The Tara Institute Healing Meditation Program
Sixteen years ago, Lama Zopa Rinpoche led a five-day healing meditation retreat at Tara Institute (TI) in suburban Melbourne, Australia. This was the first program of its kind for an FPMT center. Rinpoche was insistent that it be called a healing course for seriously ill people and their carers, not a death and dying course, not a hospice program and not a training course for therapists or enthusiastic students.
At the time I was working as a counselor in a well-known Australian self-help program for cancer patients, developed by Ian Gawler, who had himself survived widely-spread secondary bone cancer as a young man. I was invited to attend that inaugural course at TI, with five other support people, and five people with serious life-threatening illnesses. We were so fortunate to have that intimate time with Rinpoche in such a small group totally focused on healing.
Even then, “healing” was a word with pejorative connotations, because of the way it is so often blithely bandied around in “new age” circles. But Rinpoche was very firm on this point – the focus word was healing. In the first sessions he talked at length about “relative healing” (a perfectly proper and appropriate aspiration for a person with a serious illness), and “ultimate healing” – i.e., healing into our full “Buddha-to-be-ness” (my term, not Rinpoche’s). He saw the course as giving seriously sick people a chance to access techniques and practices that would help them sow positive seeds for future lives. Ven. Ailsa Cameron, a participant in that course, went on to help edit Rinpoche’s teachings, centered on his week of teaching of 1991, to constitute the book Ultimate Healing published by Wisdom Publications.
The course was an intense and rich life-changing experience for all of us and, to my complete surprise, Rinpoche asked me to continue coordinating and leading a healing meditation program at Tara Institute. In accordance with the guru’s request I have been leading the program since then, and in this article I will outline its development and evolution over the past sixteen years. I have also had the good fortune to have a sangha member planning and co-leading the courses with me, and this collegial style of working helps make the group process more dynamic and balanced.
Between 1991 and 2002 the program was run as an intensive weekend course three or four times a year with a monthly evening follow-up group. When the time came to run the first weekend on our own in late 1991, I was fortunate that Ven. Pende Hawter, who had also attended the course with Rinpoche, was available to co-lead that first weekend on our own. We devised a program to run over a weekend, based on what Rinpoche had taught in the inaugural program and seasoned by our own apprehensive and rather anxious feelings of inadequacy. As everyone in FPMT knows, Rinpoche is a hard act to follow, and we would be presenting to often very debilitated and suffering participants. We chose a few core topics that we endeavored to present simply, free of jargon and dogma: the nature of healing, precious human rebirth, impermanence, the nature of mind, loving-kindness and compassion. However, the main focus each weekend was the meditation practices and relaxation, breathing techniques, mindfulness, pain management, white light healing imagery, meditations to help generate love and compassion, tong-len, and occasional short analytical meditations on some of the topics. It was always a huge amount of content that we aspired to get through – and we soon learnt the art of compromise and not holding on too fixedly.
After the first weekend course, Ven. Kaye Miner came to Tara Institute as the spiritual program coordinator and we led the program together for many years with Ven. Choenyi (Diana Taylor) filling in on some occasions. At the beginning of 1997, Ven. Carolyn Lawler became the spiritual program coordinator, and we have been running the program together ever since…
This article is an excerpt of the full article printed in Mandala