January 2014: On the fifth of the month, I fell while cross-country skiing. The injury was initially diagnosed in the ER as a sprained left wrist, and I was fitted with a splint. I had gradually gotten into an easy system of self-care when, ten days later, a radiologist reading the X-rays saw a broken scaphoid bone, one of the two most important of the eight small wrist bones. A CT scan confirmed the non-displaced fracture.
Surprised and a little distraught, but with a dawning sense of adventure, I chose a dark blue cast and continued on. I was heartened by the felt sense that my hand actually relaxed more and seemed to enjoy the added safety. The fuller body-mind’s adaptation to living with this new supportive item, and its further limitations on movement and stability was well underway when, five days later, while happily walking in my own neighborhood on a mild day, I stepped aside to let a car pass and tripped, falling at the edge of the road. The driver of the car saw the fall, turned around and drove me the mile home; and wow — I was sitting with my foot up and ice on it within minutes. The next day, I learned from the doctors’ visit and further X-rays that I had badly sprained my left ankle and slightly injured my right hand. I was fitted with a large black support “boot,” and told to stay off the foot for a while.
During those moments of falling that second time, I’d heard a thought forming, a thought that wanted to send out the comment, “This is unbelievable,” but such a thought couldn’t stick; I was completely present, and it really was happening. When I recalled this movement of the mind later, at home, resting with my foot up, I realized a thought that more fully described the situation was, “I can’t bear this.” Ah, I thought, suffering. The truth of suffering. One of the Buddha’s simplest descriptions of the first arrow suffering, also known as dukkha-dukkha, is “that which we cannot bear.”
Self-compassion arose in my heart then. Of course I would feel this way. My body was in pain, my heart and mind were terrified, traumatized. I was confused and afraid and alone, vulnerable and limited in my ability to care for myself. All of my mindfulness training and my understanding of life strongly encouraged me to be honest in such moments, to know them clearly and directly and to “beware premature equanimity.” This practice is the path to healing.
Fortunately, very soon after I reached home that afternoon, some friends arrived unexpectedly. One was a nurse who checked my ankle and thought it was not broken. She encouraged me to not go to the ER that Sunday evening, but to wait and see the doctor in the morning. She helped wrap the ankle with an ace bandage. They got me some dinner. I called a friend, a physical therapist, who gave me some advice. And so began the emotional aspects of the journey, which finds my mood moving on the spectrum from despair all the way through to deep gratitude, a lovely sense of connection, and even joy. I have received an enormous amount of help and support — food, rides, companionship, conversation, intimacy, and shared wise reflection.
So, January and the body have brought me front and center once again with suffering, one of the three characteristics of our experience in life, with its link to the healing process of the Four Noble Truths. Things are at times unsatisfactory, i.e., scary and painful. The other two marks of our existence have been direct, clear and loud in these winter days as well. Every thing changes (Anicca); life can turn on a dime; it is unpredictable at times and unreliable. And thirdly, it is undeniably true for me that I am not in control (Anata or Not-Self). There is no CEO in charge, internally or externally. These accidents happened in a split second, though not because I did anything wrong or because I wasn’t paying attention.
Happily, along with wisdom, January has brought another gift, which is the arising all around me of openhearted compassion, goodwill and joy. Generosity and kindness have poured into the exposed “empty bowl” which I have become during the times of vulnerability and helplessness. The support I have received from expected and unexpected places is helping me to live the question of how to rest in a sense of safety and ease in a world where I am not in control — helping me to live that question towards the felt sense of resolution. Thank you.
In summary, here is a related reflection from Ajahn Munn, a teacher of Ajahn Chah: “In your investigation of the world, never allow the mind to desert the body. Examine its nature, see the elements that comprise it, see the impermanence, the suffering, and the selflessness of the body while sitting, standing, walking or lying down. When its true nature is seen fully and lucidly by the heart, the wonders of the world will become clear. In this way, the purity of the mind can stand forth, timeless and delivered.”