With so many labeled human conditions in our world these days like Autism, ADHD, Bi Polar, Cerebral Palsy etc, one would wonder if Zen is only available to the so called ‘normals' or does it encompass our ‘disabled' friends and family as well?
The faults of others are easily seen, but one's own faults are seen with difficulty. One winnows the faults of others like chaff, but conceals his own faults as a fowler covers his body with twigs and leaves.
W ith so many labeled human conditions in our world these days like Autism, ADHD, Bi Polar, Cerebral Palsy etc, one would wonder if Zen is only available to the so called ‘normals' or does it encompass our ‘disabled' friends and family as well?
People who live within the realm of ‘disability' are challenged by many social structures that most of us take for granted, and they show us different ways to view the world. Living with a child, a partner or a friend with a mental, emotional or learning disability, allows us ample opportunity to witness some of the most incredible facades that have been structured within our own minds. We see that ‘social graces' literally torment the person with disabilities and that our reactions to their torment are magnified, as we realise their utter futility and redundancy. My daily experience with a ten year old boy with Asperger's Syndrome (AS), has been a truly remarkable gift. For his protection I'll call him ‘Dexter' and through his honesty and ability to cut through the ‘chaff' of much of our social structure, he has not only challenged my ways of thinking, but has pushed me forward in the practice of Zen.
Children with AS offer an alternate set of social and cognitive skills. With little to no facial expression or eye contact, they have the ability to frequently launch into monologues about defined and often highly technical interests. These could be computer games, lightening rods, space programs or any embellished topic that can be revisited with repetition. Even when very young, obsessions will arise with order and structure. Toys may be fashioned logically and systematically, and tantrums may arise when routines are disturbed. These children can be incredible teachers for us adults. They allow us the privilege to view things in completely new and fresh ways. The challenge of most parents however, is about being open, aware and adding insight to observations and understandings of our children.
All too often we have pre-established ideas of how things should appear or play out, and this will disturb our structured (or invented) foundations. To the uninitiated, a child with mental, emotional or learning difficulties can seem strongly unconventional, and truly test us. In my own journey with Dexter, I found the greatest challenge was to cease all conflict in response to his actions. However before learning to put this skill into practice, I would witness my mind in recurring patterns of resentment and self pity leading to exasperation.
When we so called ‘normals' have to deal with things that are extreme in nature (like our kids who have disabilities), it is easy to respond in extreme: either we get over-emotional, or we block out the emotion because it's too painful to confront. At these times we can become "cold" or aloof and we may forget the enormous potential that lies within. AS people for example are often among some of the most highly gifted. By some, they are stereotyped as having ‘The Geek Syndrome' because of their major contributions to our technical world order. Likely, if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be chancing this article on this powerful computer, and NASA and the space program would probably have to cease operations! Without their help we may never have had the technological capabilities that have arisen in our daily lives. The advances in physics, systems analysis, audio, DVD & Blue Ray, appliances ... the lists are endless. Within this context we can also notice that people with varying mental and emotional challenges have produced some of the most intricate and beautiful art, from sculptures and paintings to music and literature, all of which have enhanced our lives and opened our hearts.
So, can we really claim that these conditions are a disability, in the truest sense of the term? In reality, every brain is different. We all have our strengths, but we also have our weaknesses. Why the need to judge or compare? For people with disabilities, their greatest ‘disability' is having to deal with people who misunderstand them, who judge them harshly, who place them in a category of inferior people, perhaps consciously, perhaps not.
Often, my family will naturally compare Dexter's actions against sets of societal beliefs and folklore, and will comically entertain him with future repercussions. Dexter doesn't always see the need for this type of comedy and will contrast it with some calm and intelligent ‘backlash'. On a recent driving trip to the city, members of the family became distraught when running behind schedule. Dexter sat peacefully in the space of others' emotional outbursts with almost no notion of the future. As the driver, I was somehow able to ‘tap into' Dexter's logic and also remain calm despite others' fears and concerns. From Dexter's point of view I could truly witness the futility of worrying over some future outcome due to minor tardiness. To witness this example of ‘logical' solution, one can truly wonder, which of us is the smooth life traveler?
Of course as a child, Dexter has his own difficult moments and meltdowns, but interestingly, these will occur only when he perceives some form of personal loss that is unrelated to others' emotions. Fortunately most of us at some time will also display some AS or other psychological tendencies, and this brings with it an affinity. In the moments that we experience these tendencies we are offered a brief opportunity, a clue, to witness a sample of their contrasting thoughts. We are given the gift of true compassion as we walk a ‘mile in their moccasins' and view the world from their perspective, if only briefly.
So where is the unlimited value of Buddhist practice, when interacting with our children and fellows who are challenged by such ‘disabilities'?
Actually, Zen is sensitive to social nuances, and Zen transcends them all. Where internal conflict arises it may be a belief that we are separate and shut off from ‘the absolute'. We have forgotten that despite the inherent absence of individual nature in everything, we have nothing outside of ourselves. We really are potential glorious and divine beings, creating our experience in every moment. Master Lin-chi said..... "If you want to be no different from the Patriarchs and the Buddhas, then never look for something outside yourselves.
Within the space of this discussion however, several questions may arise. Is Zen practice really only something that we so called ‘normals' can do? Can we inquire if Zen imposes limitations for any people based on their mental make up, be it AS, Autism, ADHD, Cerebral Palsy, even ‘normal', or is it only relevant to a confined minority?
Initially I would offer that, due to their natural ability to focus and concentrate intensely, it is possible that people in the ‘spectrum' range could achieve a greater level of mindfulness. They may be able to do Zen involuntarily to some degree, because they are not hindered by social etiquettes. Where the typical Zen practitioner will sit on a cushion in order to clear their minds of the ‘Maya', it may be feasible that the AS person can do it all the time. Within this realm of possibility, who then is closer to being in tune with ‘the absolute'?
Similarly, for those with other ‘conditions', it could very well come down to which of the so called ‘mental and emotional aspects' are absent from the disabled person, to give them a clearer path to Zen. Who then, is the one spiritually advantaged? Perhaps for our atypical population, there is greater opportunity for Zen to be on offer in ‘real time'. The fact that Zen Centres around the world are reaching out to our disabled fellows, can attest to this.
Secondly, when a person with ADHD is focusing their mind on their tasks and inventions, from which place did their originality and creativity arise? When an autistic child produces the most beautiful and detailed drawings, from where was their place of stillness? When a mentally challenged fellow can reproduce music to the level of Mozart, where did that actually arise? And when a friend with Bi-polar wakes in the night with neurosis, from where did she realise that the calming effect of her ‘artistry' could end her stay in samsara? Perhaps these people are practicing true Zen but have never given it a name. Or perhaps they have gone even beyond the perception of the name. The imagining beauty that lies beyond is limitless.
Furthermore, at a recent conference, spiritual writer Greg Bradden told the story of a ‘special' athletics carnival. Seven Down's syndrome children lined up at the start of a100 metre sprint. When the gun went off some confusion arose, with two falling over and several feeling sorry for their collegues. They all went back to the start, reconvened, linked arms and ran down the track to cross the finishing line together.
This remarkable story opens a world of wonder. Did the runners sense that the competition didn't express the right amount of solidarity? Perhaps they have the gift to fully understand that we all share the same sun, the same earth, the same breath, the same intimacy.
From the position in reverse, to practice Ch'an Buddhism in the face of our ‘disabled' friends offers some challenges, but in lieu of stories and comments raised above, perhaps some portion of our path to Nirvana is just a matter of watching and learning from them. I have often wondered in silence whether Dexter is here to be one of my masters. His world can sometimes be of complete stillness. He will often sit still next to a family member and observe the colour and texture of their skin. In unusually quiet contemplation, he will run his fingers through their hair to find peace and solace. These moments are true blessings for both the onlooker and the recipient and can seem to be a gift from the ‘world between worlds.'
These observations have not only inspired me, but enhanced my willingness to continue the practice of meditation. Within the peace of my own heart, I find a state of inner abundance where there lies no inkling of structure, duality or even Asperger's. Upon witnessing my various responses, I have the privilege to observe my mind as it over- indulges in negative thoughts and irrational feelings. Where there exists a sense of exasperation, frustration and futility, I can observe the rational mind in its throws of realisation. I can resolve that these negative thoughts and feelings are the real futility.
An expression of gratitude goes to you Dexter. Thank you for showing myself to me.