Illness: Journey off the Map

An edited transcript of a talk given by Sevan Ross in the Rochester zendo on February 4, 1996.

It has been said that illness is a unique opportunity for practice. But every experience is. It can also be said that practice prepares us for illness. This notion will thread itself through our discussion. But more, it needs to be said that sickness and practice are the same kind of transformative experience, that is, if practice is really engaged practice, and if illness is engaged in equally as oneís practice.  

The "other country" that is meditative exertion and the other country that is illness have similar features. In sesshin, even if we look at a single round, we see that the pain one might suffer in the knees, letís say, towards the end of the round is immediately forgotten by the time we have done one kinhin lap. In early sesshins I remember mentally negotiating with the timer, monitors, or the gods of pain, knowing that if I could only make it to the end of the round, there would be relief in the kinhin. 

There is an old Burt Reynolds movie called The End where his character tries to kill himself. He swims out into the ocean, as far as he can, and while heís swimming heís saying, "I want to die. I want to die. God, please take me." Then, at a certain point, he says, "Jesus, I could die out here." And he starts swimming to shore. He starts making promises to God, "If I can make it to shore, Iíll go to church for the rest of my life." He does another two hundred yards and says, "If I make it to shore, Iíll go to church for a year." Another hundred yards, "If I make it to shore, Iíll go to church at least for a couple of weeks." Of course, when he gets to shore heís forgotten about his pain. How many of us have reformed our ways during illness, making promises rarely kept once we are well? How many resolutions made at a moment of insight during sesshin have life after the final dinner? In both of these environments we are not in control; our feet are held to the fire, and we squirm, looking for systems to set us free. Witness the sick person trying every position in bed in an attempt to mitigate pain and discomfort, and likewise watch the cushions and benches pile up during sesshin on nearly every mat.  

Most important, sesshin and illness force us out of what we "know." Illness gives us a magic opportunity in that it doesnít let go in the way we want it to let go. Everybody has presumably had a stomach flu, one of these "twenty-four hour bugs," which is an interesting term because it shows how much we want to put bookends on sickness: "O.K., there is a closure time here when I pass from drinking only ginger ale to eating rice, then to eating bread, and then pasta . . . and Iíll be back again." I went through years of literally getting six or seven of these stomach fluís a year. Early in the game, I learned that thereís no such thing as a "twenty-four hour bug." You donít know how long itís going to last. When itís been going a few days, one begins to wonder, "Is there a terminus date in this, or am I the terminus?" And itís at that point the magic of illness begins to show itself.  

Concentrated practice and sickness throw us into doubt not only about the present, but they both take the lid off our boiling "ground doubt" ñ our deepest underlying distrust of all our "knowns," all our beliefs, assumptions, facts. Kat Duff writes: 

Now that I am sick, it seems that the many and varied illnesses of my life are all simple crests on the waves of an ocean that lies beneath the surface of my world, something like a water table of the soul. When Iím well I forget that it exists, but when Iím sick and sinking, I remember and return. Illness is a familiar yet foreign landscape existing within the cosmos we inherit and inhabit as human beings, not unlike an alpine meadow or a coral reef. However, it seems to be "off the map of the knowable," as Oliver Sacks, an English neurologist, once remarked after an illness.  

So the geography of deep meditation and of illness is unlit, unmapped, unmappable. But in a deep way we return to this dark landscape to actually touch it, to know it the way one knows the basement steps even in the dark after many years of exploring them first hand.  

When we go to sesshin we make an attempt to recapture our birthright. We all know that we already have this birthright, weíve all been taught that this is the truth. In the end that knowledge doesnít really mean much. Itís like looking at a picture of Blue Mountain in the Adirondacks and saying, "I now know Blue Mountain. I know its features. I know how high it is. I see the clouds above it. I see the snow on top." Climbing Blue Mountain is a whole different matter. When we get into this practice, especially sesshin, we are attempting to make real what weíve heard; our faith drives us into the practice. And our Doubt ñ which is the other end of the walking-stick of faith ñ gives us the energy to strip away one notion after another, until we really uncover this birthright.  

Illness, when it gets to a certain level ñ and I believe firmly that it is different for everyone, and changes as we get older ñ becomes a sesshin; it becomes a closed container in which we cannot access the outside world. I remember once, when I was very ill, saying to someone, "Itís as though Iím living my life in the closet, and everyone else is in the living room. I know theyíre there. I can hear them. But in some way I cannot participate. I am walled off." It is in this state that we enter another level of illness. Duff alludes to it, ever so briefly, when she says, "No wonder we fear for our lives when we fall ill. Even a small sinus infection or a passing flu can sponsor one of those interminable nights of no sleep when we feel the full weight of aloneness." If we only have a cold, we donít access this level of aloneness and the fear that comes from thinking, "Maybe this isnít just the flu. Maybe this is something else." This "something else" is death itself dressed as cancer, heart failure, AIDS. It is oblivion, the end of the little self, and fear is its mascot.  

In early 1976 I came home from work. I was run down because I had been working fourteen-hour days. It was 10 p.m. and I remembered that Monday night football was on, and I was determined to watch a quarter before I passed out. I sat down and turned on the television, and the next thing I knew I was sweating profusely. My temperature was going up. I said, "Oh shit, here we go, Iíve got the flu." I could see the next several days slipping away . . . sinking into a sort of miasma. But although I kept taking more and more aspirin, my temperature wouldnít stay down. Then it plummeted. Then it went up. Then it plummeted. And I started to fear for my life, because within five-and ten-minute periods my temperature would go from 104 or 105 (and Iím delirious) to 98. I ended up in the bathtub in our little apartment, my ex-wife helping me alternate between cold water and hot water in a wild attempt to control my temperature. It occurred to me suddenly that, whatever this was, it wasnít the flu, and that I might be in danger, that I might die. Finally I was taken to the hospital and put in an emergency room. All I remember about that night and most of the next day is that I was packed in ice. Then I was unpacked and covered in blankets. Then I was packed again and unpacked. I was kept under observation, and I heard afterwards stories of my sitting up in bed and yelling at the nurses. They had to restrain me as I had convulsions. Sometime within forty-eight hours I was told that I had encephalitis. I said, "Whatís encephalitis?" They said, "Itís an inflammation of the brain." I thought, "Well, thatís nice. When will it go away?" Itís amazing how we do that. We jump right back into the superficial involvement we have with illness: "When will it go away? What will happen now?" And I remember the doctor sitting down and saying, "We donít know. We donít know what will happen." That was absolutely terrifying. I had heard that they had lost a patient with encephalitis just that week ñ a man had died, a man who was probably stronger than I was.  

That was the "kick off" of a year of hell. Encephalitis can change our body in significant ways: it can change our digestive habits, our tolerances, our immune system. It can change our psyche. I found out that there were lots of kinds of encephalitis. In despair one day, while reading a giant book on viruses, I learned that there were thirty-six kinds of "echo" viruses alone ñ polio, an encephalitic orphan, is one of them. But there were plenty of other possibilities. At that time, when I was told that by the doctor, I remember distinctly saying to myself, "O.K., this is serious, I can die now, death is possible here, this is no longer a joke." And I remember what a boon it was to practice; I had just started to sit. If you want motivation, go and get encephalitis. I didnít know what was going on, only that I might be ushered out of the scene before I could find out. 

This was the beginning of a complete change in my existence. I bring all this up because the name of Kat Duffís book is The Alchemy of Illness. We vaguely recall alchemists as being medieval scientists who tried to change base metals into gold. But they had another mission which was more profound. It was an attempt to find the fountain of youth, an elixir of life, some material that would transform us or stop us from aging. Illness transforms us. So thatís the opportunity, to allow the transformation to happen down in the depths. This is very difficult to do because, for anybody whoís had a stomach virus, once youíve thrown up you feel pretty good for five minutes: "That was terrible, but it was a good thing to do." Then the very next thought that has reality is, "But I donít want to go through it again. There isnít anything left in me. I probably wonít do it again." Then one goes back to bed, and falls into a stupor-like sleep. And one awakes with that nauseated feeling again. That is the moment, right there, where one can say, "All right, Iíve got to let go here. I canít know where this will lead, and I canít fight this," because, if we get into an engaged battle when we have those little conversations with ourselves, particularly in this "closed container" of illness, thatís when we have a true duality: thereís us and thereís the illness. We come to address it and give it names. 

Roshi gave a talk here about his illness and what he has to deal with. He says that you come to regard it as a companion. Thatís natural enough, but can we get beyond that, can we really let go of it? Thereís almost a humor in throwing up, if one can just see it that way. This may sound impossible, but I recommend you try it next time. Itís no different from the advice Sensei gives every sesshin: you can either concentrate or you can suffer; you can either divide yourself between a you (that you know doesnít exist) and the pain, which is over there someplace (and there is no "over there someplace"). You can either do that or you can just be in the pain. You can just be the pain. You can just be. The pain can just be. The illness can just be. Is it possible to do this? I used to think, when I was more romantic about illness, that everyone who had a serious illness for any period of time did this; that somehow the illness would have this reductive quality. But I donít know if thatís true for everyone. I think there needs to be spiritual maturity, a ripeness, a willingness to let go. 

This brings us to Vimalakirti. A quick summary: Vimalakirti, a famous, highly enlightened layman, was sick in bed. The Buddha heard about this and declared, "Vimalakirti is sick, we should ask after him." Scanning the bodhisattvas, he said, "Whoís willing to go?" The Buddha didnít get any volunteers. So he asked one, then the next, and so on, but they all begged off, because they had been previously bested by Vimalakirti in some sort of Dharma dialogue, or they feared that his realization was so deep that they would be ashamed. The Sutra doesnít use those terms, but thatís the flavor of it. Finally the Buddha settles on Manjusri. Here we go, the bodhisattva of wisdom, Manjusri canít back out. "All right, Iíll go. But Iíll only go if you guys come with me." And weíre told that Vimalakirti, in this little sick room, was visited by everybody. Thousands of Buddhas and bodhisattvas all squeezed in there at once. Vimalakirti is addressed by Manjusri, who basically asks, "How are you feeling?" Vimalakirti explains his illness in the following words: 

Manjusri, my sickness comes from ignorance and the thirst for existence and it will last as long as the sicknesses of all living beings. Were all living beings to be free from sickness, I also would not be sick. Why? Manjusri, for the bodhisattva, the world consists only of living beings, and sickness is inherent in living in the world. Were all living beings free of sickness, the bodhisattva also would be free of sickness 
. . . You ask me, Manjusri, whence comes my sickness; the sickness of the bodhisattvas arises from great compassion.
Weíre told that the main point of the Sutra is this definition of a bodhisattva. Fine, but that point having been made, The Vimalakirti Sutra then goes on: "Now using upaya [skillful means] he [Vimalakirti] appeared ill, and because of his indisposition kings, ministers, elders, upasakas, Brahmins . . . as well as princes and other officials numbering many thousands came to inquire after his health. So Vimalakirti appeared in his sick body to receive and expound the Dharma to them, saying: ëVirtuous ones, the human body is impermanent; it is neither strong nor durable; it will decay and is, therefore, unreliable. It causes anxieties and sufferings, being subject to all kinds of ailments. Virtuous ones, all wise men do not rely on this body which is like a mass of foam, which is intangible. It is like a bubble and does not last for a long time. It is like a flame and is the product of the thirst of love. It is like a banana tree, the center of which is hollow . . . " This is the beginning of a very long list of images. He finally says, "Seeing reality in oneís own body is how to see the Buddha." And this Buddha is unknowable, unmappable.  

The image, if one becomes too intellectual here, is that one will see beyond oneís sickness to a healthy, transcendent state. This is a trap. Thereís a koan, Case 87 in the Blue Cliff Record, that runs like this: "Medicine and sickness cure each other. The whole earth is medicine. What is your self?" What do you think this koan is aiming at? What is your self? 

We have a form that will guarantee illness ñ we have a body, a machine, that will run down. It is the foolish person who says, "Well, Iím always healthy. Nothing ever happens to me." Itís just a matter of time. Maybe itís happening right now. Maybe the cancer cells have taken off and you donít know it yet. It is unbelievably foolish to misuse oneís health, because it is a denial of the essential state of our bodies: that our bodies will wear out. Sometimes quickly, sometimes over a long period of time. But hey, whoís counting? In a hundred years, weíll all be gone. How about fifty? Forty? Less than forty? For some of us in this room, a year, two years, three years. 

The body also guarantees us ñ because of this form, because of our minds ñ a dualistic viewpoint, the viewpoint that thereís illness, then thereís health. What do you think this koan is getting at when it says, "Medicine and sickness cure each other"? A contemporary Japanese Roshi, when asked about psychotherapy, said, "O.K., you go to psychotherapy and you become cured. You cure your mind. This is good. But how do you cure the shoe here?" How do you cure this wooden lectern? How do you cure your knee thatís always bad, that never worked right? How do you cure your height, your weight, the color of your eyes? How do you cure your nearsightedness?  

Quoting Emily Dickinson, Kat Duff writes: "In illness there is the fact that we cannot hide . . . ëPain has an Element of Blank.í" In the pain, in the suffering, if we can get out of the way enough, we can come to see this blank for what it really is. Until we engage illness at that deep level, it will have far more damage to hand us, because we will forever overlay it with the pain of delusion. We hear about this in sesshin, this pain of self and other, of us versus the illness, us versus the pain. If we can just engage it, that can actually slip away. Maybe not forever, but at least to some degree.  

So, can we look directly when ill? Can we turn our practice eye inward, right into the nausea, the pain, the fear, the blank? Can we do when sick what we try so hard to do in deep meditation ñ can we leave all our maps aside and embrace the unknown? 

-Sensei Sevan Ross

Sevan Sensei is the Teacher at the Chicago Zen Center.

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