This weekend has been a tough one. Looking back, I can think of 20 different things I could have done differently to make it easier and more enjoyable for myself, but I did the best I could, under the circumstances. I really should have exercised more… but that’s water under the bridge, and I was so stressed and nervous about how I will handle myself today when I give notice… I could really feel it, with my blood pressure surging, my anxiety at an all-time high, adrenaline pumping through my veins non-stop, and all the thoughts in my head going wild — not a good feeling.
I’ll be very happy when today is over, and I can start transitioning to my next job.
Last night, I started to bed early-ish (10:30) and had every intention of getting to sleep as soon as possible. I was so tired — wiped out — I thought I’d be able to easily fall asleep.
I tossed and turned for another hour… then past that… all the anxiety pumping through me, the sadness, the upset, the frustration, the anger, the resentment, the regret, the loss… all of it. I could not get comfortable AND my head would not shut up.
The same thing happened to me earlier on Sunday, when I tried to take a nap. It just wasn’t happening. So, I just lay there and tried to relax. It was something. But I really needed the sleep instead. Oh, well.
So, last night (or rather, this morning) as the clock ticked farther and farther past midnight, I read my Legends of the Samurai book. That always helps me put things in perspective. Reading about warriors who overcame odds and did an elegant job of it (or who screwed up and were disgraced, but still survived) is a great mental tune-up for me. The stories are so basic, so fundamental, so human. Stories of courage and cunning, betrayal and defeat, uprisings and victory… just the sort of things I need to read about, to put my own mind at ease.
The main thing is finding a way to not feel so alone. When I read about the obstacles those warriors had to overcome, all those hundreds of years ago, it reminds me that I’m not the only one who has to face these sorts of things — and yes, it can be done with intelligence and skill.
I don’t know how today is going to go for me. I’m sure it will be challenging.
If nothing else, it will be an experience.
I just need to stay strong, not let others beat me down and treat me like crap and take out their frustrations on me. I need to stand my ground and just do what needs to be done. And be quit of this multinational corporation that cares about me even less than it cares about its office furniture.
Hulu is a wonderful thing. They have a bunch of classic samurai movies, which are just the ticket for when I’m feeling low and wiped out. I’m not sure what it is about samurai movies, but there’s something about them that both really takes me out of my inner turmoil and malaise, and also puts me in close touch with the intricacies of human life.
Yesterday, I watched “Sword of the Beast” a 1965 classic which I really enjoyed. I had a little trouble following who was what and how they related to each other, but overall it was a good experience.
I also watched a little anime, but that was less satisfying, partly because it was shorter and didn’t go very deep. I’m finding, as I go along, that I need more and more depth in my life. Less Facebook and Twitter, and more classic novels. Less sitcoms and more documentaries. I’m really getting into “Iconoclasts” from the Sundance channel. There’s something really comforting about that show, because it reveals what’s beneath the surface, and that’s a rare thing, in this world.
Maybe that’s the thing with samurai movies – they really get beneath the surface, in my opinion. They show individuals grappling with personal challenges in the face of overwhelming odds, tyranny, oppression, deceit and trickery, and sometimes impossible situations. And through it all, how you handle yourself, how you represent your corner of the world is the most important thing of all. It’s a far cry from the standard fare we get from the usual network t.v. – which I cannot even watch anymore, thank you very much.
No matter how beautiful the people are, no matter how rich or powerful or intriguing they may be, there’s just not that same … substance, that you find in the old samurai classics. And honesty? It’s almost like the modern world idolizes trickery and deceit, treating it like it’s a virtue, rather than a demeaning fact of life that must be overcome by good people. When did we get so cynical? When did we stoop so low? Since when is that kind of behavior a good thing? I just don’t get it.
Anyway, I’ve informed people at work that I’ve got the flu and I’m out for the week. I’ll be unavailable till Wednesday, then I’ll check back in with them at the end of the week. That should give me enough time to settle in and get some things sorted out. Sleep. Rest. Eat and drink and chill, and just let myself get better.
And dream of better times… better days… better behavior in the face of overwhelming circumstances… not just dreaming, actually, but working towards it. Always working. Onward.
So far, so good. I am still managing to get up and get into my day first with sitting and breathing, then with some exercise before breakfast.
The results have been pretty amazing. I knew it helped me before, when I would do my exercise, first thing, but I think the thing that was missing was the sitting piece — breathing regularly to balance out my autonomic nervous system, so that I’m neither exclusively in fight-flight mode nor in rest-digest mode, but I can move freely between the two.
In years past, I have found myself either all jazzed up when I got up — I’d leap out of bed and race into the day. Or I would be sluggish and cold and numb. Nowadays, even when I am tired, I am still relatively alert. And even when I am well-rested, I am still pretty calm and balanced.
That calm and balance is priceless to me. It eluded me for so many years — pretty much all my life, actually. Now, with some simple, relatively minor changes, I have a way to start out the day on that note. And that’s pretty encouraging.
In the past week or so, I have not woken up angry or pumped up. I have not started my day on sour notes. I have been able to keep steady and clear-headed, even when I was sick and was really very tired.
This is good. It’s very good.
Because the times when I have had the hardest time of all, has been when my fight-flight impulse was dialed up to a deafening level — when I was so jazzed, so charged up, that I couldn’t settle down. It was like I was stuck on ALWAYS-ON and couldn’t find a way to turn it down. I didn’t even want to turn it down, because it was familiar and I thought that was what worked for me.
This is better.
I’ve been reading Training the Samurai Mind: A Bushido Sourcebook, gleaning what I can from the online version. I’m short on cash, so I can’t afford to buy the book, and I can’t find it at the library, but I can read bits and pieces on Google Books, so I have been. (It’s better that way, too, because it forces me to read only portions of the book and focus on and them and digest them over time, rather than rushing through, willy-nilly, and not really digesting any of it.) I have long been an avid reader about Samurai and Bushido, and it makes sense to me — the life path of warriors who very likely sustained their share of TBIs in the course of battle… a life path which enabled them to restore their faculties and remain viable warriors… that is very useful to me, and I learn a lot from reading those kinds of books.
One thing that strikes me in Samurai-related literature is the focus on self-lessness. Getting rid of thoughts of the self. Focusing on an certain ethic, a certain way of life, to the exclusion of the self. And I have to say, I feel so much freer, when I get my mind off my SELF, than when I focus on my “own” self.
The difference I feel in myself when I read Samurai writings, compared to how I felt when I was seeing a therapist who was intent on getting me to think more and more about mySELF is remarkable. It’s amazing. And when I think back to when I was in therapy, I realized that although the therapist meant well, they were actually leading me down a path that was completely wrong for me. They wanted me to focus on mySELF more, but what I really needed to do, was focus on my “self” less.
It’s been several years since I was last in therapy, and it’s taken me this long to get back to a way that suits me much better than those SELF-absorbed conversations that used to plunge me into confusion and chaos on a weekly basis.
I have no words to describe the sense of calm I have, that comes from simply sitting and letting all the crap go… that comes from refusing to get caught up in the drama that churns inside my head… that comes from balancing my nervous system with steady focus on my in-breath and out-breath.
There is another way for me to find peace. There is a genuinely reliable way for me to chill. This is truly encouraging. It’s truly amazing.
Something came together for me over the weekend — it’s something that has been in my mind for a number of years, now, but suddenly it has a whole new meaning. It seems to explain pretty well some of the things that have puzzled me over the course of my life.
It’s the idea that the injuries I’ve sustained are a warrior’s injuries. And to address those injuries, I need to do so as a warrior, using a warrior’s tools. My main tool of choice is Zen. Za-zen. Sitting with the intention of overcoming the limitations of my unruly mind.
As a bit of background, I have been fascinated by warrior codes and cultures for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I was practically obsessed by King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table. Something about the stories of the knights really captured my imagination, and I spent many an hour as a child studying heraldry, swords, draft horses, and castles.
To this day, I’m still fascinated by stories of chivalry and the exploits of knights errant. Something in me really relates to them.
In the course of my travels, I have had the good fortune of having encountered a handful of people who have been Zen practitioners. The ones I related to most strongly were solitary practitioners. They sat za-zen in the morning outside — in all seasons of the year, no matter what the weather –before they did anything else, they traveled around and had adventures, they wrangled with family and community problems, and through it all they had a sparkle in their eye (even a wicked gleam) and their most common response to anything unexpected was, “Isn’t that fascinating!”
I sat and listened to their stories of what they encountered along the way in their lives, and I was amazed by the courage they showed in the face of tremendous adversity. But to them, it wasn’t a question of courage, it was a question of simply being with the situation and responding the the way that seemed most appropriate.
I guess it rubbed off on me, because I felt myself drawn to zen — particularly za-zen, the act of sitting motionless for some time, focusing on the breath and just letting the attention disperse. Not following any of the thoughts that come up, but noticing them and then letting them go. I practiced this for some time, myself, years back. I didn’t attend any formal sitting sessions at zendos or meditation centers. I was a solitary and I liked it that way. Plus, I was very nervous about being around other people who knew how to do something I was new at. I was so accustomed to new people taking issue with the way I did things and/or finding fault with me and/or making a public example of me doing things “wrong” that I just couldn’t bring myself to spend any time with people who did this sort of thing.
I thought about it many times. But I could never bring myself to move forward.
Then I fell in 2004, and my practice fell apart. It just disintegrated. I couldn’t be bothered with sitting in silence. I couldn’t be bothered with intentional breathing and paying attention to what was rattling ’round in my brain, for the sake of letting it go. I couldn’t be bothered with any of that silence stuff. I was too agitated, too restless, and I was too injured to realize that something was amiss.
Over the past 5 years or so, however, I’ve been drawn back to zen. I can’t be bothered with a lot of the doctrine that gets tossed about – all those words and pontifications about something that is essentially about just being. Maybe I’m just a contrarian, but many of the people who purport to practice zen annoy the crap out of me. But in place of the people, there are the writings of practitioners and students from years gone by, and I’ve been digging into them a bit — one of the pieces I’ve found that I’m enjoying is The Religion of the Samurai, which is a free download at Project Gutenberg.
I have been reading a few places where scholars have wondered aloud why Zen (which may or may not be part of Buddhism, depending whom you talk to), would have been adopted by the Samurai, a warring class, as their “religion”. Buddhism, from what people say, is a practice that honors all life and warns away from killing other living creatures. How could Zen end up the practice of a warrior class specifically dedicated to being highly effective “killing machines”?
The answer, I think, lies in the effect of Zen on the autonomic nervous system. It’s been my experience that Zen is extremely effective at teaching you how to modulate your fight-flight responses, as well as training you to ignore the pointless chatter of an overactive mind. In my own experience, it seems to specifically condition your mind and your body to do as you choose, not simply race from one stimulus to the next, in a never-ending and ultimately futile attempt to assuage every fear, satisfy every appetite, and overcome every perceived foe. Za-zen practice (in my own experience) trains you to “hold your sh*t”, if you’ll excuse the expression, and keep your act together, even in the face of truly daunting odds.
That, I believe, is why Zen (especially za-zen) became such an important part of Samurai culture. It trained and toned their minds and their systems to be masters of their own unruly passions, and put them in the driver’s seat of their own lives.
That’s a mighty powerful thing. And the clearer I get — each month seems to bring a little more clarity (though I do have set-backs) — the more drawn I am to the practice of Zen… za-zen… sitting with my breath and taming my unruly mind.
Because in a classical sense, I have a warrior’s injuries. I’ve been attacked. I’ve been hurt in accidents when people ran into my car. I’ve fallen from heights while attempting some exploit. And my last injury in 2004 came from me being over-tired, pushing myself to “so my job” and not paying attention to my posture and position when I was in the midst of an important task. I was literally injured in the line of duty.
What’s more, the types of injuries I’ve sustained are the kinds of injuries warriors sustained, back before there were guns and cannons and laser beams. Back in the day, warriors fought hand-to-hand. Think Braveheart. Think Lakota raiding parties. Think Maginificent Seven. Once upon a time, when you went into battle, you had a sword and/or a spear and/or a shield. And you did what you could with what you had. Sure, there were often archers, but on the ground, you went up against a live person. And you got hit on the head a lot.
Think about it — when you’re going for the kill in a spot that’s the least protected, what’s often the easiest target? The head. The body has arms and legs and usually some sort of clothing or armor to protect it. But the head can be difficult to protect — you almost have to have it unprotected, so you can see and hear and smell and taste your way through the heat of battle. A lot of people take swings at your head, and maybe you duck and miss some, but you can also get clunked on the head by a glancing blow or a direct hit, and you have to keep going. You still have to keep standing, keep fighting, keep swinging.
When I think about it, that’s one of the things that TBI-induced stubbornness is good for — staying in the fight. The very thing that works against athletes when they’re concussed — that determination to get back in and keep going — is precisely the kind of quality a fighter needs in times of war. You can’t just sideline yourself, when you’re injured. Not if you’re in the thick of battle and you have no escape route at all. What are you supposed to do? Lie down and play dead? Meanwhile, your comrades in arms are battling on around you, possibly dying themselves, because you’re lying there taking a breather.
From where I’m sitting, TBI is a warrior’s injury. It’s not just a recent “signature wound” from the recent Iraq/Afghan wars. It’s been that way since the beginning of time. We probably lost sight of that with the advent of firearms and cannons and long-distance warfare, with soldiers sitting at consoles pressing buttons instead of grabbing a jagged knife and wading into the fray. But think back and imagine, if you will, how wars used to be fought. Take a trip to the library, if you’re unclear on the images. You’ll see what I mean.
Now, I’m sure there are folks who will say, “Having a car accident isn’t the same thing.” Or, “Getting clunked on the head by a piece of falling tile isn’t the same as getting knocked out in an IED blast in Kandahar Province.”
True enough. But keep in mind, the after-effects can be quite similar — and maddeningly so, because that car accident or the thing with the falling tile hardly seems significant enough to produce the kinds of complications that come afterwards — lost jobs, lost relationships, lost money, lost homes, lost self.
That being said, I believe that to effectively treat TBI and restore the aspects of our lives which have been disrupted/trashed, we need to treat the injury as a wound of our warrior lives. Maybe we were Type A personalities who were always on to go, who never took no for an answer, and managed to overcome any obstacle in our path… before the accident/attack. Maybe we were innocent bystanders who were in the wrong place at the wrong time when the car full of thugs pulled up and attacked us. Maybe we were just a little too tired and a little too distracted while we did something that demanded more than we had to offer. Whatever the disparate source(s) of our injury, the aftermath of each person (though every brain is different) shares so much in common with others, in terms of the quality of disruption and difficulty, it would be silly to overlook ways that other peoples and other cultures (especially in the past) developed to not only rehabilitate their injured, but also get them back in the game and let them rise in the world to positions of considerable wealth and power.
Like the Samurai.
Now, I’m not saying that wealth and power should be our exclusive goals. But the same approach that made excellence of the political sort possible in Japan, those many years ago, can be used to make excellence of any kind we choose possible in this time, in our present lives. Once upon a time, warriors got head-injured regularly. And some of them found a way to recover successfully and continue on in illustrious careers. They were the lords and barons and kings of the Western world. They were the Samurai of Japan. They were the warlords of countless lands in between. And many, if not all of them, had probably sustained multiple traumatic brain injuries over the course of their lives.
If that holds true (though I may certainly be mistaken in some respects, human as I am), and if we can find the path they followed to restore themselves to functionality, and there are vestiges of their codes and their disciplines still in place today, why can’t we use those same principles to effect the same sort of positive change in our lives?
Recovery from TBI is possible. People have been doing it for eons. Since the beginning of time. For me, they key is to know my warrior nature, and to respect it as such — and treat my wounds as I would treat any injury from battle: with discipline and focus and the determination to get back out there into the fray again… next time with more insight, more experience, and yes, more success.