Roshi Joan Halifax is one of the most prominent female Zen masters of our day. We have known each other since we met at a retreat with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1997. This was during the summer of my first episode of muscle invasive bladder cancer.
We sat under a tree together and talked about mindfulness in healing cancer and I could tell that she was full of compassion and empathy. She moved me deeply with her ability to listen deeply to my story and provide ideas for continued practice.
I remember telling her about my little gatha (a short, possibly poetic verse that triggers a quality of mindfulness):
Breathing in, breathing out,
Healthy cells grow all by themselves
I am free of cancer.
I have used this little gatha ever since it came to me one day during a guided imagery session with Leslie Davenport on the Spring Equinox of 1997. I often thing of the famous Zenrin gatha on the Spring Equinox, and this triggered my spontaneous gatha above. The Zenrin gatha is:
And the grass grows
All by itself.
The primary way I use my gatha is in mindfulness of breathing and mindfulness of walking. When breathing in, I say to myself, “Healthy.” When breathing out, I say to myself, “Free.” When placing my left foot on the pavement, carpet or stair, I say in my mind, “Healthy.” When placing my right foot on the pavement, carpet or stair, I say in my mind, “Free.”
You can’t possibly know how much this little gatha has helped me heal without practicing it or something similar. It is the mindfulness trigger that I needed to preserve my bladder, which I still have today.
Joan’s compassion and empathy come through in spades in this video. She says,
“Compassion is comprised of that capacity to see clearly into the nature of suffering. It is that ability to really stand strong and to recognize that I’m not separate from this suffering… We actually aspire to transform suffering and if we are so blessed, we engage in activities that transform suffering… We cannot be attached to outcome.”
Please watch this video now and you will see how she deserves to be a dharma teacher in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.
How will you engage in activities to transform suffering? How will you teach compassion to your children, your family, your friends, and the world? We need you to step up and help transform suffering.