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Hello again.

March 19, 2016

Hello again. My apologies for taking so much time away from this blog. Since I last wrote I have had to deal with several health issues, some of which were not that serious, but still required a lot of time to recover from, and one, which will be with me until I die, is extremely serious. In September, I was diagnosed with multiple system atrophy, which is an extremely rare progressive neurodegenerative disorder with a life expectancy of 5-8 years after diagnosis.

Needless to say that diagnosis was a shock. And yet I never had the “why me” thought as it somehow felt familiar. More than that, it made sense to me that I would get a rare brain disorder. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but I have learned to take seriously some things that don’t make sense. Or maybe it’s better to say that something “nonsensical” sometimes makes sense to a part of ourselves that we really don’t know. It’s always there, but we rarely, if ever,  make contact with it. I think that this deep, hidden part of myself was awakened by my terminal diagnosis. I guess you could say that I needed a “shock” to make sense of things.

During my years of Zen practice I have tried as much as possible to keep in mind the “great matter of life and death,” but in hindsight I would say that it was much more of an abstract idea than it was a hard and true fact of my life. I always kept in mind the chant that is often written on the han, the wooden plaque which is beaten by a wooden mallet to call people to the Zendo: Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken. Take heed. Do not squander your life. 

Yes, I had read those lines in one translation or another a thousand times, but it never forced me to strive to awaken and it certainly never prevented me from squandering my life. Of course I knew that my life was short and someday I would have to be alone facing my death. But that someday when I would confront the great unknown, always seemed pretty far away, even at the age of 61. All that changed when the neurologist explained this devastating illness. I felt it was necessary to think in a new way about important things. More than that I felt it was necessary to live my life in a new way. But where to turn for help? To the sutras, to the teachings of Zen masters, to the teaching stories of Judaism, my home religion, or to my teacher? I have consulted all those teachings over the years, but now I felt that the only place to look was to myself. As it says in The Song of the Grass Hut: Turn around the light to shine within, then just return. The vast inconceivable source can’t be faced or turned away from.

After over forty years of inner work, I felt like I had to learn everything all over again. In a sense I felt like a beginner. Of course, I knew that Suzuki Roshi told us that the expert in us knows very little and our only hope is to contact our beginner’s mind. I had given many Dharma talks about just that. But again, this great thought seemed somehow abstract to me. I have to say that all the great truths, east and west, north and south, that I had studied over the years seemed abstract, metaphysical, and beyond my reach.

But, after getting the diagnosis I knew that all this had to change. The next day, sitting at the breakfast table I read an excerpt from a koan that I had printed and framed: Every day is a good day. And I thought to myself, “Is that really possible, now?” I decided to try to see that, especially as my symptoms became more and more disabling. Now, six months later, I can’t say that I feel that every day is a good day, but I do feel that every day is new and filled with great possibilities. In fact, this illness manifests itself differently almost every single day so each day does feel new. I experience some of my symptoms all the time, but many come and go. Each day does feel new and distinct, not part of an imaginary continuum that we construct to give ourselves a sense of permanence.

My Zen practice continues, although I have had to lessen its intensity. In a way I have had to come up with a new paradigm of practice with the help of my teacher, Victoria Austin, who had a lot of experience with brain injury. Over the next few months I hope to be able to describe some of the “new” things I’ve been trying as well as talking about this stage in my life, with all its challenges. I hope to share my journey towards a closer, more intimate relationship to the “unknown,” which seems to be closer than ever before.

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