By Anne Dutton
All human beings suffer. It is suffering that often leads us to begin a meditation practice.
In my case, the catalyst was a car accident that shattered my left leg when I was in college. At the time, I relied primarily on my body to regulate my emotions. If I couldn’t sleep in the middle of the night, I’d go for a run. If I got blocked writing a paper, I’d sneak off to the pool and swim. If I felt socially anxious, I’d jump into a pick-up soccer game. When filled with angst, a few sweaty hours in bed with my beloved would alleviate my discomfort—at least temporarily.
Everything about our world and our lives is in flux, a constant state of change. Nothing is permanent. Of course I knew this intellectually. Yet deep in my subconscious, my identity was rooted in being five-foot-two with two legs, two arms, and curly brown hair. Suddenly I was lying in a hospital bed, unable to walk, listening to my doctor talk about amputation. (Fortunately, this didn’t happen.) The sheer relief and gratitude associated with being alive carried me through several reconstructive surgeries and subsequent months in a wheelchair. But, in fact, like a cartoon character, I had walked straight off a cliff into the void. Tiny hairline cracks had formed in my “self” as I knew it.
About six months later, once I could walk again, I disintegrated into a cascade of particles. My protection, my home—this beautiful, wondrous body—had turned out to be a mirage, a temporary illusion, a puff of smoke.
Who was I?
I had taken a leave of absence from college and, not knowing what to do, decided to go on pilgrimage in the countryside of Japan where I had grown up. Putting one foot in front of the other seemed doable—and just about the most I could manage at the time.
The turning point for me was an innocuous and mostly wordless encounter on the trail. It was a glorious fall day. A net of diamonds lay on the surface of the ocean and the sky was high and a rich blue. I had finished walking for the day and was sitting on a bench reading a book in the courtyard of the temple where I was staying. I was so engrossed I didn’t look up when I heard footsteps approaching. A pair of bloody feet in waraji, traditional straw sandals, appeared in my peripheral vision just beyond the pages of the book. I looked up slowly and gazed into the face of a young man with a shaved head wearing the black robes of a Zen monk. He asked me what I was reading and I told him. I don’t think we exchanged any other words. But there was something in his eyes.
“I should try meditation,” I thought.
I was fortunate to find my way to a great teacher a few weeks later. I told him about my accident, walking off the cliff, and my experience of disintegrating. “But of course!” he said. “You must solve the problem of life and death.”
Not only did he understand, he thought what I said was perfectly normal. Astonishing. “We have a retreat starting tomorrow,” he said. “Why don’t you come?”
Never having practiced for even a minute, I faced a wall in the freezing cold from four in the morning to nine at night for seven days. I wouldn’t recommend this method as a starting point for beginners. It is similar to learning to swim by being thrown into the deep end of the pool. But I was hooked.
Nearly forty years later, I am inexpressibly grateful for this path. Incomparably profound and mysterious, it has opened up under my feet, step by step, never leading me astray. Fortunately, I didn’t have many preconceived ideas about it when I started. But if I had, it would not have been what I thought. It’s not about magically escaping pain but about becoming more intimate and better able to cope with it. It’s not about freedom from states of mind that are uncomfortable but about finding that freedom right in the midst of any sort of conditions—comfortable or uncomfortable.
One of the delights of teaching MBSR (besides the fact that it is a friendly way to learn to swim) is bearing witness to moments when students get a taste of the fruits of practice. They have a slightly puzzled look and trouble finding the right words because they are reaching for a way to express something that has come to them unbidden, unlooked for, as pure experience.
We can read books and know things intellectually but only when we experience them directly do we suffer. And only when we experience them directly do we heal our suffering.
Anne Dutton, MA, MSW, LMSW, is an MBSR instructor, psychotherapist, yoga teacher, published Buddhist scholar, public speaker and translator. She works at the Yale Stress Center where she gives classes and workshops on mindfulness, and is a psychotherapist at the Branford Counseling Center, a public clinic serving low-income clients. She has completed all levels of the professional training program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School Center for Mindfulness and will be teaching the eight-week daytime MBSR course offered Copper Beech in the spring of 2017.