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Buddhism and the Spiritually Challenged 
by Winfield Clark


The experiences of a long-term (35 years) paraplegic with long-term (20+ years) Buddhist practice. Brief personal history. Overview of Buddhist philosophy. The practice of sitting meditation. Meditation practice and the disabled.

Personal History 

I had a jeep accident at age sixteen in 1960, receiving a spinal lesion at T-11. My therapy consisted of six months on a Foster frame, followed by six months of learning to balance on crutches and braces. I finally realized when I got back out in the world that tripoding from A to B was much less efficient than using a wheelchair, and at that point went off to college. At the time, very few colleges had made any arrangements for the handicapped. Dartmouth College was no exception. After two years of being carried up stairs to classes and meals, I transferred to the University of Illinois, which had one of the most accessible campuses in the country. Their rehab program was, and is, a landmark institution; perhaps the first in higher education circles to take the approach of "mainstreaming" their clients into the everyday life of a university. Certainly my own experience was one of empowerment, learning to deal with aspects of life in a wheelchair as basic as jumping a curb or bouncing down stairs, and as far-reaching as the realization that disabled people could do just about anything they set their minds to. 

Still, I would have to say that things fell apart for me in graduate school. After receiving an M.A. in English, it became clear to me that life as an English professor was not what I wanted. But I had no idea what I did want. A trust fund had been set up for me at the time of my accident, so money and livelihood was not a large concern as long as I remained frugal. I decided to take a year off to "find myself." It was now the late 'Sixties, and I migrated to San Francisco, along with several thousands of my peers. Academia receded quickly. By then I was a bit long in the tooth to wholeheartedly plunge into the realms of hippiedom, but I lurked around the fringes. 

In those frenzied days, every major institution of Western culture was being actively questioned. The politics of the day never really caught me - I had had friends in school who were ardent politicos, Trotskyites, SDS-ers and the like, and their paranoia and impracticality had struck me as semi-comical. Likewise, and luckily, the drug culture held no fascination for me ( though I did inhale.) But the late 'Sixties was also a time of great spiritual questioning, and I found myself being attracted to some of the notions of Buddhist philosophy that perfumed the California landscape in those years. I began formal studies with a Tibetan meditation master, Chögyam Trungpa, in 1971, and continued as his student until his death in 1987. 

Religion had not played much of a role in my upbringing. My parents were non-practicing Protestants, and, though I had gone to an Episcopalian boarding school where chapel and sacred studies were part of the regimen, I thought of myself as an agnostic. But Buddhism required no leaps of faith - it is a pragmatic, non-theistic philosophy, though it has the trappings of a religion. Its teachings are geared towards everyday realities which every culture shares. Perhaps most people reading this have had some exposure to Buddhist ideas, but I hope you will bear with me if I briefly describe some of the basic tenets of the Buddhist world view. 

Overview of Buddhism  

Buddhism says, along with all major religions, that the human condition is primarily characterized by suffering, that there is a background of anxiety even in our happiest moments. Because of the realities of sickness, old age and death, all human accomplishments are impermanent, fleeting. These ideas are hardly unique to Buddhism. What is unique is Buddhism's explanation for the underlying cause of this suffering and impermanence: that we have a mistaken belief in ourselves as unchanging, immortal entities. The notion of a Self, of an on-going ego, is the root cause of confusion and pain. Though the idea offends our commonsense view of how things are, it is possible to live in the world as a completely open person, without referring everything back to a tight, individualized ego. This view of the Self as an artificial construct is not that different from emerging views in Western cognitive psychology - the mind is no longer seen as a simple computer registering a "real" outer world. Perhaps only ten percent of what we perceive is actual; the rest is filled in as a sort of mental shorthand. When Buddhism says that the world is illusory, it is not saying that nothing exists, but that our egos prevent us from seeing things as they are. Movies are a good analogy - we are easily seduced into thinking the action on the screen is "real", even though we know it is made up of static images on a film. The dichotomy of the Self vs. the world exists only in this intermittent, discontinuous fashion; the Self is not the solid, reliable, "good-old-Me" we think it is. Nor is the Self separate from the body. We have the illusion that our minds ride on top of our bodies in a sort of control room behind the eyes, but mind and body are more of a continuum. 

We are born with our egos fairly intact, as any parent can attest. So the process of loosening the life-long habits of perception we have developed is difficult. Buddhism offers a sophisticated tool for this work, which is the practice of meditation. Again, every religion has developed some form of meditation, but in Buddhism it is the central focus. 

Meditation practice  

There is nothing very mysterious about meditation; it consists of sitting quietly and watching the mind. The breath is used as a reference point; when thoughts or memories carry us off, the breath is there as an on-going connection to the present moment, and we can simply bring ourselves back by re-focusing on the breath. But there is no attempt to get rid of thoughts; the point is to get to know how our mind works when left to itself - in normal life we rarely sit still for five minutes at a time. Boredom ordinarily pushes us towards some activity, no matter how trivial, simply to fill up space. We go to great lengths to avoid looking at ourselves. Left to itself, the mind ranges over a surprising expanse - any detail of our total life experience, from the most uplifting to the most degraded, can come up safely in meditation. The meditator is encouraged to try not to evaluate these thoughts. Everything that comes up is part of us and needs to be looked at. Meditation is described as a process of "making friends with oneself." It is impossible to be fully on good terms with yourself if hopes and fears are left hidden in the subconscious. 

From the point of view of Buddhism, we are all "neurotic", in the sense that these hidden impulses exert control over our conscious minds. Emotional upheavals, depressions, issues of self-esteem and self-loathing operate like black holes in our seemingly "normal" personalities. Meditation offers a path towards working on these universal problems, not as a form of therapy but almost as a side effect of getting to know yourself. 

There is a general misconception that the purpose of meditation is to achieve some trance-like, quiescent state or to stop thoughts completely. On the contrary, meditation puts us directly in touch with our innermost thought processes. The idea is to learn to let the mind be, to let thoughts arise and subside without the usual tendency to try to push and pull them. Gradually, a kind of tranquility develops, based on having learned to accept oneself "as is." 

Meditation and the disabled person  

For the disabled person, meditation can help cut through some of the additional confusion created by having a body that is not "normal". Much of the difficulty one faces in dealing with a disability stems from the constant attempt to measure up to supposed social norms. Self-esteem is compromised; one's grasp on "meaning" is more tentative. Meditation helps put things in a truer perspective. Society's conventional wisdom is that the best thing a disabled person can do is to try to become as "normal" as possible. This approach contains within it the implicit assumption that the disabled person will never fully arrive. Meditation calls into question much of what passes for normalcy. Much better to reach an individual, unique assessment of one's strengths and weaknesses than to chase after conventional, and often unexamined, notions of happiness. No therapy imposed from the outside can easily accomplish this: it is up to the individual. 

Acceptance of the actual situation, ("things-as-they-are" in the traditional Buddhist phrase,) brings with it a kind of equanimity that permits a clearer assessment of one's options. For instance, the rage with which some disability activists confront society's barriers obviously implies a good deal of projection - "This institution's attitudes (or its physical barriers, personnel policies, etc.) are the cause of my pain." The rage is extra, unnecessary, often blocking the very communication which could change the situation. Meditation can help break down the "us against them" mentality which leaves many disabled (as well as able-bodied) people embittered with the world. Making friends with oneself automatically increases openness towards other people: our own neurotic patterns are not all that unique, so coming to terms with them means we become more accepting of others. Compassion is the highest good in Buddhism, turning the focus away from one's individual situation towards that of society at large. 

Certainly the high incidence of drug-dependency, alcoholism, welfare-dependency and unemployment among the ranks of the disabled has some basis in questions of self-esteem. I in no way mean to minimize the social and physical problems facing the disabled, but the success stories among our group always seem to be based on a high degree of self-knowledge and an empowered attitude. All the smarmy cliches apply - "Glass half-empty or half-full", "Ability, not disability", "Life is what you make of it" and so on. But changing one's outlook involves more than a simple act of will or leap of faith - it takes work. Meditation is a powerful tool for doing that work. 

In closing, I should point out that I believe everything I have said about meditation vis ā vis the disabled applies with at least equal force to those who intend to work with the disabled. 

Suggested Reading 

These two pithy introductions to Buddhist thought are available in most bookstores or through Samadhi Cushions bookstore, R.R. #1, Box 3, Barnet, VT 05821, tel. 800 331-7751. 

Trungpa, Chögyam (1991)
Meditation in Action
Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc. 

Suzuki Roshi (1970)
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
N.Y.C. & Tokyo: Weatherhill 

A secular approach to meditation practice is presented in: 

Trungpa, Chögyam (1984)
The Sacred Path of the Warrior
Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc. 

Meditation instruction is offered without charge at Shambhala Centers in most North American cities. 

Copyright by Winfield Clark

Reproduced in Paralinks with the expressed consent and approval of  the author.

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