I recently taught a day long retreat with a black eye, the result of a fall I had while hiking in the mountains. My hands and knees were also bruised but not so on display as this amazingly dramatic black eye and bruised chin.
‘Well, meditation clearly doesn’t save you from pain,” my students might well have thought.
True! But it did help to illuminate in the moment of impact and those that followed as I sat on that granite cliff, gasping for breath, sobbing, as my forehead gushed blood down my face, my hair and all over my clothes and the rock below, and my dear husband dug frantically around in the backpack to find our first aid kit.
In that moment, I noticed the physical sensation of having fallen, and there was pain, of course, but the pain was not as severe as pain I’ve known in my life. The tears came from the thoughts that were coursing through my head. ‘Oh my God! Why didn’t I pick up my foot a little higher?’ and ‘Oh please, don’t let anything be broken!’ and ‘Oh no, how will we get ourselves back down the mountain? Can I possibly hike three miles in this state?’ and ‘Oh no, I’ve ruined our perfect camping trip!’ and ‘Thank goodness I fell here, not twenty feet earlier where I might have tumbled down a cliff.’ But my over-riding concern in that moment, as Will tore open the little packets of alcohol, anti-bacterial unguent and bandages was for the way the strong mountain wind was whipping those little white pieces of paper up. I kept grabbing them and collecting them, determined not to leave litter on the mountain. Will assured me he would pick everything up after we got the blood staunched and my wounds tended, but I knew the wind was going to blow them off our little outcropping to places he would not be able to reach and I simply could not bear to litter this pristine wilderness with the detritus of my mishap. That was the pain that focused my attention.
Noticing. That was the gift of meditation in that moment. And later, safely back down the mountain, assured there was no permanent damage, and comforted by a chocolate ice cream cone and an ice pack on my swollen brow and lip, I was able to see that the cause of my fall was my lack of mindfulness in previous moments. I had stubbornly resisted my body’s cues that clearly warned me I had hiked high enough, even if I hadn’t reached our goal: a picnic spot at a pair of mountain lakes. I had multiple opportunities to heed what my body was saying: When I noticed I was too tired to go on; when I noticed that even though we were trying to conserve water, I really needed to be drinking more of it; and when I let a whole series of future and past thoughts override my awareness of the moment.
What tripped me up was not just a little tree stump, but the thought that for the past few years, every time we are in the mountains and we decide to hike to a certain spot, we never get there! We always turn back! So it seemed to me that to give in again, to ‘not get there’ this time, was to acknowledge something much larger than merely the tiredness I was feeling in my body. It was acknowledging aging, change, a lack of control over what I could or couldn’t do. Or it was acknowledging that I was out of shape and needed to spend the rest of the year being more active, taking much longer more rigorous walks. All of this thinking was weighing on me as I hiked up that rocky trail that required intense concentration for each step.
And so, I refused to turn back each time Will suggested I seemed tired and maybe we should. The heat was oppressive, especially as I covered myself thoroughly, not trusting my sunscreen to be enough to protect my skin, and not sure how many hours we had been hiking.
Youthful hikers bounced by us and I felt ancient in a way I’ve never felt ancient before. Their ease made my discomfort all the more unacceptable. Oh comparing mind! Also I occasionally chide myself for being comfort-loving and soft, and I wanted to challenge that image, I wanted to show that inner voice that I was made of tougher stuff.
But in the last portion of the trail to the lakes, there was suddenly a very steep, much narrower dirt section that I had to look at with the eyes of the surgeon who replaced my hip two years before. It looked very slippery and precarious. Maybe I could get up it, but how would I ever get back down? Maybe I could do it if I was fresh, but I could never do it in this state.
So we turned around. Once again! Defeated and exhausted, I followed my long shadow back down the gravel trail that demanded even greater concentration going downhill. My shadow was hypnotic, an elongated version of my three-year old self who, according to family lore, was dragged up the Smokey Mountains against her will. Now the shadow of my straw hat pulled in at the sides by the shirt I tied to keep it anchored from the strong wind, made the shape of the little bonnet I wore on that journey sixty years before.
So we walked together this small grumpy child and I, following my beloved husband down the mountain. Our descent was slow but buoyed by our plan to return to a shady view spot we remembered from our climb that seemed a good place to rest and have our picnic. Somewhere along the way, I took the lead, and when we arrived at the spot and I stepped off the trail, relaxing into my tiredness, thirst and hunger. And in that moment of release, of letting down my intense concentration on each step that had been necessary for survival on this challenging trail, I missed seeing the little stump in the shadow of a rock, and I tripped and fell.
Will says that for him it happened in slow motion, watching me fall and feeling helpless from his position to save me. For me, there was a moment lost somewhere. There was the arriving at the rest spot with a sense of relief, and there was being flat on the granite, my sunglasses flying off to the left, my face smashed against the jagged rock, blood erupting, and me saying, “I’m fine. I’m fine.”
During the week that followed, I found the most challenging part was dealing with the dirty looks my sweet husband was getting when we were together as strangers assumed he did the damage.
One male friend joked that Will should point to my black eye and say, “She wouldn’t listen.” I was horrified by his suggestion because of the serious nature of spousal abuse. I couldn’t find the humor in it. But you know what? He was right. I got a black eye because I wouldn’t listen! I didn’t listen to Will when he expressed his concerns about my well-being on the climb, and I didn’t listen to my own body when it said enough already. So let that be a lesson to me!
So no, meditation doesn’t always save us from pain, though in this case it could have, had I stayed more present with my experience. We’ll discuss that aspect more when we get into the Eightfold Path and Wise Action.
But, just as that black eye has healed so quickly, showing a wonderful resilience, my meditation practice provides me with more mental and emotional resilience than I would have had otherwise. It provides a more expansive view of things so that I don’t keep kicking myself for my misstep, don’t keep knocking myself down over and over again. And, although I admit I did give that little stump a good kick and a piece of my mind as we left that now-bloodied rest stop, it was in jest, and I haven’t indulged in railing against it, or the trail or the heat or my body or any other condition that could easily become the tarbaby dukkha delivery system. How many events in our lives are still holding us hostage, still delivering dukkha as if we have a standing order?
My meditation practice gave me the patience to give myself a lot of down time to rest and heal, even though it’s been a busy time. It gave me the ability to process a painful experience with compassion and more clarity than I would have had otherwise.
It gave me gratitude for being alive, an awareness of impermanence and a new appreciation for my face without bruises. I look prettier to me now! During the period my face was so shocking to see that people gasped or averted their eyes, I appreciated this gift of insight into how it might be to have some permanent disfigurement in such a prominent place as the face; how it must be to constantly deal with the responses of others, when one feels perfectly normal inside. This experience carved a deeper sense of compassion in me, as I felt my desire to just stay home, to just avoid going out all together.
I have made use of the black eye, working it, making ‘lemonade’ out of this lemon experience. This dharma talk, a poem brewing somewhere within me, and even a two minute speech at the Civic Center. I was scheduled to give a ‘Tip of the Day’ at my Toastmasters meeting there, and had planned to talk about our camping trip with a suggestion people visit that area. I did that, but I choreographed it to keep my ‘dark side’ covered with my Veronica Lake locks until the dramatic reveal of my black eye and the suggestion that people should watch their step when hiking. The gasp of the audience was priceless!
It’s a traditional Buddhist practice to sit with such examples of impermanence, so I was providing a service to you, my dear students as you watched me giving my dharma talk in class and on retreat. What a devoted teacher!
So I open this up to explore that quality of noticing, of heeding our inner wisdom and what happens when we don’t. What recent experiences in your own life have given you this same lesson, or this same sense of gratitude for the practice? What past events are still holding you hostage? When you have some time and want to explore, meditate and then ask these questions of yourself. The answers will arise and may even surprise you.