I recently listened to a Dharma podcast in which Allan Lokos, author of Through the Flames and Guiding Teacher at the Community Meditation Center in New York City talked about the disaster that struck when he and his wife Susanna were traveling and studying in Myanmar.
At the beginning of their second week—which happened to be Christmas day—they were on a short flight scheduled to arrive at a tiny airport not too far away. However, they never made it.
On the way there the plane crashed and burst into flames.
In a lifesaving effort, Allan pushed his wife right through the flaming doors—the only way out—to the ground below, fully intending to follow her. His foot, however, got caught and he remained trapped in the fire—for how long, he could never remember—until he too found himself on the ground on the other side of the emergency doors.
Thus began the harrowing journey of survival, treatment and recovery for Lokos, who had sustained full thickness burns over 33 percent of his body and wasn’t expected to live. (His wife had escaped without burns, but suffered four crushed vertebrae in her back from the fall.)
After many months of multiple surgeries and skin grafts Lokos was sent home from the hospital to recover.
For him however, being discharged from the hospital did not prove that “it” was finally over. In fact what began for him and his wife in his recovery “was the most difficult period of their lives.”
In listening to Lokos recount the disaster that had struck his life and the difficulties he faced in recovering from it, I was reminded of my own recent health “disaster.” Without comparing my health event to Lokos’—there is no comparing events—and while suffering from mycotoxicosis from long term exposure to black mold didn’t pose an imminent threat to my life, it had presented me with a three to five year recovery period from an extremely disabling medical crisis.
Thankfully, I found myself being able to apply all of the Buddhist teachings Lokos presented in his talk about how to get through such a difficult time.
The first thing that I noticed was pain. Constant, unrelenting pain that didn’t abate. Eventually, I couldn’t get up from my chair to get myself a cup of coffee, couldn’t get out of the car by myself, couldn’t turn over in bed, and couldn’t sit in the movie theater without having to continually move in order to find a comfortable position.
I needed help with everything.
Being as dependent as I was upon others was new for me. I’d always been the strong one. I was an oldest child and had taken care of my younger siblings, I had raised three children of my own. My second husband had Parkinson’s disease, and I took care of him. Here I was now having to ask “Would you mind getting the newspaper for me?”
Pain had forced me into a transition from giver to receiver—not an easy transition to make. But, one that was necessary for me, because I literally couldn’t not make it.
I learned from Lokos that the Buddha taught that everything is in a state of transition all the time. We are all different now than we were even a moment ago. We don’t notice the ongoing, seemingly tiny transitions. But the major ones, such as what I was facing, can cut so deep that we don’t recognize ourselves any longer.
I felt lost and far away from who I once knew myself to be, afraid that I wouldn’t know the way back.
Many a dark night did I lay in bed, shaken by the enormity of the transition I was going through. I didn’t even know it was a transition—I thought it was a life sentence—but I had to learn how to get through it.
In those difficult days I would cry out to myself that I wanted it back, I wanted it all back. I wanted my life back.
Lokos pointed out that by saying I wanted my life back, I wasn’t helping myself. What I was doing with my grief over the life I once had was clinging, grasping, and wanting something that was gone and that would never come back—which to a Buddhist is the ultimate definition of suffering.
Gradually, I learned that there was nothing for me to do but wait. If I could wait, with patience, my life—or, at least a life—would come back. It may not come back in the way that it once was, but it would come back in a new way.
For me, that new way began when I returned to the writing I had abandoned years before and had never thought that I would do again.
Because I was in so much pain, I thought a lot about suffering, what it meant and how it fit into my understanding of life, Was it punishment? Was it some kind of “karma?” Through Lokos I came to the deeper understanding that pain and suffering are not indications that something was “wrong” with my life or even with me or that something needed to be fixed.
I understood that suffering exists in its own right and is woven into the very fabric of life just as joy, pleasure, beauty and wonder are and that all experiences are part of the whole.
Seventy-one passengers were aboard Lokos’ plane that crashed. The two people sitting in front of Lokos escaped with barely a scratch. Then came Lokos and his wife, who were severely and life threateningly injured. Right behind them sat a woman who died in her seat looking exactly as she had when she boarded.
As Lokos put it, he and his wife chose to go to Myanmar. They chose to get on the plane and chose their seats. And then conditions came together.
That is what happened to me. Conditions. I happened to live for 18 years in a house that, entirely unknown to me, was infested with mold in places where it could not be seen. It was a miracle that I had been able to withstand the poisonous emissions as long as I did. Ultimately, however, just like Lokos’ plane crash and injuries, I began to feel “unpleasant tones” I hadn’t felt before.
“All phenomena has a tone that is either pleasant or unpleasant.”
Somehow, through my previous meditation retreats, I had remembered that my situation wasn’t a question of wondering, as some of my acquaintances had suggested, “why me” or even of asking whether there was a greater power looking over me and that was why I wasn’t sicker than I was. For me, it was instead the question of my pain and illness simply being a “very unpleasant” phenomenon.
Like Lokos did, I also chose to see what had occurred as simply an event in time, rather than one that required that blame be placed. When I finally moved out of my house into a small rental cottage, I was further exposed to mold there. I decided that placing blame on the landlord was not something that I wanted to do. Instinctively I knew that letting go and accepting my diagnosis without blame would actually cause my healing to speed up and free my body to do everything it could to repair itself.
For Lokos, there was a moment in the plane when he was stuck in the flames feeling that while his life was in great danger, he was calm. He needed the calmness in order to think and wondered later how, under those circumstances, he could be calm.
For me, sitting in meditation again and again has caused a sense of inner calm. A center of awareness of what arises in the mind and in the body in an almost detached way. I was particularly taken by Lokos’ sublime understatement as to the effect of meditation on disaster and trauma when he said:
“Meditation just might come in handy—like in every moment of every day—and in special circumstances.”
“In special circumstances”—such as plane crashes and life-threatening illnesses.
Lokos remembered that a friend had said that we are all going through crashes on a regular basis, whether they are called divorce, or death of a loved one, or financial instability or homelessness.
We can, however, get through them.
They can be bleak. They can be painful. But we can get through them.
I found the points that Lokos raised in his talk to be validating. In sharing his experience and learnings he had not only given voice to what I had gone through personally in my own “crash” but his words were comforting reminders to me of how to navigate a health disaster.
Seven comforting points to remember in recovering from a disaster:
1) We are always in transition
2) Patience is what gets us through
3) Suffering is part of life
4) All phenomenon is merely pleasant or unpleasant
5) Blamelessness frees the body to heal faster
6) A meditation practice comes in handy; and
7) We all go through crashes on a regular basis
Author: Carmelene Siani
Editor: Catherine Monkman