“Mark, is it ever appropriate to take a crutch away from a cripple?” Roshi asks. I am in morning dokusan with him. It is day two of a seven-day period of intensive meditation that, in this Zen monastery, we call sesshin. My immediate thought upon hearing the question is, “Oh sh#t”. So I hesitate. When my mouth does open to respond, Roshi rings the bell. We bow. I return to the meditation hall.
There, I bow to my mat. Next, I position myself on the zafu that sits on the mat. When comfortable, I resume my practice—watching breath…in, out. If thoughts arise, there is only in and out. For the remainder of the day, there is just in, out. As I sit, walk, work, eat, and sleep I strive to do my practice.
Periodically, “take away a cripple’s crutch” invades the peaceful space that my practice creates for me. The invader disrupts my breathing. Hardens the mat. Makes my back and knees ache more than normal. Peace gives way to thoughts about who is the cripple? What is a crutch? How could its removal ever be appropriate?
If I try to ignore the question, it persists. When I yield to it and seek its answer, the question iterates itself. Only when I acknowledge the question, let it float by, and make no attachment to it, does the peace of breathing in, out return.
On the morning of day three, I report to dokusan. There, bows done, seated before him, Roshi asks, “Mark, is it ever appropriate to take a crutch away from a cripple?” I hesitate. Then, with my mouth ready to open, ring-ring-ring goes Roshi’s little bell. We bow. I return to my mat and zafu. Where, yet again, I breathe in and out and do battle with the question about crutch.
Days 4 and five go much the same as did days 2 and 3. There is morning dokusan—bows, the question, a quick bell, and bows—then more in and out as I sit, walk, work, eat, and sleep. On day six, I awake ready. Sesshin ends tomorrow. Today, in dokusan, I will answer the question. When, the time arrives, alas there is no dokusan. Dejected, I sit on the zafu that sits on the mat and breathe in, out. If the crutch question surfaces I try my best to acknowledge, but not attach to it.
Morning passes to afternoon, and afternoon passes to evening. As they pass, I sit incredibly still, breath coming in and out. The question about the crutch is a distance presence in my mind. Suddenly, on my shoulder a gentle tap pulls me back. Report to dokusan!
Roshi and I bow to each other. I sit before him. He asks, ““So Mark, is it ever appropriate to take a crutch away from a cripple?” I say, “Yes.” He nods approvingly, but seems to want more. So I say, “When doing so helps the cripple walk.” Again, he nods. Sitting perfectly still, I look at him as he looks at me. Both sets of eyes become one. Then none. Time stops. In this vast quiet place, Roshi’s gentle, barely audible voice says, “Mark, how long? How long must you hold on?”
With those words, every failure, indignity, disappointment, loss, and insecurity of my life sweeps over me. The dreams that died painful deaths, relationships that fell apart, and botched up ventures, they all are here now. I am a cripple. These are my crutches. My attachment to them, and the pain and suffering they represent, is a feeble attempt to avoid new pain and additional suffering.
“Let go, Mark. Let go of your crutches!” Roshi says. “Time to move on. You have contributions to make.” At that moment I see how my attachments to the past, the crutches that I lean on to avoid pain, are keeping me out of the game of life. Getting off the sidelines, into the game, necessitates that I walk without crutches. I ache to join in, quit watching, to play again.
As the crutches—people, drama, power, and pain—fall away, tears flow freely. Emotions overwhelm me. I feel alive. I see the crutches for what they are, understand how I lean on them, and call each by its true name. Each, as I do, goes away. When all are gone, I breathe in and out effortlessly.
Stepping back, there are four things to know about crutches. There are times when crutches are necessary. For instance, when a crutch enables a man with incurable paralysis to be upright and mobile or a child with a disability to learn. Also, there are times when we need a temporary crutch, as in the case of a sprained ankle or death of a friend. When injury heals and pain subsides, the need for a crutch ends. Sometimes, when crutches are no longer necessary or needed, but still used, they limit growth or healing. Lastly, people, needs, and crutches must match. When they do not, new pains result or existing pains deflect elsewhere, perhaps surfacing as an addiction or other disorder. In these ways, crutches that do not fit, or are no longer needed, slow us down.
This lesson, while about crutches, is also about my skillful teacher. Who, when, I, on my own, could not detach from my crutches showed me where to look but not what to see. He asked the question, but did not provide the answer. He forced me to face myself, confront the things that I let hold me back, and in this uncomfortable place to find my way forward. When I looked where he pointed me, I saw that I relied on the crutches, hated the sideline, and was ready to walk on to the field. Moreover, my true practice is more than breathing in and out, it is doing so while dealing with the pain and suffering of my life.
I invite you to take up the question that my beloved Roshi would not let me ignore—Is it ever appropriate to take a crutch away from a cripple? Go where the question takes you. Engage with the cripple that you find there. Look deeply at the crutches that keep the cripple there. What you see, will set you free.
Note: This is the 14th post in the Learning Lessons series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.