Whatever Happens, Don't Be Afraid: Our Bodies are Impermanent

Last Saturday, I was given a task to carry a box of overripe bananas from one location to another close by. I acquired a cart with wheels to transport it down the hallway of the church basement where the soup kitchen was serving food. To lift, I bent at the knees. I tested the weight of the box and thought it within my capacity. I was careful in all the ways I know.

Still, it was heavy. I did not know it until later that evening, but I pulled some muscle or muscleS. I strained them in some way that called out to other parts of my body to over correct, to take on some of the work those muscles where temporarily not up to, and thus started a cascade that ended in my back seizing. Painfully.

The past week has been spent – because I have the great fortune of access to decent health care and a cash flow that allows me to respond to a back in pain rather than requiring me to ignore it, to work through it, to neglect my body and thus my health and spirit – time and effort and some dollars on trying to heal my back. Icy-hot was applied liberally. Oral arnica from along the homeopathic route. Hot showers. A friend had gifted me for Christmas some homemade mildly scented bath salts so I soaked in the tub. I visited the massage therapist I see maybe twice a year – she was kind enough to see me with less than 24 hours notice!

Though I was getting better – able to walk near people without fear that they might kindly touch me but that it would hurt, hurt, hurt – the prospect of three plane flights (totaling over 20 hours) scheduled to bring me to Burma made the suggestion of seeing a chiropractor a welcome one. I had never been. Through a friend who called a friend, on New Year’s Eve afternoon, I spent thirty minutes with a kind, gentle chiropractor who reminded me that I love the feel of traction. I walked away from the appointment not sure that anything had changed physically. But when I woke the next morning, there was a marked absence of the pain that had been my company for the several days before.

A theme that is emerging about this trip, and regularly presents itself in my life, is that of asking for help. Of relying on others when the task is too big, even if in the past the task has been do-able.

So, for instance, on the Sunday right after my back seized, I still showed up for church (because it wasn’t that bad and because that’s what ministers – and a whole lot of people who don’t have paid sick leave – do). I had to ask people to do things for me. Please carry this. Put that in my car rather than handing it to me, please. People did it willingly, sometimes even joyfully, and most certainly kindly. Thus it made practicing asking for help so much easier. Nor necessarily easy, but easier. This has repeated itself in various iterations all week.

Including this morning, when asking the friend who drove me to the airport at 4 am. I got ask her if she would lug in and out of the car my luggage, both pieces nearly 50 pounds, one filled with books to give to children and seminarians in Burma (each of us on the trip brought two pieces of bags; one for ourselves and one filled to the brim with books to leave with our hosts). And asking for help, or accepting offers of help, while walking with the 12 kind, funny, quirky and intriguing people with whom I am spending the next 16 days as we study Christian – Buddhist relations in Myanmar (the other, actually official, name for Burma).

I was – am – also practicing not feeling badly or awkward about asking for help. No one is asking me to do so. No one has said or implied with a glance, “let me carry that for you and while I do I will seethe with resentment and think less of you so you should begin to think less of yourself to get the process started.” That only adds to what the Buddha would call suffering – I cannot escape the pain, but I need not layer suffering onto it by clinging to an idea that things were different. By clinging to a body not in pain. By clinging to the pretense (a dysfunctional one, at that) of an existence not interdependent upon others.

It turns out that bodies are frail. Bodies are vulnerable. Bodies tend toward decay. Bodies are, like everything else, impermanent. My dear friend, Steve, whose doctors just found a tumor in his brain, shared yesterday with me a story from awhile ago. In the story, Steve was having lunch with Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rimpoche, who said, apropos of nothing in particular and yet everything that is,

“Whatever happens, don’t be afraid.”

Which reminds me of my other friend with a brain tumor, and how he is engaging what is turning out to be his final time on this planet. And my high school friend who has had a double mastectomy and heaps of treatments, living every moment until she is gone from this place.

So that is how I aspire enter this next adventure.

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