Dharma Talk

Meeting the Stranger: Being Physically Challenged
by Pat Shingetsu Guzy

One of the things that is most intimate to me is my work as an occupational therapist, dealing everyday with severely physically challenged people who suffer the results of strokes, accidents, and the like. I know many of you do not deal with these things often. So I call this talk "Meeting the Stranger," because in experiencing our physical limitations, we meet the stranger in us.

A student attending a meditation class I led at Cal State Northridge relayed to us that her teacher in African-American studies asked, "What minority group could you all belong to by the end of today?" What could that group possibly be? Yes, the disabled, or physically challenged. At any given moment, we could become a member of this group.

When I first began to work in Rehab, I worked with quadriplegics and paraplegics, mostly young men in their twenties. It was difficult to meet a young man of 26 years who is never going to move from his neck down again, ever. But, what about our challenges and our disabilities? Just as we are: what is our quality of life? What do we need to overcome in order to do this practice?

We often say that we will practice tomorrow. But my patients don’t have a chance to do that because they have to get on it right now. If they want to dress themselves in a year or two, they must start working on it right now, no matter how tired or miserable they are feeling. If we want to transform our lives, we, too, must start now.

When I look at the difficulties that I face in my practice, I consider that I have my arms, legs, and eyes. And still I am struggling to get to my cushion! I struggle to let go of that little me that complains and whines. I have to practice now -- throw my complaints away and practice now.

" . . . for every minute of zazen, one minute of your life."
-- Maezumi Roshi

In Physical Therapy, I see severely injured people pushing and pulling, and it’s often clear that they don’t have an ounce of energy left. They push and pull anyway, and we all cheer. Can you imagine what kind of strength we could have as a sangha if each and everyone of us really pushed through the stuff that blocks us? Maezumi Roshi would say, "for every minute of zazen, one minute of your life; for every hour of zazen, one hour of your life." In Rehab, for every hour of therapy, there’s a chance for a much better life ahead, but the work must be done now.

In our practice we are challenged by the hindrances of desires, anger, laziness, restlessness, and doubts. How do we work with these? I like the story of the monkey trap. When the monkey reaches into the trap for a sweet, he can’t pull his paw out because his fist clutching the sweet cannot be pulled through the opening. All the monkey has to do is to open his fist and let go of the sweet, then he would be free.

This is also true for us. We, too, find it most difficult to let go of the things we desire, of the things that prevent us from moving through the practice. Life is fleeting, and at any moment, we could be a part of the physically-challenged minority. So I encourage all of us to move through our hindrances. Let’s meet ourselves today by sitting in a wheelchair, restraining our dominant hand, or wearing a blindfold. Perhaps we will find that we will meet not a stranger, but ourselves.

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