Friday, June 18, 2010

Sotto Voce

What it comes to I guess is a sense that something is very close, yet escaping. And that the everyday misery of life is in the balance.

That I could – what? Translate the Buddha into touch therapy?

My mind darts at once in two opposite directions – one, that this is the same stupid arrogance that culminates in the AMA, and two, that sense in the Vajrayana that a skillful tap can shatter a glass slab that otherwise will take a thousand years to grind through. And people do report these breakthroughs.

Are they telling the truth?

Well, probably not. It's mostly impossible to tell the truth, especially about breaking free.

But still, telling the stories. Telling the stories is crucial. Not because the stories have not yet been told – to yourself. They have. But because they have not yet been externalized. Before they have been told to someone else, or to paper, or to a recorder, their power is absolute. Because you don't know them as stories, you know them as The Truth. The only way to escape the tyranny of your stories is to tell them.

For a year I worked on Z's shoulder and got nowhere. He gets surgery, and the whole complex of trigger points and pain dissolves. Now, I don't believe in this surgery; I don't believe the pain was mechanical. But Z believed in it. He believed there was a family curse, a malformed shoulder, and surgery would fix it. Perhaps he was right. But I suspect that if the surgeon had simply closed the skin incision without doing another thing, the results would have been the same. No one will ever know. No controls on this experiment.

And now? Now the shoulder pain has been replaced by an equally mysterious and equally debilitating “sciatica,” and I can't say I'm surprised. I'm just watching this pain develop. Trying to treat it, of course, but it's eerie to me how it has exactly replaced the shoulder pain, in the narrative of his life – all the fears about the shoulder have transferred to the “sciatic” with ridiculous ease. This one, like that, is a harbinger of a hundred deadly diseases and conditions – it's diabetes, it's nerve degeneration, it's who knows what. And it will only get worse. And, like the shoulder, it has blossomed into a whole network of mutually reinforcing trigger points and pain. Spookiest of all is that he no longer remembers the shoulder pain. “Remember how debilitating that was, how you thought it would never go away, how it dominated your life?” He looks at me as if I was making it all up. “The shoulder? That was never much of a problem,” says the look.

My interest in treating the sciatica dwindles. It will go away or it won't, but as long as this story holds sway, I have the horrible feeling that Z will never be free of pain. What we really have to do is break the story.

The next time I see him, I will ask, when was the last time you were without pain? What was that like? Can you see it in your mind's eye, feel it in your mind's body? It's a longshot, but I have to try something. I want to back up to before the pain, and then see if I can elicit the story of how the pain came, and why it stays.

But maybe I already know. Always, always, there's the unhappiness with work, the unhappiness with love. This life is killing you, Z. There must be more to life, you keep saying. There is. But I don't know how to help you find it.

Well, sure, I could recommend meditation. People know I meditate, they even sort of fish for me to advise them to meditate. I don't, because I know what they'd do. They'd sit once, for five minutes. Or maybe twice. They'd find their mind full of jumpy obsessive thoughts. Then they'd conclude that they can't meditate.

Or else they'd sort of doze and fantasize and they'd love it and advertise themselves as the next thing to enlightened. Christ.

I do think that meditation is probably the single best way to change your life. But it's horribly difficult and usually it takes months, or years, before you start seeing the differences. What American is going to sit still (so to speak) for that?

I hate it when I see meditation advertised as a solution to stress. Well, yes, sort of. Meditate seriously and you'll realize that everything you know is wrong and that you have to change your life, and get out of your marriage, and quit your job, and scrape a living as a woodcarver, or as a mendicant monk. And when you've done all those (extremely stressful) things, yes, your stress levels will probably drop a notch. But the idea that you can beat stress just by adding meditation to your life is stupid. No. At first it's yet another stress, trying to find that much time, and it's hard as hell. And when meditation does lower stress, it does it by violently upending your life. Don't try it. It's not safe.

Though really, you know, that's nonsense too. Jon Kabat-Zinn got some good results with meditation for chronic pain. So it can be done. I just can't provide that kind of framework for it.

A band of brightness behind the trees: muffled gray sky above. Birds shift places on a distant telephone wire, like one of those old bead puzzles. If they get it just right, the sky will unlock, and we'll all go fluttering up to the Sun. They say it's still up there somewhere.

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