Hands of Kuan Yin

“I just might be able to walk again,” she said in a barely audible voice. “I know,” I said under my breath, feeling every details of her tarsal bones. She knew she would never and I knew she knew.

Her feet permanently dropped at the ankle like a long stem rose brought home the night before sadly drooping in the morning light, making me feel slightly guilty of something which I didn’t know I did or I didn’t.

She wanted to have them dorsiflexed. “My toes stayed curled up in my boots today. They want to be stretched,” she said. I held her foot and slowly reproduced walking motion.

“When I move your foot, just imagine that you are moving it by yourself,” I said.
“My brain is not sending correct signals, isn’t it?”
“Your brain is sending signals all right. It is your nerves that are not delivering messages to your muscles,” I explained. “It’s like a highway with the southbound lanes closed. You can take a cab to JFK airport, but there are no cabs to take back to Manhattan…” I caught myself walking into the dangerous territory of reality. Your motor neurons are dying. You can’t rehabilitate dead neurons. That was what I didn’t say.

“When you want your feet on the wheelchair footrest, your friends place them on it for you, don’t they? Your mind sends a message to the feet to move and your feet are placed on the footrest, even in the exact way you want them to be placed, with the heels of the boots on, not off, the footrest. It’s just the same as your doing by yourself. Your mind moved your friends’ hands.”

“I’ve never thought that way,” she said and started to cry in silence. I’ve never thought that way either till now.

Her feet, which didn’t have to carry her weight any more, were impeccably soft and ice-cold at the same time. “Nirvana,” she sighed when I jostled her foot in my hands. Her leg muscles held no tension. There were no muscular defenses to disarm. I remembered her once athletic legs. With her nerves failing to fire, her muscles were wasting away. “Floppy, aren’t they?” she kept reiterating. Flaccid they were. Her immobile legs and feet were still cold as if she had been standing on the winter edge of the water, letting the surf sweep cross her legs, every wave slightly higher, taking away her body heat, higher and colder until it touched her knees. The frigidity had been steeped deep in the bones, refusing to thaw.

I am palpating a skeleton, I thought. Through the thin layers of flaccid tissue my fingers could clearly see bones and tendons. When I touched a tiny muscle behind the knee, she said, “I didn’t know it would feel so good to be touched there. I would never have known.”  You would never have had to be aware if your legs didn’t fail to move, I thought.

She moaned. “Is the pressure too much?” I asked. “No. It just feels so good,” she said and then asked, “Why does it feel so good?”

“Your body is ready to receive. It is difficult for most of us to surrender to receive. I feel Ki is flowing into your body effortlessly,” I said. “Most people resist and block the flow, you know.” I was making up as I went, searching for words she wished to hear. Or was I verbalizing what I always knew?

“Yes, I can feel Ki flowing in,” she said, and after a pose, continued, “Don’t you think I just might be able to…”

She wasn’t talking to me and I didn’t say anything.

Her feet and legs were finally reclaiming warmth, like the frozen ground moistened by the gentle rain. She hadn’t talked for a while. She was drowsing off.

“I fell asleep,” she said.
“It’s O.K. to fall asleep.”
“I don’t want to. I’ve been fighting hard not to.”

I didn’t understand. It’s the whole point of getting a massage, isn’t it? To relax and drift into sleep away from the tension of waking life, to yield to somebody else’s hands, allowing somebody else to take care of you.

“I want to remember how good I’m feeling now. If I fall asleep, I won’t remember. I don’t want to miss even a moment of it.”

The muscles had transformed themselves into a purely sensory organ, responsive to external stimuli, while unable to react. Like a legendary musical instrument, she responds to my touch and she is listening to the music that she only can hear. Her intact sensory nerves respond to the touch with the ever-changing combination of pressure, temperature, rhythm, direction, slow, fast, light, deep, circle, straight, faster, lighter, nerves firing and resonating.

What a state of being. She had a pure awareness of the body and I was resonating together with her.

The hands of Kuan Yin (観音)touched me through her.

The Japanese word for “treatment” literally means laying on of hands.

RIP my friend,  July 29, 2011.  You were a warrior.

Living in the Present Moment

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One’s Journey often starts before one knows it. My friend, Maria, became aware of weakness in her abdominal muscles in the summer of 2010. She didn’t know it was going to be her last summer. She was diagnosed with ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease, in December 2010. Every summer, I think about how she lived the last year of her life and contemplate on the meaning of living in the present moment.

This could be my last summer.
This could be my last August.
This could be my last sunset.
This could be my last breath.
This could be the last time to see you.
I love you all.

Join me, if you would like, to be fully present in this moment of our life, in this summer, in this August, on this day, at this time of the day… It only takes a moment. And Breathe for my friend. Thank you… I love you all.

A Fridge in the Backyard

I don’t watch the reality show about hoarding because I have more than one person in my life who hoard, and I have more than one friend who have more than one person in their lives who hoard.  There is nothing entertaining about hoarding.

My father was more than frugal.  It made sense when we didn’t have much.  He saved things and stuff for a time of scarce.   He fixed things with the stuff he collected and saved.  He didn’t allow us to throw away things.  I didn’t understand the logic behind keeping broken fridges and TVs in our backyard, though.  “It’s good for a tool shed,” he said.  The rusty old fridge is still there.  It doesn’t look like a fridge anymore.  I don’t know if there are tools inside.

We were really lucky because he didn’t save newspaper and magazines.

I used to travel back and forth between the U.S. and my old country schlepping a large suitcase.  After years of airline check in baggage treatment, it cracked.  I got a new one and asked my mom to get rid of the beaten up one.  When I visited them a year later, I found the broken suitcase in my parent’s bedroom.

“What the hell is it doing in your bedroom?” I asked.  “Your dad didn’t let me throw it away,” my mother said.  My father doesn’t like to travel.  He doesn’t even like to go out of the county.  Where did he think he was going with the broken suitcase?  It was not about being frugal anymore.  They had to have storage sheds built in the backyard for the stuff… three of them.

Inside the house, my mom managed to contain his madness in one room.  It was filled with empty boxes, toilet paper rolls, tissue paper boxes, and bars of cheap soap.   “Why did you buy so many bars of soap?” I asked my mother.  “They were on sale,” she said. “Your father drove all the way to the shopping center to buy them.”   I stared at piles of soap bars probably enough to supply for three life time, and said to myself, “How long is he planning to live?”

When I stand and stare at the room full of toilet paper rolls, tissue paper boxes, and bars of cheap soap among other stuff, I see my father’s fear.  I feel trapped.  I lose the will to change.  The fear steeps out and penetrates into who I am.

I know it is not my fear, but I need to be aware of its presence.

Universe provides what one needs.  My father lived in the same house for the most of his life, creating fortress with stuff, a fortress for him, a prison to me.   I moved many times, one time across the Pacific with a single suitcase, several times out of broken relationships.  I was forced to shed stuff like a stray dog.  As soon as I settled in a new place, usually smaller than the one before, I started accumulating stuff.  Every time I moved, I had to choose what should be part of my life and what should not.  It served as a priceless mindfulness training.  I still accumulate stuff, while I know my fear.  Universe doesn’t have to force me to move anymore just to remind me to choose.  Once in a while I do it voluntarily, especially when I witness somebody else’s fear in their space full of stuff.

Karma and a Tiger

An Interpretation of Karma based on a supposedly Japanese story quoted by Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth.

A samurai was murdered by another samurai.  He was the head of family.  The heir had to avenge his father’s death and kill the murderer to restore the family honor.  The young son set off to search the murderer, who was on the lam.  It was a long and difficult journey.  Until he could right the wrong done to his father, his family would remain in limbo in samurai hierarchy.  He did not have any source of income.  So he degraded himself into a laborer, a hired help, and a peddler –these jobs were in lower caste in those days –to support himself while pursuing the enemy.  Years past and finally, the not-so-young-anymore man found the murderer of his father.  When he confronted the man face to face, he became aware of his own hatred toward the man.

Upon being aware of his feeling, he walked away without killing the man.

The father had some kind of karma that led to his murder.  The father passed on his karma to his son, while the other samurai now bore the karma of his own as a murderer.   The son paid for his father’s karma by suffering and humbling himself to pursue the murderer.  At this point, he is just an executor of the law of samurai social structure.  However, if he kills the murderer with his own anger and hatred in his mind, he generates his own karma, thus, the chain of hatred keeps on going.  The key word is Awareness.   That’s the way to avoid reincarnation with karma attached.

What would the young samurai do after that?  Since he didn’t follow the rule, he would remain outcast from his original caste.  There is an opening for a “shift”.  He could leave the samurai caste, so that the old “rule” would not apply.

A tiger kills prey to survive.  That’s what a tiger does and is.  Killing itself generates no additional karma for a tiger.  It just keeps him being a tiger.  That’s his karma in a larger context.  If he becomes aware and stops killing prey, he would die, because it means he rejects his being a tiger.  In his next life, he might find himself in a different realm.

I don’t know.  Just a thought.   And I don’t believe in reincarnation, anyway.

Neuroplasticity and Netflix

Sawshark

Sawshark

Netflix/Amazon Prime binge watching is my choice of drug.  Once in a while I medicate myself with streaming mindless films for hours and hours and stay numb.  When I can’t tolerate feelings, mindless B horror movies or super violent action movies with serial killers, monsters, vampires, zombies, and werewolves are the most effective sedative.   I fall asleep with a horror movie playing.

Netflix learns.  If you watch Evil Dead 2 and like it, then they recommend Amityville Horror.  They recommend films I didn’t even know existed.  I click on one, watch 1 minutes, then move on to the next, till I stumble upon a movie which fits my numbness of the day.  Eventually my “You might like these” list looks like something a disturbed teenage boy would like.

When my friend apartment sat, she binge watched Netflix/Amazon.  After her visit, Netflix started to recommend something like Beckett, Elizabeth, etc. Since I don’t watch those intellectual films often, it eventually stopped and my Netflix personality returned to the normal.

Yet, the list does not represent who I am.

I guess our brain is like Netflix recommendation.  If I keep focusing on traumatic experiences of the past, my brain’s Netflix list will be filled with traumatic titles.  Eventually I would believe there are only traumatic experiences in this world.   It’s not true.

When Netflix recommended Sharknado and Human Centipede, I asked myself.

“What have I done to my life?”

Well, I chose not to watch Sharknado.

Letting Go

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Zen people say “Let go”.  Let go of what?  So I googled the phrase “let go of” and these are the suggestions I got.

  • Let go of anger.
  • Let go of control.
  • Let go of the past.
  • Let go of your ego.

I guess in a nutshell Zen people mean letting go of attachment to anything…everything.  My ideal zen life was to be able to move at a moment notice with one suitcase.  In reality, I probably need 5 guys with a truck and a warning months in advance.

When I had a dog, my worst nightmare was suddenly dying and leaving him behind without anybody taking care of him.   My dog passed at the ripe age of 14.  When he left, I let his body go.  The body was not him.  I felt pretty zen.  I used to have two cats.  When they died at 13 and 17 respectively, I had them individually cremated and held onto the ashes for years.  I didn’t know what to do with the ashes.  So they stayed on a shelf for a long time. I’ve learned a lesson.  Ashes were not my cats.

So what will I do with my body?

In my culture, cremation is the norm.  So it’s no brainer.  Unless I specify something else in my will, my body will be cremated.  I couldn’t care less.  I will be dead by then, won’t I?

I did think of donating my body for the advancement of science every time I learned about a cool research program, such as the forensic anthropology program at UT (University of Tennessee, I guess) aka the Body Farm.   I read a book by Mary Roach, Stiff, and learned that donated cadavers could be utilized for unimaginable variety of scientific and educational purposes.   I didn’t feel comfortable with many of them.

My gross anatomy teacher said that he often received inquiries from his dissection workshop participants for donating their body for his program.   He explained that logistically it was nearly impossible.  He advises them to donate through the local university’s program instead.

“But you can’t spefify how it is used, can you?”  a student asked.

“No, you can’t.  What do you care.  You are dead.  Let it go,” my teacher said.

It was the “Aha” moment.  Let go of control, let go of your ego, let go of the past, and let go of your body…

 

I admit I am not zen enough to let go of the idea of the ownership of my body after death.   Are you?

Another issue to contemplate.

 

 

 

Skeleton Meditation

I don’t sit and meditate.  I have a monkey mind some might call ADD.  My friends with monkey minds don’t sit and meditate.  Some bike, others run.  One non-moving meditation I actually liked and practiced for a while is Skeleton Meditation.  I don’t remember where it came from.  Probably Tibet or somewhere in Asia.  I’ve read or heard about it and just liked it.

In Skeleton Meditation, I lay down as a corpse (Shavasana if you are yoga person) and observe my body decompose layer by layer, muscle by muscle, till my form becomes a skeleton.  It was peaceful experience.  I liked my clean dry white skeleton on the ground.  Then I imagine a bamboo shoot coming through my eye socket, reaching up and up to the sky.  And I fell asleep peacefully.

There was one major problem for me with this meditation.  At that time I didn’t have much awareness of my own body.  My perception about my body was something like a gingerbread man.  So the entire process to become a skeleton took only a few minutes.  Poof, my leg muscles were gone.

If you are fully plugged into your body, this meditation could take at least hours, maybe years.  This is an ultimate “let it go” meditation.  Then you may let the skeleton go, too. Or you may reconstruct a new body from the skeleton, adding layer by layer.

After decades of training of one kind or another, the latest of which is a full body dissection workshop, I’m much more plugged in.  Tonight, I might be able to meditate for maybe 10 minutes…

Have a happy meditation.

Teacher

We don’t have to go and look for teachers.  Open your heart and you will find yours walking with you.

 

Snow

An old dog and his old human, supporting each other.

Our footsteps have merged on the snow-covered path,

In the winter of our life.

He still teaches me how to walk the life,

As he has been doing so since he greeted me in his full youth

With his shiny black muzzle, now gray.

He loves snow, and this could be his last.


It’s important to have teachers when you are searching for your path, just as it’s handy to have a trail map when you are trekking an unfamiliar territory.   Some people look for THE teacher.  I don’t have THE teacher.  Many teachers guided me to be here and now.   Anybody who teaches me what I didn’t even know I needed to learn is my teacher and I appreciate and respect them.  My teachers include my martial art instructor, my therapists, my acting teacher, my dog, my trainer, my yoga teacher, and go on and on and on.  Yes, you could be my teacher one day and I’m looking forward to learning from you. A teacher does not necessarily give me an answer. My teacher said, “I learn in order to ask better questions.”

I learn in order to ask better questions. ~Gil Hedley

 

Mindfulness of Changing Blades

When you find yourself in a new group setting, it’s a great opportunity to learn about yourself.

In the first week, I assumed my usual role in a group.   I was that person who perform mundane tasks in silence.  During the first week, I changed hundreds of scalpel blades for the entire class at the instrument station.

Each table were supposed to be responsible for taking care of the instruments, but there are always some who do it for everybody, and there are always some who just like to pick up a scalpel with a new blade.  The first time I came up to the instrument station holding a scalpel with a dulled blade, I saw scalpels with new blades already there.  I thought “Sweet!” and grabbed some back to my work station. The second time around I tried to change the blades by myself and I couldn’t do it.   Somebody nearby showed me how to do it and still I had a great difficulty and struggled every time.

As a kinesthetic learner, the best way to learn is to do it.  I decided to be the blade person in the group.

Drawing by Tam Tran Valenti

Drawing by Tam Tran Valenti

It is my way of introspection, grounding, taking a refuge from the group dynamics, or just to standing up and walking away from the work station.  I create a safe place for me by assuming an unremarkable role.  It is a way of hiding and anchoring at the same time.

Every time I felt tired, frustrated, or just lost concentration, I left my table and went to the instrument station and placed new blades on scalpels.  My hand learned the subtle angle to slide a blade into the notch and the pressure needed to pull the blade out.  At the end of the week, I was a quick and deadly blade changer.

Then the familiar pattern emerged.

I took dozens of “dirty” scalpels left to the sink to rinse them and found one scalpel with a blade still attached.  The used blade was supposed to be removed and disposed into a medical waste container by the user.  One person failed to do so and tossed the scalpel with a dulled blade into a pile of scalpels.

I could have cut my hands rinsing it.

I felt the familiar rage rising up from my gut.   I felt disrespected and taken for granted.   My historical anger dating back to the old days started to bubble up along with this particular anger.  I’ve been there.

I caught it in time.

Nobody asked me to change the blades.  It was not my job.  I was doing because it served my purpose.  Did I do it because I wanted to be appreciated and loved, desperately trying to fit in the group by being useful?  Then it’s an old pattern.  It won’t work.

I reassessed the situation.  I’ve learned how to change blades expertly.  I’m already an integral part of the group and feeling safe.  I don’t need to hide.   It doesn’t serve me anymore.

By 10th day I stopped being a blade changer of the entire group and only took care of my work station.  When I came up to the instrument station to change MY blades, I saw one person struggling with the blade.  I showed her how to change blades and left for my work station.

Now somebody else is changing blades for the entire group.

Every day is a good day to learn something.