Taking it all in: Buddhist practice and Chinese medicine school

I’ve been struggling for the past couple of weeks.  I’ve gone through the range of responses to my difficulty, mostly hovering in the realm of “just keep moving” which seems to work for me.  The fact is that since I began Chinese medicine school at National College of Natural Medicine (NCNM) I’ve gone through periods of difficulty.  Some of them come with warning – I am asked to interact directly with something challenging for me – but mostly they sneak up and don’t give much explanation as to their origins.

This time has been one of those latter types.

Finals week was hard.  I mean, medical school is supposed to be hard, right?  True, this finals week was particularly difficult.  It reached deep and it wouldn’t let go, even with a very relaxing Spring break.  But, somehow, this isn’t enough of an explanation for the kind of existential weirdness I’ve been experiencing.

Well, most of these things come on quickly and without much fanfare and leave much the same way.  This time it broke open gently, slowly, and not all at once.  In fact, there are some stubborn bits that refuse to go.  But the breaking open has released some articles that I’m going to write all in one sitting and release over the week.  They may represent something of a departure from my regular musings, but I hope they will be helpful to you nonetheless.  The first, this one, is probably the most important for me to get out.  So pay attention, will you?  And let me know how it goes.

A short time ago, I was reading the Shambhala Sun,a wonderful Buddhist publication for anyone (not just Buddhists), and was struck by an article by noted Buddhist author Sylvia Boorstein.  The article discusses the Divine Abodes, an element of the Buddhist explanation of reality that centers on particular states of consciousness that are (in part) an antidote to some pretty common negative emotional states of human beings.  The Divine Abodes can be translated as (1) equanimity (2) impartial goodwill (3) spontaneous compassion and (4) genuine appreciation.  The article discusses these states of consciousness in a very approachable manner and I learned a lot from it, but that wasn’t really moved me.

I was particularly interested in the simple explanation Boorstein gives of one of the primary insights of Buddhism.  That is that situations, in and of themselves, have no inherent nature.  My sitting in this coffee shop writing an article cannot, in a sense, MAKE me feel one way or another.  I may have various reactions to being here (the basics being positive, negative and neutral) and those reactions are ok, but they can cause problems.

For instance, if I enjoy it very much my clinging mind may start scheming to find a way to retain the experience and, knowing that I have to be somewhere in 45 minutes, I may begin to suffer the negative effects of knowing that this, too, shall pass.  Boorstein talks in easy prose about her lived experience as a person observing her own reactions to various stimuli and finding equanimity within these situations.  Equanimity allows us to experience all situations in such a way that we do not suffer from them, though we may still (of course) feel pain, pleasure or indifference in response to particular stimuli.

What does this have to do with Chinese medicine?  Well, plenty.  As I mulled over this article, I realized how important its insights are for students.  In every educational program, we have classes that move us tremendously, others that we don’t really care one way or another about, and others that we actively dislike.  When I am in a class that I love, I feel inspired and excited and I’m so reluctant to leave!  This is particularly the case if I have a class that I don’t prefer soon afterwards.  In fact, wonderful classes negatively impact my experience of classes that are less interesting to me.

When I’m in a class I don’t prefer, I find myself not really taking in the information and – indeed – not even really being IN the class.  I disconnect.  I suffer in response to considering having to go to that class in the future.  All of this dramatic running towards and running away serves no purpose but the stroking of my own ego – my steadfast resolve that I know what is good or valuable and what is bad or worthless.  It detaches me from my lived experience and probably robs me of a great education.

So, I’ve begun trying to cultivate equanimity in class.  When I say “try” I really just mean that whenever I notice my state moving in the direction of overt negativity, overt positivity or obvious indifference, I try to come back to being in that moment.  What’s going on around me?  What is my body sensing?  What is the professor saying?  Where is my breath?  In this way, I had the best pharmacology class EVER today.  The danger, of course, is that I become so interested in so many things that I don’t know what to focus on!  😀  But, there’s no rush and no aching need to spend every waking moment in pursuit of knowledge when my state is one of equanimity – so hopefully no danger there.

I realize I may not be communicating this absolutely clearly, but I hope the essence is coming across.  I think this kind of state might be quite helpful in a clinical situation as well.  It’s really just a variation on the old exclamation, “BE HERE NOW!”  I’d be interested in hearing others’ thoughts in the comments.


About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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