Mundane Anguish: Behind the Smile

In November 2012, because of medical issues that I am suffering from, I had to turn my driver’s license in to the DMV. That may not seem like such a huge issue at first glance – but it has now been 18 months that I have been unable to drive. My wife works a graveyard shift, four tens a week, and so is effectively unavailable to assist me on those days. We live about four miles out in the country, so even if I wanted to use public transport, there is no way for me to access it. What this has meant, ultimately, is a major lifestyle change. I used to drive everywhere – to my job in Calistoga (which I had to quit), to writers’ workshops and readings all over Sonoma County, to visit with friends for coffee, etc.

One of the biggest losses was my Zen sangha. I belong to the Russian River Zendo (RRZ), located in Guerneville, an hour’s drive from my home. I have managed to deal with my transportation issues by various means: I have friends who provide rides, I save up tasks and errands for my wife’s days off, and I also found two wonderful senior citizens who I hire occasionally to be my drivers. But I pay them by the hour, and to have a regular commitment at the zendo, with the drive there and back, plus the time for sitting and service, is simply beyond my financial reach.

Thankfully, another resource appeared. Priest Beata Chapman, who I knew from RRZ, invited me to join her Suffering & Delight group, an online class/sangha that is for those dealing with chronic physical and/or emotional pain. Five of us meet via video conferencing twice a month, to sit zazen together, and then have a dharma talk/class. It has been a wonderful respite for me, to once again have sangha that is easily accessible.

One of the recurring themes in our group is the invisibility of our illnesses. All of us, at first glance, appear to be fine. Yet each one of us is suffering from some kind of condition which makes our life very difficult. Beata has used, a number of times, the term mundane anguish to describe what we are living with. Our illnesses/conditions are so much a part of our daily existence, that they have become routine, normalized. And each one of us does our best, as we get up each morning, to put on our best face, to smile, to get through the day, to do the most we can given the limitations of our illness.

Last week, I attended a day-long conference with about 60 people in Fremont. I was with four people I knew; the rest were strangers. Because I have a service dog, people are always fascinated with her, and drawn to her, so I always spend my first moments in these types of settings fielding the questions and interest. Everyone wants to pet her, which gets frustrating since she is working, but I typically will allow a brief hello.

During the course of that morning, at least eight people said, “Are you training her?” Ripley’s vest clearly states “Medical Alert Dog” and “Please Ask Before Petting: Working.” It does not say “In Training.” But because I do not appear to have a disability (i.e., I am not in a wheelchair or blind), and I am smiling and friendly, everyone assumes I am absolutely fine. I have no medical issues. I must be training her. Towards the end of the day, I had two of my seizure episodes at the workshop – what it looks like from the outside is that I slump forward in my chair, stop speaking, check out for several minutes. When I come to, I am slow to rise, and unsteady on my feet. It happened right in front of a group of people, but no one responded or asked me if I was OK. Only one member of my club noticed, watching me with eagle eyes as I re-entered the main room. I was leaning against the wall as I walked in – that’s how off-balance I was. I had another episode right after, and a third on the drive home. Other than my friend, only one person said something to me, just as we were packing up to leave: “I hope you feel better.”

In anger one day, after a particularly exasperating episode with someone in the public arena, I said to Sabrina, my wife, “What do I need to do, wear a sign around my neck that says, ‘Disabled’?” Because it isn’t just the loss of the driver’s license. I must deal with the fact that at any moment, without warning, I collapse. Sometimes it happens once a week. Sometimes it happens ten times in one day.

A friend of mine shared this story. Although always presenting a bright and cheerful disposition, she suffers from chronic and often debilitating pain. Because of this, sometimes walking can be difficult for her, and she has a handicapped placard. She recently went to an event with a friend, which involved a fairly lengthy car trip. Sitting in the car caused her pain to escalate, to the point that she was extremely uncomfortable by the time they arrived. At their destination, my friend said, “We can park here in this handicapped spot; I have a placard.” The woman driving said, “Let’s leave that for someone who really needs it,” and proceeded to park more than a block away. My friend put away the placard, did not say anything else, and walked the whole distance, paying dearly for it the next day. And she said to me, “I don’t feel the same way about that woman now. She didn’t see me.”

Not long ago, one of my friends said something to me about what a rough year I had had. And I thought, “Have I had a rough year?” It took me a minute to realize, oh, she means all of this I have been dealing with – the loss of my license, the escalation of the  attacks, everything. I forget. It has become so normalized, so part of my daily existence, that I simply cope. Because what are the options? I could curl up in a corner in my bed and weep, feel sorry for myself. Or I can keep trying to live my life, as best I can. Mundane anguish.

I realize there are many, many people out there who are dealing with their own invisible pain – whether it is physical or emotional. I have learned to trust my intuition, and when I sense that someone is hurting, I ask. Better to be told, “No, I’m fine,” or even risk a “Mind your own business,” than to miss the opportunity to witness and support another’s suffering. Because it is not always easy to advocate for that support yourself.

And I may, eventually, need to get that handicapped placard. Sometimes I can’t walk from the car to the store, without leaning heavily on Sabrina’s arm. I pray I will not be judged if and when that happens.





Our sanghas have, in the last weeks, completed the final ceremonies in farewell to our teacher Darlene Cohen. On Feb. 25, her funeral was held at Green Gulch, and on March 1, we conducted her 49th day service at the Healdsburg sangha, the day signaling her spirit’s departure from this world to the next.

I had never been to Green Gulch Zen Center before. The zendo is a beautiful, spacious, high-ceilinged building, with a large Buddha at the center altar. The room was packed with people. I learned later that nearly 300 people were in attendance. Tony told me he had only seen the zendo that crowded on one other occasion – when the Dalai Lama came to speak. That gives you some idea of the far-reaching appeal of Darlene, the number of lives she has touched.

The service was surprisingly simple, despite the 20 or more people involved in the opening procession, and the large number of priests in black robes. We ended it with a group shout for Darlene – of joy and of grief – which felt entirely appropriate.

I was surprised to find myself unemotional. I think it was too big a group, with too much going on. I tend to shut down in those kinds of situations.

On March 1, we had a more private service, for the 49th day recognition. I acted as kokyo (chant leader), and we offered chocolate, tea, and incense, as I then chanted these words:

Through the power of your wisdom and compassion,
aid Darlene at this time of transition. She has taken
a great leap. The light of this world has faded for her.
She has entered the vast presence, borne
by her karma into the ocean of all existence.

Compassionate ones, care for your daughter, Darlene,
with the endless merit of your great vows. May she
together with all beings be completely enlightened.

It was at this service I felt tears in my eyes. Because this is my home sangha, the one where I imagine Darlene sitting next to Tony, giving a dharma talk. It is here I was looking directly at Tony, seeing his pain and loneliness. Here, I was feeling our mutual loss.

May we all find strength and comfort with each other.

Missing in Action

I have not attended my regular Tuesday night sangha for a month, and I feel lost at sea because of it.

It started because the first Tuesday of the month was election day, and I had duties at the newspaper. Then I caught a bad cold, and missed two weeks, both because I felt miserable, and because I couldn’t risk being around our teacher Darlene Cohen, in her compromised state of health, with my nasty germs. And now, this week, when I was thinking I could finally go, I realized that once again I have to miss. Because of the Thanksgiving holiday, our press deadline has been bumped from Wednesday night to Tuesday night, so I will be at the newspaper until late – I generally don’t get done until midnight, so there is no way that I can show up for a 7 p.m. sitting.

In the meantime, Russian River Zendo has already moved forward on the first steps towards dharma transmission for priests Cynthia Kear and Sarita Tamayo, and will complete that ceremony by mid-December. People are cooking food to support Darlene and Tony as they struggle to cope with her worsening illness, and all the tasks that lie ahead of them. I am on the food preparation list, but we are progressing in alphabetic order, and with the last name of “Wing,” I have not yet been called upon. I have written cards, and kept in touch via e-mail; but I feel woefully disconnected right at a time when I wish I was close at hand offering support.

Being sick, of course, didn’t help. It was just a cold, but it was a doozy. We have no back-up staff at work, so no one can call in sick. I had to work, even on my worst days, which meant that I came home and crashed afterwards, and needed to conserve my energy in order to show up again the next day. It’s been a while since I’ve been this ill. Finally, though, I have stopped coughing, and have regained most of my strength.

My routine has been shaken up, though. My blogging was nonexistent. My sitting practice fell by the wayside. We had pet crises at home in addition to deal with, and a number of other anxieties, and it simply felt like all my energy was scattered, going no where in particular.

Ironically, I had signed up at the start of the month for something called “NaNoWriMo,” which is National Novel Writers Month. The idea is to try to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. People all over the country (and the world) participate, logging their progress via a website. A friend talked me into giving it a try. I started off with a bang on Nov. 1 and 2, and then Barney got sick, the kitten got sick, I got sick… Sigh. So much for writing 1,600 words a day. I did, at least, come up with the premise for a novel, and make a start, and I am hoping to create my own private “NaNoWriMo” soon, maybe in December or January, when things have calmed down a bit.

Because that’s something else that has dropped off. My writing has been neglected terribly. Somehow, the discipline of one thing reverberates through everything else. Sitting affects writing affects eating habits affects exercise. At least that’s the way it works for me.

So I am in sore need of my sangha, of their support, their presence, their solidity. A month on my own is far too long.


Baking a Cake, Finding Sangha

Tomorrow, members of our sangha will be meeting to bake cakes for Buddha’s birthday celebration, which will be held on Sunday. Our sangha has a tradition of preparing Boston cream pies, using Darlene Cohen’s mother’s recipe.

This year, I will not be among the cake-baking team, having been given a reprieve by Tony Patchell because he knew I’ve been swamped at work the last couple of weeks since my boss is out of town. I will instead be spending the day taking a much-needed rest and relaxation break with my partner Sabrina.

But I will miss being part of the cake crew. I have participated twice, and both occasions proved fertile ground for stretching myself.

The first year, I had just started to attend Zen sittings in Healdsburg. I was a sporadic attendant, very hesitant about my participation, and unsure about whether or not this was the place for me. I showed up at the cake baking day, held at Phil and Barbara McDonel’s house, with the same half in/half out mindset. At that point in my life, I was terrified of cooking. I was able to do very simple baking, by myself, like chocolate chip cookies. But something complicated, like these cakes, was way beyond my comfort level. And to do it in front of other people? So, what I did was watch. There were seven or so people there, and so no shortage of hands to help. I pretended that no one noticed that I wasn’t actually doing anything. I just moved from one side of the kitchen to the other, chatting, munching on the snacks that were out, watching. But I didn’t do a single thing to help.

The second time I went to bake the cakes, I was much more firmly entrenched in my practice. I was sitting regularly, and had begun to feel a part of the sangha. I had also begun to teach myself how to cook. From the moment I arrived, I was a part of the team, instead of just an onlooker. I was assigned to make the cake batter.

For those of you not familiar with a Boston cream pie, it consists of a layer of cake, a layer of pudding, topped by another layer of cake, all of which is covered in rich chocolate frosting. Because we were expecting a big crowd at the party, we were going to make two cakes.

I was right in the middle of the action, doubling the portions, making enough for two cakes. But somewhere along the line, I missed the concept, and didn’t realize that each completed cake had, essentially, two cakes inside it, so that there would be four cakes total to bake. I made all that batter, and poured it into two cake pans, and popped it into the oven. We were all watching it expectantly, to see how it was doing. And I said, “Wow, it’s really rising high.” Eventually, somebody figured out that I had poured two cakes’ worth of batter into each cake pan — oops!

Initially, I panicked. I had been feeling so much a part of the group, so good about belonging. And then, feeling that I had screwed up, all of my old fears about inadequacy and rejection, etc. came up. I wanted to disappear. I began to make another batch of batter right away.

But then, a funny thing happened. We got creative, and we started thinking our way out of the problem. It turned out that the cakes still baked okay, all the way through. And we found that we were able to slice the mushroomed cap off the top, salvaging it as a separate layer. The whole thing ended up working after all. And through it, there was humor, and forgiveness, and community.

That was the first day I understood what sangha meant.


Calling the Ancestors

(Sorry for the delay — I fell asleep at the keyboard last night!)

At the Rohatsu Sesshin this last week, we of the Russian River Zendo chanted the names of our Buddhist ancestors for the first time as a sangha. These chants, intoned at daily services at Tassajara and many other zendos, go through the entire lineage of teachers, those who have brought us “the middle way.”

The first chant begins with “Bibashi Butsu Daiosho Shiki Butsu Daiosho Bishafu Butsu Daiosho Kuruson Butsu Daiosho….” down through “Eihei Dogen Daiosho” and ending with “Shogaku Shunryu Daiosho” and then, with barely a breath in between, on to the women ancestors: “Acharya Mahapajapati Acharya Mitta Acharya Yasodhara…” until finally coming to the last name “Acharya Chiyono.”

“Daiosho” is a Japanese term which means “great teacher,” a title which follows the name, in the same way “Teacher Tanaka” would be rendered “Tanaka-sensei” or, directly translated, “Tanaka teacher.” “Acharya” is a Sanskrit word for spiritual teacher, and it precedes the name.

We did the ancestor chants as part of our morning service, following the chanting of either the Metta Sutta (Loving Kindness Meditation) or Dogen’s Fukanzazengi, which tells practitioners how to do zazen.

I served as kokyo (chant leader) for the sesshin. When preparing for that role, the instruction I was given was to bring my full energy to the task, not being afraid to use a full, resounding voice. Throughout the sesshin, I worked closely with Joan Amaral, who was serving as doan (bell ringer and timekeeper). Joan has a wealth of experience with the “forms” or rituals of Zen, including many years of monastic life at Tassajara. She helped me fine-tune my chanting skills over the five days, working on pronounciation of the Chinese names, over which I stumbled some, and assisting me in setting the pace and rhythm of the chants, particularly the ancestor chants.

Our first attempt at the ancestor chants was a little rough – great spirit, but pretty ragged. But thanks in large part to Joan’s tutelage, I was able to step more firmly into my role as a leader, and as everyone in the zendo grew more familiar with the chants, we really rose to the occasion. By the final day, it literally felt as if we were calling each one of our ancestors into the room to sit with us.

Chanting kept me centered throughout the sesshin. I love the musicality, the repetition, the sounds of the bells. And I hear different aspects of each chant freshly each time, bringing my attention keenly in tune with one section one day, and another the next. Morning, noon, meal time, end of day – lifting our voices out into the mountain sky felt so celebratory. Serving as kokyo was such a delight, that I didn’t want the week to end at all. I wanted to go home and lead chanting services in front of my altar every morning.

But most profound for all of us, as a sangha, was the chanting of the ancestors. I think each one of us experienced the connection to our past, from India to China to Japan to the United States, in a way that we had never fully realized it before.

All the way to Shunryu Suzuki-roshi….who will be the next name in the chant?


Good News

Houla successfully went through surgery today. I haven’t seen her yet – my veterinarian thought it best to keep her overnight, because she was still groggy from sedation. Since she has such huge separation anxiety, as much as I wanted to go see her after work, I knew it would be better for her if I did not visit, because I would have to leave her again. So I am at home, waiting for morning, when I will pick her up, smother her with love and kisses, and bring her with me to work to be a pampered, special dog for the day.

Her right eye appears to be completely normal, which means that although she has lost one eye, she has not lost her sight.

When I brought her to a Santa Rosa ophthalmologist on Monday afternoon, for a check-up prior to surgery, I was still struggling with the fear that she could go blind. I was having a hard time dealing with the enormity of that, worrying about how she could possibly survive, unassisted, in our home during the day when we were at work. It seemed insurmountable.

In the lobby, there was a book: Living with Blind Dogs: A Resource Book and Training Guide for the Owners of Blind and Low-Vision Dogs. I began to page through it as we waited for our names to be called. I had no idea that such a book existed. There was a section on grief, on readjustment. There were tips on training, on how to use things like scent trails (applying a fragrance like lavender) to indicate paths to the dog door, or tactile trails, like rug strips. There was information on how to reintegrate the blind dog into your home “pack,” supporting her previous alpha role (as in Houla’s case). There were even wonderful stories about other dogs becoming guide dogs, so that the blind dog may stand out in the yard and bark when she’s ready to come in, and the sighted dog goes to get her, and leads her into the house. And also, ways to reformat “play,” so even a blind dog can continue to fetch balls.

I felt an immediate and huge sense of relief within moments after opening the book. I had a sense, suddenly, that this was doable. That we could meet this challenge, even in the worst-case scenario.

It was like the discovery of sangha, community. A sangha of low-vision/blind dogs and the people who love them.

Add to that my already-existing sangha, the friends who have e-mailed and called and offered support over the past few days….and I feel very lucky indeed.

My deepest thanks.

Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved