Two days ago in crossfit, we were playing a game with a volleyball. Five of us circled around the floor and started to kick and throw the ball using various acrobatic maneuverers. The only rule? You can’t throw or catch the ball the same way, twice. You use your head, your chest, your knee, your foot or your butt—and you twist, jump, twirl, curl and bump. I’ve done this many times at crossfit and it is a creative way to flow with your body and learn to loosen up. In practicing how to be less perfect and less judgmental with your rhythm and motion, you actually expand your muscular range and strength.
However, something was up this week. First of all, earlier in the week, we were practicing Parkour running. We had 24 inch wooden boxes that we would “dance” across which is another way of saying we ran at full speed towards the box and leaped over it, lightly tapping it with our toes as we flew in the air. We did this 60 times in a row, mixing it with other exercises such as throwing a 10 pound wall ball, and dragging some weight across the room. On the 57th time, I casually leapt into the air and let go of my focus, preferring to “sleep” in mid-set. I do this a lot. I kind of fall asleep while I’m in the middle of a W.O.D. (workout of the day) when it gets tedious and repetitive. I close my eyes or go into a light slumber while my body continues to lift weights. However, this is not a good idea to do in mid-air. Within half a second, I watched my body collapse as it collided with the wooden box and crumple to the ground.
I laid there, marveling in the sensation of pain. Nick, the circus ballerina and young silverback gorilla who was coaching the class knelt down and peered into my face. I gave him a thumbs up. Then, floated back up to a vertical standing position.
God was warning me, “Pay attention.” But did I pay attention later that week as I skipped to and fro from school? “Nyet,” the Russian word for ‘no.’
Meanwhile, I was preparing myself for a fast. Kevin, my former crossfit coach, was about to arrive in India to attend Oneness University’s intensive spiritual awakening course. My plan was to link up my energy with his, the day he arrived in India—which would give me the power to fast for up to three weeks at a time. The goal? Humility, which is the handmaiden to spiritual power.
With that said, Harvard decides that it must host party after party to celebrate the autumnal season. In between classes, we all go to parties and fill up on gourmet food and desserts, then return back to class. We attend beautiful choral musical concerts in marble chapels, participate in candle-lighting ceremonies and take home gifts that are provided as souvenirs. The big reason for party season? It is the month of November. I, like my classmates, have observed that the ivory tower is full of celebration. Their motto here is, “Take home a mug, have some Belgium beer, eat triple chocolate velvet mousse and enjoy our live band.”
My preparation to fast included nibbling one vegetarian meal a day at one of these parties. I was in mid-party stream, when I took the afternoon off to go to crossfit, planning on returning back to school that evening to attend two more parties. The school had four parties that day. The following day, they were hosting five parties. I was coasting on my bicycle to crossfit that evening. When I arrived, we were kicking the volleyball. Keeping in mind that I had seven parties to attend in the next 24 hours, this W.O.D. to me was an athletic interlude—and also my protest song. I had ditched a Theories and Methods class to go to the gym. With imaginary devil horns sprouting from my temples, I was rebelling against the privileged white supremacist syllabus poisoning my precious brain cells every time I sat in that lecture hall. So “volleyball kicking” felt like a selfishly better use of my Wednesday.
God had a new plan for me. Kevin was touching down at the airport in Chennai, India within hours. The moment for my fasting was to begin prior to these seven parties. Someone or something in the Universe, I cannot say it was God himself, perhaps it was the avatar, Sri Bhagavan, or the dasas (the high level monks) at Oneness University—stopped me in my tracks. The message, “No party. Only fasting.”
As the friendly volleyball came my way, I gave it a light touch and then promptly tumbled to the floor. My left ankle twisted and all of a sudden, a wave of excruciating pain enveloped my nervous system. For several minutes, I was writhing on the ground. I could not move or speak. I was literally deafened by my pain. There was no sound, only silent screaming. A bulge filled with fluid the size of an egg appeared on my ankle. I felt like I was starting to die.
Nick was in my tunnel vision, saying, “The pain is a message. It’s talking to you.” I began gurgling to him, in my attempt to speak, rolling my forehead back and forth over the dirty rubber mat on the floor. Ten minutes later, the W.O.D. was beginning. I used one foot to crab walk myself to the edge of the gym and lay there, asking pain what its message was. It said, I am more important than parties. I am more important than school.
Swimming through my mind was the seven parties, not to mention my classes, discussion sections and the highly anticipated event of Daniel Shapiro, an expert peace negotiator, speaking at the Law school. The pain rebutted them all, Whatever you are doing, Vicky, is more important than them.
I couldn’t shake the visuals of me circling through the halo of Ivy League parties, sitting in lectures at Sperry Hall listening to the mayor of Baltimore, and missing spirited debates on global conflict. The pain cut through these visions, saying, Repeat these statements at least 25 times. I sat up and started to mouth the words:
What I am doing is more important than Harvard.
What I am doing is more important than the expert peace negotiator.
What I am doing is more important than law school.
Sitting on a hard rubber floor, strewn with leaves, chicken feathers and tire grease, I thought, whatever it is that I am doing, is more important than the whole world. It dawned on me what I was doing—I was “just sitting.”
My professor, Jeff Seul, calls the Zen art of sitting a “concept-lite, but practice-rich” dharma asset. A dharma asset is a Buddhist process of making use of whatever is available in the “here and now.” When one sits, one is drawing to oneself, all the forces of the universe that are present, here and now. You become a vortex of the “here and now.” You are like a spinning tsunami, resting in the eye of the storm. Power is at your fingertips if you merely resist the urge to touch it, but instead “sit” with it, allowing it to respond to your “no thought, no mind” and “no direction.”
By not using power, you become one with it. As soon as you reach out to wield it, you and power become divided into: the controller and the controlled, the doer and the doned-to, the cause and the effect, the willer and the willed.
Like Yoda, Jeff’s spirit appeared in the sweaty air hovering above my head in the gym. He intoned a confirmation of my Zen practice which in Mandarin is pronounced, “niǔshāng jiǎohuái zuò shíjiàn,” and spelled, “扭伤脚踝坐实践.” It means, “sprained ankle sitting practice.”
Jeff’s wisdom said to me, “Sprained-ankle person, just sit. Be here in a ‘not knowing’ place; not overlaying every new situation with your analyses. Rather, marinate. There are many pregnancies in silence.”
By “silence,” he meant pain. I scooted to the large metal garage door-like opening of the gym and stared into the cloudy gray sky. The air was chilly on my skin. I let it chill me with no inkling to ask someone to get me my jacket. Feeling utter peace and a deep connection to quietude, I gazed out into the clouds.
God said, “Look. The clouds don’t ever think, ‘I am not good enough to fly in the sky today.’ They just fly.” I nodded. God said, “Even if the cloud was ugly and kept farting, it would still go up and fly. It would just fly as an ugly farty cloud.”
I nodded again and repeated my lesson, “Even if I am an ugly farty cloud, that doesn’t mean I can’t fly in the sky today where everyone can see me. They will just see an ugly farty cloud. What are they going to do? Lasso it down because it offends them? It’s a cloud. Only God can remove a cloud from the sky and God is not going to remove me. I’m a cloud. I belong in the sky. That’s how I’m designed.”
Nick came once again to check on me and noticed the egg sized bulge on my ankle was inflating. His eyebrows were knitted and he tentatively asked me how I was. I said, “I’m a cloud.”
“Ok,” he said, holding out hope that my delirium was temporary. “I’ll come back.”
My foot started to reverberate like it was an atomic bomb that had just been set off twenty two minutes ago and was still seething in rage, knocking everything down in its aura with its radioactive pulse. I heard the voice of pain speaking.
What I am doing is more important than—you.
I leaned back on my elbows, looking up at the gray sky. The pain was making me aware, suddenly, that I was important. Pain is visceral, immediate and it does not lie. It irreducibly claims, “I am here!” and, “I won’t go away.” There is no way to negate its existence. There is no way to downgrade, limit or lessen its presence. It is fully frontal, without excuses. Pain is the “here and now.”
“Everything that you are ‘not’ is causing you pain,” God said to me.
“I’m not good enough,” I replied.
“Let every part of you that is ‘not good enough’ leak out of your foot,” said God.
So I sat there, bowed head and slumped over like a leaking star, letting every particle within me that did not feel good enough pour out of my left foot.
An hour had passed. Alas, I felt it was time to move. It was now or never. My gym friends were tender towards me. Manly man after manly man, most of them sweaty hairy beasts with thick limbs, came up to me to offer sympathy or a comrade-like pat on the back for being so brave. But something within me started snapping. I felt it and smelled it, all at once. It was lemony and syrupy, like cinnamon crusted apple pie and it had the softness of an American grandmother baking cookies, her kitchen window facing her backyard lined with willow trees. I could feel myself wanting to weep. ‘Oh no,’ I thought. ‘I gotta get outta here.’
I jumped on my bike. Nick swirled from out of the cement warehouse-like man-cave of our gym and quickly asked, “Are you ok to get on your bike? Are you still a cloud?”
I grunted, “I’m a leaky star.” Before he could reply, “But you’re not finished leaking—” I whisked myself away. For a mile and a half, I groaned and moaned peddling on my bicycle to the nearest emergency room. I thought of Jewish concentration camp prisoners with their ankles swelled up with edema, like elephant ankles, trotting barefoot in the snow for fourteen miles. I thought of my classmate who had both legs amputated after a tour in Afghanistan using his arms like crutches in the rain to mount himself over bridges.
As soon as I got to the hospital, locked up my bike and hopped on one foot into the E.R., I plopped into a wheelchair and began sobbing. The emotional toll was hitting me hard. I sobbed and sobbed as though I were grieving the death of someone. But who? Who was dying as my foot swelled to elephant-like proportions?
My poor ego. She was losing her grip on life. For 41 years, the dear thing, had told me over and over again, mimicking the voice of my mother and Chinese ancestors that I simply wasn’t good enough. Because I listened to her, I have always ranked in an A to A-plus range, possess great hair, have no health issues and all my life—just wanted to be perfect because I was never ever perfect enough. Even when I compare myself to my classmate who has no legs, I think I’m not worthy enough to be his friend because he’s so badass, he has no legs and went to the Olympics and Harvard. All I’ve done is go to Harvard, I’ve yet to win the Pulitzer to consider myself eye-to-eye with him.
As I sobbed, I heard my pain telling me, “I am worthy enough to be your friend. I’m worthy of you. I am worthy of you.” And, ”I am as important as you.” My pain was telling me the bottom-line truth about my life, that “What I am doing—is important.”
There was a series of nurses at the emergency room. They watched me sob hysterically, took my x-rays, prescribed me Tylenol and gave me an air-cast. All of them, putting my needs before their own. This was a sign of a new pattern in my life. The world is here to help me fulfill my needs, so that I can in turn, fulfill their needs.
“This,” it seems God is saying to me, “is important. In order to give, you first have to learn how to receive.” The scoreboard of my life now looks like thus: Pride = Zero. Humility= One.