By Gerald Stribling
Something is sapping my strength. My old doctor, Doctor Becky, tried to figure out why. She was my doctor for 25 years. She threw her hands up in the air, finally, and said that I was just getting old. This was not my new doctor’s response, whom I saw today. She ran some blood tests, and then re-ran some blood tests, and then my wife made me go see her today because I sprained my ankle.
Doctor Huong is young and charming and very direct. And a very aggressive diagnostician. Seems when she re-ran my testosterone level she found all sorts of goofy, out of whack stuff, much of which is regulated by my pituitary gland. She wants to do an MRI of my brain to check for (usually benign) pituitary abnormalities. Another thing about Doctor Huong: she has a rapier wit and sometimes things pop out of her mouth before it seems she has a chance to think them through. We weren’t together five minutes in our initial meeting before we had each other’s sense of humor pegged.
She smiled at me. “Or it could be a big old brain tumor!” she said.
Buddhist doctor. Buddhist patient. Gallows humor.
I thought about what Doctor Huong said about a big old brain tumor. I should have asked her if she says that to all the boys. She and I had a good chuckle out of her comment, but the blood drained from my wife’s face. It didn’t get a rise out of me. Big deal. And I haven’t thought much about it except to check my E-Chart periodically to see if they’ve scheduled the MRI yet. I cannot see the point of worrying about something that is probably nothing. And even if it is something, there’s no reason to worry.
2600 years ago Siddhartha Gautama figured out that suffering, apart from getting sick or injured or grieving or in pain, also comes in the form of a vague dissatisfaction with life in general. The person who is unaware of the Path Gautama gifted humanity, will continue to make the same mistakes over and over in life in the pursuit of happiness. Conventional happiness is orgasmic in a sense because what makes you happy now will disappear from your life all too soon.
Awareness of the Path, the Noble Eightfold Path, is the way to find a contented life. Woody Allen said that life is divided between the miserable and the horrible. But misery is a reaction to conditions, and if you give in to misery—to dwell on the negatives of your life—you will indeed be miserable. I refuse to commiserate in any way, shape, or form on the subject of big old brain tumors. Practicing the Path for many years, along with knowledge and understanding of the Path, has led me to say “meh” even to the notion of having a big old brain tumor.
Equanimity. Non-reactiveness. Freedom from fear. Those are the results of following the Path. The first item on the Path, called Right Understanding, specifically means a right understanding of the essential truths of Buddhism—The Eightfold Path.
Gautama abandoned his family and his life of luxury and wealth and naked dancing girls to figure out how to “cease suffering.” He agonized over the sleeping forms of his wife and newborn son the night he left. He also felt revulsion when he crossed his father’s castle’s banquet hall. There was a party in the hall the night before, and the floor was littered with the sleeping forms of naked dancing girls, drooling and farting and snoring. I don’t know if they were naked or not. That is my own embellishment of the story. Embellishment is a big problem in Buddhist doctrine.
And as the story goes, after a number of years wandering around and studying with gurus and living the ignoble life of an ascetic, the nearly starved Gautama sat under a tree and vowed not to leave the spot until he discovered the way of the cessation of suffering—the Eightfold Path.
Knowledge of the Path leads to a kind of realignment of your priorities: Right Thought, or more specifically, Right Intention, the second truth on the Path.
I once also abandoned my wife and baby son to seek truth along the Appalachian Trail. For one thing, a summer of solitude made me appreciate the company of other people. Also, meditation got to be a habit, an addiction, something ultimately I cannot do without. I walked 500 miles that summer. I would do well to hobble one mile now, and suffer the consequences of the next 24-36 hours of muscle pain. For 20 years I laced up my old Vasque Hikers, or combat boots, and walked trails from Carolina to Oregon. I loved hiking in winter when I could have entire forests to myself.
Now I can barely walk at all. I guess I should be bitter about losing the one activity I loved the most, but that would be pointless. I’m glad I abandoned my family so many times to go to the Bighorns or the High Sierra. I sure as hell couldn’t do that now. Git er done while you’re young.
Still out of commission with my sprained ankle, so I listened to NPR and watched a bunch of college basketball, like, all day.
Right Understanding encompasses the whole of the Eightfold Path, which in itself constitutes the fourth of the Four Noble Truths: that life sucks, the reason why life sucks, but don’t worry, folks, as there is a way to escape the suckyness, and that would be the Noble Eightfold Path. In addition to Right Understanding and Right Thought, the “wisdom” group of truths, there are three truths in the “ethics” group, Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Means of Livelihood, and finally a group dedicated to the development of the mind, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
This knowledge is important; you study and practice them all at once, rather than progressing through a list one item at a time. The more you study them, the more you see these points demonstrated in real life. The knowledge becomes a kind of mental module, a “thinking cap,” and after awhile you’re analyzing everything from movies to customer service through skillful eyes, the eyes of someone who follows the Path.
Watched the sucky NFL division playoffs and have decided to boycott the Superbowl because both of those teams are sucky teams.
Right Understanding is a wholistic thing; it means that whoever attains Right Understanding has a basic cognisance of the Buddhist world view. “Do not do evil, do only good; purify your mind” is how the Buddha, (Gautama) described the Buddhist mindset. Corresponding to the Eightfold Path, not doing evil is ethics, and only doing good is wisdom. Purifying your mind comes about through mindfulness and concentration—in other words, meditation.
For many years I worked in social services. It was a great job for a tough-ass Buddhist like me. I was unflappable, the best in town, and my eyes would light up whenever I had a hot crisis dropped in my lap. Some of that work was technically scary, like working with murderers (murderers are easy), violent teenagers with severe autism, suicidal former Marines and refugees, working in countries with civil wars going on, and literally knocking on the doors of crack houses looking for a client with mild mental retardation.
Boy, did I get in trouble when my boss heard about that!
Toughness and compassion were my touchstones when I was in social work. Some people would see those attributes as mutually exclusive, but I’ll tell you what: toughness enhances the ability to do compassionate work. I vividly remember an afternoon I spent with Dana, a 19 year old female client with mild mental retardation. I helped her get a job. One afternoon, standing at a bus stop on her way home from work, she was grabbed and dragged into an abandoned building, and was raped by several men. I helped facilitate that rape by getting her a job in a sketchy neighborhood, and I felt awful about it.
I met with Dana shortly after it happened, alone in a room in her parents’ home. She was sitting quietly, with her hands in her lap, her head bowed. Now here’s an experience I hope you never have to go through; that left a lasting impression and broke my heart: she looked up at me and I saw tears filling her eyes. “I was raped,” she said.
Even though I already knew that she’d been raped, her words and tears were like a punch in the stomach.
Commiserating as best I could with this poor, wretched girl, I burst into tears, which is something that never happens to me, not even when I got the news that my mother had died. And so we cried together for awhile. She took my hand, and we cried some more. I was devastated by my own empathy. Best laid plans. I’d worked meticulously with Dana as she made the transition from high school to adult life, and in an hour her life was destroyed.
Screw that, I thought. I’m her case manager, and she was in need. I set her up with my partner at the comp care center, who was a clinical psychologist. As her case manager, she and I researched safety, talked to some cops and a martial arts expert, and we discussed her future employment situation. She’d wanted to work at the workshop so she could be around her friends from school. We found her a different job at the mall. She loved it. She had never been around a lot of people before who weren’t mentally retarded, but all the women at the boutique fell in love with her. The psychologist said that taking that job did more good for her than counseling. Eventually, Dana didn’t need me anymore.
A Buddhist should expect no recognition or accolades for merely being human and acting accordingly, which means compassionately, and that’s the way I liked it when I was a social worker: I was the guy behind the scenes, pulling the strings, making stuff happen. Bullying the suits.
The writers who follow me in this experiment, who will write about their own weeks observing themselves and their activities through the lens of their own section of the Noble Eightfold Path, are all younger people who lead far more active and engaged lives than I do. If Doctor Huong can fix me and I can find some energy again, I could be more active too. Right now my life consists of sleeping 12 hours a day, meditating two hours a day, and writing (or goofing off with my Facebook friends) the rest of the time (unless there is a University of Louisville basketball game on, or I have a doctor’s appointment). I guess it’s wrong of me to think of the competent Doctor Huong as “cute.” But she is very “cute.” She has the shiny well-scrubbed prettyness of a teenager, and she smiles all the time. And the irony doesn’t escape me that her parents came from Vietnam.
So anyhow, you can expect depictions later on down the Noble Eightfold List of lives far more engaged in life than mine. Today so far I have gotten out of bed (at 2:00 pm), took a whizz, ate a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and sat down in front of my computer. It’s 7:00 pm now, and I really need to take a nap.
People say that it is hard to follow the Path, and impossible to meditate every day. Well, BOO fucking HOO! Show a little backbone. I’ve been at this stuff for 43 years, and there is one thing that I can affirm without hesitation, and that is that this knowledge of the Path suggested by the Buddha makes life a LOT easier. It’s called skillful living. The main benefit of this knowledge, I believe, is that it helps us make decisions throughout the day and life—rational decisions based on 2600 years of working wisdom. It’s easier to do the right thing when you know the right things to do. Betwixt the childish glee of religion and the despair of nihilism, there is a middle path. On that path (we all know what Path I’m writing about) is the most precious of attributes, and that is not happiness, it’s sanity.
Oh, God, I’m tired. I need to lay down. I hope I wake up before midnight, I still have stuff to do, like working on my next book. It is also about the Noble Eightfold Path, and how it relates to the lives of military people, and policemen, first responders, and bouncers.
Set the alarm clock for noon, because I’m going to have an echocardiogram at 3:00. Had to hit the “snooze” button four times.
My heart’s been rotten since 1994 when the flu killed 30 percent of my heart muscle. That’s what knocked me off the hiking trails. So after rehab I took up cycling. In southern Indiana where it’s flat, and I actually trained up to do a century ride (100 miles). I was able to re-build my heart muscle back, riding that Jamis Tangier. I tore my ACL, and after three surgeries I was able to rebuild my leg, riding that bloody bicycle, until my private parts started getting numb from pressure on my perineal ganglion. So I decided to hop off the bike to save my sex life.
It didn’t help. Sensation didn’t come back. Luckily my endocrine system started to dysfunction at that point, and so I lost all interest in intimacy. I haven’t had sex in over five years. It used to be fun, but as I started failing more and more, I had worse and worse performance anxiety. My wife was totally cool with it.
We’d been going at it for 40 years. Becoming celibate was a relief, and I feel that giving up sexual relations brings me closer to enlightenment.
In Sri Lanka I knew married men who told me they quit being intimate after they had the number of children they wanted. Sex is a really low-key interest in Theravada countries. Other than in their lurid daytime soap operas, the deed just doesn’t come up. Sri Lanka is a chaste and modest country. The only other reference to romantic liaisons I saw was an old faded poster at a bus stop announcing the movie, Virgins From Hell.
Invariably, said those men, unburdening themselves from sexual duties led to a deeper relationship with their wives. That’s when you really learn to love your wife, they said.
Well, I don’t know about that, but we’re very comfortable with the arrangement. We still snuggle and cuddle, but a lot of that is an effort to stay warm. Every once in awhile we make out like the teenagers we were when we met in 1970. We’ve been married for 45 years. She’s retired. I’m retired. She is devoted to finding out what’s wrong with me, because she would like to travel and take that dream vacation our financial manager suggests we do now. It’s hard to make those kind of arrangements when her travel partner…
… is so FUCKING sick I’m afraid to leave the house. And I really need to go to Chicago.
Stuff changes all the time. Buddhism prepares you for those changes. Should I gripe because I’m old? What’s the point? Doctor Huong is taking a whole different approach to my problems. And there is no reason to think that I will not feel better once she figures out how to make me feel young and vibrant and horny again. I have all the faith in the world.
Unless I have a big old brain tumor.
(Gerry Stribling’s MRI is scheduled for January 31st)
Editor: Dana Gornall