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Enjoying the Perfection of Imperfection

This article was witten in 1997 for the book Being Bodies: Buddhist Women on the Paradox of Embodiment, edited by Lenore Friedman and Susan Moon, and published by Shambhala. I was asked by the editors to write something about my experience as a Buddhist meditator with a disability. I was on staff at Springwater Center when I wrote this, and no longer identified myself as a Buddhist, but I was and still am engaged in something that feels entirely congruent with the true heart of Buddhism. This is what I wrote.

Meditation is so very simple. Reality is always right here, immediate. But the mind creates a web of complications that come to seem more real than the actual sounds and sensations and listening presence that is this moment. Apparent embodiment in a particular perishable form, with a complex brain, is undoubtedly at the root of our illusory sense of separation from the totality, and all our subsequent human problems, for it is in thinking about and identifying with the body that we seem to be vulnerable and alone. Paradoxically, the body also offers the way home, for it is in fully meeting whatever appears as pure sensation (without interpretation) that we discover the emptiness of form — the undivided wholeness of being that has no solidity, no boundaries, no limits — that which no word or image can capture, in which every thing is included. By going into the very core of whatever appears, we begin to turn our attention from the particular objects to the seeing. In that, no obstacles or problems remain.

The appearance of the body has been a koan for me throughout my life. I was born without a right hand, so from early on I have been dealing with myriad reactions, internal and external, to ideas of "imperfection" and "abnormality." When I was a toddler, people would stop my mother on the street and tell her we were being punished by God. Children would stare and point and ask questions. Adults would hush them up. In high school, I was not a hot item with the boys. Growing up, the only cultural images I saw of disabled people were negative: Captain Hook or the Easter Seal poster children seemed to be my choices. Understandably, I did not want to think of myself as disabled.

As a young adult, I drank excessively, smoked cigarettes, took drugs, lived recklessly on the edge, and nearly died. I cultivated a kind of wild, rebellious, belligerent, tough identity. I understand, as a result of my own experience, that people don't willfully choose to commit crimes or become addicts and abusers. And I understand from my own life the healing power of love, acceptance, and caring attention.

Waking up, I went into therapy and began to discover that being disabled didn't have to mean that you were ugly, incompetent, pitiful, evil, or better off dead. I didn't have to be Captain Hook. I got involved in the disability rights movement, worked with other disabled people, and began to see my identity as a disabled person in a positive light. In the same vein, I became a proud lesbian-feminist. Certainly this was an improvement over self-hatred and self-destruction, and perhaps a very necessary step. But who am I really?

Delving seriously into Zen meditation several years later was another turn because Zen is the end of all identification. I resisted this emptiness tooth and nail. I clung to my identities, to the stories constructed by life-saving progressive politics: stories about the strength of the feminine, the virtues of being gay, the revolutionary potential of lesbianism, the righteousness of this or that cause, the suffering and oppression I'd been through. These were better than the old stories in which women were inferior, gays were mentally ill, and whatever troubles we had were the result of our own personal failures. However, these new stories were still fictitious abstractions. They had their usefulness, but many of us held on to them as reality itself. I didn't want to question this new picture of how the world was that made me feel righteous and superior. I was afraid that if I did, maybe I'd be back where I was before therapy, before women's liberation, before disability rights, back in the old story of worthlessness, the one that culminated in alcoholism and rage and near-death.

It was (and is) a slow, lifelong (yet always instantaneous) process, discovering that there can be a letting go into a deeper truth where there is no story at all, no identity, no "me" to protect, no "other" to blame, no history to cherish. In this new perspective, I don't know anymore why I became a drunk or why I sobered up. All stories, including the one I've just told, are recognized as fiction. Fiction and imagination are wonderful. We can enjoy stories, but we don't need to become entranced by them in ways that cause suffering to ourselves and others. That's what waking up is all about, as I see it. Not knowing anything. Then anything is possible.

This awakening is about coming alive to what is actually happening right now. In this aliveness, the body and the whole world of form is more vibrant and present than ever before, but it isn't solid anymore. Concepts and images don't stick. The stories (and the people we apply them to) are no longer fixed. In this openness that no longer knows what everything is, there is freedom. This not knowing is love. In this open being, every moment is devotion.

Flower, car horn, rain, contraction, headache, person, word, thought, wheelchair. What is it? Zen invited me to listen to each moment and wonder. The mind divides and evaluates. It provides answers. It imagines bondage and liberation, desirable and undesirable. In sitting quietly and listening without explanations or ideas, I discovered that there is no body. If there is just listening and experiencing, what is the body? Where is it? Where does it begin and end? Meditation reveals that the body is a painting that appears and disappears in imagination. It seems solid when we think about it, or if we look into a mirror (and think), or look at another person (and think), but in quiet sitting we can actually experience the body as permeable, borderless, empty space. And we can experience how nothing is separate from this space.

We can also see clearly how different bodies arise at every moment, not just physiologically or sub-atomically, but psychologically, image-wise. One moment I feel athletic, strong, beautiful, flexible. Another moment I feel clumsy, weak, unattractive, stiff. Whatever body image or sensation appears, there is always the possibility to see it, experience it, and not identify it as "me," not take it too seriously.

In high school I took a class in filmmaking. In the first class, I remember the teacher had us look at our thumbs. We sat there in silence, gazing at our thumbs. Minutes ticked by. We shifted restlessly in our seats. Three minutes. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Finally the teacher asked how many of us were bored. A lot of us raised our hands. He told us that if we were really seeing, we wouldn't get bored. He gave us homework assignments that involved sitting in front of trees and looking at small sections of bark for an hour, or watching grass blow in the wind.

One night I was lying on the floor in our dining room in the dark, watching shadows move on the wall. My mother came in, a bit upset, and asked me if I had finished my homework. I told her I was doing it. Lucky for me I could honestly say that. Otherwise I would have been told to get up and get to work. I'm not criticizing my mother; it was her job to do that. That's part of what parents and teachers have to do, they have to socialize little open beings into functional members of society. But in the process, we come to believe that the imaginary constructions of convention are reality.

Meditation is returning to that original seeing that is playful and interested in exploring. We turn from mental fantasy and story line and trying to figure things out, and open to this exact moment as unconceptualized sensate experience (smells, sounds, sensations, just as they are, without analysis or labels, without judgment). As we experience what is actually happening, we find that nothing is solid, nothing is bound or limited. By turning our attention to what is apparently most concrete, we discover that it is actually empty, spacious, and not even there. In the mental stories, we appear to exist as substantial, discrete, continuous individuals, heroines or victims of our narratives, struggling with problems that seem very tangible and real. In simple, direct experiencing, we are not there anymore as separate entities. The drama is gone, our problems dissolve into thin air because only thought kept them going. There is pure listening, without meaning or purpose. The mind is uneasy with this lack of identity and drama, and we may discover a surprising reluctance to let our troubles go. Thought quickly begins weaving another story. But there is always, in every moment, the possibility of seeing the story for what it is, and of waking up to bare presence, to just what is. This is very simple. It requires no particular body position, no especially quiet setting, no special costumes or decor, no years of grueling work. It is available every moment, everywhere.

But when spirituality gets institutionalized, often what tends to happen is that people begin inventing and sanctifying special costumes and correct postures to be in while "doing" it. I have no objections to formal meditation, nor to robes and rituals, but I wonder if these complicated systems may sometimes create an atmosphere where people who are different begin to feel that they are less than fully authentic. People with disabilities can't always get into the official costumes or the correct postures. Certainly if we imagine that waking up requires any particular circumstance we are missing the point.

I've lived for several years now at a meditation retreat center where all the traditional forms have been dropped, where sitting in an armchair is perfectly acceptable for anyone, where there are no particular postures or costumes to get into. I've learned here beyond any shadow of a doubt that real meditation can happen in any clothing, in any position, in any place, in any body. Even calling it "meditation" can be a step away. For me, this has been enormously freeing. It has helped me to see that meditation is every moment, not just something I do in a special place, in a particular form. It is simply being here.

Babies and animals automatically live this way. They approach my arm, the one that ends just below the elbow, without ideas. They aren't frightened or repulsed by it. They don't feel sorry for me. They don't think I'm heroic or amazing. They see the actual shape of what's in front of them without concepts and labels. They don't see it this way because they're practicing meditation or trying to be enlightened. It just happens. And the same simple seeing happens for us, too, every moment. The only problem is that for us it tends to get obscured by our belief in the reality of all the thoughts that arise, and particularly by our belief in the central thought of "me" as somebody separate from the totality, somebody who is somehow incomplete, not quite right, and in need of fixing.

Disability is a problem if we want to fix it, if we think we should be other than how we are. It ceases to be a problem as soon as we see it simply, the way the baby sees it. The physical difficulties and discomforts may still be there, the social injustices and all the rest. But none of this has to be a problem. We do what we can to relieve pain, to improve physical functioning, to change oppressive social conditions: aspirin, acupuncture, surgery, wheelchair ramps, legislation, consciousness raising, whatever. But perhaps it can be done without expectations, without attachment to our personal ideas of how everything should be, without idealism and blame, with more openness and compassion. As we rest in what's actually happening, we discover the complete perfection of imperfect existence. Physical imperfections and limitations lose their sting, and the imperfections of society (the prejudices and bad attitudes, the flawed responses) become less bothersome as well. We do what it makes sense to do, but we don't feel personally attacked and victimized by life's injustices in the way we once did. We come to realize the impersonal nature of the whole thing. In meditation we quickly discover that all the behaviors and attitudes we hate "outside" of us are there in our minds as well; the same reactive, defensive, conditioned processes are going on in all of us. There is no "other" to blame. Everything is happening on its own.

Living with disability (like all forms of upset and disappointment) is a gift if we work with it intelligently, as an opportunity to see and question our images, ideals, expectations — our basic desire to be different than we are. As these mental constructions become more transparent and begin to unravel, beauty reveals itself right here and now where we least expected to find it. Meditation teaches me that perfection is life as it actually is from moment to moment. Asymmetrical. Messy. Unresolved. Out of control. Imperfect. Terrible. And miraculous.

-- copyright Joan Tollifson and Shambhala Publications1997 --

Do not repost this article without permission from Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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