In 1992 I was doing my open water diving certification. It was February, the water a chilly 49 F with a couple of feet visibility and my borrowed wetsuit was too big so water flowed continually down my back. We descended one at a time with our instructor to the required depth, holding onto a line so we wouldn’t get lost in the murk, and we performed our skills which included removing our masks and regulators. I removed my mask and immediately inhaled all the water I could take into my lungs. That was not one of the skills to perform! In a reactive panic I flailed and started to launch upward to the surface, which would have done me some harm due to the sudden pressure change. It was then that my instructor revealed herself as an underwater Zen master. What I remember most is her gloved hands and bright clear eyes reaching me through her face mask. She held onto me and silently taught me how to regain myself in the moment, to feel my body and trust my breathing and equipment. She taught me that I could return from panic. I had to.
In early 2014 I was standing on the sidewalk several minutes after T-boning my truck into the side of a car that pulled out in front of me, trying not to unload my near bursting bladder. After reporting the crash, checking if the young woman who drove the car across my lane was ok and she then talking on her phone I began to feel the jarring impact anchoring into my jaw, neck and spine. It felt like the harshness of the concrete sidewalk and the destroyed metal of my truck’s front end was becoming part of my body. As I imagined the mess of having to ride in an ambulance and all the stuff that would come after - massive expense for the kind of help that isn’t really needed for injuries like this - I remembered that I’m a yoga teacher, a bodyworker, a meditation practitioner, and that I’d lived through many situations by trusting my body and reclaiming the flow of healing from my worried thoughts. I began doing what I knew to do and what I teach to others. I consciously turned back toward myself exactly where I was. Yes, my bladder was beyond full, yes the sun was baking my skin and I hadn’t showered yet that late morning so I was funky ripe, and yes I didn’t “know” what the outcome of anything would be and it seemed like a really long time by then and no cop or tow truck had come. I began to breath confidently into my body and connect with my feet on the ground, my legs and hips, my whole body equally. I gradually, gently and faithfully moved my jaw, head, neck, shoulders, etc. through subtle range of motion, not pushing against but getting inside the tension, being with myself as the underwater Zen master had been with me. By the time I did leave the sidewalk I went home with no serious pain, just a little normal soreness. My nerves were calm, the impact and worry that followed had run clean through. I had helped and felt my body reclaim the flow of health right there on site of the injury, and I went home and happily peed.
In 2017 I was jogging in my neighborhood and didn’t see the 2 inch hard seed ball that had dropped from a tree. I know that when you throw one of those balls hard against the street they burst into thousands of seeds and threads but I discovered that when you step on one and you weigh around 115 lbs that they stay solidly formed. My ankle folded dramatically to the side and I reflexively folded over and held it repeating “oh no, oh no” for probably a minute. One car drove by eventually. I stood there shaky and unable to put any weight on that foot or bend the ankle to even sit down so I was stuck standing on the road as if in quicksand, wondering what would happen now. My plans were rolling through my mind as I wondered if I’d be unable to do them, let alone get myself home, and then I remembered. I very subtly began to move what little I could in the foot and ankle, first just testing to see if I could move it, and then to help reopen the traumatized tissues back into flow. My whole body and awareness was right there with the ankle, my breathing was satisfying and confident, I felt like a good friend to myself, encouraging, not pushing, honest communication between my brain and body to stay with what was actually true. After a few minutes I walked S L O W L Y and mindfully home. By the time I got there my ankle actually felt amazing. Not like it was all healed up but like it was rich in the healing flow. I could feel the warm potency of my body’s fluids and healing constituencies flooding the tissues and it felt powerful. Once I was able to prop myself on the couch with an ice bag, I was chill. I have no doubt the total healing time was much shorter than if I had withdrawn from my ankle and followed my worries down the sad road of immobility.
I think "Zen master" is a great description for that state of focused kindness that will not leave us until we are capable of breathing again on your own. I love how normal it is for us humans to come to the aide of a person who is caught and struggling and on the verge of despair, and how normal it is that we can do this for ourselves every day. I am an advocate for us all to find our way back to our bodies, to reclaim our natural embodied healthcare and faith in ourselves and each other.