As an athletic, strong woman, my fearlessness was physically based. My body was utterly reliable, and I felt a young person’s invincibility. Back then I had no hesitation in tight situations: planting my 5’2″ frame firmly between a man on the street and the woman he had just slapped. No fear. When two teenaged girls came together to block my progress up the street as a racial challenge—whose neighborhood is this anyway?—I had decided to cross the street as the better part of valor, but my brash little body surprised me. “This is MY neighborhood, too!” I crashed through their locked-arm barricade, then ran like hell, momentary triumph over fear pounding through my temples. Oh, what a strong little body it was, and its surging vitality, affirmed through muscle and nerve fiber that had thus far proven itself infallible, engendered the stoutness of the heart that beat within it.
So imagine the terror of losing it all, and not slowly over time like we all do as we age, but swiftly, mercilessly, watching ability after ability fall away like so many loose hairs. I was 35 years old, living at Green Gulch Farm, a Marin County wing of the San Francisco Zen Center. It took four months for me to lose everything that meant anything to me: my strong, energetic body; my ability to achieve whatever I focused on and win the admiration of others for it; my pleasure in being a sexually attractive woman; my joy in bestowing the sweet attentions that mark a nurturing mother; my ability to do the required Zen training practices, which were the purpose of living in the community at Green Gulch; and perhaps most tellingly, my body-as-slave mentality—my assumption that my body was ready and able to perform whatever function I imposed upon it without resistance. Furthermore, I was isolated by the pain that overwhelmed every movement, by the desperate terror that also frightened everyone else who came into my panicked presence, and the consuming effort I had to make to do any little task—like get up from a chair or pick up a cup of tea. Even the breeze became a formidable antagonist.
I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a very painful and crippling disease, which had also afflicted my mother. Eventually, I couldn’t dress myself, hold the phone receiver, or get up from the toilet by myself. Because this all happened so rapidly, within a few months’ time, I was in a constant state of denial, convinced as each function disappeared that the next morning would see its return. My terror was so overwhelming that I couldn’t tolerate more than a split-second intimation of it. Whenever the reality of what I appeared to be facing—severe disability—popped unbidden into my mind, I desperately willed my deteriorating body to perform its next task. You must, I commanded it. You will. If my body couldn’t work, what would happen to me? If I couldn’t pull my own weight, who would take care of me? I had always lived with the illusion that I was self-sufficient, helpful to others but ultimately independent. I couldn’t change my modus this fast. Because of my initial denial, no one knew how bad it was getting or what exactly to do for me. I had my three year old buttoning my buttons and tying my shoes in the privacy of my room.
Denial of my situation ended abruptly when my son woke me in the middle of the night. He was crying. His pajamas were wet with vomit. “I’m sick, Mommie,” he said. “I threw up.” I tried to move my body, to lift it out of the bed, but failed. I couldn’t free myself from the bedcovers, and when I tried to reach the edge of the bed and pull away from the sheets, I was too weak to rise to a sitting position. “Honey, take off your pajamas and wash your face in the bathroom,” I said to my child. “Pull the dirty sheets off of your bed and go back to sleep.” I heard him carry out my instructions and get into his bed. I lay in my own narrow bed, hearing him sob himself to sleep, and prayed to die. Denial was no longer possible. Members of the community took over the care of my son and myself.
Seven years I had sat on a black cushion pursuing enlightenment. Seven years, thousands of hours of zazen, and maybe thirty sesshins (long sittings of several days). To no apparent avail. I was completely overcome by unremitting pain, terror and despair.
Swept up by the power of the pain, overwhelmed and consumed by it, at first I couldn’t feel anything else. But forced to completely surrender to the physicality of my existence, moment after moment, I eventually discovered that there were experiences in my body besides the pain—and not all of them unpleasant. My whole world consisted of my body and its sensations, my bed and its coverings, my room and its furnishings. Confined to this simple but not offensive company, I began to notice each of these things had its own eccentricities. Besides the cracks in the paint around the windowsill, there were the gurgles and hums of an inhabited apartment building; subtle changes in the shadows on the wall as the day passed; the temperature differences as the strident morning sun made the old walls brilliant and then receded in the afternoon; the occasional contours of a familiar face over my own looking down at me. I found my world as intricate, as interesting as it had ever been, just on a much more subtle level. I kept telling myself, this must be the world of babies and animals. Everything is fresh and fascinating.
And so I moved from hoping every morning to find myself waking up from a bad dream to realizing that this room and its contents were the only life I had. And this was the body I had to live it with. I started waking up ready to fully live this specific life and get acquainted with what was in many respects a new body every day. I started the day asking, what part
of my body works today? What can I do with the part that works? That was thrilling to me: day planning on such a primitive level. As I settled into my new life and its particularities, curiosity replaced fear as my primary ground of being. I wanted to know every little detail about my world. This was because I was beginning to actually take refuge—from despair and hopelessness—in every aspect and feature of my existence.
I was impressed with the power of the minutiae of my daily life to act as a sponge for my terror. Later, as I began to gain strength and spend more time out of bed, I applied the same principle to movement and took refuge in my activity itself. The practice of doing each thing for its own sake, the staple of Zen training, had mostly eluded me as a striving Zen student. I could rarely put aside my preoccupation with the purpose of my efforts: my projected achievement. But now, living in the vibrancy of the sensual present and seeing it clearly as my most viable source of comfort and solace, I did not want to return to my habit of push and pursuit, always onto the next reason for living, be it enlightenment or better housing at Green Gulch. Now I preferred to stay right here, exactly here. I lost my sense that there was something special or tragic about my circumstances. It was just my life, day in and day out.
This kind of surrender to, and fascination with, the circumstances of my own life, didn’t feel like resignation but rather a profound and complete acceptance of my place in the world. This is not a passive kind of acceptance but one that is active, creative, intelligent and completely vulnerable to life. This openness sometimes went on at the same time that
I was railing against my pain and searching for ways to stop it. They don’t hinder each other: completely accepting your suffering and looking for ways to end it. They are both active, engaged encounters with your life. If we can’t be speedy and productive, if it takes all our attention and focus to put on our clothes in the morning, we must be like a turtle climbing its way out of a sandy pit: implacable, endlessly patient, finding our true home in our activity itself as well as its purpose.
We practitioners venerate the present moment. But when the present moment doesn’t feel beautiful and flowing, like leaves changing with the seasons, we get confused. When it just means wrenching pain and despair, we want to move on. But it turns out that actually experiencing despair is radically different from visualizing it beforehand with fear and deciding you can’t face it. When it’s actually true that the past is gone forever and the future you can imagine is even bleaker than this moment, you’re more willing to sink into now. I took refuge in my straightforward activity, my slow, deliberate motions, and did not attach to any results, simply because I couldn’t bear any more loss, or even the possibility of loss. I never thought, “Someday I will be well again” because that thought would have been unbearable. I never allowed my mind to wander back to the strong body I had lost, because that image involved unendurable pain. So I stayed in my breath and my motion, afraid at first to look to the right or to the left. When I became well enough to interact, my contacts with people took place on the same primitive level. Standing there with someone, sharing their breath, feeling them permeate my chest and belly, I stayed in their company until some restlessness impelled me to move on. This made interaction very immediate, very real.
And then one day, contemplating a return to formal practice, I realized that what I’d been doing all along was taking the heralded refuge in Buddha, dharma and sangha. I’d always read that taking refuge in Buddha, dharma and sangha meant giving up your attachment to basic security. We all have our favorite reassuring thought patterns that we turn to when we’re shaky (I’m smart or I have an IRA or a spouse or whatever). When you’re willing to shift to a breath-based reality where everything rises and passes away (Right View), you’re taking refuge in the Buddha. With my basic security relegated to the fantasies of a past life, I understood that the ancients didn’t have anything more to work with than we do. They had their own bodies, their own delusions, their own habits and opinions. And they tried lots of spiritual trips, just like we can, and after they ran through all those trips, they finally settled on their own minds as the source of their suffering and ultimately managed to reject dogma and spiritual materialism as refuges and experience life directly.
By taking refuge in the dharma, I mean that I had found a path for myself, my very own original path, like Buddha did. I didn’t think mine was a Zen path. In my narrowness, I assumed Zen meant sitting in zazen posture and only sitting in zazen posture—but it turned out to be an equally engaging path, and it was basically all I had in the way of solace. On that path, I was able to cultivate the ability to relate to my immediate experience, all of it. On that path, I evolved an attitude of curiosity and attention that subjugated my terror. No longer did I distinguish between the sacred objects that should be accorded mindful attention and the secular things that can be ignored or slammed. Nothing was a waste of time; all of life was a fertile situation. The ultimate consolation for my having been knocked out of the spiritual rat race was the richness and shimmering uniqueness of everything.
By taking refuge in the sangha, I mean I felt companionable with my fellow refugees who were confused and terrified like me wherever I found them: in my room, on the street, in stores, in the Zendo. The sangha is where you experiment with being your real self, where you get your arrogance or delusions challenged, where you ask for and give support. The Zen Center sangha encouraged my efforts by putting a “practice” umbrella over my head, inviting me to speak and write about my experiences.
All this took place twenty-plus years ago. My disability is quite relative now as my friends age. Fear and sorrow are familiar companions in my everyday, now eventful, life. For decades I have practiced integrating this despair into my ongoing emotional life through the ritualization of daily tasks. By bringing my toothbrush and my dishes, my microwave and my car into my conscious life as objects to be sanctified by my close attention, I feel their tangible support and their sometimes rather charming idiosyncrasies.
For instance, I have difficulty dressing. My arthritic shoulders, elbows and fingers flinch from the stretching, tugging and tying required to present oneself fully clothed to the world. But I’m not and never have been a utilitarian dresser. Velcro might solve my problem, but it’s out of the question. I’m the kind of person who loves and appreciates the fine art of asymmetrical hems, darts, double-stitched denim seams, linings in jackets and bias-cut skirts. My throat catches at the flutter of silk in the breeze. My underwear is adorned with lace and embroidered flowers. Instead of hurrying to dress and becoming frustrated by how difficult it is to pull up socks, put on shoes, and button up blouses, I make it a reassuring and well-loved morning ritual: I lay out all the clothes on the sun-drenched couch and sit in the morning sun as I dress, feeling its comfort, putting on each lovely article one at a time, feeling the temperature changes associated with covering my body, noticing the darts and seams and insets that search out the topography of my body and make my clothes fit me. Sorrow changes when it encounters the spaciousness—the holiness—afforded by very close attention. Most physical tasks that I do, like cleaning and cooking, have taken on this ceremonial cast. What cultivating attention to detail introduces is spaciousness, space around thoughts and activities that allows you to live a rich and satisfying life right in the middle of misery.