07 Nov Zen Whack
The first class I took in college was “Theism, Atheism, and Existentialism”, and the first book I had to read was Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness”. It took me all night to get through 3 paragraphs and I was so out of my league that I thought I might have to drop out. After a while though, it started to make sense and I moved on to “Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism” as well as many other “isms”. By the time I was supposed to declare a major, I had already finished one in Religious studies. In one of the articles that I read on Zen Buddhism, I came across a group of monks who would sometimes answer the questions of novices by whacking them with a board in the hopes that it might shake them out of the illusion of this world. Yesterday I got slammed in the head by a sapling I was trying to cut down, and I thought about those monks. I didn’t exactly reach enlightenment, but I was aware of the fact that all of the work that I have put into understanding the relationship between mind and body, as well as the difference between reaction and response, has started to pay off.
While making “All The Rage,” we shot a lot of footage and interviews that we were not able to find a place for in the narrative. One of those was with the spiritual teacher Ram Dass. I grew up seeing his book “Be Here Now” laying on coffee tables at friends houses (or at least at one house that I cam remember) and seeing his writing in a local magazine called The Sun (which is now arguably the best magazine in the country). A couple of years ago I read his book “Polishing the Mirror” and it had a wealth of powerful insights about dealing with aging. I read it while traveling during my wedding anniversary so I picked up “Be Here Now” for my wife as a gift. A few days after I got home, my Aunt was visiting. She saw the book on the shelf and said, “Oh Richard…” – (before he was Ram Dass he was a well respected psychologist named Richard Alpert) – “he was friends with my husband Ken when they were at Stanford.” The coincidence was so strong I was inspired to reach out to him see about having him sit down for an interview.
The very next day I got a positive reply from his assistant explaining that Ram Dass was happy to do the interview…. and by the way, he said, “I’m a patient of Dr. Sarno”. Unfortunately, Ram Dass had a stroke several years ago and travels much less than he used to. As he is based in Hawaii we arranged to do the interview via skype. One thing that came up in both the interview and in his writings was a discussion about the stroke. He explained that he was taken to the hospital and there were people hovering over him expressing the idea that the stroke was problematic, that it was bad or worrisome. He asked the room to be cleared because all of the negative energy and worry was not helping. He pointed out that a stroke is neither bad nor good. It simply is a stroke. When we view it in the present without judgement we can observe it without reacting to it – and then healing begins. We often become so used to our habitual reactions to situations that we can’t even imagine that there might be another way to respond. Over the past couple of years I have done a lot of work on coming to observe my automatic reactions so that I might respond instead.
Yesterday Ram Dass’ words rung in my ears seconds after I got slammed in the face by that sapling that I was trying to cut down. I didn’t realize I had cut it as far as I had and it ripped through before I was ready, instantly smashing into my eyebrow launching me backwards. The impact was so fast and unexpected that I didn’t experience it “real time”. I felt a thud and heard an explosive ring in my ear. It was momentarily panic-inducing and before I had any sense of what was happening, I was rolling in the leaves holding my face with fear coursing through my body. The next second, I understood what had happened and a rush of thoughts competed with each other for my attention. The first thing was a rush of dread that I might have destroyed my eye. I understood that the sapling had catapulted towards my face, but it was less clear how bad the damage was.
Then I thought of Ram Dass saying, “stroke isn’t bad or good. It is simply stroke.” I tried to embody that idea in that moment, aware that neither fear, anger, nor anxiety were going to be of any help to me. I observed a spark of frustration, that I had been stupid enough to make this mistake; that I should have known better. Then, instead of letting that thought become a feeling in my body (a hot shot of dread for example), I let it go. Instead of reacting with anger, or self-recrimination, I focused on being present. Within a minute I was able to sit up and I slowly opened my eyes. My glasses had gotten whacked off my face so things were blurry and my right eye was a little bit extra blurry. I was woozy, but conscious enough to recognize that the impact had had an affect on me. I checked my hands to see if there was any blood, but there wasn’t, which was a relief. I felt around for my glasses for a few minutes, but found myself becoming frustrated that I couldn’t find them. I became aware that I was beginning to project worry into the future. I knew that I had a lot to do, like go to NY for the premiere of our film, and I started to worry about what I would do if I couldn’t find my glasses. Then I thought, “this situation isn’t good or bad, it just is.” I realized that either I would have glasses or I wouldn’t, and expending energy on worrying about it right then wasn’t going to help me get the glasses, so I let it go.
I was alone at the house so I stood up and headed inside to try to take care of myself. I was wobbly, but got a little bit more solid with each breath and each step. I imagined that in the past I might have been more frustrated, angry, or worried, but I actually felt quite calm. However, I was aware of feeling a sadness in my chest. I wondered if that was a symptom of concussion, but also thought that anger and fear probably often mask feelings of sadness for me, and since I was letting those feelings go, there was space for the sadness to rise. I made it inside and looked in the mirror.
It wasn’t as bad as I had first thought, but it wasn’t good. The daughter of a friend of ours had recently gotten a concussion after falling off a bike (and getting whacked in the head by our daughter’s handlebars), so I was aware of both some of the symptoms of a concussion and the fact that three wasn’t too much that could be done except for taking it easy. I was supposed to meet my band in a couple of hours for a show but I wasn’t sure that I could play. Instead of worrying about it, I put some ice on my head. I did that off an on for a few minutes. Then I tried to meditate. I tried to listen to a guided meditation, but it was hard for me to concentrate. Instead I simply did some pranayama breathing exercises and concentrated on being present rather than regretful or let myself become anxious. These thoughts kept arising and I kept observing them rather than letting them take hold. The difficulty that I had in concentrating sparked fears that “concussion was bad”, but I also observed that while I had some confusions, I was slowly getting better.
I thought about going to the doctor but I was alone and thought that I might be a little too confused to drive. My wife didn’t have her phone, but I knew she would be back soon. In the meantime, I once again went to look for my glasses. I wasn’t having any luck but I heard her pull up so I went to get her help. After a few minutes, I accepted that they would not be found and started to head back in. She found them. I put some more ice on my head and ate a banana. I felt well enough to drive, but I was still a little bit out of it and wasn’t sure that I could play, so I went over to my friend’s house to figure things out. Knowing that I shouldn’t push myself, I sat down as we played. For the first couple of minutes, I had trouble holding my pick. Soon though I was playing just fine. However, when I had to think about the parts I got lost. If I just let myself play I was ok. I learned a lot in that moment about just letting go and playing loose. However, when we got to “Fire”, the Springsteen song, I hit a wall. I usually start the song with the simple bass line. My friend Spencer had to play it to me a half dozen times before I could remember it- and then only after I played it with him. That’s when I knew I needed to take it easy.
For the most part, I let them load the gear and then we loaded in. I continued to take it easy and we played that night. I would usually be a bit more animated but my wife kept coming to tell me to tone it down, so I did. I spaced on a couple of parts, but I also played some songs better than ever. I was spaced out but calm. I went home and slept well. Still, I was prepared to go urgent care in the morning just to be sure. I called up a Nurse hotline and talked through everything that had happened for over 20 minutes. She agreed that I probably only needed to come in if things got worse. Instead of stressing out in a doctors office I took a two hour nap. I think it was a good choice. I firmly believe that things went as well as they did because of all that I have learned in the last 4 years of working on this film. Concussion isn’t good or bad, it just is.
I’m going to keep meditating regularly. Again, I’m a lot better today, but I have to work on not working too hard. In reading back through this piece I found a number of mistakes that had to do more with concentration than with misplaced fingers…so that’s it for today. Here’s a meditation that Ram Dass did for us at the end of our interview.