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.