One fateful night in 1999, my sense of wholeness was gone in a split second. Just a moment before, I was having the time of my life. At the age of twenty-four, I was a cycling tour leader and had just finished leading a 3,800 mile journey across the United States. An avid snowboarder and skier, I had plans to spend the month of January living out of my car at a ski resort in Vermont. I hiked the mountains of Western Massachusetts on a regular basis. I played guitar with my best friends in a college funk band. I went to a dojo and studied the fluid art of aikido three times per week. There was a complete alignment between my mind, body and spirit. My days were filled with classes at a college I loved, laughter with friends and regular outdoor adventures. Life was a blast.
A trip out to a bar to celebrate a friend’s birthday put an end to the party instantly.
Our trip stopped short of our destination when the driver hit a tree at about fifty miles per hour. My T12 vertebra exploded on impact, damaging my spinal cord and leaving me completely paralyzed from my waist down.
A spinal cord injury is unlike most other injuries in that it doesn’t heal. Any other bone in the body can be broken, and within a few weeks or months, you should be good to go. Break the spine and it’s a life sentence of paralysis.
I spent forty-five minutes slumped in the backseat of the car desperately trying not to move even the slightest amount for fear of further damage to my spinal cord. I pleaded with God to set the clock back so that I could make a different decision while going nearly mad considering the implications this event would have on my life.
In that moment, my sense of wholeness was replaced by a sense of brokenness. My spirit was determined to not give up, but my sense of identity was crushed in ways that felt unrecoverable. I complained as little as possible and took on this new life with a stoic and resilient attitude. But beneath the surface the wounds went deep, both figuratively and literally. Cumulatively, I spent more than two years of the the next fourteen lying flat on my back in hospital beds due to complicated surgeries from pressure ulcers. I spent an additional year lying down at home and unable to leave my bed. I became dependent on my family in ways that I could never have imagined.
The only thing that kept me sane was turning my attention inward, finding a sense of peace that wasn’t dependent on my life looking any particular way. It was here that I found the eye of the hurricane. I couldn’t control my circumstances, but I could control the way that I responded to them by living from this spacious place within.
As I practiced meditating my way through the months of complete motionlessness, I began to see that my predicament was simply an exaggerated form of the same basic theme that many people around me were experiencing. When I was confined to a hospital bed, I talked to doctors and nurses and got the distinct impression that they were all waiting on some time in the future when things would be better. These hopes and dreams remained perpetually unreachable. I may have been the one stuck in bed and unable to move, but it was clear that I was actually far less paralyzed than a lot of the people who weren’t. On a daily basis, I saw people who were creating their own prisons around themselves, held hostage by their own uncontrolled thoughts and feelings. Here I was the patient, and yet, ironically, I felt more free than the majority of the people who weren’t.
For many years, I had my own unmet goal, the goal to once again become able-bodied. I worked diligently with a movement specialist who had had some success in helping people with paralysis to recover lost function. I set my sights on recovery and was warned to not be complacent, lest my body atrophy beyond repair. It was a lofty goal since, as far as I knew, no one diagnosed with complete paralysis had ever recovered any movement or sensation. It took me over ten years to acknowledge that, on some level, I was embarrassed to be paraplegic. I had convinced myself to not fully engage in the world. I had created my own prison cell. As this came to my attention, I committed myself to a deeper level of self-knowing, recognizing the fact that true freedom could only come from embracing my circumstances exactly as they were.
As my energy became stronger, people who were struggling with their own prisons sought refuge in me since I had conquered such seemingly impossible obstacles. I had inadvertently become a specialist in tackling challenges not through stubbornness or stoicism but through yielding to whatever the present moment brought, by finding my inner Zen Warrior. By creating harmony around my circumstances, I had access to the vital energy needed to manage my situation and to live from a purposeful state of mind.
This sense of wholeness is not abstract or conceptual, but truly tangible. It is learning to sense that life is perfect in its imperfection. It takes a commitment to experiencing life as an adventure. Enlightenment is not a state of nirvana, but a discovery that we have the power to choose how we experience our circumstances.
The road to wholeness is unique for every individual, but the principles are always the same. Rigid attachments to one’s ego must be acknowledged and then allowed to dissolve. One must learn to trust his or her higher self and see that what seems like unbearable pressure is exactly what’s needed to transform and, thus, be able to serve the greater good. Around the world, people are waking up to these principles, and, by doing so, taking charge of their destinies in previously unimaginable ways. While the victim cries foul to what they perceive as the malevolent intentions of others or of the universe, the Zen Warrior looks for the opportunity for self-actualization that they know is embedded within the challenge.