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  • Karl Thunemann

Loving Kindness Meditation and My Ribs

By Barbara Brachtl

When Karl asked me to write about my experiences with meditation this morning, I dithered. My meditation practice, or at least my seated meditation practice, has been very much on and off over the years, and it has been off for more than a year—although just a few days ago, I decided to try a very limited seated qigong breathing practice. Fifteen minutes a day. That’s it.

Part of my problem, besides my monkey mind, has always been having expectations of transformation that were much too high. And no matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried, I ended up still being me.

Ironically, the story that popped into my mind as we continued to talk is a story that will likely leave some readers thinking, “What is wrong with this woman? She experiences undeniable proof that loving-kindness meditation works, and yet she does not continue!”

It was not long after that that I decided that I decided that doing taiji during the breaks in Buddhist meditation retreats was more satisfying than the meditation, and not long after that that I discovered qigong…

I had gone to a Zen monastery in Oregon for a week-long, silent, loving-kindness meditation retreat. On the afternoon before we were to go home, we had a break to go outside and walk around on the asphalt that had been a parking lot when the monastery was an elementary school. In an effort to create more Zen monastery ambiance, several stacks of rocks had been set on the asphalt. They were, I will say, aesthetically pleasing, carefully composed, Zen-like stacks of rocks–not just a pile of rocks deposited by a dump truck.

I was very relaxed—one might say I was in an altered state of conscience. I had spent the week repeating a variety of affirmations in my head in accordance with the practice of loving kindness. One of them had been: “May I be free from fear.”

This is not the rock piles mentioned in this post. But you can see how it invites exploration!

So as I walked out there on the asphalt, I decided to climb the rocks. I love rocks, but I am afraid of heights. The low pile went well. Very satisfying. So I decided to climb a taller pile. It was maybe 6 feet, maybe 7, I don’t really remember as it was more than 10 years ago. But I was free from fear, so I began to climb it. When I was almost to the top, reaching to pull myself up onto the top rock, I lost my grip and fell.

There was a crack as I hit the asphalt. It was not my head. I had landed on my side. It was my ribs. There is a peripheral story I could tell about the time at the monastery until I drove home the next day, Sunday, after a sleepless night and in considerable pain. I will only say that in the meditation sessions remaining, I modified my internal chant to “May I be free from needless fear.”

Monday I went to the doctor, had an Xray, learned there was nothing to do except to let the several cracked ribs heal—and take pain pills.

It was not long after that I decided that doing taiji during the breaks in Buddhist meditation retreats was more satisfying than the meditation, and not long after that that I discovered qigong and gave up on loving-kindness meditation and all things Buddhist.

Go figure.

I will now digress, and Karl can cut this part if he likes, but there were two clear learnings from my broken ribs.

1. I developed greater compassion for people with chronic pain. Although by that time I was in my 60s, I had never experienced sustained pain. But now I learned what it was like to constantly keep an eye on my watch so I would know when I could take another pain pill. Actually, I knew my ribs had healed when I started forgetting to take my pills.

2. I learned that sometimes, I have no sense whatsoever. Before I’d left for the monastery, I’d planted some bean seeds along a trellis in my vegetable garden. When I got home they were eager, 6-inch seedlings—until the morning a day later when they were a row of 2-inch stubs. Rabbits! My dog had died that winter. Now the rabbits felt free to maraud, mowing down my beans. I quickly planted some little nursery starter plants along the base of the trellis. I don’t know why I thought the rabbits wouldn’t come back. Because, of course, they did. Again, I was left with a row of 2-inch stubs.

Now I was angry. I wanted my beans to grow. I told myself that I was smarter than the rabbits, and I had more money, and I could go to Home Depot and buy wooden stakes and chicken wire and build a fence around my vegetables. It wasn’t until I was out there stapling chicken wire to the stakes that it occurred to me how absurd it was that a woman who could well afford to buy beans at QFC was out in her garden stapling chicken wire while on pain pills for broken ribs.

Needless to say, I finished the fence. And I had beans later that summer.

BLOGGER’S NOTE: Here’s hoping that everyone reading this blog loves digression as much as Karl does!


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