‘Entities are made manifest over the course of time….
The idea is that staying with an entity as it unfolds affects the manner in which it is made manifest.’
— Lawrence Berger on Heidegger
Maybe what lies in the middle ground between mere being and ceaseless striving is this staying with things as they unfold, keeping them company, and by our attention and presence affecting the way they manifest. What is “staying with” things? In his “Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi,” Dongshan says, “Turning away and touching are both wrong / for it is like a massive fire.”
Faced with a fire, we’re advised not to turn our backs and abandon it, nor to grasp at it, both courses of action being unwise. Between them is an attitude of neither running from nor chasing after, but simply being with. It’s a steadfast stance that can be tremendously difficult to maintain, especially when our flames represent danger or desire.
I’d like to reflect on staying with illness, since it’s the experience uppermost in my mind at the moment, and for the past two years. During this period, I’ve often had the disorienting sensation of time moving forward without me — of seasons and holidays coming and going, and my feeling stuck in a particular moment, a moment of being sick that I haven’t succeeded in transforming despite strenuous efforts.
When you’ve been sick a long time, you can forget what it feels like to be well. And the longer your illness continues, the harder it is to imagine things turning around. In her memoir The Two Kinds of Decay, Sarah Manguso wrote, “I don’t believe in recovery…I believe in relentless forward motion.”
This sentence resonated strongly with me. Since I couldn’t imagine feeling healthy, I focused on simply trying to take as many steps forward as I could each day — researching medical problems and solutions, trying to find good doctors, making sure I got the right lab tests and drugs, keeping after my insurance company. And somehow managing my fears about everything that was happening, and everything that could happen.
Sometimes I’ve wondered whether my inability to imagine recovery, much less assume it, is an impediment. I remember writing that ghosts, like many other things, can’t hurt you if you don’t believe in them. But maybe things you don’t believe in can’t help you either.
Zen teacher Reb Anderson once said that he wanted a practice that would see him through cancer, through blindness, through any kind of loss imaginable. I feel the same way. A practice you can only do when things are going well seems no practice at all.
Yet, a friend told me that his zen teacher, a cancer survivor, says that whenever he hears someone talk about practicing with cancer, he feels like throwing up. Because sometimes it’s enough just to survive; survival can be practice enough.
This cheered me, because I feel I’ve practiced badly with Lyme disease, that my illness caused me to lose touch with my practice, which felt like losing touch with my life. I used to sit quite happily for days on end. But for more than a year, every time I tried to sit zazen, I just did what I was doing all the rest of the time — obsessively trying to figure out how to fight a disease some doctors don’t even believe in, and few know how to treat effectively.
I want to know how to practice with feeling as if you’re losing your mind (literally). How to practice when your life is full of just surviving. Of waiting an hour to see a doctor who then lectures you that you can’t possibly have what your lab tests show you have, and he can’t suggest anything else that might explain your symptoms, so you must actually be fine.
Or being just about to infuse a drug into your arm when you realize the pharmacy’s sent the completely wrong one. Or trekking to a lab in the city, which feels in your current state like running a marathon, and being informed your doctor hasn’t written the proper codes on the order and the lab can’t reach them, so you’ll have to come back another time. Or your insurance company writing you that despite their best efforts, sometimes mistakes are made, and your reimbursement check was one of them, and they want their money back, immediately.
Over the past two years, I’ve won battles, but not the war. While I’ve been busy, it’s felt like running hard to stay in place. I can’t muster a reassuring faith that everything will be fine in the end, and whenever someone says so, I think, How do you know? I haven’t prevailed over sickness, and I don’t feel I’ve practiced with it either. But I’ve stayed with it, neither denying nor giving in to it. I hope that this staying with will one day affect for the better the manner in which it is made manifest.