When I recently found myself with a broken foot, I decided to see if I could use my present suffering to innoculate myself from future suffering. “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste…it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” –Rahm Emanuel
Front Loading Suffering
On the 10% Happier with Dan Harris, meditation teacher Shinzen Young tells the story of his training at a Japanese monastery.
Young spent 100 days in solitude engaging in the daily ritual of dousing himself with ice water in the dead of winter. One of the marathon monks of Mt. Hiei Young met had done that practice for twelve years: plus sitting motionless for nine days without taking food or water.
Why? To become an extraordinary being, whose happiness was not dependent on conditions. They put themselves through twelve years of voluntary suffering out of compassion for their fellow human beings. Monks who complete the twelve-year training then make themselves available to the public. People from the community come and visit them at their temple, where the monks listen, offer teachings, and serve as an example of someone who had endured great hardship and made it through.
Young is quick to point out that we don’t have to go to those extremes to achieve significant benefits from meditation practice. The monks simply did this as a way of front loading their training. The rest of us don’t need to go to a monastery. All of us will endure extreme challenges and suffering during our life times. Sooner or later, the monastery will come to us.
Monastery of the Foot
The monastery came to me in the form of a fractured fifth metatarsal (aka a broken foot). I didn’t choose it, but since it chose me, I decided to use it to practice.
When I learned it would take three weeks to see a podiatrist before I’d have a prognosis, I realized I could either tick off the days with frustration or take things day by day.
The podiatrist offered me the options of keeping my weight off my left foot for another six weeks and seeing whether it healed naturally or putting a screw in it to hold the bone in place. He recommended the latter, and I accepted the recommendation.
The Gift of Uncertainty
While I was going through the pre-op info, the person taking my info asked if I had an Advance Directive. I did not. Did I want to fill one out? I’d never thought about it before. This struck me as a low-risk procedure, so I said no. But, when the pre-op nurse asked the question a second time, I said yes.
I am not afraid of death, but my initial reluctance to tell health care professionals how hard they should work to keep me alive made me realize that I had not yet come to terms with the many decisions I might one day face while dying.
The scenarios in the pamphlet had a much more immediate benefit. They made me realize that I was for as little intervention as possible. If I had seen the podiatrist within seven days of my injury, I likely would have gone ahead with the operation. Since I’d invested three weeks in natural healing, the delay plus the Advance Directive literature prompted me to reconsider.
“It’s nothing to do with my faith in your abilities,” I told the doctor. “This is strictly to keep me from feeling stupid for the rest of my life if something beyond your control went wrong.”
Opportunity to Do New Things
One nagging concern I had about my new found immobility was the possible effect that omitting 10,000 steps a day would have on my physical and mental well-being.
I didn’t take into account the additional physical exertion of crutching or the mental stimulation of solving problems that had never been problems.
I watched a YouTube video to learn how to climb and descend stairs after I got tired of sliding up and down on my butt.
The crutches tied up both my hands so I learned to carry a water bottle and a backpack.
Getting around in the kitchen to prepare food was awkward so I rested my knee on a chair and hobbled in so that my hands would be free.
I had to learn to wash clothes, load and unload the dishwasher, get the mail, and figure out how to drink a beer on the patio (by putting the beer can and glass in a backpack and pouring it outside).
None of these solutions were rocket science, but I tricked my brain into rewarding me with a little dopamine hit when I figured each of them out. That helped replace the endocannabinoid and endorphin deficit from not getting exercise.
Connecting with Others
The first time I tried adapting my stair crutch trick (putting both crutches under one arm and using the handrail) to wheeling out the recycling bin, it was slow awkward going. Some passersby witnessed my apparent distress and offered to help. I forced myself to trade my independence for acceptance. This gave them the opportunity to practice generosity and me the opportunity to practice gratitude.
I wasn’t used to having people hold doors for me. I learned to smile and say thank you.
When I realized after several weeks that I could drive to the park and hobble over to a bench, a disabled veteran in a motorized wheelchair noticed my crutches and came over to commiserate. I’d seen him in the park for several years, but we’d never had the occasion to talk.
I also got a glimpse into the expressions of uneasiness on the faces of strangers that people with visible challenges must experience all the time. A member of my partner’s Taiko drumming class seemed reluctant to approach us until I assured her that the broken foot was not contagious.
Inconvenience as Inoculation
A woman who had sustained the same foot injury assured me, “It’s only temporary.”
“I know,” I said. “It’s all down hill from here.”
The daily challenges that I faced and gradually learned to overcome were nothing compared to the reports my partner was receiving several times a week about her father’s declining condition.
Since my injury, the 95-year-old has been to the hospital twice to have the fluid in his lungs drained. He wears a catheter, can no longer move independently, dress himself, or perform routine self-care without assistance. When his lungs filled up again after a couple of days, he had a shunt installed. Besides needing a twenty-four hour attendant, a hospice nurse stops in regularly to change the bag of fluid.
Practice at being okay with the minor inconvenience of a broken foot is a little like what the monks did to inoculate themselves from future suffering. The opportunity to witness my partner’s dad’s decline has motivated me to make the Advance Directive decisions to take some very limited control over my own dying process.
Ten Minute Exercise
One mindfulness exercise that amused me when I first encountered it became especially useful in adjusting to my failing body.
It’s a dispassionate inventory of what the body is made of. When we’re young, healthy, and fit, it’s easy to take pride in our bodies. Taking a mental inventory can ease that attachment and our distress when things start to go wrong.
I felt no more reaction looking at the x-ray of my fractured foot bone than I did at looking at the damage to my car after a drunk driver clipped it. Both incidents involved the headache of insurance.
- Find a place where you won’t be interrupted for ten minutes.
- Set a timer to remind you when you’re done.
- Sit down with your back straight and take a few deep breaths, then breathe normally.
- Note how your mind and body feel right now.
- Take a few breaths to consider each of the following: head-hairs, body-hairs, nails, teeth, skin.
- Imagine finding head hair or body hair in your soup or drink glass at a restaurant.
- Imagine finding nail clippings or a stray tooth in a public restroom or motel room.
- Compare the skin of a baby with that of an elderly person.
- When you’re ready to move on, go beneath your skin.
- Take a few breaths to consider: flesh beneath the skin, sinews, bones, bone-marrow, kidneys, heart, and liver.
- Take a few breaths to consider these inner organs: diaphragm, spleen, lungs, large intestine, small intestine, stomach.
- Take a few breaths contemplating these appealing substances: feces, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat.
- Move on to: fat, tears, grease, spittle, snot, joint fluid, and urine.
- Choose to spend more time with any grouping that resonates with you.
- When the timer sounds, note how your mind and body feel before continuing with your day.