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From the Interesting to the Simple

April 13, 2016

By Stephen Damon

[If you haven’t read my previous two post you might do so before reading this one.]

MSA (multiple systems atrophy) is a progressive disorder and so as soon as I get more or less used to my symptoms another one appears or I get more test results indicating the progression of the illness. A few days ago, I got the results of the extensive neuro-psych tests that I had taken a month before. The tests were a very comprehensive examination of the many functions that make up our cognitive ability. They tested such things as memory, attention, perceptive reasoning, and many other functions that I didn’t even know I had.

Reading the reports I learned that I had many areas of severe disability along with many areas of “low average” and “borderline” ability. I had many areas in which I scored less than all the persons who had ever taken that test. Alongside all those low marks I managed to score “superior” and “very superior” on all functions that had to do with verbal ability. So that is why I can still think, talk, and write about things that are important to me, especially this illness.

While I have been able to adapt to all the physical disabilities that I have, including not being able to walk without a cane, these neuro psych results have been very hard to deal with as they reveal how badly parts of my brain are working due to atrophy. The symptoms that express these disabilities are more subtle than the physical symptoms. I had learned to deal with physical limitations due to countless sports injuries and surgeries. And even though my current physical limitations have to do with injuries to the brain and not to tendon and ligament tears, I’ve been able to pay more attention to the physical symptom rather than the underlying brain atrophy. I guess you could say that I was, to some extent, in denial.


But all this changed when I studied what percentile I was in on various neuro-psych tests. While some of the results were not too bad, many were in the less than 10 percentile, and some were less than one percent. Reflecting on these results, I realized that I felt that it was as if my brain disorder had been a theoretical diagnosis that didn’t interfere too much in my life. Most of the literature talked about the later stages during which a person is almost completely disabled and not able to do very much by him or herself. I thought that since I was in the early stage that didn’t have too many symptoms I wasn’t really sick yet. But all of a sudden the theoretical had become very immediate, very practical, and very hard to ignore. I was sick!

In a sense I have always been a “theoretical” person interested in studying and teaching great ideas of western philosophy and the spiritual traditions. I could even take something very concrete in my life and turn that into an hour Dharma talk about a spiritual principle in Zen Buddhism. A friend of mine once remarked that I didn’t have common sense, but had uncommon sense. And of course I took that as a compliment because I was a philosopher. In a sense, I could take just about anything going on in my life and turn it into an idea.

Now, of course Zen is famous for saying that there is nothing holy in the scriptures and that there is no need to study the sutras or ideas of any kind. All you have to do is “just sit” and learn how to take the results of meditation when you walk down the street or drink a cup of tea or eat bowl of rice. There are countless stories of “ordinary” men and women discovering those kinds of things in their everyday lives. In Zen there is nothing “supernatural” or metaphysical or even religious in the usual understanding of the term. Everything is ordinary. The first koan that was given to me to study was, “Ordinary Mind is the Way.” Practicing with that koan I began to change my way of thinking, but it would take a long time and a grave illness to see that any kind of thinking was of limited help.

Not only is truth immediate and practical but it is physical. There are stories of monks experiencing truth with their body as well as their mind. In Koan 23 in the Mumonkan, a monk who has just understood something says, “I am like one who has drunk water and actually experienced himself whether it is cold or warm. In other words there is nothing theoretical about truth. Again I have to admit that I didn’t really get that during my Zen practice. It is only now that I am able, or perhaps forced, to let go of the philosopher in me and really experience whether a truth is hot or cold, dry or wet.

Putting all this in another way, Soren Kierkegaard said that “the goal of the religious life is to go from the interesting to the simple.” I must’ve read that sentence when I was in my early twenties, but it still has a presence in my life. It’s a thought that will appear in my consciousness as I walk down the street or look out my window. It’s really never very far from my conscious awareness. Some people say that they have angels that watch over them, but I seem to have quotes from spiritual masters, east and west, that come to my aid from time to time. It’s not that I necessarily understand these quotes, but I do have a strong sense that they are true. Although I have used Kierkegaard’s quote to illustrate various elements of the spiritual life, I always had the sense that I hadn’t really understood or experienced it. Now, I am beginning to see how simple things are if I let go of the part of my mind that wants to theorize and philosophize.

Living a simple, “ordinary” life one can let go of all the distinctions and judgments that he or she used to make sense of things. “Just living” one can get beyond the duality of ordinary and extraordinary. As an example of this I have seen in my hospice work how a person’s last breath is both “ordinary” and extraordinary. On one level, a person breathes out, but doesn’t breathe in, but on another level there is often a great sense of ease and peace. Sometimes, a dying person emanates great feelings of love and compassion that seems to saturate the air in the room. In the moments after a person’s passing there sometimes is a presence that seems vast and inconceivable. One breath not taken reveals, at least sometimes, something that is beyond our understanding. Some might want to interpret that to fit into some religious dogma, but for me it seems most fitting to just be as open as I can to it.

And so I am continually trying to be truly open to all the external and internal influences of my life. To be open to anything I have to let go of all of my previous judgments and theories. I have to put “The Critique of Pure Reason,” Plato’s “Republic”, and even the “Platform Sutra” back on my bookcase in order to live simply. That being said, I still have to take some of the great ideas of those works as real as the air that I breathe. Studying at the beginning of a person’s search for truth is indispensable, but after a while one reaches a stage where one has to make truths real and even physical.

So now, the “theoretical” is a hard and fast fact of my life. Here is an example of what I mean that happened a couple of days ago. I was on my way to the Zen Center, but decided to look for a place to get coffee since I was a little early for a meeting. Then I quickly changed my mind and decided to go to the Zen Center to sit quietly before my meeting. I knew the street I was on, but I had no idea of where I was in space. It felt like I didn’t understand how to maneuver through space at all. More than that, the very idea of space made no sense to me. This is an example of my limited visuospatial ability that had scored less than one percent. The first time that this had happened to me I became anxious, impatient, and very frustrated. But this time I found myself deeply relaxing into the “unknowness” of the situation. I found myself letting go of everything. And when I say “everything” I mean everything that I had ever experienced or thought of before. I felt more free than I had ever felt before. It was one of those little but nevertheless life-changing experiences that will stay with me forever. My illness had given me an experience of the way things are that had been too subtle and elusive for me to get even during years of intense Zen practice.

It was as if I had discovered the “spacelessness” of space. Usually our minds use space and time to understand nearly everything that is going on in our lives. These seem to be categories that our mind uses to understand ourselves and the world. But for a few moments I was able to let go of space, and experience things more intimately. There was no intermediary to my experience. To use Suzuki’s language, I was able to let go of my “small” mind.

And so I now see that my illness is, above all things, a teacher for me. I’ve seen this aspect of an illness before when I had a chronic psychological problem (agoraphobia). Sure, Buddhism teaches us that everything can be your teacher if you are awake and alert to whatever is appearing in your life, but this feels a little different. As my brain atrophies I am less and less able to rely on it as I could before. Over and over again I am forced to live with nothing to rely on. I see that because I can’t rely on my brain or even my past experiences I have to respond to each moment of my life as if I were a beginner.

Suzuki Roshi talked about Beginner’s Mind in “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” and I have studied that for nearly forty years and given many dharma talks on it. But as I said earlier, my understanding was theoretical and even philosophical. Now it is what is right in front of me, minute after minute after minute. Each moment I have to figure out how to live as if I have never lived before. It is as if everything I thought before was a dream and only now could I live this life for real. How wonderful!

One Comment
  1. Extraordinary openness and depth of insight. Thank you for sharing

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