Medicine Buddha

Right now being in my body feels like an old bicycle, a bicycle old enough that no matter how well I treat and maintain it, it’s still falling apart.  There’s “give” in the frame.  The brake pads are worn, the chain stretched and the gear teeth rounded.  One or two may be missing.  Even the paint job is no more than a symbolic sign reading “needs paint.”  But enough of the analogy.

Two days ago I had relatively minor knee surgery, the repair of a torn meniscus.  I was scheduled at the last moment, did a brilliant (no stops, no falls, no horns honked at me, no cursing on my part) bike ride from Samaritan Village in The Bronx to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital for pre-admission testing by competent and friendly folks from all over the world.  All went as smoothly as my ride and the following day I was admitted and the surgery performed hitchlessly.

So far pretty good, huh?  Yeah, I thought so too.

Eventually the O.R. anesthetics wore off and some pain showed up.  Good Dr. Hobeika had prescribed Vicodin, a trademarked brand narcotic analgesic product containing hydrocodone and paracetamol (also known as acetaminophen.)   Never having been actively addicted to down-heads nor to anything else for the last twenty-five years, I had no hesitation using the pills for a day and a half and then stopping.  Was there a high?  Yes there was.  Not with the first or second dosage, but the third left me perfectly content to sit on the couch, knee elevated, staring into where space probably was.  Did I like it?  No.  Nor did I dislike it.  It simply “was.”  Which brought this to mind, a mailing I’d received earlier in the week from Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine:

One night when I was still new to meditation, I lay awake for hours in agony from a badly sprained ankle. Finally I decided to see what would happen if I meditated with the pain as my object. The result astounded me.

I recalled a teacher’s suggestion: “Get curious about your experience.” I had never before stayed with pain long enough to be curious about it, much less to investigate it. Whenever my knees or back hurt during meditation, I escaped into counting breaths or repeating my koan. I might notice when the pain stopped, but I noticed nothing of its nature. Was it burning, stabbing, throbbing, dull? Was it steady or intermittent? Were my muscles clenched or relaxed? What thoughts did the pain trigger?

Lying in the dark that night, I greeted the pain as a sensation I’d never met before, and explored each flutter and twinge. In time, the pain eased, and I drifted off to sleep.

– Joan Duncan Oliver, “Do I Mind?” (Summer 2007)

This in turn brought to mind a fragment of written correspondence from 1961 between Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in the USA, and Karl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst.  In it the two agreed that the addict’s quest was a spiritual one, a search not necessarily for God by that name, but for the serenity, safety, security and satisfaction which define spiritual existence.

Sitting on the couch, leg and brain high, I didn’t feel serene, safe, secure or satisfied.  Nor, for that matter, did I feel their opposite.  Quite frankly (a phrase I’ve always wanted to use) my pain had never been all that great that I was prepared to escape it at all costs. (Trust me on this one, escaping through addiction is escaping at all costs.) And my pleasure in everyday  life at this point?  ‘Couldn’t be greater!  As we say at Samaritan Village, I had done more–unintended–research and again discovered that drugs are not for me.

The following morning–this one–I did try meditating on the pain, but, at that point the pain was so subtle (except when I moved awkwardly) that I was unable to find it.  Still nature abhors a vacuum and almost immediately the pain pocket was filled by a set of conditions I’ve been working to ignore, a trio of pain producers which have made eating a generally difficult experience, and a ringing in the ears now exacerbated by the quinine sulfate I’ve been taking to prevent night leg spasms.  What to do?  Bobbie suggested mounting the aluminum crutches and going for a walk.  O.K!!!  Ten steps from the building and the knee hurts again.  This time it’s a sharp pain occurring with each step.

“If it’s really bothering you, we can go back,” she offers.

“Naa,” I respond.  “I’m good.”

A beat.

“Yeah,” I respond.  “This hurts.”

So now I’m here at the keys writing all this out to you.  And guess what?  Right now there’s not enough pain to keep writing about.  Safer than drugs, easier than meditation,

(small fanfare)

Distraction is the cure!

Remember that!

Remember that!!!

Published in: on May 16, 2010 at 10:19 am  Comments (2)