I was sparring in karate class.
We were doing our usual thing, fighting each other happily as Kyokushin karatekas tend to do, smacking each other around in what is a time-honored, mutually consenting formula. Most days, we all walk out laughing, sporting our new bruises like the proud trophies that they are. But on this particular day, I got more than I bargained for.
It was near the end of a 90-minute session. I was pumped and focused, smiling from ear to ear as I fought my opponent. I threw a right hand to his stomach just as he swiped my leading leg at the ankle. Before I could even register the move, my leg had flipped upwards and I crash-landed on the floor.
I was stunned. My knee had made a sound that I knew it should not have. My mind refused to register the information. I tried to get up, but each time I moved, strange noises escaped the space between my gritted teeth.
When I got home, I told my husband that I just needed a little Advil. I was sure I would be back in the dojo in a few days. He evaluated my knee (he is a kinesiologist), then shook his head and said, “Dear, I think you’re out of commission for a few months. You’re not going anywhere.”
That was not the response I was looking for. So instead of taking his expert opinion seriously, I argued: “What are you talking about? My knee isn’t even blue! I’m sure it’s nothing.” I reached for the phone to make a physio appointment, but he—wiser than I, it appears—slowly took the phone from my hands. “You are not going to physio,” he explained calmly. “You need an MRI first.”
The conversation continued this way for a while. He explained; I argued. He explained again: “You’re injured. Why can’t you see that?” He shook his head so many times that evening. “Goodness, you’re stubborn,” was the inevitable conclusion.
We had the MRI, and he was—much to my dismay—correct. I had a three-degree tear in one ligament and the marrow in both my femur and tibia was bruised from the bones banging into each other (I hadn’t known any of that was even possible!). A doctor handed me crutches (which I refused, opting for a cane instead), a heavy knee-brace, and a prescription for months of boring recovery time. No more sparring for me.
For the past 20 years, my life has revolved around Buddhism. I teach Buddhism at college and university level; I practice; I go on retreats. I pore over ancient Buddhist texts, wrestle with their teachings, write about what I think they might mean. I have tried, with every fiber of my being, to evolve, to become a better version of myself, to let myself go. And yet, after 20 years of effort, this was my response. I was faced with the most basic example of impermanence and all I could do was argue. Simply stated, I was saying, “No!”
It’s one thing to contemplate impermanence and the fragility of life. It’s quite another entirely to accept it. I thought I had learned to accept impermanence, and to some extent I am sure I have, but when my mobility and freedom were at stake, I rejected it completely. This is the point that continues to astound me. In that moment, I discovered that I am a terrible patient, that I am absolutely impatient, and that I have learned only a small fraction of what there is to understand. I am, in other words, horribly humbled by this petty experience.
Buddhism is not some kind of fluffy self-help narrative. It is hard and it can be devastating. I must admit, though, that at times like these I find myself grateful for the stories of the Buddha in his past lives. In those stories, we find him stumbling along, attempting to make progress but not always succeeding. He is reborn as a crocodile, a rat, a burglar, a demon (almost never as a woman though!), trying to move forward, but certainly not making the entire journey toward Buddhahood overnight. I take comfort in these stories as I reflect on my own response to a torn knee ligament. I was shockingly miserable about having to hobble for a few weeks. I went through every shade of frustration, all the while trying to convince myself to relax because it really wasn’t so serious at all. I wasn’t facing disease or death. It was a minor injury. I would heal. I did heal.
And yet . . . I was miserable.
Impermanence sucks. Awakening is still lifetimes away.
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