Zen and Now
Whenever the Master Osho began a story with the phrase, “I have heard,” it was to be understood that he had not personally witnessed the events he was about to describe. The story, however, would be true! Whether it had actually happened in reality was secondary in importance.
I’ve wanted to write a story about the Zen Monks in Japan who treated people afflicted with Schizophrenia and compare that treatment with the treatment offered in our culture, but I’ve never actually been to Japan, and therefore….
…I have heard about the Zen alternative and, based on my life experiences in the Zen realm, believe it to be absolutely true.
So… here we go!
Absolute stillness. Reverence for all life. Birds fly overhead. Chipmunks scurry near the bird feeders. A small herd of deer grazes openly in the late afternoon, with no fear of their human neighbors. The monastery exists in harmony with the nature, which surrounds it. Many small huts surround the main building nestled near the top of the mountain. Twenty monks and their master live and work here. The main building provides living quarters, kitchen, dining room, informal meeting areas and, of course, a large meditation hall.
Time stands still.
The modern, frantic pace of life is absent, and in its place is unhurried, focused activity. The meals are prepared slowly and meditatively. Simple dishes take hours to prepare. The monks move through their day accomplishing many tasks, but their primary task, the only important one, is to remain conscious of each and every action. Eat with awareness. Walk with awareness. Even sleep with awareness.
This is the Zen way: Walking in Zen, Sitting in Zen.
The seven small huts on the property are self-contained living areas, warm and comfortable, a door, but no windows on the ground level, sun rays filtering in through skylights. The floor and walls are thickly padded. Seven people who have resided for years in a psychiatric hospital located near the monastery have taken up temporary residence in the huts. They have been here for over a week.
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Meanwhile in America at Brentwood Acres, a large residential care facility, 33 human beings awake to the hustle and bustle of the beginnings of yet another day. Two staff persons attempt to meet all their needs. State regulations declare that there be a trio of workers, but on this particular day the third staff person experienced a severe migraine and had to leave.
Shorthanded and exhausted, they attempt to accommodate the needs of their residents. There are incontinent residents who take priority. And then there are Doris and Janis who are already screaming and cursing because the kitchen is not yet open.
“Where is my damn coffee?”, demands Doris.
The morning crew begins filtering in and the place begins to settle into its familiar routine. Bathed in the harsh glare of fluorescent light, the majority of the residents are seated passively in the dining room waiting for breakfast to be served. Those receiving early morning medications are seated upstairs in the TV room located next to the medication room.
Every resident is on a regimen of medications for both physical and mental ailments. The majority suffers from bi-polar disorder or schizophrenia. Almost all have major physical impairments including obesity, heart and lung ailments and diabetes. A few have Alzheimer’s disease. A few more have Parkinson’s disease or Parkinsonian symptoms brought on by years of taking psychotropic medications.
Doris and Janis are screaming in the dining room as the others sit in mounting frustration. The med tech can’t locate one of the residents and can’t find another staff person to help, so the med room must be locked as he searches. Barry, a highly volatile 45 year old resident, already anxious about not receiving his anti-anxiety pill on time, gets up in disgust and heads out to the smoke shack.
It is a normal day!
* * * * * * *
Back on the mountain, the monks who have been awake since 4am have completed their morning meditation, have bathed and had their breakfast and tea. It is now approaching sunrise and time to attend to the seven guests.
Each guest has been assigned a monk who works exclusively with him. Basho, one of the older monks is a man of great insight into mental “illness” and therefore is always assigned to the most troubled guest. This month’s challenge is a man named Masato. Masato is 58 years old and has carried a diagnosis of Paranoid Schizophrenia through most of his life. For the past 27 years he has been a patient at the local psychiatric hospital where he has had numerous outbursts and has been subjected to Electro-Convulsive Therapy.
Masato reacts in fear as Basho opens the door, but begins to relax immediately in the presence of his silent benefactor. The routine is the same each morning. Basho sits silently focused on his guest. His job is to simply be a calming presence. There is no attempt at therapy and very little dialogue is employed. The morning meal is brought by the kitchen staff and placed before Masato. For the first few days Masato refused to eat, stating that he believed that these strange people were aliens who were trying to take over his mind with chemicals placed in the food. Eventually hunger won out over delusion, and now Masato takes his bowl of rice, vegetables and herbs and begins to eat. During this time Basho closes his eyes and sits silently.
Following the meal, Masato requests his pills. He has been on a regimen of psychotropic medications for most of his life. Since coming to the monastery, his medications, monitored by a physician, have been gradually reduced. Masato studies the pill cup intently and asks why a small yellow pill has replaced the big blue pill.
Basho calmly explains that there is an attempt being made to help him find a better way to deal with his “disease.” Masato’s anger is intense and immediate. “You are the devil and you want me to die! I NEED my pills!” Basho’s response to the anger is to breathe deeply, focus, and sit silently. When his own energy is calm he looks deeply into Masato’s eyes, smiles and says, “This new way will just take a small amount of time and if it does not help you, your regular pills will be given back to you. Try to be a little patient.”
The sun is close to rising as Basho bows to his guest and leaves the hut. Masato yells and bangs on the locked, padded door for a moment or two, then sits in his favorite corner of the room with nothing to do and nowhere to go.
* * * * * * *
Back at Brentwood, breakfast and medications are finished. The staff are cleaning the dining room and assisting residents with showers. About 10 of the 33 are scheduled for showers this morning. Staff are also trying to persuade the others to put on clean clothing.
It is STORE RUN DAY!
Many of the residents are anxiously gathered near the front entrance hoping that the activity director does not forget them. Three trips will be made to the local village located four miles away. The majority of the residents are deposited at the convenience store where they load up on cigarettes, jars of instant coffee, potato chips, soda and candy bars. A few walk over to the bank or post office. The actual time spent in town varies from seven to twenty minutes, depending on the speed and efficiency of the few with multiple errands.
With the exception of occasional visits to Walmart, McDonalds, the YMCA and a local library, this is the social highlight of their week. At the facility, most of the residents return to their beds and wait for lunch. The remainder of the day the residents sleep, watch TV, gather in the smoke shack and wait for meal and medication times.
Both of the facilities’ vehicles are used throughout the day to transport residents to various medical appointments. Each of the residents who are on psychotropic medications is brought to the local mental health facility every three months to meet with the psychiatrist assigned to their case. The thirty-minute appointment is their chance to ask questions, mostly related to their medication regimen. The majority asks no questions. The psychiatrist reviews their chart, checks on the laboratory reports and writes prescriptions good for the next three months. Often the thirty-minute appointment is over in less than ten minutes and the relieved resident rushes to the smoking area.
* * * * * * *
As the sun peaks over the horizon, Basho returns to the hut and invites Masato to walk with him. For the second morning in a row Masato silently agrees, and strides out into the chilly morning air. In silence the two men walk a short distance to the outdoor meditation area. Nestled in a grove of bamboo there are around forty meditation mats placed in semi-circles facing the rising sun. On each mat are a pillow and a blanket.
Basho assists Masato into a comfortable sitting position and places the blanket around his shoulders. Masato begins to rant: “Aliens, that’s what. ALIENS!” Basho kneels beside him and whispers gently that he must remain in silence. The previous morning Masato was not able to remain silent. When disturbances occur, two rather large monks quickly and efficiently remove the offender. Escorted back to their hut, the guest is given complete freedom to let out all the noise they want in their protected, padded space.
Remembering yesterday’s experience, Masato looks up to see the same two monks moving quickly towards him. “I’ll be quiet. I’ll be quiet!” The monks retreat as Basho and Masato silently take their respective places. Moments later, with the rising sun beginning to warm them, with the only sounds those of the birds, with the clean air entering their lungs, the monks and their guests, joined in common purpose, respond to the sound of a gong and begin their hour long chanting session.
Now, I haven’t been to Japan, so I haven’t seen or heard what I am attempting to convey, but I have lived in India and have in my collection, many recordings of monks chanting, and I have a vivid imagination, so you will have to trust that I’m not making this up…. even though, in a way, I am!
Twenty or so monks. A few “patients” suffering in “madness.” For this hour, simply human beings existing in a world of sound. And, what a sound it is – ancient, pure, healing, a sound of this world, and yet not of this world. A sound made by humans attempting to replicate the rhythm of creation!
The Master Osho when speaking of this phenomenon stated that in this chanting, the participants are slowly moving away from the mind’s constant chattering and towards a profound inner silence. In that inner silence is the possibility of a meeting with the divine.
* * * * * * *
Back at Brentwood, the morning crew are finishing up their documentation on the residents and preparing to go home. The afternoon shift has arrived and are gossiping in the smoke shack. It is 2pm and the residents are filtering into the dining room to await the serving of the afternoon snack. They sit in silence, never knowing when the doors to the kitchen will open.
Today the menu board states that the snack will be Jell-O and whipped cream, but it is hard to tell what it will be because the date on the menu board is Monday, and today is actually Tuesday. The dining room is quiet because Doris is off on an appointment and Janis is being visited by her son who has recently been released from prison.
Upstairs we find Jenifer, the oldest and most revered of the staff, holding court with her favorite residents who hover around her to register their complaints. Jenifer is a dear heart, a good person who listens attentively to all comers and assures them that they are loved and special, and that she will honor their requests. Later on Jenifer, true to her word, will report all concerns to management, who will honor her with polite attention and then immediately forget everything she has said.
And so it goes, day after day.
The prevailing myth regarding severe mental illness is that it is a brain disorder, which can be controlled through psychotropic medications. Based on my rather extensive experience in the field, I have no hesitation in declaring this to be untrue. Even in this country, dominated by politicians on the payroll of the pharmaceutical industry, there are countless reports of individuals turning away from this brand of treatment and healing themselves of mental “illness.”
At Brentwood and other facilities like it, there is virtually no emphasis on healing. These are, in actuality, warehouses for the mentally ill, places, which provide a comfortable, safe environment in which to vegetate.
* * * * * *
One more trip to the mountain! The hour long chanting session is coming to an end. Forty human beings rise and stretch. The seven guests are escorted to their huts. Masato begins to protest but is easily redirected by Basho. Once inside the hut, the two men sit silently for a short time. When the energy is calm, Basho bows and leaves. Masato curls up in bed and is soon asleep.
The treatment at this monastery is multifaceted and is based on equal parts science, mysticism and love. The love part is obvious. Those undergoing treatment are surrounded by the manifestations of love; kind faces, kind words, the gentle presence of the monks, the offering of pure water and pure food. Even the necessary, initial confinement is in the most comfortable of spaces. The mystic element is primarily manifested in the twice-daily chanting sessions. I have heard that the monks credit the chanting as the most important element of this healing modality.
The science part is similar to the idea behind the western approach. In the west we offer the schizophrenic a regimen of medications designed to alter his chemistry and provide relieve from symptoms. In the Zen approach, the person’s chemistry is also altered. At the monastery this is accomplished through diet, exercise and colon cleansing.
As soon as a person is brought to the monastery, all “poisons” are gradually eliminated. Gone from his diet are white flour, white sugar, all animal products, and all processed foods. Introduced are rice, raw fruits, vegetables and herbs. Only pure water and tea are offered. In addition, when the person is ready and agreeable, high colonic therapy is offered.
I have heard that in this country a paranoid schizophrenic who had suffered from the “disease” for forty years was given a similar regimen to follow and was completely free of symptoms at the end of treatment. It was discovered that he had approximately twenty-five pounds of impacted matter lining the walls of his colon. It was observed that the impacted matter was constantly releasing toxins into his bloodstream and that it was the toxins that were at least partially responsible for the schizophrenic symptoms.
The monastery in Japan reports a 90% success rate for their treatments. The average stay for a mentally ill person is one month. At the end of that time the majority are drug and symptom free. They are released with the advice to continue the regimen they have experienced at the monastery and are given an open invitation to come back for visits and to sit in Zazen during the chanting sessions.
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I am happy to report that Masato completed treatment and emerged symptom free. He is happily employed at his former “home” where he nags staff and patients alike to give up their poisons and learn to live happy and healthy lives. He visits Basho often and delights in chanting along with the monks every Sunday morning.
“Life” at Brentwood continues on.
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