, practical, compassionate guide to the path of recovery. 

.......... Ross Bolleter 

About Zen 

Zen practice is about having time for yourself in a special way. When you take time off to go for a walk or have coffee with a friend, this is certainly having time for yourself, and is important. But Zen practice goes beyond that. To find out about the deepest parts, the most secret and difficult parts, the parts where beautiful things lie hidden, you may need special training. 

One method of training comes down to us from Sakyamuni Buddha, who lived in the sixth century B.C. in Northern India. He taught that although life is basically unsatisfactory and full of pain and suffering, there are still wonderment and joy to be found. To find the wonder you don't have to live a special sort of life by entering a monastery or cutting yourself off from family life and work (although you may do that briefly from time to time). By noticing and attending to what brings unhappiness you can gradually change your way of looking at things. Why do we suffer? This is the sort of reality most people would like to avoid. But when you give yourself time to look into these deep and secret parts, your lifestyle and relationships will start to work better. Then your life will come alive and blossom right where you are. 

Despite its development in very different cultures, the essence of Zen practice remains vital and immediate, since it relies on personal encounter not on scriptures or dogma. 

As well as the Zen Group's evening at Palmerston Farm, we run meditation evenings and retreats at our centre in Claremont. Everyone is welcome, but if you have not done meditation with us before it is best to book into an orientation evening. Perth is in the fortunate position of having a resident and fully authorised teacher, Ross Bolleter Roshi, who gives talks and offers regular private interviews. 

Where and when to practice Zen 

What is overwhelmingly important is that you practice sitting meditation everyday. It is best to do it in a set place, at a set time. All other aspects of Zen grow out of this. 

Sitting meditation requires alert attention and concentration. For this reason people avoid the drowsy times after meals. The early morning is an excellent time as the benefits linger all day. Ross wrote a short verse (a haiku), about early morning meditation. 

The day grows out of  
this sleepy zazen  
flowering tree. 
Many people keep their meditation cushions in the bedroom handy to roll out of bed onto for morning zazen. Others sit late in the evening without finding it disturbs their sleep or causes drowsiness. 

So find a quiet corner to set up your cushions, and a time you will not be disturbed. This is the ideal. In actual fact many of us cope with early morning toddlers or having the only quiet time in the day after the evening meal. Even this time can be fine. Any time is a good time for zazen. Somehow we manage to spend time on our cushions amidst our daily turmoil. Sitting "amidst", making time "amidst" - this is how it's done, most days in the year. 

Apart from sitting, there is mindfulness practice, which can also be called awareness. It's done when you are not doing meditation on a cushion (all the rest of the time) so that gradually over the years you can build up a whole 24 hours of Zen practice. But to start with give yourself islands in the day when you pay attention to how you are. How do you feel? How's your body? What's your mind chatting about? What's going on for you now -- this moment? People pause and do this at the traffic lights, while washing up or closing doors. Or you can do it at work. Charlotte Joko Beck, Zen teacher of the San Diego Zen Centre, recommends pausing and doing a few minutes mindfulness during working hours as a definite aid to working concentration. 

Together mindfulness and sitting meditation form Zen practice, called zazen. 

At a time when you are coming off drugs or alcohol you may find the going hard. Sitting meditation may bring up painful memories -- or allow them to come to your attention. With mindfulness you may become aware of the changes in your body, how hungry you are, how your skin feels. Just bring all of what's happening into your field of awareness by noticing it's there, and this simple exercise will help your efforts towards a new lifestyle without the drugs. 

Sitting meditation 

Start by sitting for a short time, but make it quality time. Ten minutes daily is a good beginning, and then you can lengthen it.

a) Your back should be straight for meditation. Either sit upright in a chair, kneel astride a cushion or sit cross-legged. You can also buy a low stool to sit on in the kneeling position. These are available from the Zen Group, or you may be able to get one in your local New Age shop. 

To sit cross-legged you should have your knees on the mat to give you stability and prevent your back curling up. To do this you'll need a good, fat cushion to raise your bottom and hips, or a rolled up blanket. Providing your knees are on the mat you can fold your legs any way that's comfortable. 

b) Wear comfortable clothing. It's mostly belts that cause trouble because you should relax your stomach. Old Zen masters look skinny and thin, but their bellies are round. 

c) Your head should be up and your eyes half-closed. Eyes wide open and you can be distracted by sights, or just generally distracted. With eyes shut you easily become dreamy. 

d) Your hands should be brought together in front, with your right hand cupping the left and your thumbs just touching, forming an oval. Let your hands rest in your lap and relax your shoulders. 


If the above instructions for posture and hand position (mudra) sound rather formidable, they are that way because people have found by experience that a formal way to sit gives discipline and power to meditation. These positions are very solid. They inspire confidence. 

Ways to do Zazen (forms of practice) 

When you are comfortably seated, take three deep breaths to settle down and place your attention in your solar plexus (the hara) about two fingers width below the navel. Then allow normal breathing to carry on. Each breath just as it is, some are long, some are short. There are two main methods of working with the breath. 

1) Breath Counting  

During each exhalation acknowledge your breath by counting. So it's "one" on the first breath out, "two" on the next exhalation -- up to ten. Or you can just count to three. Just enter each moment of the breath count completely -- no need to worry about "two" when you're on "one". 

When your mind wanders don't regard this as a mistake. Some days you may not be able to count past "one", and that would be only at the beginning of your meditation. You might be worried, or excited -- busy thinking about things. When this happens just notice that today your mind is busy. This is the way of the mind -- thinking! This is the way you are, the way we all are. So just notice the thoughts, and the feelings that come with them, and come gently back to your breath counting. Start again. "One!" Coming back, starting again, noticing you've wandered off -- this is zazen. 

Try breath counting first. It has a nice structure and suits most people. Indeed this simple practice is used by some experienced meditators as their whole life's practice. 

2) Experiencing the breath  

Another method is just to experience the breath. Know that you are breathing. When your mind is no longer on the breath, come back. Re-establish contact and breathe again. Notice everything that's happening. Is the air cold to your nose? Is it still cold in your throat? Is it warmer as you breathe out? Is your in-breath longer than your out-breath? What about your lungs -- does the right move the same way as the left? You don't have to answer all these questions: just take notice of every aspect of breathing. 

As you notice and know your breath, move in closer. Everything disappears into your breathing body. Become the breath. Become an atom in the wind of your lungs. Become the wind. 

Within a month or so of beginning one of the breathing practices mentioned above you will begin to notice a difference in your attentiveness. Some of the old joys you used to experience before you became addicted will happen again as you start to reclaim your life. At Palmerston Farm we had a girl come to Zen for a few weeks and then she went on camp to the beach, with everybody else at the Farm. She'd been on heroin for many years, but was doing well with the Palmerston program. She had also begun a meditation schedule, sitting in the early afternoon. So when she came back from camp she told us about the sea water -- cold and wet around her ankles. And the fun of running on wet sand. Not something she had felt for a long time. 

The life you reclaim is an undivided life: you will no longer be living two separate existences, shuttling between your highs and the lows you'd rather not have. 

Walking Meditation 

When we do meditation in the Zen Group we sit for 25 minutes, and then we walk slowly round the room one after the other for walking meditation, called kinhin -- meditation on the move. This also allows people to stretch their legs or leave the room. 

On your own it is a good practice to break up long sittings by getting up for a walk. Keeps you fresh and alert. 

Just walk slowly round the room (or you can go outside), and notice your footsteps and breathing as you go. Let sights and sounds pass through, returning your mind to your feet. Feel the good earth beneath your feet. If the weather is warm enough it's better to walk without socks, then you can feel the carpet or the lino. At Palmerston Farm we walk on a carpet with some coconut fibre mats dotted around, and one soft woolly rug: many different textures. It makes a foot sensation feast! A celebration for your feet. Or you can go outside and feel the pathways, steps and stones near your meditation room. 

When you slow down the walking pace and become aware of your feet, your posture will automatically improve as you relax. Bring your head up and let your shoulders fall naturally. Clasp your hands over your navel with the left hand cupping the right fist. If you go outside, or you want to do mindful walking in public -- on your way to work for example -- just touch your thumbs to your index fingers on each hand, and let your arms hang at your sides. This is quite unobtrusive. 

Walking meditation is less intensely concentrated than seated meditation. It can act as a sort of half-way house between meditation practice on your cushion and the mindfulness of everyday life. 


Naming is a meditation practice that Zen shares with another Buddhist tradition, Vipassana, and is particularly useful at times of stress or when you are in pain. It is also an excellent practice in its own right. You can see if it suits you. 

With stress you have pain, emotional pain and sometimes physical pain. Sometimes the physical pain causes stress, or it can be the other way round. But it is overwhelming. It's more than you can handle. Everybody leaving addiction behind will have periods when the craving is intense, depression and restlessness claim the night hours and you don't believe you can ever make it. Or relationship difficulties make your life miserable, or there are problems with money. 

You need to name stress in the body, because the body is its home. It creates knots in the stomach, tension in the neck, headache and exhaustion. In a way it's because you aren't noticing how your body feels that your mind becomes so worried and overwhelmed. First of all look to see where the trouble is living in your body and name the worry there. You might notice that your jaw feels like it is cast in iron, and you name "Angry Mind!". Or perhaps one of your children has rung with a problem that you can't help -- and your stomach has tensed up with fear. Just saying "I'm frightened" and noticing the tension means you have taken a moment to look after yourself, a moment to heal your own stress. 

Or you might be feeling very sad. Some things are so painful we can't even think about them. They hover, but they won't leave. Naming is very gentle. Just catch hold of the little bit you can manage and see where it lives in your body. Give it a name. "Pain", or "I hurt", or "grieving mind". Simple attention to what's happening will help. Each time you find yourself worrying again, just do the naming and come back to your body and breath. Something so painful you cannot bear to think about it will take many months to allow your touch, and it is good to have a friend or counsellor to encourage you. Someone to listen. 

The naming can be done as part of sitting meditation, and you can do it during the rest of your daily life as a part of mindfulness. If you are sitting the procedure is exactly the same as when you are attending to the breath. But when you notice your mind is wandering, name the thought before you come back to the breathing. "Worrying Mind", "Angry Mind". But don't judge yourself. From the point of view of Zen and naming, it doesn't matter if you are angry, sad, feeling silly or bored. It's just the way you are. Ross teaches that adding the word "mind" gives you less self-judgement, a more neutral view on the situation. If you are worried or upset you will have trouble spending any time with the breath at all. This is when naming is especially useful. 

Lastly, don't forget to name the joyous too. "Happy Mind", "Excited Mind". There will be happy moments, probably many more than you noticed before. "I feel great today!" "My partner really has good ideas!" "I love the feel of fur!" Whatever. Feel the joy and happiness... where is it? 

What use can you make of Zen Practice? 

What's the use of mindfulness? How can meditation help when you are coming off drugs? With these questions in mind, members of the Zen Group came down to Palmerston Farm and interviewed some residents who had successfully completed their therapy. We asked questions to pinpoint the really difficult areas for people at Palmerston, so we could offer the best techniques to suit their situation. These techniques come from the many schools of Buddhism. 

Coming off drugs, stopping drinking, changing your way of life -- it's not easy. Working with the Zen techniques isn't easy either. If you read through any part of this and feel it all sounds like apple pie, too simple for words or something you already knew anyway, that's because (as an old Zen saying has it) a three year old child knows, but an eighty year old man cannot do it. Give the suggestions a try. They've been working successfully for people over thousands of years. But if you think they don't work for you, then trust your own judgement. 

The Resolution to 'Give up' -- and how to make it real 

People ready to leave Palmerston Farm have said that when they decided to give up this time, they knew it was the real thing. When they made the decision, perhaps in prison, perhaps in a car that serves as home, perhaps at a friend's house, they knew this was for real. They were coming off drugs for good. 

It's a 'resolution' because people who make this transition successfully have a real sense of the difficulties. They may have tried to live without drugs, or alcohol, or perhaps cigarettes, before. So the problems are known. Or if not known, at least sensed and learnt from someone else. 

So whether or not it's the first time you've made the resolution, there's a way you can build on that moment so that it does indeed become the turning point in your life. You can use meditation practice and mindfulness to do it. 

Each time you return to your breathing, or your present occupation, whenever you return, you affirm yourself. Some people feel the world moves in and confirms them. So when you've made a major change you'll find the return to your body brings you back to the new you. In the early weeks it may be a miserable you, having sleepless nights and withdrawal cravings. You may be anxious, frightened about the future. But it is the new you, the real you. So as well as the pain, you'll be able to see your success so far, and take heart. You've made it so far -- days, weeks, months of success! 

Mindfulness allows you to move forward with your best aims by including the down side. You travel by way of the down side. Of course there are many times during your withdrawal and rehabilitation when you'll feel good, and this is great. But this is how you can make use of the restless times, the sleepless hours, boredom and depression. The times when you are tempted back into the arms of addiction. 

The way it works is like a shortcut. It's a shortcut to the real you, and it goes right through the darkest forest where things are pretty bad. So when you are practising one of the Zen techniques in this section, and you're working with the down side, this is the shortcut. You aren't kidding yourself. You're working directly with the difficult time, learning its route, mapping the contours, seeing the boggy patches. It's a shortcut because it goes straight from your original decision to the success of a drug-free life. Coming back to the present you are connected in again to the real you that made the resolution to come off drugs, the decision-maker who is able clearly to see success ahead. Each time you come back to your mindfulness you step again onto the shortcut, and you make your decision more real by being there. You make yourself real. 

Night Watch 

There are two approaches to the problem of hanging out at night. There's 'fix it' techniques, such as making milk drinks, more exercise in the daytime, sex, a better diet. 'Fix it' techniques will help you get back to a full eight hours as the effects of drug-taking wear off and you become more healthy. The Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre Inc. have excellent booklets on withdrawal, available from some rehabilitation centres and libraries in Perth. 

The other approach is to treasure the hours of darkness. We've only got a certain number of hours of life -- let's have them all. On a cell wall in the old Fremantle Prison there's a little sign, said to have been put there by an Aboriginal prisoner: "Life is something that happens while you are planning something else." This is not about how to fix the problem -- it's about how to have it. And since these night hours can be our most desperate, these are crisis techniques. 

How shall we have the hours we don't want, the time we feel should not be (h)ours? The waiting time. When we wait between sunset and sunrise -- or we wait outside the operating theatre to hear how a loved one has fared. Those hours of anguish, when our past rises up and devours the future, and our sun is eaten alive. 

By coming back to your breathing, you have no waiting hours. You can either sit in meditation to do this, or walk as explained in our section About Zen. Every waiting moment can be breathed through, no matter how painful. You'll be breathing anyway. So as you breathe, breathe with the problems. Name the problems. "Thought of Jan", "jealousy", "despair", "itchy feet", "craving", "sore belly". Some people get a better grip if they use the word "mind" in their naming. Say "Jealous Mind", or "Despairing Mind". Become aware and name the thoughts and the feelings, and then return to your breathing. As you do that you'll find the dark hours are held, acknowledged. By naming you can move further into your painful spots, bit by bit, and learn about them. 

This next suggestion is a crisis technique, one that I learned as a child with bad asthma. Children with asthma in the 1940s just had asthma: there wasn't much in the way of medication. I was fighting for my life. So what you do is to make the naming into a rhyme to fit your breathing. One of my rhymes was "My Teddy can't breathe" on the in-breath, "he's got asthma" on the out-breath. This is different from a mantra, which some people learn, as it is just created on the spot for your particular situation. You might be having an anxiety attack about your health and your responsibilities as a parent. Let's say it's stomach pain. "My belly is hurting," on the in-breath "and I can't leave my daughter" on the out-breath. That might be too long, but you can get the general idea. Make up a little rhyme to suit the situation and repeat it silently to yourself as you breathe. Actually make the problem breathe, and give it a voice. When you find your mind has wandered off, just come back to your breath and the words of your rhyme. Keep the rhyme just the same each breath. Gradually your body will begin to relax. You might do it for ten minutes and then be able to return to ordinary naming. If not, make up another rhyme: you'll find your problem has shifted. 

Naming gives you a handle on despair, craving, and the sharp edge of pain. Asking someone for their handle in the U.S means you want their name. So by this simple technique you begin to have some grip on the pain. You are working with it, no longer swamped and immersed, helplessly tumbled. You can begin to handle despair, to touch it with your hands and learn it's shape. Starting on the outside we name and handle each fragment, working gradually towards the centre. It's hard work. You may find you sit up with the night for many months, doing a little at a time. But after a while the pain and despair will allow you to touch. They no longer cry at the edge of the world, banished to weep in the dark. 

Depression -- a sign of change 

Depression -- one of the symptoms of change, of the old ways no longer working. Boredom and restlessness are sometimes covers for depression. In this section we are not looking at crises (see Night Watch, before this section) so much as those long gloomy days, or even weeks of down time. Those times when normal joys, meeting up with friends, coffee in the morning, fail to raise you even half-way up the happiness chart. 

Often this type of deep gloom relates to health. Coming off drugs is an enormous change for your body, a chemical change. Hormonal balance is slowly restored and people become sexually active again. Emotions surface that you suppressed for years by using. Your appetite goes wild, and you find yourself eating enormous meals and then coming back to the kitchen half an hour later for another apple, two pieces of cheese and a tuna sandwich. 

Depression is best worked with by walking -- either as formal slow walking in a meditation setting, or just going out for a walk. The movement loosens up that frozen immobility -- you often see it in kids. "I'm bored" they say (meaning depressed) over a noon breakfast. "What's happening today?" Lolling on the couch they wait for stimulation. Another video! You can get very stuck with depression. 

Walking meditation can be done formally by holding your right fist on your waist in front of you and clasping the left hand over it. You walk slowly and hold your head up. If balance is difficult for you at this slow speed, try walking with your feet spaced farther apart than you would normally. Just this slow pace is a surprise to many people as they are accustomed always to haste and the need to get from A to B, fast. So slow right down. 

As with sitting meditation, you watch your breathing. When you walk, key the steps in to the breath, or notice how this happens naturally. You can continue breath-counting if you wish. This is the ground of the practice -- walking and breathing, and counting if you wish. Your concentration stays with your body in your feet, but in a less intense way than when you sit. With eyes open and senses alert, you notice sounds and sights and let them go, bringing your mind back again to your feet. 

Informal walks become mindfulness exercises and for this you can let your hands hang at your sides, but touch the thumb to your index finger on each hand. Curiously this affects the way your arms swing as you walk, and acts as a reminder to return to your body. You take a normal speed and pace: indeed people watching have no idea you are practising walking meditation. 

Apart from walking meditation, any sort of exercise is excellent for depression and will lift your spirits. Just turn it into mindfulness practice by noticing your sweating body, how you feel, which muscles ache and the changing thoughts passing through. 

You can also use the naming technique mentioned in About Zen to get a better hold on what's happening. For this you will probably need to do seated meditation. Depression is made up of many parts. Maybe some anger that things aren't right, blame for yourself or others, jealousy of those doing better, regrets over what might have been -- a whole mixture. It's like a bowl of soup. How many of the different ingredients can you name? 

One of the ingredients that is difficult to spot can be a subtle form of satisfaction, like the pleasure of martyrdom. You might not even suspect that this is one reason your depression lingers. It's like having poor spelling, or badly fitting shoes. It's inconvenient and it causes us trouble or even pain, but we sort of enjoy it. Of course depression can be a serious business, and the hidden satisfaction may cause major family upsets or lifestyle problems like addiction. But the mechanisms are the same. And this inner satisfaction is extremely common with all negative emotional states of depression, anger, suffering, grief. So check if you are "wallowing". The word has that wonderful sensuous enjoyment of a hippo in the river mud. Just check and name "Wallowing Mind!" as you notice this ingredient. But don't judge yourself or feel this is shameful -- it is just the way most people's minds work. 

Depression is often the dark undertow of the river of success, where the current is sweeping you along and you are going through many changes. Kids are like this, or people handling job stress, relationship problems. You are growing, moving forward making necessary adjustments. The current of development stirs up the river bottom and you get things like "I can't manage to do this because..." in your mind, or "perhaps I should try something easier, where there's less competition." Lots of rubbish on the river bed. 

So by allowing the depression and naming it, working with it, you can integrate the mud rising to the surface. And as you do this the river starts to run more smoothly, faster, with purpose and success. 

How to Change Your Mood 

You can use mindfulness and meditation practice to change how you feel -- mood change. Your mood itself will change your mood. Nothing added. 

A good way to start with this, is to wait until you feel you need a change. "I must...", "I ought to...", "It's time I...". Of course there are scheduled events everybody has to attend to during the day. But maybe what's really happening is not that you must do the new thing, it's that you are fed up, bored or depressed in your present situation. 

This may be one of the reasons you started with drugs or alcohol in the first place. You felt better on drugs. It's nice. You don't have to feel stressed out, upset or angry. After a while it felt normal. 

To do this exercise, notice when you are in need of a change. Give yourself five more minutes with what needs changing, and during that time notice EXACTLY how things are. Start with the basic reason you think you should have a change. Let's say you're sitting next to someone who's talking complete rubbish. It's totally opposed to everything you know to be true. You'd like to either straighten them out, or leave. They're unbearable! 

So give yourself five minutes to bear the unbearable. (Or as long as you can! You'll get better at this.) Start with your body and see how it feels. Check where the discomfort is. Some particular part will be carrying the strain, where is it? Breathe into that part. Next check and name your emotion. Are you just bored? Or would it be better to call it anger? Depression? Use the right word to yourself. Say "I'm depressed", or whatever. Gather up every scrap of depression you can bear. Thoroughly immerse yourself in how you are -- after all it's only for a couple of minutes. 

When your five minutes are up you'll find your mood has shifted slightly, maybe quite a bit. But don't try to hold on longer than you feel comfortable. Do your five minutes with the unbearable and then make the change you want to make. But as you persist with this exercise you'll find you have a little more ease. You are no longer as angry as you were, or at least you can calm down more quickly. Or your tolerance for the idiots on the road is better. Around the unbearable things in your life you develop a sense of humour, an ability to cope and make the best of difficult situations. 

Moving on through the years of meditation practice you'll be able to come back to your moods more often, your constantly changing moods: now depressed, now amused, now excited, now angry. Always changing. It's a dance. It's like having spent all your life hopping on your right foot only, never knowing that your left foot existed or you could move the weight. Suddenly you've got another way to move -- you are no longer stuck with a one-legged hop! 

Anger -- Giving it a place of honour 

Anger is difficult to work with, but like many challenges, the rewards are great. Rage sweeps you away, and before you know what's happened you're already upset, and you don't notice what's been going on until hours later. To start with you may only be able to notice your anger when it begins to subside. This is okay. Any noticing is good. 

So as you practice mindfulness, notice anger, and name it. You can say "Angry Mind!" Look at your body and see where the anger is. It might be your stomach, or shoulders, the muscles in your neck. Breathe relaxation into that part of your body. With anger, you may notice it first in the body as tension -- a headache, or upset stomach -- or you may pick it up more easily in your mind. It doesn't matter. But do both parts of this exercise. Name the anger and breathe into the tense spot. 

Thich Nhat Hanh, peace activist and Zen Buddhist, speaks of noticing anger as "taking a little brother by the hand." Reaching out and touching a little brother -- tenderly. Collecting him and holding his hand. It's a beautiful image to work with. 

You may be wondering about the moral ground of anger. Isn't it wrong to be angry? But by noticing you are not ignoring it. In fact you are giving it due honour. Usually people leap so quickly to act on anger, or to judge (What should I do? Am I right to be angry? Whose fault is it? Hers!) that often they forget to notice the simple fact that they are angry. Of course it's not good to lose your temper and shout, and mostly it's very counter-productive. There's war, violence, genocide, murder, child-abuse and bodily harm, all of them arising from anger and fear. Australia has law-courts, prisons, and armed forces. But putting this right can only happen when each person can address personal anger in their own hearts, and acknowledge silently to themselves, "I'm angry." Be very tender with yourself, just as you would be with a small child. 

Anger and other emotions resurface after drug addiction has ended, and if now you are angry for the first time in many years, consider yourself to be doing well. For self-protection our anger needs to be in good shape. If you are a quiet person coming off amphetamines (which raise self-confidence and self-assertiveness) you should check the health of your anger. To check the health of anger, start by noticing it. 

If you are angry a lot of the time, and taking it out on other people, this exercise will help. You should also talk to your counsellor about it. If you are not having counselling, then find a wise and sober friend. Name the problem to them, as honestly and openly as you can, including the good bits of the situation. Telling another person is a simple form of naming and acknowledgment. Yoga, dancing and swimming will help the anger in your body. 

As you collect anger, you are giving yourself a chance to allow your anger a place in your life, giving it a value. It starts to take its rightful place, to come forward appropriately. You gain a few seconds before you react. Those few seconds heal every war that was ever fought. 

Smiling -- or working with fear 

The dark shadow of fear rises up. It may be a memory of childhood terror touched into life by an event of today -- a word spoken in a certain tone, the flash of water in a saucepan, and suddenly you remember the buried event. It returns roaring into your mind, and the fear with it. Or it might be something more concrete that frightens you. Your job is threatened, or you are dismissed. How will you support yourself? The family? Or you might just have been told of your partner's car crash, and you put down the phone as if it were a broken body. 

So whether you are working with real and frightening events in your life, or the fears could more properly be called hallucinations, or 'flashes' from your early life, the feeling is just the same. When you are afraid and people tell you it's imagination, and you are still frightened, then you end up with double trouble. Your heart pulls back and hides like a cowering dog. 

How can fear be handled? You need first of all to acknowledge the fear in your heart -- fear and courage live in the heart. This is the country of knights in gleaming armour riding out fearlessly to face the enemy. Or if you prefer, look at some of the modern computer games. Full of Warlords, Orcs and Maidens of the Seal, riding out to face the Powers of Darkness who are invading our Land of Righteousness and Valour (with accompanying music!). Girls and women can do this too. Be right in there. 

Naming the fear. It's like kissing the fear, saying hello. If you have just had a phone call about your partner's car crash, terrible things will be running through your mind. "Bill may have been killed in this car crash." Our minds go into high speed when we are frightened or very angry: our body tenses up in ancient fighting response. Control is not possible. But you can sometimes catch a moment to realise that you are frightened, your body is shaking. When you realise how frightened you are it's a first step. It allows the fear to be there. If you have time, sit down a moment and breathe with the fear. "I'm very frightened, my legs are shaking." It helps to know. This is the ground of courage as you go forward with your fear. Ross teaches people to say "I'm going ahead with my fear." 

If you think this is an hallucination, or someone says it's your imagination, but it keeps coming back, then treat it as real. If it's real in your mind, then it's real. Otherwise you start the endless merry-go-round of being afraid of being frightened. One fear is enough! Zen is not about how we ought to be -- it's finding out how we are. Work with the fear, name it as best you can, find out where it lives in your body and breathe with it. 

Very often you will find just spending a few moments with your fears at the time they come up is enough to make you feel better. Later in the day you can sit in meditation and spend longer attending to yourself. Fear makes of us ghosts, empty shells, withdrawn from life and the heat of blood. If your fear is an old one, it is going to take many months of care before you can breathe the breath of life and courage back into it. 

There's a second exercise you can do. This is a crisis technique, but it's good to do at any time as well. Use your heart to smile. This is not a matter of "covering up" or putting on a good face. Allow the fear itself to smile. It's quite a flexible thing, fear, it can smile. Allow it to crack open in a smile. 

The smiling is a technique taught by Thich Nhat Hanh and used in his community in Plum Village, France. You can use it with any deep and painful emotion, and it's a good thing to do when things are very bad. Feel the grief, fear, stress in your heart, and allow it to smile. You can do it physically if you like. Just smile. It heals the heart. 

What will change? 

Whatever type of life you are living will be enhanced by Zen practice. It's like "The mountains are always high, but they look particularly lofty with clouds flying above." Zen doesn't add anything, but you see the meaning of life more clearly with a practice. 

You might think you should wait to begin meditation until you stop shooting up, or come off the bottle. Like not going to the doctor until you know what's wrong with you. But we go to the doctor primarily for the benefit of advice and treatment, and it's best to go with an open mind ready to listen. With Zen practice you need an open mind ready to listen, and what you listen to is yourself. 

When you start your practice it doesn't matter what you're like. You don't have to be good, or clean, feeling peaceful or 'ready for meditation'. Go to the doctor with an open mind, ready to listen, taking along just how you feel. Wherever you are is fine. Make a start right where you are. 

Curiously enough, somebody who has practised meditation for a long time still feels like a beginner. They still sit down on their cushion with a bunch of worries, addicted to things they think they should give up. It's always an effort. If you aren't making an effort then you aren't at the front edge. 

So what changes? 

There are changes: some you notice yourself and some things are spotted by your family, friends or fellow workers. Your character and identity change. 

The practice of Zen puts you in touch. It connects. The results can be seen immediately, and they also grow throughout years of practice. 

You will become more sure who you are, more confident, more certain about things. You will be able to weather a crisis better. Your sense of humour will carry you through impossible situations and you learn to laugh at yourself. "Why can angels fly so high? It's because they take themselves so lightly!" Like that. By learning about yourself and seeing into your own weaknesses you can more easily form relationships with others, because you feel an instant fellow feeling. People will report that you seem more approachable, more willing to listen and love. 

Ideas bubble up. When the Zen Group does a 7-day retreat (sesshin) we usually warn people about the uprush of ideas that normally happens in the days immediately afterwards. "Make no rash decisions!" "Wait at least 48 hours before you walk out on your job!" People become creative, or move into different areas of creativity. They paint, or write music or get ideas about interesting things to do with the garden. They start making delicious meals or learn Chinese cooking. If you go through withdrawal this bubbling flow of creativity will burst forth anyway as your body comes back to health and your emotional life comes alive again. With Zen too we become more in touch with our emotions. 

You'll be wondering if Zen will help you come off drugs. There's no guarantee. Some people start a meditation practice because of a particular problem -- to help with their relationship difficulties for example, or because of a major illness -- and the original problem never goes away. But everything else changes so that the problem becomes quite minor. Or your addiction and dependence on the drug will change so that although you are still using, your use becomes more recreational. We had a heavy smoker in the Zen Group, an older woman with two marriages behind her and a fairly tragic life. This was before Ross became a teacher, during the time John Tarrant Roshi used to visit from California in the 1980s. So she sat for many years, but still smoked, and she asked if she would ever be able to stop. "One day, Sara," John said to her "you'll just stop." She did. No drama at all. 

People also develop those gritty character strengths that come from facing hard times. We've put in some meditation techniques to help with hard times in the section What Use is Zen Practice? Certainty about who you are and what you should be doing, courage, faithfulness, steadfastness. In Celtic mythology these characteristics are often symbolised in the character of the dog, our faithful companion. This is a true story from Scotland. 

The Tale of Greyfriar's Bobby 

Statue of
                the dogOutside the Greyfriars Bobby Inn, on Candlemakers Row in Edinburgh, stands a statue of a little skye terrier shepherd dog. 

During the 1850s, the Inn was the Traills Coffee-House in an open air market in the Scottish capital. Everyday at one o'clock, a kindly shepherd named Jock Gray made his way in from the meadows with his dog, Bobby. Jock would eat lunch as Bobby lay at his feet chewing a bone tucked under paw. 

The daily tradition went on for many years, but ended one day when Jock collapsed and died. He was buried in the Greyfriars Kirkyard. 

A few days after the funeral, the proprietor of Traills was surprised when the little terrier showed up at one o'clock asking for a bone. The same thing happened the following day, and the next, and the next. On the fourth day, when Bobby finished his afternoon bone, the owner followed the little shepherd dog. Bobby led him through town to Greyfriars Kirkyard. There, Bobby lay down at the tombstone where old Jock was buried, and there he kept his vigil for the next 14 years until he died in 1872. 

The Traills Coffee-House still stands in the Scottish capital city of Edinburgh and is known as the Greyfriars Bobby Inn. 

From Strange Tales of Scotland, by Calum McLaren, Andrew Livingston, Gale MacFarlane and Lorraine Griffiths. Published by: Lang Syne Publishers Ltd. 1980.

Crisis Techniques 

There are several crisis techniques in the text. Check in Night Watch, Anger and Fear. 

These suggestions come from Ross: 

1) In moments of panic, look for five red objects (or whatever colour you like) and then come back to your breath. 

2) When you are feeling overwhelmingly restless or twitchy -- go outside. Even if it's only for a few moments, take yourself out-of-doors where you can become aware of the bigger picture. Your restlessness is absorbed into a bigger paddock. 

There are also some addiction help books I can recommend.

And thinking of that spiritually loyal dog: Mu the Poodle

© 1998 Mary H. R. Heath. All rights reserved.