I was born in Chicago in 1948. I was born without a right hand. It had been amputated in the uterus by a strand of ruptured amnion. Newborn, I was brought to a room where there was a large pillow. My father was called out of the waiting area and taken to this room by the doctor. My father was left alone in there with me and the large pillow. He understood finally that he was being given the chance to smother me. But he didn’t do it.
The doctor knocked. “Are you finished yet?”
My father didn’t answer. The doctor came in and my father was still standing there.
Together they brought me to my mother. I don’t know what she felt. She has told me that this was the only time she ever saw my father cry. He wept. And then he went out and got drunk. It was probably the only time he ever got dead drunk.
My Aunt Winifred had a psychotic break at the sight of me, and my Uncle Harold insisted on always photographing me from the left side. In some of my childhood pictures my right arm is outside the frame or in the next room.
Cripples were mostly invisible back then. If you saw them at all they were begging on the streets, or they were the Easter Seal poster children inspiring pity and charity, or they were evil villains like Captain Hook. But they certainly weren’t anything you’d want to be, not just because of the physical loss or difficulty involved, but because somehow the whole thing was tinged with creepiness. Disability was one of those things you weren’t even supposed to talk about.
The central theme of my life was thus in place early: I was different, asymmetrical, imperfect, special. I was born without the hand that signifies purposeful doing. My life was about unraveling rather than producing, subtracting rather than accumulating. When I was very small and first heard about death, I dreamed recurrently about a person whose arm fell off, then the other arm, then each leg, until nothing was left. I was already on my way toward this mysterious disappearance.
I had a boyfriend in the second grade who loved my arm with the missing hand. He called it my power bomb. “Hit me with your power bomb,” he’d whisper, and I’d slug him gently in the stomach, and he’d grin from ear to ear with wild pleasure. In the third grade he proposed to me, perhaps because of my magical arm.
But more often this arm was a source of humiliation. Children would stare and point and ask me about it. Adults would hush them up. I was the last to be chosen by the boys in dancing school, and I felt that I would not qualify as a woman. Women were supposed to be beautiful. They were not supposed to be missing body parts.
My absent hand was a kind of ticket as it turned out. I was given a passport to marginal worlds, to the realms of the dispossessed, to the secret rooms of people’s hearts where something is always missing or misshapen. But it was many years before I realized this. In the beginning, I just knew that I stood out like a sore thumb and that nobody was supposed to mention it.
Hundreds of thousands were demonstrating against the Vietnam war in the streets of Washington and New York. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, as Malcolm X and President Kennedy had been. Cities went up in flames as blacks rioted in Newark and Detroit. Tanks rolled through the streets of America. The Democratic Convention in Chicago exploded into violence. There were the Days of Rage and the Weathermen started blowing up buildings.
I took speed and wrote term papers, read Ionesco and Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet and Antonin Artaud. I drank straight whiskey and smoked Camels. I took acid and watched Nixon on TV, and realized that the men who ran the world were power-hungry killers in gray suits. My friends and I went to demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and some of us got teargassed and clubbed over the head. The police were the enemy. I was an outlaw.
I hated America. I hated school. I hated the whole screwed-up world.
And then my lover Miriam disappeared one day on the back of a motorcycle driven by another woman, a graduate student from NYU. I got very drunk that night and when I saw them walking out of the coffee shop, I chased them through the trees, shouting at Miriam, calling her a lesbian. It was my final insult.
I hitched to New York City and wandered the gray streets, crying for days. I wondered if I would ever meet another lesbian. I imagined myself alone forever.
America invaded Cambodia. The National Guard shot and killed student antiwar protesters at Kent State and Jackson State.
I discovered the gay bars of New York City. Strange, alienating places where the women wore heavy butch/femme drag and you had to keep buying the high-priced drinks or leave. It was the year of the Stonewall Uprising, when a bunch of drag queens fought back against a police raid on one of the men’s bars, the official beginning of the Gay Liberation Movement. I slept with lots of men and a few women, too, and I would wake up afterwards with devastating hangovers and no memories from the night before. I didn’t know if I was gay or straight or what I was.
I woke up in a car full of strangers headed for California, where I spent several years living in lesbian bars, drinking alarming amounts of alcohol and taking every drug imaginable. But alcohol was my demon lover. I was often violent when drunk. I sold drugs, hustled drinks, had odd jobs that never lasted, took money from my parents, collected welfare, panhandled, went hungry occasionally, and sold my blood plasma for pin money. Once I answered an ad in the newspaper for a “female amputee” and did obscene things with my clothes off while a man filmed me in a motel room. My last lover before I sobered up was a prostitute-junkie who had just gotten out of prison. One night after I had been drinking I threw the TV through one window and the radio through another, broke all the furniture, swallowed a handful of pills, crawled down the highway in search of wine and woke up a few days later in the hospital with stitches in my forehead and an IV dripping into my arm.
I started sitting at the Berkeley Zen Center. One day Mel Weitsman, the abbot and teacher, passed me in the garden and said, “We’ve never talked.”
“Talked?” I said.
He told me that it was possible to meet with him, to discuss my Zen practice. So I signed up. Maybe he could tell me what I should do with my life.
The following week, I went in to see him at five o’clock in the morning. He was waiting for me in a tiny candlelit room with an altar. I was breathless. I bowed to him the way I’d been told I was supposed to, and sat down on the cushion opposite him. My heart was pounding, my throat was dry. I felt as though I were meeting God.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
I nodded nervously.
“What comes up when you sit zazen?”
“I think about the future a lot,” I told him. “I always do. I can’t decide what to do with my life.”
“You have to make a choice and then commit yourself,” Mel said. “You have to burn all your bridges, so you can’t go back. Nirvana is seeing one thing through to completion. Otherwise, life just becomes a lot of mental ideas about an imaginary future. You need to come back again and again to your breath, to the day you are actually having. Not the day you wish you were having, or the day you think you should be having, or the day you know you could be having somewhere else tomorrow, but this day that you are actually having right now.”
“Jesus,” I thought. “This can’t be it.”
“Are you still holding out the hope that you’ll get there someday?” Mel asked. “That you’ll find your ideal life?”
“I know it’s impossible, but I’m still holding out the hope,” I admitted.
“Your meditation practice will teach you the impossibility,” he smiled. “Some people spend their whole lives looking for it, but never doing it,” he said. “What is it?” he asked.
“That’s your natural koan,” Mel told me later. “What is it?’ Keep asking that question, all the time. Don’t try to answer it. Just keep asking. “What is it?’”
What is it? Wind, bus, thought, insect, sensation, sound, smell, breath. What is it?
All my life I’ve been waiting for something to happen.
My first retreat at Springwater Center [in Springwater, New York] begins. Complete silence is carefully maintained on these week-long retreats. Eye contact is discouraged so that one can be completely inward and not caught up in constantly making connections or scanning to see how others are responding to you. Any necessary communication is done with pencil and paper. The only exception is that you can meet with Toni once a day if you want to, and every day she gives a talk. I have never been anywhere in my whole life where silence was this resonant and bottomless.
The constant printout of thoughts: commands and countercommands—TRY, DON’T TRY—planning the future, imagining all the terrible or pleasant things that could happen to me, or else endlessly running through memory replays like someone watching and rewatching the reruns of an old television program, giving speeches in my head, endless noise and chattering. Even when I wake up to the thoughts, I’m often unable or unwilling to let them go. They’re as compelling as any other addiction, maybe much more so. I’m addicted to myself. Why is it so scary, so hard to let these thought-loops go? I feel frustrated and close to despair.
Wanting something and going for it, we condition the mind, Toni says. Here we just watch. Watching the nature of wanting itself. Burning pain in my shoulder and neck, anger, frustration, irritation, exhaustion. Everyone makes me angry. Everything irritates me. There is a gray cloud around my mind. No clarity. I don’t want to be here for another minute in this painful, unmoving posture, in this noisy silence that won’t shut up, in this body or this mind. What is all this about “no self,” I think to myself. What about my history, my suffering, my progress—aren’t these me? I feel the urge to bite my fingers.
Sitting on my cushion, I visualize a huge hot-fudge sundae. I grow exhausted. Exhausted beyond exhaustion. Finally, I go through an hourlong struggle with myself about whether or not to leave the sitting room at the next break and take a nap—forbidden and wimpy behavior in the Zen tradition from which I come, but perfectly acceptable here. I finally conclude that my sole motivation for continuing to sit is to bolster my self-image and impress Toni if she happens to come in, not that I think Toni herself would actually be impressed by this—it is my projection of her that would be impressed. I leave and go take a nap. This is a huge breakthrough for me, as if some reservoir of energy had been freed up. That night I find myself sitting after the last sitting, something I have never done before, and have always found unimaginable.
After the retreat, I am having dinner with Toni and her husband Kyle, several of the people on staff, and a bunch of people from the retreat. I am telling the story of my life, and hearing myself doing it, noticing the pride I take in it, the way I shape and embellish it, and suddenly I feel a little sickened by it. Something rings false.
A group of us watch videos of Krishnamurti in the evening, made at the very end of his life. I have never heard him before. To pursue nonviolence is a form of violence, he says, because when we pursue nonviolence it means that we are no longer attentive to what actually is, but are instead chasing after an idea. Attentive listening to what is has tremendous healing power. Just to listen, without trying to do anything.
I attend a staff meeting, with every intention of just listening and observing. But I become so ridiculously opinionated that I cannot stop myself from speaking up. I watch how attached I am to my opinions and their importance, how irritated and threatened I feel by those whose views are different.
I feel separate from these people. They’re mostly men; I’m a woman. They’re all straight; I’m gay. They’re Easterners; I’m a Westerner. They all have two hands; I have one. I have a very strong “I’m Really Different” program. What is this attachment to my separateness? This feeling of being different, for whatever reason. Are any of these people here really so different from me? Do they feel any less separate? Why do I cling to various identities? Why do I feel as though no one really knows me until they know my life story? Tremendous fear arises at the thought of losing my labels, and at the same time there is immense peace in living without them, which is part of what happens on a silent retreat.
There is so much pressure to keep each of my identities, each of my labels intact. I think of all the pressure from the 12-step programs to wear those chosen addict labels for the rest of one’s life, the pressure in minority communities to identify oneself with the group. And in majority groups the same thing happens so automatically and on such a widespread level that it goes mostly unnotice—one is presumed to be white, heterosexual, or able-bodied, and if you whisper anything contrary to that, people ask you why you’re flaunting it.
Toni, on the other hand, questions all labels and images of who we are. She points to something beyond merely replacing negative images with positive ones. Flattery is as destructive as deprecation, she says. They go together like the two sides of a coin.
I told Toni how much her work scared me because I’ve worked so hard to get beyond the self-hatred and silencing of myself that comes from growing up female, disabled, and bisexual in a patriarchal society, and I’m afraid that if I really let go into what she’s talking about, this seeing through all images—of my self, even!—that all this progress I’ve made will be lost.
“You’re afraid you’ll go back to how you were in the past?” she asked.
I nodded. Her eyes lit up and she laughed her wonderful, warm laugh. “But you won’t,” she said emphatically. “Of course you won’t!”
A year went by. I sat with Charlotte Joko Beck and with Toni in California. I obsessed about moving to Springwater. And finally I packed up my things, and, in the summer of 1989, off I went. I was going to Springwater for six months as a volunteer.
“You’re going to northwestern New York for the winter?!” someone asked incredulously.
I moved to the middle of nowhere, a place tourists would avoid at all costs—northwestern New York, the foothills of the midwest. And now here I am in a place with ice storms and deerflies and mosquitoes, living with a bunch of heterosexual men.
On the third night of retreat I meet with Toni. Suddenly thought turns her into the authority figure, the teacher, and I begin talking about me and what I should do with my life, wanting Toni to provide the answers. I feel the aliveness of our connection die. I’m using her, projecting onto her, not listening anymore.
I am full of self-hate afterwards, as if “I” had somehow produced these thoughts. I toss and turn with nightmares. Someone in the next room wakes up screaming. I hear her roommate comforting her. The hours tick by. I lie awake biting my fingers in the darkness, unable to stop.
The next morning when I meet with Toni I speak to her about this horrible addiction. It may sound trivial, but I bite the flesh, not the nails, often drawing blood, and I can get so mesmerized by it that I cannot bring myself to stop, unable to do anything else, my entire body in a spasm of tension. The whole experience feels both numbing and torturous, and inevitably fills me with self-hatred and shame. I’ve tried every imaginable cure and nothing has worked.
Toni listens, and suggests not trying to get rid of it! Simply to be with it, she suggests. What is it? How does it feel? What are the thoughts, including the desire to stop, the belief that I can’t, the judgments of myself. Experience the sensations in my jaw, my fingers, my shoulder, my stomach, hear the sounds in the room. Just listen, to the whole thing, without judgment.
How exactly did “I” stop drinking, doing drugs, or smoking cigarettes? There were numerous attempts that failed, and then there was success. How did that happen? What shifted? Is there a person here, a “me,” who is capable of deciding to stop an addictive pattern? And, if so, why doesn’t it always work? Why do some people succeed and others fail? Why is it that someone like me, who successfully let go of many addictive behaviors, is still biting my fingers? Why don’t I stop? What brings a person to the point of stopping?
Habit has two parts, Toni says. There is the habit itself (finger-biting, smoking, drinking, whatever), and there is the observer who wants to stop, who is also a habit. And there is the conflict, the battle between the desire to indulge, which is an escape from what is, and the desire to stop, which is also a movement away from what is.
Toni suggests that the only real solution lies in complete awareness. In such awareness there is no chooser who is “doing” the habitual behavior or the stopping, there is no program, no will, no intention, no judgment, no conflict, no separation from the problem, no self to be improved or fixed, no direction. It is open, relaxed seeing.
I’m aware of myself being seductive, wanting attention. I never thought of myself as seductive before I began working with Toni. But it’s going on so much of the time. Charming people, flattering them, assuaging them, winning them over, magnetizing them, wanting them to like me. I hear myself being too loud, not listening to others, caught up in my stories. Seeing all this, I watch thought judging and condemning me, the harshness of it. I am no good. I see how this constant image-making destroys the actual living connection between human beings.
Out of seeing, amazing shifts do seem to occur. But if we try to create shifts, to free ourselves, then we only get more and more entangled in our efforts.
I am eating lunch at a small cafe and there is a couple at the table next to me, and he is explaining his spiritual path to her. He tells her all about karma, reincarnation, the progress of the soul. He tells her that she was good in her past lives, because she was born into a healthy body. But, he says, if you have a butchered arm or something like that, it means you were bad. You did something you’re paying for now.
Cripple. Queer. Girl. It means I’m bad. I’m sick. I’m a sinner. I’m unappetizing, unnatural, better off dead. A freak. I can’t walk into a room full of children without it being a potentially traumatic event. I am full of rage and grief, and the only way out is the most radical. But I cling to my pain. I hear myself telling the story of how much I’ve suffered over and over and over again, like an old broken record, and I sense there’s something false as well as true about this litany of oppression. I feel so humiliated, so deeply embarrassed.
I don’t always feel safe about going to that no-self level. Sometimes this approach seems to reinforce the invalidation and denial of our perceptions that we were all met with to some degree as children, and that women and minorities continue to be met with all our lives. When our reality is not culturally verified and we are made invisible, or made out to be crazy, we internalize this and discount our own feelings and insights. It seems to take years and years of work to begin to take one’s own perceptions seriously again.
On the other hand, being here I’ve had to see that all perceptions are open to questioning, that these various political and psychological “truths” we construct in the process of healing ourselves aren’t real either. They are constructions designed to explain reality, but they are abstractions and so inevitably fall short of the whole. They have their usefulness, but to the extent that we mistake them for reality, believe in them as dogmas and identify them as vital to our existence, we lose the ability to question them and move beyond them. We lose the ability to see accurately.
Cocteau was once asked, If your house was burning down, what would you save? Cocteau’s answer: The fire.
What is the meaning of fire?
What would happen if I stopped believing that I’ve got a problem? That I’m insufficient, or unenlightened, or in need of improving? What would happen if I stopped believing I’m confused? If I stopped desperately searching for the truth? What would happen if I stopped worrying about where to go next?
What would we talk about? What would we do?
From Bare Bones Meditation: Waking Up from the Story of My Life, by Joan Tollifson. Copyright ® 1992, 1995, 1996 by Joan Tollifson. Published by Harmony Books, a Division of Crown Publishers, Inc.
Illustrations by Asha Greer.
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