Applied Dharma

Norman Fischer sees the many ways the dharma is being applied in helping others and helping ourselves as Buddhism’s greatest gift to our time.

Norman Fischer
1 February 2009
Paintings by Keith Abbott

I had my first experience with “applied dharma”—using Buddhist practices to try to help people in need, whether they are Buddhists or not—watching a video. It was a tape of a PBS show called Healing and the Mind that featured Jon Kabat-Zinn teaching a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. As everyone knows by now, Jon had invented this vocabulary and technique, an adaptation of Buddhist mindfulness practice, to help patients at the hospital whose cases had been pronounced hopeless.

Since there seemed to be nothing the doctors could do to alleviate their chronic pain and illness, the hospital decided to give Jon, then a medical school faculty member, a shot. His six-week course turned out to be wildly successful. Over many years it brought not only relief but also wisdom and happiness to thousands of patients with previously intractable conditions.

As a Zen priest who’d spent my whole adult life in monasteries and temples, I was initially skeptical as I watched that video. For me, Buddhism was a radical religion, whose goals and practices were at odds with what people were normally looking for in life. I had been trained to view enlightenment as the goal of Buddhism—total liberation that went far beyond worldly aspirations like health and well-being. In my Soto Zen tradition, the desire to derive any benefit at all from the practice, “a gaining idea,” as Suzuki Roshi, our founder in America had called it, was really bad. Gaining ideas would blunt your sincerity, and sincere effort was the most important thing.

Yet as a religious person I was sympathetic to the idea of helping people in need. It also thrilled me to think that the esoteric practice I was engaged in might be serving larger numbers of them. So it took almost no time for Jon’s compassion—his sheer love for the people he was working with and his passion to try to help them—to win me over. All doctrines and notions about what the practice was supposed to be or not be were swept aside by the depth of caring I saw in action in that video. Jon was not trying to sell anybody anything. The claims he made for the practice were honest and encouraging. “Try this—I think it will help—but you have to be patient, you can’t hate your illness and be desperate to make it disappear. Be patient and work with your condition, not against it. Then maybe something will change.” A different way of speaking about Buddhist practice than I was used to, but one that was clearly authentic. Later I went to the clinic at UMass to witness classes. I met and spent time with Jon, and we quickly became friends. I learned from him that what I’d read in the sutras was true: the path is available to everyone and must be shared, and to guide others effectively you must be willing to use whatever comes to hand (“skillful means”).


Since news of Jon’s work has spread, a host of ways have developed to apply dharma.

Mostly these efforts have used, as Jon has used, the language of mindfulness to describe the method of practice. The Sanskrit words for mindfulness are sati, which means basic awareness, and smirti, which includes the idea of remembering to come back to awareness when the mind has strayed from it. Although what we call meditation includes many forms and techniques, basically meditation is mindfulness. Sitting quietly, you establish awareness of the body and of the breathing. When your mind wanders, you bring it back. Once basic awareness of body and breath is established, you can also be aware of bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings, and so on—whatever arises in the field of awareness can be appreciated as long as you let it arise and pass away without too much identification, judgment, or entanglement. In fact, one definition of mindfulness is “non-judgmental awareness.” Just seeing what’s there.

In the Mindfulness Sutra, the primary pan-Buddhist text on mindfulness practice, the Buddha says that mindfulness is “the only way to deliverance.” This is very counterintuitive to our can-do Western mentality. Mindfulness proposes that the more we try to fix or improve things, the more we get stuck in them. But that if we are willing to simply be aware, without entanglement, things will slowly come naturally to wise equilibrium.

What we call meditation—sitting quietly without moving—is a particularly focused form of mindfulness. But mindfulness practice goes beyond conventional meditation. Once we have some training in mindfulness meditation, we can extend mindfulness to any other activity, until eventually mindfulness becomes a way of life. We become much more aware of what is going on, within and without. When we’re angry we know we’re angry, when afraid we know we’re afraid. With awareness of our state, we don’t react wildly compelled by unconscious impulses; instead we respond with much more accuracy and kindness. This movement from reactivity to response is the key shift that mindfulness practice aims for. But it comes about organically, with training, but without forcing anything.

Mindfulness is easy to explain, but the actual practice is subtle. Since we are always to some extent aware, unless we are asleep, it can be hard to grasp the difference between normal awareness and the more subtle, eyes-wide-open, non-judgmental awareness of mindfulness practice. But with some training you do get the hang of it. In the last decade or two there has been an enormous amount of research corroborating the efficacy of mindfulness in healing and mind-training of all sorts. At this point there is not much doubt that mindfulness practice brings benefit on many fronts—it reduces stress and so promotes basic health; it provides methods to bring healing to difficult illnesses; it improves personal effectiveness in work and personal relationships; it can be a basis for the cultivation of all sorts of positive emotional and attitudinal states, like compassion, loving-kindness, equanimity.

Jon had found himself at UMass Hospital, had seen a local problem, and had the intuitive sense that the basic Buddhist mindfulness practice he knew might help. I have tried to do the same. Whenever someone has appeared asking me to help with an issue that mindfulness practice might address, I have always said yes.


In the 1980s, even before I saw the video of Jon’s program, colleagues and I at the San Francisco Zen Center began the Zen Hospice Project. We had noticed that the simple act of mindfully caring for the dying—simply offering a damp towel, a cup of tea, and a smile, with a spirit of acceptance of rather than resistance to impermanence (a hallmark of mindfulness)—was powerfully healing. Our community had cared for Alan Chadwick, our gardening teacher; for the Buddhist writer Lama Govinda; for the philosopher and anthropologist Gregory Bateson; for our friend and Native American teacher Harry Roberts; and for our own Zen teacher, Suzuki Roshi, when he died in 1971.

It seemed natural, then, for us to apply dharma in this simple way, especially at the height of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, when so many of our friends and fellow practitioners were in need. Today the Zen Hospice Project continues to do its caregiving work, and has spun off another organization, the Metta Institute, that aspires to have an impact on how end-of-life care is delivered in America through training health care professionals who work with the dying in the kind of mindful care we have developed over the years.

I am on the faculty of Metta and have found it interesting to figure out how to teach mindfulness practice in the professional context. Professionals have a lot of knowledge about medical and psychological issues relating to the care of the dying and their families. But what they are not necessarily good at, and where mindfulness practice can help, is in the development of a compassionate presence—the ability to evoke an atmosphere of love, forgiveness, and acceptance, so that whatever healing is possible in those last days or weeks can be encouraged to take place. Any time death is immanent, this atmosphere is potentially present. But where there’s too much fear and denial, or too much pressing for a particular result, things don’t go well. Sometimes professional knowledge and experience not only don’t help with this, but can get in the way. Thinking you know what to do, having experienced past cases, can blind you to what is uniquely present now. With careful attention to what is going on deeply inside, mindfulness practice can bring you to more awareness of your basic confusion about death, your possibly exaggerated need to help heroically, all your unconscious stumbling blocks. If you can learn to be aware of such things with acceptance and forgiveness, if you can also receive some training in becoming comfortable with silence through intensive meditation training, you will have a deeper capacity to be with dying in a healing way.

I have two old friends, Gary Friedman and Jack Himmelstein, who train professionals in conflict resolution and mediation. After years of talking about how mindfulness meditation could be used in their work, we began to include it in the training. Gary and Jack practice what they call “understanding-based” conflict resolution. The goal is to help people in conflict understand one another as a basis for resolution of issues, rather than to simply act as a broker to bring about a compromise solution, which is generally the method used in mediation. One of Gary and Jack’s key concepts is the notion that no conflict is about what it seems to be about. Impasses over money or property are really about deeper concerns that usually do not surface. Any solution that does not address these deeper concerns won’t really hold.

For years they have taught a method of dialogue that will help mediators guide parties to a discovery of what lurks beneath the surface of conflict, and they have been successful. But the introduction of ongoing mindfulness practice has taken the work to a new level. When mediators learn to see more deeply into their own motivations and prejudices with a sense of acceptance and curiosity, rather than with judgment, they are able to make use of their own emotions—and to come to understand others better. The conventional wisdom in mediation work is that the mediator must keep his or her emotions out of the equation and be a neutral, dispassionate observer. But anyone who has practiced mindfulness knows that there’s no way to keep your emotions out of anything, and that imagining you are doing so only means you are prey to your emotions rather than guided by them with some wisdom. I remember the aha moment in one of our training sessions, when a mediator realized that she didn’t have to pretend she wasn’t angry at one of the parties—that mindfulness practice had given her the capacity to be aware of her anger without expressing it inappropriately, so that she could learn from it and make use of it to help the parties find a solution.

I have also for some years worked with lawyers under the auspices of Contemplative Mind in Society, a non-profit with a mission well described by its name. Here the issue is, “How can mindfulness practice help to humanize what has become a very stressful and difficult profession?” Contemplative Mind’s Law Project sponsors a group of lawyers who meet with me regularly to meditate and engage in dialogue and experimentation about this. Each year we offer national mindfulness retreats for lawyers on both coasts to share our explorations with others.


Over a number of years these lawyers have revolutionized the way they view and carry out their work, moving from what some of them have called “the gladiator” model of zealous advocacy, to one in which they see themselves as wise counsel and ally to their clients, trying to bring healing to very difficult human situations, rather than simply to win cases. The lawyers have often noted that sometimes winning the case with maximum aggression does not actually serve the needs of the client.

Probably the clearest way to understand mindfulness work with lawyers, mediators, and end-of-life-care professionals is as training in emotional intelligence. EI is a concept popularized by journalist Daniel Goleman, another Buddhist practitioner motivated by a desire to usefully apply dharma. While it is clear from many studies that emotional intelligence is a key factor in effectiveness in all sorts of spheres, it is not so clear how or if one can develop it. It turns out that—as I have found—mindfulness practice is the most effective way to improve emotional intelligence. At Google, the enthusiastic and idealistic young engineers are not looking for calmness or healing, but they are interested in developing emotional intelligence, for work and for their personal lives. Our six-week course there, called “Search inside Yourself,” uses meditation, journaling, mindful dialogue, and a host of other techniques to improve EI.

Many of the practices I use there, and in the other trainings I do, are simple extensions of mindfulness practice. They are readily adaptable by anyone who would like to use them to develop more mindfulness in everyday life. We’re using an e-mailing practice, for instance, that incorporates mindfulness. You can try it. Instead of shooting off a hurried e-mail, and dealing with the consequences later, take an extra moment. Write the e-mail, then close your eyes and visualize the person who is going to receive it. Remember that he or she is alive, a feeling human being. Now go back and re-read the e-mail, changing anything you now feel you want to change before sending.

We also train in a communication practice called “looping”: when listening to someone, intentionally try to pay close attention close to what is being said, rather than entertaining your own similar or dissimilar thoughts. When the person is finished talking say, “Let me make sure I understand what you are saying. I think you said….” and then feed back what you heard. This way the person feels truly heard and respected, and has a chance to correct whatever distortions in your hearing there may have been. Looping saves a lot of trouble and misunderstanding, especially when the communication is sensitive or difficult.

There are many more practices like this, simple but powerful techniques to maintain mindfulness throughout the day:

  • Taking three conscious breaths—just three!—from time to time to interrupt your busy activity with a moment or two of calm awareness.
  • Keeping mindfulness slogan cards around your office or home to remind you to “Breathe” or “Pay Attention” or “Think Again.”
  • Training yourself through repetition to apply a phrase like “Is that really true?” to develop the habit of questioning your assumptions before you run with them.
  • Practicing mindful walking whenever you get up to walk somewhere during the day.
  • Instituting the habit of starting your day by returning to your best intention.

My mediation training partner Gary Friedman practices returning to his best intention by pausing before he sits down to meet his first clients of the day. He silently reminds himself as he places his hands on the back of his chair that he is about to participate in a sacred act—the effort to bring peace to conflict. In these and many others ways you can invent, mindfulness can be extended to practically any situation in daily life. And it will make a difference.

I believe the Buddha never intended to create a specialized sphere of life called “religion.” In his time, there was no question of secular or sacred, church on Sunday and work during the week. There was only life and life’s difficulties, and the possibility that with cultivation one could live with less trouble and strife. Although many of his teachings were given in the context of the monastic community in which he lived, many more were given to laypeople to make their lives more peaceful and successful. The contemporary application of dharma to so many spheres of contemporary life would not, I think, seem strange to the Buddha.

Philip Snyder, executive director of Contemplative Mind in Society, and an anthropologist, is fond of saying that a thousand years ago our civilization was profoundly altered by the spreading of literacy to the general public from the monasteries where it had been exclusively practiced. Could it now be the case, he wonders, that the practice of mindfulness developed for millennia in monasteries and temples will similarly be released and spread throughout the world, with just as large an impact?

Norman Fischer

Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Soto Zen Buddhist priest who has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently When You Greet Me I Bow. He is the founder of Everyday Zen, a community based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He and his wife, Kathie Fischer, also a Soto Zen priest, have two children and three grandchildren and live in Muir Beach, California.