Cover image for Healing Zen : awakening to a life of wholeness and compassion while caring for yourself and others
Healing Zen : awakening to a life of wholeness and compassion while caring for yourself and others
Birx, Ellen.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Viking Compass, [2002]

Physical Description:
xv, 272 pages : illustrations ; 21 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library BQ9288 .B57 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Focusing on the concept of healing as wholeness, a nursing professor and Zen teacher demonstrates how the practice of awareness and meditation can help restore energy, build endurance, and suffuse our lives with compassion and joy. Line drawings.

Author Notes

Ellen Birx is a nurse and professor in the School of Nursing at Radford University, Virginia. She became a Zen teacher under Roshi Robert Kennedy in the lineage of Roshi Bernie Glassman. She is the cofounder of the New River Zen Community.



Wholeness: Becoming Aware of Wholeness The word "heal" comes from an Old English word that means to make whole. Of course we are already whole, so healing involves becoming aware of our wholeness. Healing is more than just being cured of an illness. Even when you cannot be cured, you can experience healing. You can experience wholeness. Healing includes harmony of body, mind, and spirit and an awareness of your oneness with the whole universe. Healing yourself is also the foundation for healing others. Both the caregiver and the person being cared for can learn and grow with each healing encounter. As you heal both yourself and others you will become increasingly aware of the wholeness of life. A year ago one of my friends was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a mastectomy, the cancer was removed, and reconstructive surgery was done. She told me that although her cancer was cured, and she was truly grateful for that, she felt she needed much more healing. She went on a healing journey. She began Zen meditation. Taking time out each day to sit in silence helped her get in touch with new aspects of herself and with the richness of life around her. For many years she had worked long hours as a hospital administrator but now she saw that she needed more time for herself, more time to spend with her family and friends, and more time to be out in nature. She cut back on her work hours and took more vacations. She began reading poetry and took an art class. Gradually she began to feel whole again. In fact she said she began to feel more whole than she had ever felt before. There is a Zen story that I love to tell. Two young cousins played together as children and were very fond of one another. One cousin was a girl named Seijo, the other a boy named Ochu. When they grew up they fell in love and were heartbroken when Seijo's father selected a different man to be Seijo's husband. Seijo and Ochu ended up running away together to another town to get married and raise a family. After several years, Seijo told her husband how much she missed her family. Ochu said he was homesick also and suggested that they return home and ask her father's forgiveness. When they reached Seijo's home, Ochu went up to the house first. When he explained what had happened and asked for forgiveness, Seijo's father was astounded. He said that it was impossible because the day Ochu left town, his daughter Seijo became sick and had remained here in the house in bed all these years. Ochu told his father-in-law that this could not be true and that he must come down to the boat, where his daughter and grandchildren were waiting, and see for himself. Just then the homesick Seijo who had been waiting in the boat and the Seijo who had lain ill in bed for many years came walking across the lawn toward each other. The two became one; the divided Seijo was made whole. This story is, of course, richly symbolic rather than literal. We could say it is about the split that occurs when we are faced with meeting our own needs and following our own dreams and at the same time trying to fulfill the needs and dreams of others. Or perhaps it is about the split or conflict that arises as we try to balance the different types of needs and dreams we each have within us. This story is also a metaphor for our experience during Zen meditation. When you sit in meditation open to all aspects of yourself, open to all the thoughts and feelings that pass through, you get to know yourself more fully. And in the attitude of openness and acceptance cultivated in meditation, you are free to see and embrace your whole self that is not separate from others, the earth, or the whole universe. For the past eight years my husband Charles, who is also a Zen teacher, and I have led a local group of people who come together each week for an evening of Zen meditation. This group is called the New River Zen Community. One summer Jason, the ten-year-old son of one of the women in the New River Zen Community, accidentally hanged himself with a rope while playing in the backyard. He suffered a severe brain injury and was in the hospital for ten months. During Jason's first two weeks in the hospital, his mother, Fran, had several friends take turns helping her care for him at night so she could remain at his bedside and still get some sleep. During the night when I helped out, I sat beside the bed, listened to Jason's breathing, and repositioned his head when he had trouble clearing his airway. I kept him clean and dry. When he became restless and agitated, I held his hand, talked to him reassuringly, and protected him from pulling out any tubes or hurting himself. In the morning we gave him a bath, shampooed his hair, and dressed him in a clean hospital gown and high-top Nikes. Caring for Jason I recalled Huston Smith's statement that from a Buddhist perspective, "We become compassionate not from altruism which denies the self for the sake of other, but from the insight that sees and feels one is the other." My Zen practice helps me experience myself and the world in this way. As I positioned Jason's arms and legs, it was my own arms and legs that I moved. As I shampooed his hair, it was my own hair that I washed. As I laced and tied his shoes, I laced and tied my own shoes. As his mother slept in anguish at his bedside, I slept in anguish also. As I shared the experience of caring for Jason with his family, I learned so much. They are of Greek and Italian descent and are much more expressive and full of life than I tend to be. They shared their grief openly with large numbers of family and friends who visited the hospital in a steady stream, bringing flowers, balloons, food, and prayers. I learned how it feels to be more connected to people in good times and bad, in sorrow and joy, not separate and isolated. Jason's grandmother brought some of her homemade wine to the hospital and as Fran passed the bottle around before going to bed one night she said, "This is our communion." When Jason came home, he still could not move any of his extremities or speak. Three times a day for an hour and a half many volunteers helped his family do patterning with him as part of his rehabilitation program. We repetitively moved his head, arms, and legs through the motions of crawling. While we did this, we sang silly songs because they made him laugh and relax instead of cry and get agitated. I usually moved the left leg because it was most contracted and difficult to move. I learned that when you move one leg of one little boy unable to move it for himself, the whole universe moves. From the perspective of wholeness, no part is separate from the whole and each part contains the whole. When the part moves, the whole moves. The direct experience of this oneness and unity of life gives the caregiver the energy and strength to reach out to heal others. In the fall Jason died. There is nothing sadder than the death of a child. One evening in October when New River Zen Community was outside doing walking meditation between sitting meditation periods, the line of meditators stopped halfway up the hill. Jason's mother and father each took a handful of Jason's ashes and in silence scattered them on the hillside. It was a cool moonlit night and the ashes swirled in the breeze like incense rising. After a few moments we continued to walk silently up the hill, our hearts broken open to life, death, the surrounding mountains, the night sky, and the whole universe. Although Jason's accident and death were tragic, his parents faced it head on with all their resources. They did not withdraw or deny what was happening. They did not isolate themselves in their sorrow, but rather accepted with gratitude the support and assistance of family, friends, and strangers from near and far. They remained open to and united with the great mysteries of life. When we open ourselves in times of illness, loss, sorrow, or pain, we remain open to the possibilities for healing. --from Healing Zen by Ellen Birx, Ph.D., R.N., Copyright © February 2002, Viking Press, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission. Excerpted from Healing Zen: Awakening to a Life of Wholeness and Compassion While Healing Yourself and Others by Ellen Birx All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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