Friday, July 30, 2010

Made for Walking

The knee injury I'm recovering from has turned out to have relevance to my spiritual practice. I suppose that shouldn't surprise me.

I'm now at a point where I'm beginning to take tentative forays out walking without the full-leg brace, and I've found that the six weeks of relative inactivity has caused my right leg to lose most of its memory of how to walk. I can, indeed walk, and can even do so without much of a limp, but it takes very deliberate focus and concentration. I don't walk with habit right now, but with very conscious intent. Rather that walking on auto-pilot, I have to focus and very deliberately raise the knee, extend the calf while raising the toes, plant the heel, rock forward on the ball, and gently push off with the thigh to deliver my weight to the other leg. Again and again and again. It occurs to me the act of walking is really nothing more than a series of controlled forward falls. Odd that I didn't realize that until now.

Forgetting the deliberate actions that go into walking causes the leg to go spastic and wobble like overcooked spaghetti. A feeling of utter vertigo arises whenever I stop thinking about how to walk. Very peculiar indeed.

Every time I walk, then, becomes an exercise in meditative focus. A few minutes of this causes me to break a sweat, not through exertion so much as through mental concentration. There will come a time pretty soon when I'll walk again completely on autopilot, but the fact is that I enjoy the wonder of walking much more when paying attention to it.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Matters of Mind

Over the ages, a lot of energy has gone into discussing and arguing and articulating the presence of a split between mind and matter, a divide between mind and body, in the human experience. It's at the heart of all psychoanalytic theory, and seems to underlie most religious systems. It's widely accepted, for example, that all the various parables about a fall from grace, an alienation from God, are metaphors for this schism between the physical, corporeal world of the material body; and the ethereal realm of the mind and spirit. They are thought to be two separate states, which we would desperately like to reunite. It's the base state that creates various legends of falling from grace, being cast from the Garden of Eden.

Yet the older I get and the more hours I log in pure observation, the more convinced I become that the schism doesn't exist, never did exist, and that much human sorrow occurs simply because we subscribe to an idea that was erroneous from the get start.

I say this largely because I'm increasingly aware that there is just no real separation between mind and body. A disturbed mind is soothed by relaxing the body, and relaxing the mind is the surest way to relaxing the body. Recently, I've learned that healing my broken knee has been in no small measure a matter of relaxing my mind about the whole matter. It's a package deal, and always was so.

The world as we know it is really a construct of mind. One cloudy day might be dreary experience indeed that interferes with all our happiness; another rainy day might be delightful excuse to lounge with a book and listen to rain tap on the leaves of giant hostas outside an open window. The same worlds, but entirely different worlds, thanks to the various spices which the mind brings to experience. There is no world to experience, in fact, except the one flavored by mind.

We have no experience of the world at all that is independent of mind, and you are therefore left with no conclusion except that mind and the material world are utterly indivisible. You can't be aware without being aware of some thing, so does it not then follow that they are indivisible aspects of the same phenomenon?

So, although we generally think that coming to wholeness and happiness is about healing some kind archetypal division or achieving at-one-ment between matter and mind, perhaps the truth is that this perceived wound was imaginary all along.

The sense of separation we long to heal turns out to be the separation we've chosen for ourselves.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Creatures Know

I've always quietly believed that our identities aren't at all fixed in time and space, but that who we are this moment is entirely different than who we are the next.

Animals seem to know this quite clearly, as they treat me much differently when I'm in the role of gardener. It's not always fondness I'm feeling from animals, but I do know that I'm a different being altogether when I'm gardening.

It's as though gardeners are somehow kindred spirits to creatures in the garden. Normally, animals sense the innate animosity of the human species to their kind, and react defensively, or with fear, toward us. Gardeners, though, get treated differently. For example, I've never, ever been stung by a wasp or bee when puttering around the garden, even though that's normally where I come across stinging insects. Put me in a car, though, at a picnic, and I'm just as likely to get stung as the next fellow.

Squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, birds of all types might be startled and flee from me if I come upon them on my walk to the bus stop in the morning, but when I'm tending the garden, it is largely as though I'm invisible. I've had squirrels run over my feet on the way to the birdbath to drink. Chipmunks have run up my legs to sit on the end table next to the armchair on my patio when I'm sitting there quietly reading. Voles come up from the ground to look at me. Birds actually flock to me when I'm watering the garden, as they know the moisture will raise worms and other invertebrates out of the soil for them to eat. One robin, when it spots me, will come and scold me severely until I spray the water for her.

Rabbits have no fear of gardeners. Though we hate them passionately for the mayhem they inflict on the lilies, they know full well that no gardener is capable of violence against them. Once, a mother raccoon came down out of the ash tree in the yard with her baby gripped in her mouth, paused in front of me to allow me to compliment her family, then scurried back up the tree to the hollow spot where she nested.

Alas, though, the mosquitos haven't yet learned that I am their friend.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

When it Rains, it Pours

Still recovering from knee surgery on the right leg, yesterday the extra strain on my left leg caused me to pull a muscle in the left calf, leading to an extremely interesting double-leg limp that is amusing everyone who sees it. Late in the afternoon, a routine dental appointment was made more complicated when the hygienist, a direct descendent of Eva Baun, scraped away a portion of my gum, exposing a nerve, then sprayed cold water rigorously over it. The spot has been throbbing ever since, though sometimes the pain in my legs mercifully distracts me from the fact.

My wife, who, bless her heart, has managed most all of the serious home maintenance tasks since I've been gimping around, has strained her lower back to the point where she struggles to get in and out of a chair without help. If I cinch up my leg brace really tight, I might be able to help raise her up or lower her into the rocking chair, though neither of us has any confidence that we won't collapse in a joint heap on the floor.

A mere month ago, we were a hale and healthy couple in the early phases of vibrant middle age.
Today, we're far along into our decrepitude, and it's is our 31st wedding anniversary. Any recommendations for how to celebrate? Perhaps a nice domino delivery pizza, and some really stiff cocktails. Ah, the romance, it never dies.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ah, Now I See

In many schools of Buddhist practice, mantras play a significant role. These verbal syllables, which are either recited silently or spoken aloud, serve as the focus for meditation. Single-pointed attention to the mantra has the effect of quieting the mind of extraneous thought.

The use of mantras isn't unique to Buddhism. Many traditions use some form of mantra practice. Practitioners of hatha yoga, for example, are well aware of the importance of the single syllable om in their practice.

In Buddhism, there are a plentiful number of mantras used, ranging from the simple above mentioned om, to the hundred-syllable mantra that some devotees recite hundreds of thousands of times as tool for purification. One of the most common Buddhist mantras is the six-syllable mantra om, mani, padme, hum. (Pronunciations are tricky with these mantras; this one usually is recited like this "Ome, mah-knee, pay-me, hung."

But a mantra that I have found very useful is a three syllable version: Om-ah-hum. In some practices, the recommendation is to utter (or silently recite) om in sync with your inhalation, hung on the exhalation, and, in the empty, quiet space between inhalation and exhalation, to observe the ah.

The simple mantra continues to reveal things to me the longer I use it, and over time I've found it to be a convenient grounding anchor whenever turbulence arises in my life. For me, the om and hum correlate to the yin and yang dualities, and can serve to represent any version of opposing energies that are present for you: pleasure-pain, good-evil, creation-decay. This revolving cycle of phenomenon is the way of the world, and the mantra is a way of reminding me of this basic truth of the rise and fall of all things.

Things get really interesting, though, in the "ah" between the "om" and the "hum." The middle syllable of the mantra, for me, represents a quiet openness, a non-judgmental spaciousness that serves as the ground, or matrix, in which all the om-hum phenomenon unfolds. It is, in essence, the syllable that represents pure awareness, which by its nature does not judge, but simply"knows" that phenomenon is being experienced.

Dwelling in the "ah" isn't a particularly familiar thing for us, because normally we are pretty much enslaved to the revolving cycle of our mental phenomenon, and really don't experience it with any kind of objectivity. We are either caught up in our feelings or emotions, or we're obsessed with our thoughts, and it never occurs to us that there's another quiet open state that is neither emotion nor thought. There is really no accurate metaphor for this spaciousness, although its sometimes said that glimpsing it is like suddenly recognizing the sky when you've spent all your time worried about clouds. When we do glimpse it, though, the feeling of relief is profound. Recognizing the "ah," and learning to relax and dwell there, is really what a spiritual path aims for.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Ying and Yan of it

A word of forewarning: At the end of this post, I'm showing a couple of photos of my damaged right knee, one of which is a bit graphic....

Three weeks ago, I had the first modestly severe injury in my 54 years on the planet. Prior to that point, it was all simply a matter of cuts, bruises stitches——a few things causing small scars, nothing more serious. I've been damn lucky, in other words.

And my recent ruptured knee tendon is relatively modest in the greater scheme of things. In this time and place, there is nothing life-threatening or even permanently disabling about it. Still, it's the most truamatic physical insult I've ever had, and it will give me an 8 to 12 week experience of what it means to be disabled in our culture. I won't walk without crutches until late in the summer, and it may well be after the Christmas before I walk normally again.

Interesting lessons to be learned here. Principle among them is the reminder of the interplay of decay/death on the one hand, and restoration/healing on the other. It's never before been quite so obvious to me that these opposing energies are intertwined, codependent even, in everything we see around us.

The fact that my knee gave way so laughably easily on Father's Day, is, on the one hand, indication of the gradual progress we all make toward the "big dirt nap." Twenty years ago, I routinely jumped, fell, twisted, banged this knee with a good deal of vigor, and never had any problem with it at all. Now at 54 years of age, though, with soft tissues beginning to harden and lose their resiliency, a relatively gentle slip on the steps caused this important knee tendon to tear away with an audible pop, leaving me in a heap in the steps.

It is, of course, just one indication of the future coming for us. The aging process is quite naturally one of steady, gradual decline, and my torn tendon of today will become a faulty hip of tomorrow, a kidney stone the day after, a heart attack or stroke some time after that. It is utterly inevitable, and to pretend that we don't decay is to cruelly delude ourselves.

One of the benefits of having an injury of this sort, and especially of the physical therapy that goes into recovery, is that you are forced to become more health conscious and watch your body and care for it a bit better. And simple observation convinces me of something else indisputable. If decay can't be avoided, healing is also inevitable. I'm supposed to exercise my knee three times a day, massage it, study its pain patterns, break down the scar tissue to make sure the mobility returns. To do this involves a fair amount of discomfort, but it also shows me that the knee is ever so slowly, gradually, but inevitably, improving and healing. The scar down the center of the knee is beginning to lose its angry look, the motion in the joint now is nearly 90-degrees, and the knee itself now begins to feel like it belongs to me again, compared to just a week ago or so, when it looked and felt to all appearances like a block of concrete.

A second lesson is that healing in hindered, and pain increased, when we resist. The pain of physical therapy, for example, is very largely a matter of the fearful resistance we bring to the process. Healing is in large part a matter of learning to trust the knee again, to relax into the healing. What's true here seems very likely to be true of other forms of injury and insult—whether spiritual, psychological, or otherwise.

I see this because I'm required to pay such close attention to the knee, but I'm relatively sure that its also true of every form of injury and insult we ever experience. We do decay, constantly. But we also heal and evolve, constantly. And healing is in large measure a process of relaxing.

The following three photos are in reverse order. First, the knee today, second the knee a week ago. Stop here if you're squeamish. Below this photo will be what the knee looked like three weeks ago under the operating knife.