On My Own … breathe out as you go down the mountain

25 days after the operation, and I’m in the house on my own. My friend Rebecca, who’d been staying with me for a week, left yesterday afternoon. At the time I felt fine – I can manage on my own, I can climb stairs, get in and out of the house, sort myself out. But after she left, I was in the house and would be spending the night alone for the first time since I got back from hospital. I had a sudden wobble of vulnerability. Will I really be all right? Can I actually manage? How will I cook and wash up? What happens if I fall over? I wanted to go upstairs and hide under the duvet. So I did some breathing and visualisation, and felt better. There’s always a way of coping, and I would have to manage at some point on my own, so now is as good a time as any.

A little later in the evening, my friend and colleague Jane came round, having kindly gone to a shop selling equipment for people with disabilities and the elderly, and got me a trolley with trays on it. This is because being on two crutches, I can’t carry anything, so this is to help me be able to cook, move plates to the living room (the dining room chairs are too hard to sit on), and carry things back to wash up. This was really important – I couldn’t think of even how to boil some pasta, and then carry the pot to the sink a few feet away to drain it. So this trolley is making it possible for me to be on my own, even though I’m still figuring out how to push it whilst also having my crutches.

This is the trolley in my living room with my breakfast things on – mug which had coffee, and a bowl which had museli. The process of making breakfast and bringing it into the living room made me grateful for those years of practising sequences as part of training in satipatthana, or mindfulness. Make the coffee in the machine. Put empty bowl and spoon on the trolley, and move trolley to where the museli packet is. Put museli in the bowl. Move the trolley to the fridge. Open fridge and take out milk. Pour milk on the museli. Move the trolley to where the coffee machine is. Put mug with coffee on the trolley. Move trolley to the fridge. Put milk in the coffee, and milk back in fridge. Put crutches on trolley, and push through to living room, lifting over a couple of raised bits between rooms. Put trolley near chair. Take crutches off trolley, sit in chair, put crutches aside. Take mug and bowl off trolley and put on table. Have breakfast. Then reverse, putting things on the trolley, taking back to the kitchen, near the sink. Put mug, bowl and spoon in sink. Balance on the edge of the sink while washing items. Take crutches, walk back to living room, and sit in chair.

Phew! When I was doing this, and pushing the trolley, all I could think of was Julie Walters doing the two soups, or Waitress, sketch as part of the Victoria Wood television programme. If you haven’t seen it, do a search. This was me – how long does it take to make, eat, and wash up after breakfast?! Pushing the trolley makes me feel like I’m thirty years older, but it does mean I can find a way to manage on my own.

Having to think so carefully and plan every movement to do the simplest tasks does remind me of the years spent training in satipatthana, with a focus on every-moment mindfulness. How unthinking we usually are about what we do, particularly when it’s a habitual action. Walking up the stairs is something that happens without us thinking about it – we just go up the stairs. At the moment, I’m having to focus on every step up, making sure I put my feet and crutches in the right order, and using breathing to help with the movement. Needing to work at such a level of minutiae of everything certainly helps focus the bodymind, and brings me back to a sense of simplicity (not simpleness) in just doing the next thing. John Garrie Roshi used to tell us Zen stories. One I’m thinking of at the moment is of a monk who went to a monastery to meet a great master. The monk was given a bowl of rice when he arrived. He was told the master would see him, and ran to greet him, saying: ‘Master, tell me the secret to enlightenment!’. The master asked: ‘Were you given something to eat when you arrived?’. ‘Yes,’ replied the monk, to which the master responded: ‘Then go and wash your bowl’. That’s it – enlightenment is just doing the next thing. After the sequence I needed to figure out to eat breakfast this morning, I then needed to wash my bowl. I don’t think this has made me enlightened, but it has helped to reassure me I can be on my own in the house. Another favourite story Garrie Roshi used to tell us was of a monk who ran up a mountain to meet a famous teacher. ‘Master!’, he said breathlessly, ‘please tell me the secret of enlightenment!’. The answer came: ‘Breathe out as you go down the mountain’. So I’ll be doing a lot of breathing out as I go about everyday activities and figure out new ways to do them. I’m sure there’ll be the occasional stumble, but hopefully the experience of the mountain will help to just put one foot in front of the other, and remember to breathe.

An image from ‘Zen Comics’ by Ionna Salajam

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