Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Friday, 23 January 2015

Lyin' Eyes: Of Sticks and Snakes and What the Mind Sees

Once upon a time, a man who was terribly afraid of snakes was walking along a dusty road beside a river. When the man came to the next town, the villagers warned him, "Be careful of the road beyond. There are venomous snakes along that path. They come up out of the river." The man continued his journey, but looked for snakes everywhere he thought they might be - behind him, in front of him, along the banks of the river. All his previous encounters with snakes came back to haunt him. He planned his escape from these snakes: would it be better to run away from the snakes on the road or should he jump in the river and take his chances at out-swimming them? As his mind raced, he came around a bend in the road and there it was - the largest, most fearsome looking snake he had ever seen. Down the man went, dead of a heart attack. When the villagers found him, they noticed a large branch from a tree had fallen across the road, near where the man's body was lying. (Buddhist Tale)
I've been catching up on medical appointments this month. Yesterday, I was in my optometrist's office for a long delayed check up. My doctor has dubbed my eyes, "Designer Eyes," a clever euphemism for eyes which don't work well. (The dear doctor prefers to think of them as "interesting challenges.") Although my optometrist is kind, and very skilled, the thought of all the tests required at each visit makes the appointments stressful. I worry about what might happen days before I'm in the office. I feel my body tighten up as I wait for my turn in the chair. It's a struggle to remain calm.

By the time I was called into the doctor's office, my mind was racing. "What will be wrong this time?" was the continual thought loop. We began the first test - "Read the rows of numbers." The vision in my right eye wasn't too bad and I felt some relief. Then we switched to my left eye and the fun began. I could not read a single line of numbers on the chart. The best I could do was read the large "6" at the top and that was more of a guess than a certainty. It took about 10 seconds for full blown panic to arise. This was a new experience. I had done poorly on charts before, but nothing like this. "How will I weave? Spin? Knit?" "Shit. More appointments." "What will it be like to be totally blind?" "Don't be stupid. You won't be blind today." All these thoughts and more spun wildly through my mind. They sickened my body. Forcing myself to see made matters worse. Those numbers melted into pools of characters in a foreign, unrecognizable language.

This optometrist is one of the calmest people I know. I've been with him since he opened his practice. His children went to school with mine. He knows me, knows my temperament. His response to my panic is to become calmer: "We have a lot more tests to do before we talk about what's going on. Let's take it step by step." He checked this and that. He put those dreaded dilating drops in my eyes and we chatted about our kids, my yoga practice, his outside the office routine. His assistants took photo after photo of the interior of my eyes. After 45 minutes of testing and waiting, I was called back into the room. Doctor R. pulled up the photos on his computer. He compared prior test results to the current results. He pointed out areas of previous concern. The evidence was clear: my eyes were fine, or at least as well as my eyes can be. In fact, problem areas showed some improvements. There was no change in my eye wear prescription. I needed new contact lenses, but that was it.

While my loss of vision could have been caused by medication I'm taking, the most likely cause was stress. Despite my meditation practice, although I know how thoughts can run away with me, my mind had taken over and wreaked havoc. A slightly less than pleasant experience became a nightmare. This particular imaginary snake in the road hadn't killed me, but it made me temporarily blind. Literally.

Mind is like that. Despite our best efforts and intentions, we can be quickly swept away on the swirling river of thoughts, flailing at imaginary snakes as we go. Discomfort turns into suffering. An inconvenience becomes pain. Once we recognize what has occurred, we can continue being swept along that river, or tiptoeing around sticks-as-snakes, imagining what could have happened, beating ourselves up for being so foolish or we can recognize that we've had an experience in our perfectly imperfect human way. We can haul ourselves out of the river of thought, back up on the river bank, and continue our journey, while noticing that sometimes, snakes are just sticks. We can smile at the Mind which carried us away. We can decide to be gentle with ourselves and remind ourselves that next time (and there will be next times), we might make an effort to know whether it's a snake or a stick we're confronting, before we panic.

How we see the stick is up to us.

Even if it really is a snake, will it harm us?
My eye sight is back to normal this morning. I'm ready for the next stick/snake in the road.


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