We are often tested in ways that we have not anticipated. Such was my experience on the morning of October 26 2019, when I awoken to realize that I was crippled. Attempting to get out of bed, I fell to the floor. Shocked and gripped in disbelief, I struggled to stand only to collapse again.
I called out to Denise, my long time companion of 40 plus years to help me back to bed, and after a bit of struggle, I was able to position myself on my back gazing at the ceiling. What is happening to me I thought as images raced through my head, how could this be happening when I was due to depart for a book signing and guided meditation in New Jersey, within hours?
For the next six days I drifted in and out of consciousness , arguing against being transported to an emergency room, during moments of lucidity. I have had a bias towards western medicine for decades, considering its treatment of symptoms , in contrast to eastern medicines addressing the source of illness. Finally, on November 2nd, I submitted to family and students who advised me that time was running out and that I needed medical attention as soon as possible. At which point Denise called 911 and I was soon transported to the emergency room at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson , Maryland.
Upon arrival, I found myself surrounded by medical personnel who began accessing my condition as I continued to drift in and out of consciousness. Having refused food for days prior to coming to the emergency room, I was dehydrated and weak, I was aware however that my condition was grave due to the energy that was swirling around me as the medical staff scurried about.
After blood testing and other evaluations, I was admitted. I recall the emergency room Doctor tapping me on my leg and saying, “don’t worry , we will fix this”. I felt the confidence in his tone which gave me a degree of relief.
“You will need spinal surgery”, said the Indian surgeon as he looked at me with a penetrating focus. This thing is spinning out of control, I thought to myself, as contemplating his words. Is there no alternative I asked? No he answered, you have a bone pressing on your spine, have you not had pain in your lower back and legs prior to this recent incident? Yes I answered, as recounting the intense pain and stiffness of the past several years, which required that I use a cane.
“It is necessary that you have this surgery, the alternatives are increasing pain, permanent loss of your ability to use your legs, or death”! His words spun in my head as I looked at him in disbelief.
I continued to push back against the idea of my spine being exposed to a process that could leave me dead on the operating table, regardless of the reassurances of those who advocated the surgery. Finally I consented by saying to the surgeon ” okay, lets go”!
Three hours later, I returned to consciousness in the recovery room, as medical personnel accessed my condition by asking questions that would determine my condition post surgery. After an hour or so, I was taken to a room for continued recovery.
I was faintly aware of Doctors and Nurses speaking to Denise about my condition, as advising her that the next few days would determine my ability to recover fully. I was particularly aware of one Nurse who seemed quite concerned about my condition as Denise was being advised about the delicate condition that I was in by a Doctor, who endeavored to answer her questions pertaining possible complications in recovery from such intense surgery.
The next few hours were filled with an excruciating pain that was partially alleviated by pain killers that allowed moments of sleep, only to reawaken to more pain. The pain was total and all consuming. Though located in my lower spine, the radiations extended throughout my body, in an intensity never experienced by me in 78 years.
This challenge would open a door to a higher state state of mindfulness and awareness, that could only be attained by dancing at deaths’ door to the tune of unrelenting pain. The instincts honed through 60 years of spiritual and warrior training, motivated me to use the challenge as a springboard to further levels of awakening.
I decided a few days after surgery that I would gradually reduce the intake of the pain killer medications, thus eliminating the chance for the complications of addiction. I recalled a passage from a book entitled …The Puzzle Of Pain by Ronald Melzack in which he stated “The manipulation of attention, together with strong suggestion, are both part of the phenomenon of hypnosis. Self hypnosis or auto-suggestion may be related to the state of meditation observed in mystics or other profoundly religious people. Deep meditation, or prolonged, intense focusing of attention on inner feelings , thoughts or images, may produce a state similar to hypnotic analgesia.”
His words coincided with experiences that I had in Buddhist meditation beginning in 1980…So I decided that this would eventually be the alternative to the medications.
I began by chanting a mantra given to me by my Buddhist Teacher, Namkha Drimed Rabjam Rinpoche. This I would do silently as counting the repetitions on my mala beads.In the beginning, I would combine the mantra with the pain medications, but gradually refuse the medications as the pain became more manageable over the weeks and months. In addition to the mantra, I would practice the Monk Form taught to me by Dr. U Maung Gyi, and a Chen Taiji form given to my by Nganga Tolonaa, in my head, over and over. These practices allowed me to build a tolerance to the pain.
It was amusing to hear nurses suggest that I “should practice mindfulness”… Little did they know. Though they meant well…they had no idea of the difficulty of such practices and assumed that any indication of discomfort was an indication of failure to apply the method. However, finally, I arrived at a state where I very seldom asked for pain medication, to their surprise and amazement. By the time that I was discharged from the hospital some 6 weeks later, I seldom asked for the medications… totally relying upon the repetition of mantra and the practice of the martial forms in my head, a method based upon calming the agitation that accompanies discomfort by focusing beyond the challenge to arrive at a place beyond the challenge.
We learn through martial discipline that mental agitation is a cause of the loss of jing (body-mind essence), and the eventual cause of death. So, the mental agitation that comes about through pain, triggers a stress reaction that increases agitation and more jing loss…and the cycle continues, leading to further debilitation or death.
Through the practice of mindfulness, it is possible to establish control over the reactions to external stimuli. Use arising conditions to explore these practices.
Peace and blessings to all,