Surgical Perspectives #2
The first night after the operation on my shoulder, I slept in the recliner. Between the nerve block in my arm and the oxycodone pain meds, I drifted effortlessly between sleep and an easy but dull wakefulness. The next day, Thursday, was a delightful day. I took my pain meds regularly – along with a stool softener that a friend had highly recommended – and enjoyed a spacious day of sitting in my recliner throne without a care in the world. Melissa brought me food and kept my ice pack cold and I spent much of the day silently chanting the name of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. (Kwanseom Bozol in Korean) With each repetition I fingered another bead on my set of black mala beads and sent my faithful call off into the universe.
This practice of chanting the name – of calling out to the Bodhisattva of Compassion is an ancient Buddhist practice that is described in the Lotus Sutra. Kwanseom (Kannon) is the bodhisattva that hears the cries of the world. As we call out, Kwanseom’s response is immediate. This teaching of the power of supplication and prayer is present in many of the world’s great spiritual traditions. Jesus said ‘Knock and the door shall be open. Ask and it shall be given.’ Bodhisattva James Taylor sang ‘You just call out my name and you know wherever I am, I’ll come runnin…’
This teaching of a universe that responds immediately to the individual cries of human beings, is clearly not true. In high school, I prayed for victory before every wrestling match and only had a moderately good record. On long meditation retreats, I used to call out to be relieved of the suffering of my mind and would most often find myself in the same mental bramble patch after my calling out as before. But perhaps the truth of this teaching manifest at some other level than the world of appearances and wish fulfillment.
So on Thursday, I called out for help and was able to rest in the spaciousness of pain-free ease and good feeling. It was quite lovely and I could see how these round white oxycodone pills are quite popular ‘on the street.’ Who wouldn’t want to feel like this? Nothing to do, nowhere to go. Just sitting here seemed fully enough.
Later in the afternoon, the nausea began. Not terrible, but enough to disrupt my alloted time in the heavenly realms. The chanting which had seemed so sweet and certain, gradually drained of its magical powers and turned two dimensional – just some flat words and endless beads on a string. By the evening I had given up. The current issue of Sports Illustrated that I had previously set aside in favor of the higher toned Dogen’s ‘Instructions to the Cook,’ became my new religious text.
I always hope I will have more courage and determination than I actually do. I imagine I will be able to tough it out – to maintain my perfect Zen composure to see me through whatever difficulties that may arise. And while there are many times when I am able to abide calmly in challenging situations, there are also points where I collapse – where I lose my way, right in the middle of something important. At these times, I can’t remember what I was supposed to be doing and why it seemed like a good idea in the first place. I run out of my own power. It always feels like failure, but more and more I recognize it as entry point.
So here I am. Stuck in the recliner for another night feeling slightly nauseas. I’m not in a lot of pain, but I’m confused and disheartened. Time has slowed down. The approaching night threatens to be one of the endless kind. I’ve run out of faith in my techniques and practices. A subtle panic rises slowly as I see no escape route.
The last time I remember this happening was when I had the flu several years ago. The panic led to darker and darker places where I felt overwhelmed by negative thoughts and powerless to find any way back. I pray I don’t have to revisit that land. I am dimly aware of some kind of choice here. I can fight this and will certainly lose. Or I can surrender.
In the abstract, I have a great philosophical preference for surrender. Given my estimate of the relative power of my self-will versus the power of the universe, the only sensible thing to do is to say YES to whatever arises. But this clarity of thought and belief is not always enough, actually is never enough, when things turn desperate. Just because I want to or think I should, I can’t will myself to surrender. Consciously choosing to surrender does not actually loosen the grip of my opinion about how things should be. The intention to surrender is not the same thing as surrendering.
True surrendering happens at a deeper level – in the innermost chamber of my heart. And it seems to happen in its own time and of its own accord – always a kind of grace. The surrender — the letting go — allows me entry into a new kind of freedom – a freedom that is not dependent on external conditions or my images of how things should be.
So Thursday night, I feel myself at the edge – and I am not certain which way I will go. It clearly isn’t up to the ‘me’ who I usually assume is in charge. That ‘me’ had given it his best shot and come up lacking. I don’t have the energy to fight any more or to try to do much of anything.
I have a vague memory of giving up – of realizing that my whole life—my thoughts and mental states, my physical condition, my sensations are beyond my control. That I may journey through the hell realms or I may not, but that I am simply too tired to struggle. So I somehow give myself back to the universe and go into the darkness with a quiet prayer that I might be taken care of by the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, by the saints and the mercies of God.
And in that moment, the darkness is no longer dark—the confusion no longer confusing. No great victory, just an imperceptible settling. I put my Sports Illustrated down, close my eyes and go to sleep. I wake twice to pee and take my pain medication but slept easily through the night.
I don’t know how this happens, this grace of release. I only know that it is the most precious thing in the world – the only thing that has the power to save us in whatever state we are in.
Every thing, every breath is freely given but one of the requirements of fully receiving and appreciating is the realization of the inadequacy of my individual efforts. In the end, I let go not because I think it is a good idea, but I have run out of other options. I abandon all hope and fall into the arms of a merciful God – into the heart of Kwanseom Bozol and I am saved once more.