Looking for a cure for stress, anxiety, gastrointestinal problems, PTSD, high blood pressure, and any number of the other things? There are plenty of articles, researchers, and possibly even friends who are quick to tell you: Meditation is the answer. It seems that every week a new study suggests meditation is the key to treating some condition or illness.
Speaking from my experience, meditation is the best thing I’ve ever done, probably in general, but definitely for my health. I kicked smoking, stopped having panic attacks, and lost a lot of weight, just to name a few of the benefits.
Yet amidst this evangelical fervor in praise of meditation, it’s more important than ever to keep one thing in mind: Meditation is NOT a cure for illness.
If we take our attention all the way back to the origin of this current mindfulness craze—about 2,600 years ago to the time that Siddhartha Gautama left his dad’s palace for the path of becoming the Buddha—we might note the three heavenly messengers that set him on this path: old age, sickness, and death. I expect the Buddha’s choice to include sickness on that list wasn’t just because two heavenly messengers didn’t sound right.
I remember being jarred years ago by the casual way the great teacher Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo said at Spirit Rock, “We’re going to get old; we’re going to get sick; eventually, we’re going to die, if we don’t die before we get old and sick….Where’s the problem?” In other words, we are going to get sick, if we’re lucky. This woman spoke these words from the depths of her experience—she spent twelve years meditating alone in a cave in the Himalayas, during which she endured forty-nine consecutive days in darkness, because of an eye infection.
Jetsunma’s ease with old age, sickness, and death is the fruit of spending over fifty years as a nun. But I’ve not needed to spend decades as a monk for meditation to shift my relationship with the heavenly messengers. Being sick is unpleasant, even devastating in some circumstances. The idea of dying can be most unsettling. Inevitable loss is surely not pleasant. In our culture, even acknowledging the inevitability of each can be a great relief.
I’ve also seen and heard of meditation teachers offering distorted understandings of illness that can cause great harm. During one retreat I did in the Tibetan tradition, the orientation started with the gift shop, which we were told included herbal remedies that can treat just about any ailment. The remedies were apparently personally concocted by the lead teacher, and especially potent was the cancer remedy, which reportedly had a 100% success rate—the man leading this portion of the orientation said with a straight face, “No one who had ever taken it had died of cancer.”
Perhaps equally troubling was a report I’d heard from a friend who’d done a retreat in the Zen tradition. There was a woman who shared privately with her teacher that she suffered mightily from a spinal condition, and the teacher told everyone on the retreat about the woman's condition and that perhaps the cause of her pain was that she’d stabbed someone in the back in a past life.
It is at once heartbreaking and enraging to see people seeking meditation as a refuge, only to be sold magic potions to cure all ailments and be blamed for their own illnesses by way of their supposed actions in past lives. I don’t mean to indicate that such messages are the norm in Tibetan and Zen traditions; as far as I know, these incidents are outliers. Yet they are extremely damaging outliers, because these false promises detract from the very real benefits that are possible with meditation.
Take, for instance, the terrible tension headaches I used to get all the time. I thought they were from stress, and meditation gave me the capacity to investigate the stress with kindness. As I looked closer at my experience, I realized that a lot of the unease that was causing my headache was the fear of my own anger. As I was able to accept my own anger, and non-aversively be with that energy, the frequency of the tension headaches dramatically declined.
That does not mean that every time I get a headache I’m not opening to the anger. Headaches happen. The Buddha got headaches. As my friend and boss, Bryony Smith said, “I don’t think anyone was telling the Buddha, ‘I wonder what emotion you’re not opening to,’ when he got a headache."
If you came into meditation because of its promises to free you of stress or anxiety, cure symptoms of PTSD or gastrointestinal problems, or lower your blood pressure or sleep better…Great! A consistent meditation practice, done with integrity, may be of benefit in treating these conditions. Yet more important than any health benefits is being able to accept the inevitability that we’ll one day lose our health, and being okay with that, too.