Editor of The Zen Gateway website and practitioner of Zen Buddhism.
Spiritual Medicine Begins as Poison
The restraint of behaviour whilst suffering out the energies of the passions in the body leads to a lasting change and old outmoded forms of behaviour are purged.
A few years ago there was a TV programme on a new method being used to cure phobias. The programme followed the case of a woman who had a severe phobia of birds and feathers.
This was traced back to an incident in her childhood when, while having tea with her mother and an aunt in their sitting room, a bird flew down the chimney. In the ensuing commotion of chasing the bird and evicting it from the room, the child became petrified and from then on she became terrified of birds and feathers, to the extent that she was fearful to leave the house for fear that a bird might come near her. This phobia was becoming debilitating and was preventing her from living a normal daily life.
She had tried a number of therapies without success and so she volunteered to try the one offered in the TV programme.
This therapy was not that different from others she had already tried, it was simply a method whereby the therapist gradually brought the phobic object to her in a process of gradual familiarisation until the fear abated. She sat on one side of the table and the therapist on the other.
After talking a little about her problem he reached into a box and took out a small stuffed bird and put it on the table. He asked her to describe how she felt about it, suggesting that her level of fear could be indicated with a number, where 1 was mild apprehension and 10 stark terror. She indicated that the fear was rising to 5, then 6, then 7 and then 8, and then she moved from the table to a sofa at the back of the room. From here she indicated that her fear rose still to 9 and then 10. By this point she was curled up in a foetal position on the sofa. Then the therapist said to her ‘Now the fear cannot get any worse’. He explained that what you are feeling now is the absolute maximum and the only possibility now available for this fear was for it to decrease. What is more, your body will not be able to maintain this level of fear. As he explained this to her she began to uncurl her body from the foetal position. The therapist asked, ‘What number now?’ and she replied, ‘9’. He said ‘You see, the fear is beginning to reduce and you are beginning to come out of it.’ Within twenty minutes he had her back at the table and within half an hour she was able to place the dead bird in her hand. This was an accomplishment that only an hour before she could not have imagined.
After the session she was interviewed and was asked, ‘You have experienced many similar therapies. What was the difference with this one?’ She said that in all the other therapies when the therapists briefed her beforehand, they said, ‘At any point when you feel the fear is too much, there is the door for you to escape.’ This therapist did not give her that option and it never occurred to her to use it. There was the stoppered vessel. The poisonous spirit in this case is the fear, which first had to be produced before being transformed.
A spiritual practice is a stoppered vessel. The precepts are an expansive vessel that on retreats become somewhat narrowed. There, the spirits that come up are contained in that vessel. And if no option is given to escape from this vessel’s confines, if the cork in the bottle is not allowed to pop off for the malefactor to escape, then remarkably, a transformation can take place.
This is a very accurate picture. In the case of alchemy we had the dog and wolf fighting, and with the ku we had a host of insects fighting each other.
This article is from the series:
Other articles in this series:
A Crooked Heart Misses the Target
Buddhism & Folklore - The Naive Heart
Spiritual Medicine Begins as Poison
The Blindness of the Calculating Self
The Stoppered Vessel
The Round Table of King Arthur
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