On March 1, 1997, when I was 52 years old I went out to dinner with friends. Four months later I returned home in a wheelchair. A blood vessel had burst inside my spinal cord, leaving me instantly paralyzed from the waist down. I now use the wheelchair full time.
In the years since, that blood vessel has taken my mind, body and spirit on a journey I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams. In a split second, my life took off in a dramatically different direction than I thought I was headed. When my life turned upside down, I was forced to learn how to make sense of senseless random events and to learn how to rebuild a satisfying life. I was forced to learn what is like to be disabled, how to circumvent hostile environments, and how to endure ridiculous government policies.
My coping skills were forged in a multicultural crucible. I am Caucasian/Apache woman raised in Hawaii by a Zen Buddhist. I am also a lifelong lesbian with a passion for civil rights. Before the burst blood vessel, I had long career as a community organizer in the national offices of women’s organizations in Washington DC. The inspiration for my recovery has come from my Buddhist practice and also from author Byron Katie who both have taught me that you will suffer in life to the same degree you wish things were different.
I could wish that I were not in pain 24/7, or that I could once again walk along the water’s edge feeling the waves wash over my feet, I could wish that my income had not been cut in half and that I was still independent living and working where I pleased. I could wish all these things and suffer magnificently…but I choose not to.
Everything about my disability has been a lesson in how nothing stays the same. I thought I was at the height of my career, earning a good income and would retire sometime long in the future. But you never know…
But you never know…since I have been in the wheelchair I have broken five bones in my legs at separate times, had a recurrence of breast cancer, my gall bladder removed, my thyroid removed, a pump installed twice in my abdomen, two surgeries just last year to fix a mistake made earlier in the year and yet here I am, happy as a clam, living a good life in Hawaii. I think life is a hoot! I live on Social Security and live well, I travel, I have all I need of material things, I go out to eat a lot. I am in pain 24/7 and you would never know unless I told you. Life is good.
Jean Shinoda Bolen said in her book “Close to the Bone” that every cancer patient is taken on a journey close to the bone, stripping away all the pretense and illusion. I propose that every event in our lives that changes things dramatically takes us on the same trip. You think you know what your life is about and then Boom! Things are not the same anymore. You can’t walk, you can’t talk after a stroke, you can’t think straight after a whack on the head, you have a baby and you will not have a free moment to yourself for years, you contract diabetes and are faced with having your foot amputated. You never know what is going to happen to you.
I make the point in my book that you will suffer in life to the same degree you wish things were different. Well, over the years I have realized that all suffering, just as the Buddha taught, is caused by wishing things were different and hanging on to the original idea. So when some tragedy strikes your life, who you were has disappeared and who you are about to become is rising up before you. Hanging on to the disappearing self will cause you to suffer. Expectations limit the possibilities. Hanging on to what was limits what could come your way. Giving up the expectations unleashes your energy to explore the future. Hanging on just makes you miserable in the present.
The present is a wonderful place to be, it is where everything is happening. You just have to open your eyes and see it. I was sitting by the ocean the other day and friend was going on and on about how badly her mother had treated her when she was child. This woman was in her early 60s…I said to her when was the last time your mother was mean to you? She thought about a minute and said well she has been dead since 1992 and we actually patched things up when I was in my 30s so about 30 years ago. I said Let it go, what difference does it make now, you are retired, happily married, have two great children and we are sitting by the beautiful ocean in Hawaii and you are getting all worked up about what happened 30 years ago. Wake up!
My brother is fond of telling stories about our father and how mean he was to him. I suggested that he could start telling people how wonderful our father was and my brother was horrified. If he did the energy around those stories would be changed and he would have to give up part of his identity. No wonder he was horrified.
I routinely ask my counseling clients when they tell me they are depressed, unhappy or down in the dumps because their partner left them or they got fired or whatever the tragedy du jour may be, is anything happening to you this moment? Is your partner yelling at you this moment? Are you being fired this moment? Of course the answer is always no…why then are you upset? They are upset because they are living in the past and hanging on to what they wished was reality.
I saw a video of Bryon Katie talking with Oprah. Oprah’s mother had recently passed away and she was talking about how sad she was. Katie said why are you sad? Oprah repeated slightly incredulous that her mother died. Katie said I know your mother died and what you need to know is she is never coming back, you will never talk with her again, you will never see her again, and that is the reality. Oprah was shocked! Katie said you are sad because you wish she hadn’t died, but she is very dead. Katie asked her, did you like your mother? Yes, said Oprah I loved her very much and we were very close. Why then are you not celebrating her life and telling everyone how wonderful she was? If you accept the reality that you will never see her again then the only thing left to do is celebrate.
So, people have asked me, do this mean that you just lay down and let life roll over you? Do I mean that you can have no opinion, take no action, or want for a better world? No, it means take a good hard look at what the reality of the situation is and take action on it. Give up wasting your energy on wishing it wasn’t so.
I was recently asked to co-facilitate a 12 week workshop on Sexuality Education for older adults and the coordinator wants me to take on her 27 year old son who lives at home with his parents, has no job and is remarkable unambitious. At the facilitator training he always wanted to interpret the material as if his opinion was better explanation than presented by the trainers. It was not. On one hand I do not want this doofus co-facilitating with me on the other hand the program standard insist there be diverse co-facilitators and he is the only straight male with the training. I get to choose to be miserable and fuss and insist that I will not teach this class under these circumstances…or could I instead face the reality of the situation and drop my objection and take on this kid and teach him a few things about facilitating. And once I do, not look back and revisit or regret my decision. And as I do not know much about a young man’s sexuality, he could have much to teach me as well. I get to choose.
We all get to choose each moment of the day. You don’t have to have a tragedy to practice letting go. Look at what makes you angry. I can bet without knowing what it is that you are desperately hanging on to a wish that things were different. Look to see what that is, let go of the wish, and then take action on the reality presented there.
The trick of course is how you know what the reality is. I use meditation as my reality preceptor. I focus on my feelings in meditation, where is it charged with extra energy? I breathe in and out, in and out, and let my consciousness drift all around the problem. I know myself well, I know that challenges to my ego are problematic to me and that I have trouble believing anyone else knows as much as I do…a dialog sets in, on one hand it says, you know how to facilitate a workshop, done it dozens of time, one the other hand, every time you have set your ego aside and let some new experience happen it has been good thing. So, come on, let go of that ego and co-facilitate the workshop with the young man and stop calling him a doofus.
Easy to say now but the road here was bumpy and long. I was raised in Hawaii by man who embraced Zen Buddhism when I was child. My father was a mixed race man, Caucasian and Apache. He was raised by his Native American mother who threw over her native beliefs for spiritualism of the 20’s in California. My mother was Caucasian raised by the daughter and granddaughter of Baptist ministers who never questioned one thing about her beliefs. My mother was religion-neutral, I asked her once what her belief was and she said simply that she believed in God and that was it.
I only went to church once as a child. My Baptist grandmother came to live with us and we all went to a Baptist services that met in the cafeteria at the elementary school. My grandmother was from Maine but this congregation was definitely Southern. My dark-skinned father was clearly not welcome, my grandmother was embarrassed and we never went again.
In high school, I made friends with a girl who parents had been sent here as missionaries, in the 1960’s from Texas no less. Her mother asked me if I would agree to read the New Testament. I agreed and read the whole thing in a little red leather bound copy with tissue thin pages. We discussed it when I had finished. She, of course, was hoping that I would be born again with the reading of God’s holy word and embrace Jesus as my lord and savior. Well, I said it was an interesting story but how some man dying for my sins 1,960 years ago made no sense to me. We talked about a lot of other things and finally she said that she was amazed for a heathen (her word exactly) like me could be so kind and decent and Christian like without believing in Jesus. This was the first time she had ever lived outside of her little Texas town the first time she met people who were not Christians. I wish I had kept track of her, I bet she returned to the little Texas town a very different woman.
My father shared his insights on Buddhism and the world at talks at the dinner table. Of course at 12 years old I would roll my eyes and pray this was going to be a short talk. Years later, though. I would hear echoes of his dharma talks at other dharma talks I attended with Buddhist teachers. He taught me early on about becoming one with the world by teaching me to shoot a bow and arrow. He instructed me to pull the string back to my chin and hold it until I felt at one with the universe before I let the arrow fly. Really good lesson in getting in touch with your chi….he also signed me and my brother up for karate classes. The old Japanese man sensei, a man of few words, had a stick that he would whack you with across the shoulders while you stood in meditation, all the classes together in rows in our ghi, hand inside fist, everyone quiet and not moving. We learned in our lessons how to never meet force with force, we learned instead how to step aside and use our opponent’s energy against them. Like the archery lesson we learned to channel our chi so that we were at one with the universe. Powerful lessons for a young girl. But this really didn’t hit home until I was 47 years old.
I had nothing to do with religion in my 20’s but in my early 30’s I felt a longing, a calling, a something to make better sense of my purpose for being here. I joined a big steeple Presbyterian Church and was baptized at the 11 o’clock service one Sunday. I cried through the whole thing, very moved by the ancient ritual. The next Sunday I was attend a woman’s retreat and was recruited on to the Synod Committee on Women. Most folks serve years in their church committees and then move up to a Presbytery committee and then maybe never to a Synod but here I was one week a Christian and the next week on a Synod committee. I was happy in the Presbyterian Church, we had a huge choir with paid soloists, all sorts of events and dinners and I went along happily for years. I moved to Washington DC and eventually wound up at Silver Spring Presbyterian with Margee Iddings. Within three months I was ordained as an Elder and was serving on the Session. The first issue we had to deal with was it became clear that the previous pastor sexually abused several older widows in the church. Margee’s leadership in dealing with that crisis was genius. The second crisis on the heels of the first was the sanctuary was riddled with termites and had to be torn down and rebuilt. I used to joke that I was not sure that the two events were related but they might be.
Margee’s sermons were enlightening and caused me to think deeply about my faith. At one session meeting we were reviewing the application of a flamboyant gay man, self-professed pagan to become a member. A tight assed lawyer who was raised by missionaries opposed the application saying that he must profess Jesus as his lord and savior. I said it doesn’t he must profess Jesus as his only lord and savior and at that moment I realized that I did not want to belong to any church that had membership requirements. It was a slippery slope from deciding who can join to deciding who can be ordained as a minister, who can serve on the session, etc.
Shortly after this I attended the General Assembly of the denomination where the good Christians once again voted down the motion to ordain LGBT folks as ministers. That was it! I was done with this hypocrisy. Hypocrite: anyone who professes to believe in teachings of Jesus and flagrantly discriminates against someone.
About this same time my father became ill and I went home for 12 weeks to be with him as he moved from this world to the next. We talked and talked. He reviewed his life, I reviewed my life. He repeated the dharma talks of my youth. It was a most glorious time of my life. I returned home and joined the Mintwood Zendo.
I was now 47 years old. I went on retreat with Bobby Rhodes (Soeng Hyang) of the Providence Zen Center. She gave me a koan about something existing from the beginning of time to end of time, like a cloud, etc. etc. I struggled with it and struggled with it. In a session with her, I said I got it, it is like the Cheshire cat, yes she said like that but without the cat, just the smile I said, and she said yes but without the smile and I got it! I got it! I saw in an instant flash how everything is connected from the beginning of time to the end of time like a cloud, I was this vast network glowing and twinkling. I was breathless and speechless and I started to cry. Just like that, Bobby said, just like that. That sense of connectedness has never left me, that moment irrevocably changed my life.
It that enlightenment? I don’t know…the lessons continue to come, the challenges continue, and yet through it all I maintain some sense of equilibrium.
One piece missing for me since I left DC in 2003 was community. Until last year I struggled with finding a spiritual home, or a satisfying social network. I was very lonely but kept present about it and tried not suffer and did pretty well. Then last year I went to the Unitarian Church to support a friend who didn’t want to go by herself and I found a spiritual home. The minister is a Chinese gay man raised in the Philippines and who used to be the MCC minister here in Hawaii. He quotes from the Dalai Lama and Thich Nat Hahn often. He spent some time at Plum Village in France before coming to Hawaii. But the biggest treat is the congregation. We are diverse in age, race, philosophy, gender, No dogma, no creeds, no doxology, and no one god. I love it.