On being Seen
“Please accept my resignation. I don’t care to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” —Groucho Marx
It was a beautiful summer day (13 years ago) in July of 2006, as I found myself—curiously— in a wheelchair silently rolling out of a Walgreens on Capitol Hill in Seattle, and seeing another man in his chair painfully making his way towards me. Two months prior, before my Stroke, I would have walked right past him, oblivious, lost in my own thoughts, not really seeing him, but on this particular occasion both being on the same horizontal level our eyes met and we nodded our mutual acknowledgement as the physical distance between us closed. With some effort he raised his eyes as he passed, looked directly at me and said: “keep the Faith Brother.” This new me had been seen and my membership confirmed. Damn.
Fortunately I’m no longer confined to a wheelchair, and manage to teeter (most of the time) precariously on my own two legs. However, walking slowly as I do with a cane, I’ve been forced to accept a rare opportunity to slow down and to see the world around me in a new way—in other words, an opportunity to learn see again.
My former “Identity” that which had been nurturing the illusion of a separate Self, a self which really only served to separate me from the world around me—even from the direct experience of my own life unfolding in each present moment. Instead I lived it caught up in my own head, living my life in thoughts of the past and of the future; a life which now has been drastically and utterly changed by a small blood clot. It was a wake-up call the kind which only near death experiences seem to impart. As all who have spoken with me for at least 2 minutes will readily attest, I’m most assuredly not enlightened, but I’m mercifully much more awake than I was.
In Zen, we practice not only for ourselves but for the entire world. As aspiring Boddhisattvas we vow to help all beings become enlightened, and to reduce suffering in the world. As a permanently disabled person with my own daily struggles I’m painfully reminded that I’m unable to help others the way that I could before my Stroke. By cultivating Present Moment Awareness through meditation, Zen teaches us to become fully present to our own lives, just as they are. And that includes disability and pain as well.
If we’re lucky, we will all grow old, and most likely suffer and will one day find ourselves in need of being seen. We are all each one of us, interdependent. We exist only because of others, and as we show up to the experience of our own lives, we can begin to see and to recognize ourselves in the eyes of others’ suffering.
By doing this difficult Practice we learn to be present to the experience of our own lives so that we can also help to reduce the suffering of others. We may not be able to eliminate the physical and emotional causes of another person’s suffering, but we can remember that we are all card-carrying members of a shared Humanity and strive to be truly present with ourselves and with one another; and through love, Compassion and skillful listening, we can be genuinely present for another in their suffering, to truly see what they are going through, what they are experiencing and to really See them just as they are, we can bear witness to their grief and their suffering.
And sometimes that can be enough.
Stephen has been a member of PSZC for 10 years and took the Precepts in 2017.He lives in La Conner and has an inordinate fondness for cats.