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Buddhadharma : Fall 2017
28 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly fall 2017 I My Path with Arthritis by Darlene Cohen I’ve had rheumatoid arthritis, a painful and crippling disease, for more than thirty years. Back in the mid-seventies, my rheumatologist recommended I try a number of risky medications to curb my RA, but told me frankly that I would not be able to take any of these drugs for more than ten years because of their impact on the liver and kidneys. I thought, well then, why not strike out on my own right now and find out how to control this disease without medicine? Despite the bravado that decision implied, I often felt afraid and alone, reck- less even—as my doctor insisted I was. As I began to feel my way along a dark corridor, I was guided by eight years of Zen meditation training. I had been taught to study in depth the objects of consciousness—not only thoughts and feelings but body sensations as well. In one weeklong period of meditation, I had been able to watch a cold slowly develop in my left lung, hang out for a day or two, and then clear. This is, of course, the business of Zen meditation: awareness of the relentless, implacable present. When I lived half a block from the San Francisco Zen Center, I used to try to go to dinner there once a week. It was a challenge, but one with a reward at the end. Traveling that half-block was exhausting; each hip, knee, and foot resisted my weight as I shifted from side to side. I asked myself, What is it about walk- ing that is so hard? What I called “walking” was the part of the step when my foot met the sidewalk. For the joints, that is the most stressful component of walking. They get a rest when the foot is in the air, just before it strikes the pavement. I found that by focusing on the foot that was in the air instead of the foot that was striking the pavement, my stamina increased and I was able to extend my walking territory by several blocks. Later, I began to organize arthritis workshops to teach people to notice their tendency to clump together disparate failures into a hardened idea of limited motion, and to replace that thinking with their actual body sensations. In one workshop, when I hauled out carrots and a cutting board, everybody groaned: “I can’t cut carrots with my arthritic hands!” But when they actually held the knife, feeling its heavy wooden handle and sharp, solid blade, and touched the vulnerable flesh of the carrot on the cutting board, they were having an experi- ence of what they could do rather than an idea of what they could do. Each wrist went up and down, up and down, and the orange wafers of carrot piled up on the board, and they realized: “I can cut carrots.” Tears actually came to people’s eyes. Fall 2010