My Accident - My Practice
4/7/2019 Dharma Talk at EHZC
Sangha Member Jeff Silver
Great is the matter of birth and death
Life slips quickly by
Time waits for no one
Wake up! Wake up!
Don’t waste a moment!
In 1966 or ’67, (even before I knew Sharon!), I was working on Saturdays, delivering bagels to restaurants and supermarkets. I sat alongside the regular truck driver – my seat, however, was a milk crate – the door was closed by some wire. I don’t think I’m being too judgmental in saying that the owners were quite frugal. Anyway, one Saturday we were delivering bagels to a supermarket on Broadway and 170thStreet in Washington Heights, a very busy street (even busier now). Suddenly the door flew open and I went flying out of the truck, into the path of possible oncoming cars on Broadway. Luckily, and amazingly, nothing happened – no car was close. I rolled over, got up and got back into the truck.
Over fifty years later, September 15, 2018, to be exact, Sharon and I were walking side by side across Boston Post Road on a beautiful, late, sunny afternoon. A car turned into us, hit me first, sending me flying, and then hit Sharon. I bring up both of these accidents because, in both cases, I have never felt more in the moment, not anticipating or knowing what would happen next. I was just there, kind of floating, waiting to hit the ground.
I wish I could say that no damage was done this time as well, but when I landed, I knew I had pain and problems with my lower back and left knee; in addition, I banged my head upon landing. Sharon had injuries to her pelvis, back and knee. It was as if impermanence had slapped us hard in the face, telling us to wake up. But there was also kindness in the midst of all this – people who stopped to assist us and call for help. One woman, a doctor, who saw me “fly”, got out of her car to talk to and help us. The Emergency Services people and police were terrific. Great gratitude to all who helped.
An amazing thing also happened. The man who hit us got out of his car. I never saw his face, but I can still hear him saying, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” We later found out that he said the sun had blinded him, which is quite possible. As I lay there and heard him, and later on, I realized that perhaps worse than being hit by a car was to be the driver who hits someone. I forgave him and have never experienced a moment of anger towards him or about the accident. Instead of anger, I felt grateful to be alive, grateful that I did not have a concussion.
(Please feel free to make your own jokes about this – my family and friends did.) Perhaps it was my understanding of impermanence and lack of control that made me feel this way.
I was not able to walk well because of my knee and came home from the ER using a cane. Sharon needed a walker; she was in more pain than I was. We let family take care of us. A few days after the accident, my brother drove us to our first doctor’s appointment. I was feeling and moving around better, walking more with the cane, almost showing off. Sharon and my brother kept telling me to take it easy, but I ignored them. The next morning, after I got out of bed, Sharon worriedly pointed to my knees – the injured knee was twice the size of the other. I got scared and upset. It didn’t take long to see that I was a classic case of the “arrows” spoken about by the Buddha. The first arrow was the accident – an outside force. The second arrow was mine. It came from ego – clinging to the thought that the injury wasn’t so bad, that I would soon get better, and my impatience with how healing would take time. I thought I had total control over my healing and my body, thus causing myself greater suffering. It was a true Zen lesson. From then on, “not knowing” what to expect from my injuries and myself, became my partner.
For the next week or two, I slowed down, doing less and being careful. I received a bit of Physical Therapy, but I was fearful of doing anything with the knee. Then one day, as I held a door, my knee wobbled back and forth, independent of my control. This loss of control really scared me. We both made an appointment to see an orthopedist who told me he didn’t like how my knee felt and to get an MRI – more uncertainty and fear. I received the results of my MRI before my next appointment. Our neighbor, one in a long line of those who helped us, manages a radiology office, and set up my MRI, giving us the results almost immediately. I had a severely torn ACL, severely torn MCL and a torn meniscus – it was bad. Things had clearly taken a further turn for the worse. (Did I mention impermanence?) Fear, uncertainty and anxiety kept growing. A movie played out in my head about the rest of my life– surgery, long recovery, permanent damage, perhaps not being able to walk right, not able to play with my grandsons. I had a list of about a dozen questions for the doctor. The morning of our appointment, I joked after breakfast that “the condemned man ate a hearty meal.” Deb drove us to our appointment; she knew how worried we were. Her calm presence was just what we needed. Surprisingly, the doctor said no surgery – basically I was too old (what was that the Buddha said about sickness, old age and death?) He prescribed Physical Therapy to strengthen the areas around my knee and stabilize it. It is amazing – the injury hadn’t changed, but my outlook did. The movie in my head stopped, giving rise to determination. It was as if my knee had gotten a new lease on life and I wasn’t going to waste it. Up until this time, I was not meditating much. I could not get past the movie about what my life would be like; it was incredibly difficult to calm myself and to let the thoughts exit.
With this news from my doctor and beginning PT, my outlook and meditation changed. Why this change? After all, my knee was the same – the ligaments were still torn – still are! Though my knee was certainly a problem, it was not the true source of my dis-ease. The way I experienced it was. Despite my acknowledgement of impermanence, I had forgotten the teaching of emptiness – that nothing is permanent or totally independent of everything else. Only now, did I begin to see that the accident, and everything that occurred after, were interconnected. Instead of seeing the whole experience as it really was, I think I saw it as an imperfect condition in need of correction. My injury had become the focal point, instead of my physical and, especially, my emotional healing. This delusion was the source of my suffering. No surgery or Physical Therapy was going to return my knee, or my life, to the condition they were in before the accident; even without the accident this was true. This realization was liberating. I’m not sure how much I even understood then. It has become part of my healing and awakening process right up until this moment.
Physical therapy was a grueling exercise involving patience, staying in the moment, and accepting my limitations, while having faith in the process. As I got back to meditating more often, I was able to see things about and after the accident as lessons to be learned. By the time I finished PT, I could walk without a cane, or a limp, and without fear. However, as yet another example of how my life has changed, I have to exercise, sometimes for over an hour, every day, to keep the knee stable.
There is so much more to this story than just getting hurt and getting better. From the beginning, we owe great gratitude to family, friends, sangha members and synagogue members who fed us, shopped for us, drove us, called us, emailed us, sent cards, did washes for us and helped us with appointments. The generosity of others was emotionally overwhelming. In my day to day life I have often taken others for granted – I would always be there, so would they – but experiencing how quickly my life could have slipped away filled me with a greater appreciation of what I have, how deeply I am linked to and with people in so many ways that are hard to express – the compassion received and given. Every night we told each other how lucky we were to have all these people in our lives.
We are also lucky to have each other. This accident - all the lessons it taught us, as we worried about ourselves and each other getting better and walking – this accident brought us closer together as we celebrated our fiftieth anniversary. We remind each other to stay in the moment – when walking down stairs, walk down stairs – don’t look for keys, or look at phones. We work together at being mindful and taking care of ourselves.
Sangha! Oh, how I missed this place and everybody. To be physically unable to come here and meditate was a source of suffering for me only alleviated by members’ phone calls, emails, food deliveries and rides. Returning to Empty Hand was very emotional for me, like coming home to family. I will no longer be able to physically practice as I did before; there’s that pesky impermanence again! I have to sit in a chair; I cannot do full bows, but I do not care.
It took a while, but I have used this accident as a path back to “Beginner’s Mind”. I believe I am practicing in a different way, seeing things differently, and, hopefully, more clearly.
Last week, Kaku spoke about expanding our definition of “ancestors” in our practice. Oddly enough, I had been sitting with the same idea in relation to my accident. A number of years ago, a Spanish teacher we had in continuing education was dying of cancer. Diana was an extraordinary woman and teacher from Argentina, where she had been an outstanding athlete and student. She also stood up to the military dictatorship in her country and was jailed and tortured. Many of her students took part in caring for her. As death was getting closer, I spoke to Susan about her. She advised me to hold Diana’s hand when she was resting and match my breathing to hers. It was an extraordinary experience. Diana and I both felt something, a connection hard to describe. I still feel that connection and it nourishes me. Susan and Dennis were not only examples of great courage in the midst of great difficulty but also great examples of living even while dying, teaching us to the end. We had a friend, Joan, who died last year. For a number of years, she was not well; she was confined to a wheelchair. Each setback left her less able to do things herself. After each setback, she said, uncomplainingly, that it was the “new normal” for her. It never stopped her and her husband from continuing to attend Ranger games (they had season tickets), going to concerts, going on vacations, and spending time with their granddaughter. Joan, Dennis, Susan and Diana, though no longer alive, are the people who gave me the courage to see how important it is to embrace and truly live your life in every changing moment, every “new normal.”
In his song, “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”, Bob Dylan writes, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” During a skype lesson, Dennis asked me two questions: “Is Jeff alive or dead?” and “Is Jeff living or dying?” To me, both Dylan and Dennis were teaching me that in every moment there is birth and death, the opportunity to change and be open to and accept change, to be kinder, more generous and compassionate to ourselves and others. With this accident, this moment in time, everything changed – from the seemingly simple things – how I get in and out of bed or a chair, put on, or remove, my pants, socks and shoes, walk down the stairs, cross the street – to realizing how quickly life can slip by and to “Wake up! Wake up! Don’t waste a moment!”
I understand now that there are many ways to waste a moment. As I sat, my experience made clear to me how much I waste moments with my “greed, hate and delusion.” I’d love to tell you that, because of this accident, I no longer get angry, impatient, anxious, or that I no longer cling to preconceived thoughts or believe I can control things. Quite often, I do see it more clearly, but we are only human – these things still occur. However, when I see these thoughts and feelings arising, my wake-up call to myself, to not waste a moment, is a question: “You could have died, why add to your suffering?”
In an article in the Times’ Sunday Review section of March 24th, Michael David Lucas refers to a song by the late Leonard Cohen, who was a poet, singer, Buddhist and a Jew. The song, “Who By Fire”, is an adaptation of one of the most important prayers of the Jewish High Holidays. It refers to the ten days from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The prayer tells us during this time period it is decided who will live and who will die and lists many horrible, different ways people can die. Sharon and I were both struck by the irony that the day we were hit was one of those days between the holidays. This prayer/song is scary, but it alerts us very pointedly to the fact that we will die, not knowing when or how, but we will die. The question is what we do with our time while we are here. This is a reality we sit with in our practice. Because he has turned forty and his wife has cancer, Mr. Lucas says that the prayer “…feels all too real. But it’s oddly comforting, too, to look mortality in the eye. Because none of us really knows how many days we have left, and we have no idea what those days will bring.” Later, he writes that it’s scary to let go of his “…youthful certainty…” but that he would “rather embrace the unknown than ignore it.”
For me, this embrace, this intimacy in not knowing has become much clearer. These moments of not knowing, like each dharma gate, are boundless and bring a chance to learn, to change, to forgive, to show kindness and compassion, to love – to be grateful for all I have and for all those I love and who love me. Maybe I even owe a debt of gratitude to my accident for making the words on the Han so vivid and alive.