mindfulness of pain, part 2

POSTCARD#338: Chiang Mai: Now three months since the event in November of last year, and the recovery from that blow to the centre of the chest, delivered like a heavyweight boxer’s punch – devastating. This is what it felt like. What happened was, around 9pm I was going through the crowds on Nimanheman Road with my Thai niece M, in the almost daylight brightness of studio lights suitable for taking selfies out on the street I suppose. Flashing illuminations distracted me and I stumbled on something in the darkness of a shadowy stretch of unsurfaced sidewalk, lost my balance and fell forward like a tree is felled in the forest. Broke a rib somehow, but the main thing was, I did something to the sternum, (the sternum is that vertical bone in the centre of the chest). This bone took the impact of the fall – I fell diagonally on a concrete step, hands held out to break the fall, but as the floor comes rushing up to meet me, it’s the step that takes the weight BANG!

I’m face-down on the step – small Asian hands reach out to help me get up. M leans forward and says in my ear, “Toong Ting, do you want me to call an ambulance?” I tell her I’m okay, (so practical, M is. She is 14 now and dyed her hair canary yellow, but that’s another story). Also thank you and smiling to all these kind people (note: real concern, anxious faces), more hands held out to help me get back to where I once belonged… the realm of all upright, upstanding, decent, and respectable persons.

What does this look like? Old guy with wispy white beard sinks down in the crowd, has a stroke or something? Falls on the rough un-surfaced sidewalk. No, no, I’m okay, just tripped, slipped, tumbled, stumbled, fumbled? I’ll be allright, thanks for your help, it’s okay – I’m getting some of their anxiety. Best stand up, no matter how inviting that unsurfaced sidewalk looks like a nice place to lie down and get comfortable. No, no, and I start moving around, to reassure everyone that this old guy escaped the clutches of gravity once again.

We made it back to the apartment without me feeling any pain, but next day the agony in the chest was something to behold. The breath-taking scale of it… just turning over in bed would throw me into a trauma of panic, difficult to find the way out of. Ordinary things, like getting up from the sitting position were so overwhelming I’d stay seated for most part of the day.

Meditation was/is a necessity, I had to develop skills fast for this 24 hour, no-choice pain situation. Almost always at night, when sleep would find me seeking a position or a place somewhere, somehow, something bearing the characteristics of rest, and following the pathways leading to a comfortable place to be in, to inhabit for a few hours and the easefulness of that, but not to dwindle there or linger too long, lest it becomes something impossible to extricate myself from – all these tugs and pulls that mindfulness uses to remind us where the Path leads.

Then as far as possible, a quiet investigation into the pain, and the reaction to it, again and again. Contemplation over the breath-taking scale of it; what to do? not much more than that, but by the end of January, I came out of it with a greater awareness of this part of the body… in the East it’s the Chit, the heart, the mind. The idea that identity was situated in the Brain didn’t make sense at all

What’s happening to me? Examining the X-ray of the broken rib I could see all the other broken ribs fused together any old way (this is how they mend themselves), bits sticking up where there shouldn’t be, and seen so clearly because they’re all on the same side of the body. Four broken ribs which occurred separately are all on the left side?

What kind of karma could this be; the ribs, the blow to the center of the chest, and the long surgical scar in the abdomen where a Thai surgeon removed two cancer tumors in the colon more than twenty years ago, and lastly, my Post Herpetic Neuralgia in the right occipital nerve, feels like a blow to the head, never gets better, a permanent headache. It’s all just so intrusive, so violent, how can this be? As far as personalities go, I’d say and others would agree, I’m not a violent person! Doesn’t make sense, karma like this is surely irredeemable!

Ajahn Vajiro was passing through town the other day so we met him at the airport and I asked him about these traumatic circumstances, and what to make of this strange karmic outcome? He shook his head saying, never mind about that, get back to the one who knows. In Thai it’s poo roo (poo: person, roo(v): to know.

Examples: poo ying: lady, poo chai: man.

You could say poo roo is the higher self, except that it’s a personification, which brings us back to the subject/object divide. What was meaningful for me was how Ajahn began articulate the blessings the Four Brahma-Viharas, while explaining the quality and meaning of the words:

1) Goodwill / Metta, Loving kindness.

2) Karuna / Compassion, is what goodwill feels when it encounters suffering: it wants the suffering to stop.

3) Mudita / Empathetic joy), what goodwill feels when it encounters happiness.

4) Upekkha / Equanimity)

The acoustics of Ajahn Vajiro’s words still remain in present time, everything about who I am, disappears for an instant and there’s only awareness. I experience this awareness physically, in the centre of the chest, spreading out to the shoulders. In Pali it’s citta, the heart. Felt exactly in the same place where the huge punch in the chest happened… curious and strange, best left alone, unsaid, unexamined, and questions unanswered do not create the subject/object divide. Thought and language are the apps, while awareness is the operating system. It comes before anything else, here in the centre of my being.

Awareness precedes thought. As soon as I think about it, the whole thing becomes duality, subject/object. This time, I’m inclined to take it further, and that awareness (object) is ‘me’ (subject), ‘self’. This ‘self’ says it’s ‘my’ awareness, ‘I’ am the subject of awareness. But when this ‘self’ that I believe to be ‘me’, starts to look for the ‘me’ that possesses awareness, it finds that it’s the other way round: awareness has to first start looking for the ‘me’ (and the ‘me’ can’t be found).

There are many ways that this metaphor can be constructed. Please let me know how it looks in the comment box.

T

submerged in air

POSTCARD#322: Chiang Mai: Sitting at my desk here on the third floor and there’s somebody drilling a hole in the wall somewhere, the sound of it seems to be everywhere. Renovations are going on and there’s been a lot of banging and drilling. It’s a hammer drill in hard concrete this time; the sound is vibrating through the structure of the room and if I lean my head in my hand and elbow on my desk, the vibration is conducted through the bone structure of my arm, and jaw held in hand, clenched teeth and the skull is vibrating. It’s like the hole is being drilled in my head and I’d really like that sound to go away, to not be here. Interesting that it only takes a moment for the mind to create backstory support for this thought, and suddenly I feel totally engaged in it.

Then a child starts crying in another apartment, it’s small voice going on in a seemingly inconsolable way. I can hear the muffled sound of the mother’s voice as well. Yes, I’d be upset too if I was woken up by this kind of noise… and there’s resentment about the noise building up inside me, a very large wave of justified outrage, beginning to take shape. In an instant it’s formed. Who is responsible for this? I’m looking for somebody to be at fault here. Who’s to blame for this? I come from a society conditioned by blaming, searching for the scapegoat. Blame it on somebody – blame it on myself…. then that whole emotional thing disappears as quickly as it arose, because there’s a plane approaching; it’ll fly over in a few seconds. We’re in the flight path here – departing flights from Chiang Mai airport, flying quite low and heavy with fuel. Some are very large passenger jets that go to Singapore and this must be one of them.

In a moment, the immense sound is present, takes over in every conceivable way; everything in the apartment, and outside too, subject to this colossal roaring vibration. The sound doesn’t just deafen, it’s as if we are submerged in air, an epic disaster movie. I can hear the hammer drill and the child crying, but the sounds are so faint. The thinking mind is quiet in the presence of this vast noise; a great chasm opening up in the fabric of reality, getting wider and wider and there’s only the receiving of the experience.

I’m drawn to these strange moments when there seems to be no thought at all. The mind just stops, and there’s awareness of ‘self’ but there’s no connection with it. Besides, the totality of aircraft noise is waning, as I knew it would, and hammer drill sensory impingement returns. Familiarity of crying child who remains unconsoled and, for a little while, I have to give way to the raging fire of emotion again. The mind is engaged in a kind of intensely gridlocked traffic of thoughts, driven into near collision with other thoughts and backing up, and trying to find a way out of this cramped condition.

Then I sidestep the whole thing. There’s a pause and in the small space that exists I remember the Ajahn saying, “Outside the thinking mind there is the uncreated”. I look around for the pause… it’s still there, a curious extended, stretched-out moment when there’s just no thought at all. It’s getting easier now, the child is not crying anymore. The drilling stops and the silence is overwhelming. Mango trees outside my window; sunlight on leaves, branches move slightly as tiny squirrels squeak and leap around in playfulness.

“Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t).”[Thich Nhat Hanh]


Photo: Chiang Mai Red Bus, public transport that goes anywhere
Reflections on an earlier post, Uncreated

the look of eyes (1)

POSTCARD#318: Chiang Mai: Moving through the main road traffic in a tuktuk, going at an unforgivable speed, just amazed by the noise of it. Lying back on the seat in the slouched position, holding on to everything, and the body kind of adhered to the seat. We make a fast turn into a soi (narrow road), lurch to the right in this flimsy three wheeled vehicle, lightweight structure with a wide seat, shiny chrome poles support a canvas hood overhead and nothing to separate outside from inside.

We’re now in a residential area, careering down a narrow path; the engine noise is louder here. Pedestrians turn and look as the tuktuk approaches and step back out of the way. There’s just enough time to see the person’s head turning in my direction, I glance and have eye contact, wish them well in my mind, and I’m gone. Turn another corner and somebody else looks up from what they’re doing. It happens again and again, an old woman, a child, and a man just sitting on the wall. He hears the sound of the approaching tuktuk, head rises, shoulders turn and face comes round to where I am, looks at me sitting in the back seat, I smile and he does too. We’re in a moment, a shavingth of time and it’s gone. Again and again it all takes place in a couple of seconds – not unusual, quite ordinary… a fragment of a shared moment.

Heads move in my direction: who is that in the tuktuk? The human reaction eyes and ears; vision and hearing, and mouth is there to speak or call out if necessary. All these sensory receptors are positioned together in or about the face and the flat plane of it moves round like a small parabolic TV satellite dish reaching out for a signal, ready to respond. Sometimes it’s too fast and the thinking process doesn’t engage. I see the beginning of recognition, mind takes over and ‘self’ locks in, then released and the tuktuk is gone in that same instant. A brief glimpse; an excerpt from a sentence; a few words that don’t have a context.

Each person I see is ready to respond, smile, say hello when we have eye contact. It’s my responsibility to smile and wave because the place where I am at, is moving too fast and they see first I’m not anybody they know, white face, pale eyes, kind of invisible. Sorry, have to rush, bye! It’s a brief encounter then zoom round the corner and there’s somebody else. Face turns, eyes look and mind engages gear… she looks at me sees the prepared smile, smiles in recognition of my polite intrusion in her space and that is somehow hugely reassuring for me. The face turns away, and ‘I’ am not here, I never was here really, it just seemed like that for a moment; the look of eyes, and our shared world, the air takes the volume of a space where there’s always enough room for it, and the water in the lake is for fish to find somewhere to swim around in….


Photo: Chiang Mai Tuktuk