We sat in chairs. It was evening. The room had carpet. I probably wore a wool sweater, because it was my first winter in England and I was a senior in college and I had just discovered wool. All of us, about a half dozen students, sat in padded chairs, except one boy who was so perfectly perched on a zafu that I immediately decided he was pretentious and would never reach enlightenment in any religion.
The teacher, a Scottish man in his fifties, had an open face, the kind of carita that made me think of books I had loved once and mountain ranges I had seen as a child in Colombia. He talked about sitting and noticing the breath, and I tried to focus on what he was saying rather than the lilting sound to his words because it was my first time receiving sitting instructions and I wanted an A even if it was not a formal class. In the silence, I noticed my in-breaths and how silent the room was (had a room ever been so still?) and also how much I hated the boy on the zafu (was he even breathing?). And then it was over. We asked a few questions. The teacher wished us well, and we moved toward our shoes. I thanked the teacher, and out of habit I stuck out my right hand. He took it in both of his and cradled it, while saying something about Buddhism or Cambridge University or perhaps the United States; I didn’t hear him. Instead, I noticed his hands, the indents of the palms, the fingers soft as eyelashes.
In the cold, I rushed on the cobblestone streets to my room at the international house, where I sat at the narrow wooden desk and opened my olive green journal and wrote quickly about hands and how no one had ever held my hand like that before. The phrase “spiritual crush” did not occur to me then, and even now I resist it. Even now, I insist that when he held my hand, I felt palms for the first time and fingertips and wrists and that it all had to do with it being my first experience of sitting.
Of course, that night in England, I had no idea that a few years later I would be forced to notice my hands for hours at a time. That a man from Russia would hold my hands and so would a Jewish New Yorker and a Chinese man in Oakland, too. They would lift my right hand to the glare of lamps in medical offices and the backroom of herbalist stores. They would squeeze and tap, murmur questions and send me home with instructions, because by then my hands had stopped being a gathering of skin and tendons, fingertips and spiritual desires. My hands were nothing but traitors.
When I started sitting no one talked to me about what Buddhists call attachment to views. At least not in those words, and that was helpful. It would have been too easy to shrug off the idea of having views. Who has views? I have ideas perhaps, and opinions, yes, but who uses the word “views”? The direction I received instead was to “drop the story.” Now, that made sense. Everyone has a story, a cuento—a lot of them, really—and what would happen if I just noticed mine? And watched the stories shift and move and I just stayed on the cushion?
It’s hard now to believe what I did back then in the early 2000s. I sat at home and sometimes at the local Shambhala center, and I practiced dropping the stories I had about my father who drank too much and about the men I worked with and all their gender and race privileges. All the while, I ignored my right hand, which felt cramped, and my wrist that was suspended over my thigh but felt as though it were stuck inside a hot stove.
I did not think then of my body as a story or consider that I had stories about the body. I was 26 years old. Illness was a cuento, yes, but it was a story for later in life. Much later. Besides, the cramping in my right hand was temporary. I was at the end of a two-year graduate program in journalism and Latin American studies, and at the end of a book project on feminism and race. I had just overdone it. The physical therapist at NYU’s student health center had said so. Everyone had carpal tunnel by then. I was no different. He recommended a hand brace, and I trudged to CVS for what turned out to be a stiff glove the color of eggshells.
Four years later, I couldn’t type. The grocery bag had to be packed lightly. Heavy doors terrorized me and so did pens and keyboards. By then, I had moved to California, where one doctor had me face the closed door of the exam room. She tapped my back a few times. “You don’t meet enough of the criteria for fibromyalgia,” she concluded. A surgeon in San Francisco offered to slice my right arm open and move a nerve. Then he dropped my right hand, peered at my right shoulder clenched close to my ear and said, “You’re pretty stressed. You need to relax.” Later, I googled the procedure he was recommending and the post-op pictures popped up on the screen: arm after arm swollen with a red scar that began above the elbow and ended three or five inches above the wrist.
At some point during those years, I heard the teaching about the two arrows. An arrow hits you and there’s pain. The second arrow is the story we tell ourselves about the first arrow. I’m a loser. This always happens to me. Why me? I heard the teaching, thought it brilliant, and then I put it away for a day when I might find it useful. After all, I was in agony. When the Buddha talked about the two arrows, he was clearly referring to the pain of heartbreak or lost fortunes. He was not thinking about a woman who had just turned 30 and had constant pain and no diagnosis.
The thing about illness is that in addition to its being a series of impermanent and heightened sensations, it is a story that contains many stories. This is the only way that I can explain why I wore a wrist brace for as long as I did. I was around 30 years old. No one could tell I was in pain. People expected me to give up my seat on the public bus for the elderly and for pregnant women, and friends thought I could help to carry heavy totebags. The common cuento about illness is that it is a condition made visible, the body undone. Think of bones punching at skin, eyes so large that the face stops mattering. The only way I could make my body meet the requirements of that narrative was to wear a wrist brace. It was a cuento, too. It said: Look, I have a story you can’t see. The brace did nothing for the actual physical pain. In fact, at times, it gave my already aching right hand the feeling that it was stuck in a bowl of dried clay.
Being sick means trafficking in stories—yours and the doctors’ and everyone else’s. I don’t say this to berate us. As David Loy writes in his enchanting book The World Is Made of Stories: “To see stories as the problem is to blame the victim. Instead of getting rid of stories one can liberate them: storying more flexibly, according to the situation. Shunyata, “emptiness,” is a heuristic device to free us from wherever we are stuck.”
The last physical therapist I saw did not believe in being stuck. She instructed me on stretches and monitored the movements of my right arm and then my left. She tracked my progress on the computer. She recommended I marry and have children. After about six weeks, she said she couldn’t see me again. “There’s been no progress. I can’t do anything else for you.”
That night, I sat on the futon in my apartment and considered how my hands and my arms and maybe my entire upper body would eventually make it impossible to hug people. I began to wonder where euthanasia was a legal practice.
My apartment had a partial view of Lake Merritt in Oakland and of the Our Lady of Lourdes Church. At night, the lake looked like a pool of ink, the bell tower a fat pen floating in the sky. I must have been delusional enough that I thought the despair was going to kill me, because when I woke up the next day and noticed the lake and the church—all of it still there under a bright sun and some “me” still there along with it—I felt surprised. And relieved. I called a friend who had survived cancer in her twenties. She said, “It’s like you’re not happy to be alive, but you’re happy to be not-dead.”
I sat on the futon in my apartment and considered how my hands and my arms and maybe my entire upper body would eventually make it impossible to hug people. I began to wonder where euthanasia was a legal practice.
During the worst time of my chronic pain, I discovered that my HMO had a department called “behavioral” something, which I figured was where all the sick people ended up when the doctors and physical therapists got tired of them. That’s how I met Kathie.
She had large glasses and tight curly hair, and she was a cross between a nurse, a therapist, and a caseworker. I liked that ambiguity. She wanted me in her class on managing anxiety and in another one for people with chronic pain and a third on mindfulness-something-or-other. “I don’t like the people in the chronic pain class,” I whined in her office. “They’re old.” The people were in their sixties and seventies and appropriately sick in my opinion and maybe mostly lonely and adrift in a culture that doesn’t know what to do with people as they age. I expected Kathie to engage with me in a philosophical discussion. Instead, she said point-blank, “You’re with people going through the same experience.” In other words, suck it up and sit on the cushion. In her class on managing anxiety, we sat in a circle, about 15 of us, in silence for a few minutes every week, our eyes closed, counting our breaths. It had been more than a decade since I had sat in England with the Scottish teacher. I had yet to attend a silent retreat, but nevertheless I felt quite smug about my progress as a meditator, though I wouldn’t have been able to explain what that progress was exactly. And then the aching began in my right hand as if a professional wrestler were squeezing the tendons. I fought back tears.
During the interactive lecture, Kathie stood at the front of the class next to a giant easel pad that had circles and arrows showing how beliefs connected to thoughts and to lived experiences—a sort of diagram of the second noble truth. I pointed out to Kathie that my anxiety was legit. No offense to the others in our class, but the pain in my hand was not just me, say, thinking that maybe the plane might crash and so maybe I shouldn’t get on it. I had actual pain.
“But what are you telling yourself about the pain?” Kathie asked.
“Nothing. I’m just in pain.”
“You’re in pain. So what? What happens next?”
I peered at my right hand, the little traitor, as if it might talk to me, but I knew the story. I just hadn’t said it out loud before. “I eventually lose my job, and . . . I end up under the freeway with a woman named Conchita eating cat food.”
“What if you let the story go?” Kathie asked. “And stay with the sensations in your hand?”
“I’ll try,” I said weakly, and while the rest of the class went on with that week’s topic, I looked down at my right hand again and began saying to myself, “Throbbing.” I repeated the word silently, feeling like an idiot and wincing, and then I noticed that the sensation shifted to heat and while many of the lines on my palm did not connect, the palm itself began to pool that heat.
I would go on to practice like that for another year or two before the pain began to recede, flaring every few months, then every few years, and each time I would shift my attention from the stories (again? when will this be over?) back to the sensations. Sometimes now I’m tempted to invoke the Heart Sutra and say: No fingers, no palms, no wrists, no arms, no pain. But that would be another story. I’m finding it more beneficial these days to take guidance from a story that Joseph Goldstein shares in his book The Experience of Insight. He writes about an elephant that would often be walking down the road as he and his fellow meditators, in India, were going to town. “When we saw the elephant coming down the road we did not just stand there saying ‘seeing, seeing,’ we moved out of the way. Use the thought process when appropriate.”
The chronic pain flared recently, and I lay in bed, noticing the craving for stories and the beginning of stories and also the cramping in my right arm. Then I moved, making the necessary appointment with a massage therapist and bringing out the old heating pad. It was only much later that I noticed the tiny plastic elephant sitting on my desk, a purchase I had made months before picking up Goldstein’s book. The elephant has a black-tipped tail and a raised trunk, and it spends its days next to a colorful muñeca called a worry doll, which fits in the palm of my right hand.
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