8. One Button at a Time.

9. The Scenery of Cancer

One Button at a Time
(Published in Buddhadharma, Spring 2007)

--"Those faced with chronic pain, says Darlene Cohen, can find comfort and delight in the subtle details of everyday life."

When I became crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, I was completely overcome by unremitting pain, terror, and despair. unable to walk, too weak to lift a phone, I thought bitterly of how much time I had wasted pursuing everlasting peace of mind. For seven years, over thousands of hours of zazen and maybe thirty sesshins, I had sat on a black cushion pursuing enlightenment in order to cope with just such an occasion –all to no avail. But I was wrong about the failure of practice, and within months of being struck by the condition, I knew it.

First of all, though ravaged by pain and disease, my body was deeply settled. While my mind had been plotting my rise to power at the San Francisco Zen Center, my body had been developing the tremendous stability associated with regular sitting practice. So even though I was overwhelmed and consumed by the pain, I was able to surrender completely to the physicality of my existence, moment after moment. Left alone to explore my consciousness without distraction, I discovered that wherever I looked, there were experiences other than pain waiting to be noticed: here is bending, here is breath, here is sun warming, here is unbearable fire, here is tightness. All these perceptions were fresh and fascinating.

The consciousness that sitting practice cultivates is open to many kinds of experience, not all of them necessarily pleasant. If at any given moment I am aware of ten different elements –my bottom on the chair, the sound of cars passing outside, the thought of the laundry I have to do, the hum of the air-conditioner, an unpleasant stab of sharp knee pain, cool air entering my nostrils, warm air going out–and one of them is pain, that pain will dominate my life. But if I am aware of a hundred elements, those ten plus more subtle sensations –the animal presence of other people sitting quietly in the room, the shadow of the lamp against the wall, the brush of my hair against my ear, the pressure of my clothes against my skin –then pain is merely one of many elements of my consciousness, and that is pain I can live with.

With such a mind, life becomes richly textured. Consciously putting a cup on a table and feeling the flat surfaces meet becomes a rare, satisfying, “just-right” kind of experience. Washing dishes is not just about getting the dishes clean; it’s also about feeling the warm, soapy water soothing my arthritic fingers. Doing laundry, I can smell its cleanness and luxuriate in the simple movements of folding, a counterpoint to my complex life.

For people in pain, tapping into this wisdom beyond wisdom is simply how to survive. When we have nothing left to hold on to, we must find comfort and support in the mundane details of our everyday lives, which are less than mundane when they’re the reason we’re willing to stay alive. This is the upside of impermanence: the shining uniqueness of beings and objects when we begin to notice their comforting presence. When preferences for a particular experience fade, the myriad things come forward to play, shimmering with suchness. Obviously, flowers and trees do this, but so do beer cans and microwaves. They’re all waiting for our embrace. It is enormously empowering to inhabit a world so vibrant with singularity.

Thirty years after first being devastated by pain, I never enter a room without noticing what sources of comfort and ease will sustain me: not only the recliner and the pillow but also the light streaming in from the window, the handmade vase on the table, even the muffled drone of the air- conditioner – all of it created for the pleasure of human beings. By bringing into my conscious life objects that offer their kind companionship –my toothbrush and my dishes, my spoon and my car – I feel their tangible support as well as their sometimes charming idiosyncrasies. Awareness of this support can be simultaneous with resistance to my pain and the search for ways to stop it. these tracks don’t hinder each other; they are both active, engaged encounters.

For instance, I have difficulty dressing. My arthritic shoulders, elbows, and fingers flinch from the stretching, tugging, and tying required to dress myself. Velcro might solve my problem, but it’s out of the question; I’m not and never have been a utilitarian dresser. rather, I’m the sort who is thrilled by the fine art of asymmetrical hems, darts, double- stitched denim seams, linings in jackets, and bias- cut skirts. My throat catches at a flutter of silk in the breeze. My underwear is adorned with lace and embroidered flowers. Instead of hurrying to dress and becoming frustrated by how difficult it is to pull up socks, put on shoes, and button blouses, I make it a well-loved morning ritual: I lay out all the clothes on the couch and sit in the warmth of the morning sun as I put on each lovely article one at a time, noting the temperature change associated with covering my body, admiring the darts and seams and insets that search out its topography.

Most of my physical tasks have taken on this ceremonial quality. If we can’t be speedy and productive, if something as simple as putting on clothes takes all of our attention and focus, we must find our home in the activity itself as its goal recedes into the future. The practice of doing each thing for its own sake, the staple of Zen training, had mostly eluded me as a Zen student striving for enlightenment and better housing at Green Gulch Farm. But now, as I live in the vibrancy of the sensual present, clearly seeing each moment as my most viable source of solace and delight, I prefer to stay right here. I have lost any sense that there is something special or tragic about my circumstances. Day in and day out, they are just my life.  

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