Staring at Tigers
Shortly after Christmas, I was laid low with a deep bronchial infection that settled, somehow, in my salivary glands. I was a living, almost breathing, replica of that portrait of Henry VIII after he saw Anne of Cleves in the flesh.
My head was like a cantaloupe with two large apples extending from the southeast and southwest quadrants. "I am a human being," quoth the Elephant Man; and I felt his angst.
For two weeks, I was flat on my back sucking Albuterol inhalers, stuffing myself with steroids and antibiotics and codeine, looking like a goiterous lump of flesh gasping for air and speaking with a voice that sounded like a serrated knife trying to slice stale bread.
Two days ago marked my first free day off the regimen; but I still had the pathetic mindset of one who feels sorry for himself and thinks this qualifies him as being a compassionate Buddha. In this weakened state of body and mind, I said "Yes" when a dear friend of mine, a woman I thought I knew well for a quarter century, asked me to accompany her discreetly to the check-in of a "private, sort-of spiritual retreat." She wanted me to take her because we had some spiritual things to discuss before she arrived.
My orders were strict. I was just to drive to her house and wait at the curb. She asked if I had gotten a new car in the last couple of months since she had seen me. I said, "No," which was evidently the right answer. She had told her family, friends and neighbors that she was going on this spiritual journey - a totally private "darshan" with a great yogi from the Himalayas, and my old, familiar car wouldn't arouse the suspicion that maybe that story wasn't true. What could be more natural than that I, her friend and Buddhist priest, would accompany her to this sacred rendezvous?
My brain was still in convalescent mode as I waited at the curb and she came out of the house and got into my car. As soon as we turned the corner she said, "Ok, this is the deal... I'm going into detox and I don't want anybody to know about it. I'm scared. That's why I needed you to take me."
Detox? What detox? I knew she wasn't a drinker. So I asked, "What detox?"
"I'll tell you in a minute," she said, taking out her cell phone, "after I make this call."
She began to gab to someone she knew who had evidently been through detox, giving the person a block-by- block account of proof that she was really going through with it.
My brain slid back into the days of fever that weren't far enough behind me. I had read a book during those days, a novel by Yann Martel called, "Life of Pi." I strongly suggest you pick it up. It will make for an evening's great entertainment. I won't spoil it for you but let me give you a little taste of the premise. A deeply religious young boy from India (who cannot decide if he is a Muslim, Hindu, or Catholic) finds himself sailing to Canada on a ship laden with creatures destined for a Canadian zoo. The ship, by necessity, sinks and the young boy (Pi) finds himself on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with only a huge Bengal tiger, a hyena, an orangutan, an adult zebra, and one rat as shipmates for 227 days. That's 227 days, mostly with the tiger since it doesn't take the great beast long to make dinner and finger snacks of the other animals. Sher Khan as they say.
I found myself in that same lifeboat, as I drove with this tiger of different stripes beside me.
Finally, she snapped her phone shut and put it away. "We call this the 'Limbaugh Lobotomy,' she said, the 'Rushed' judgment that takes us to treatment centers - same drugs, too."
Since we had been discussing this problem for quite some time - at least fifteen minutes - I felt it my duty to see her through to the end. I was feeling, however, less and less in the 'charitable duty' state of mind. I don't start with much of a surplus of that state of mind even in the best of times.
It was10:30 in the morning as we entered the clinic and began what would turn out to be four plus hours of admission's stuff. She wasn't even slightly anxious but I was a wreck. Of the two of us, it must have looked to all the world as if I was the one being admitted.
The Doctor said that she had to have been "clean" for 24 hrs before they would admit her and begin to sedate, isolate, medicate, refrigerate or whatever it was they were going to do to her. She said that yes, indeed, she was clean. He accepted her answers, and I saw no reason to doubt her.
We went from one type of admission room to another and while we waited for yet another tech-person to quiz and poke her, my head began to throb. Joking, I said that I could use one of those painkillers. God's honest truth: She reached into her jeans and handed me one, saying, "Since you're such a good friend."
I stood there for a long minute open mouthed, not knowing what to do with the pill. I wasn't going to give it back to her, I wasn't going to take it, and I didn't know what the hell I was supposed to do with contraband narcotics while checking into a detox center. I was still stunned and I began to stammer, pleading with her to understand what she was doing - this was not a game - this was not a hide 'n' seek situation - not a "see how I can fool all of you kind of thing." It was about her life and what she was supposedly trying to come to grips with. She maintained a slightly interested expression and then stood up and raised her arms, saying, "Search me. I swear that was the last one. Go ahead. Search my pockets. Search everywhere if you don't believe me."
Imagine this: I'm Pi in an examining room lifeboat and I'm "patting down" a creature as alien to me as a tiger. Like a cop, I look in her cuffs, up her sleeves, everywhere short of a strip-search. She started laughing and looked me square in the eye and said,
"You can't find shit."
She took her long winter coat and opened up the seam along the buttonholes where she had a long piece of electrician's tape stuck along the ridge with pills attached to the sticky side of the tape, impossible to find, not even by the vice squad. She then admitted to taking some pills that morning. She was feeling pretty good now, I guess... invincible. She let me take the pills from the tape.
"Yeah." she said, "go ahead. It's time to stop and I want to be honest about it, with you and with myself."
By now, I could no longer believe anything she was telling me. I told her that the jig was up and demanded that she tell me how many she had stashed and where. She pulled out this "spiritual" journal her daughter had given her to take to the retreat, a very nice leather bound one with a Chinese dragon embossed on it. She opened to the back page where there was this bar coded pricing label that she proceeded to lift up and, I swear, she had excavated a pill nest in the hardback and filled the nest before replacing the label on the back inside cover.
At this turn of events, I was no longer even thinking about my friend and her drug problem, instead I had become completely fascinated by the things a mind will do. My mind flashed back to my college days and a psych class in which we studied an archaic concept called "doubling." If memory serves, doubling was a process whereby one would imitate another's actions, mannerisms, speaking idiosyncrasies and such, in order to get some kind of insight into the behavior of that person. The idea was that if you "doubled" enough of their characteristics you would be able to penetrate the person's psyche, become the person (somewhat) and be able to anticipate, if only slightly, the person's behavior.
I hate to sound so uncaring, but I found myself totally fascinated by my friend's behavior in this "laboratory" kind of way. I began to laugh and giggle and ask her questions that somehow seemed to disarm her, and we engaged in a conspiratorial kind of game like: did you ever hear about hiding something over there, under this, over that, in plain sight, etc. If anyone had been eavesdropping on the conversation I'm sure they would have had ME committed, not her. She would tell me where she had hidden pills over the years, and I would feign disbelief (sometimes I wasn't feigning) and I'd say, "No way!" and she'd say, "Hell yes, I still have some there" (in this place and that).
She went through the litany: stuffed inside the hollows of cast statues; taped up underneath her dresser-drawers; inside shoes; tucked into curling iron handles; laying discretely on tops of picture frames; in tampons; mixed in with the vet's medication for her dogs; and so on and on. Phenomenal, absolutely intriguing, incredibly inventive. I was totally enthralled - in full Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes mode - enjoying the fact that the "game was afoot," looking at a creature so cunning that.I began, imperceptibly, to doubt.
I snapped. Enough is enough. Suddenly my entire demeanor changed and I become very threatening towards her and she broke down.
She stopped crying and said she had to tell me something if I promised not to tell her husband (he obviously possesses none of the understanding that I have). Yet, I almost didn't believe my ears; there was more, something else still not spoken about in this open confessional booth I was standing in, wishing I were a Catholic priest instead of Buddhist one so I could pull the curtain and lean back for stability without the confessor seeing my disbelief and say,
"Go ahead, my child the Lord will forgive all our sins if we are but contrite and believe in Him who has come to save us all."
"Okay, but don't be mad. After all I'm going through with these big changes and everything; I thought I needed to treat myself to a little something this Saturday. so I went to the furriers to have them repair a tear in the lining of my mink coat."
"Getting prepared for the big debut of a drug-free you; I think that's good that you're thinking ahead." I said, trying to sound avuncular.
"Yeah, that's what I went there to do but, listen, you can't tell my husband, okay."
Pi squared and the circle too. Get to the point!
"Okay, okay. I bought another mink coat and I hate myself, I'm so selfish. Let's go now, I can't go through with this, pleeeeeease get me out of here. I'll tell you where every stashed pill is. I just want to keep the new coat it is just beautiful."
My fascination with this creature was turning into something entirely different.
Now, incredibly, I found myself wobbling as if in a lifeboat staring into the same harsh flaming eyes of a tiger that Pi had gazed into.
What was I supposed to do? "You've got to stay here; and you can't go home to a house filled with hidden pills."
"Ok, I'll tell you what. You know where we keep the hidden key to the front door. Every time I think of someplace else I hid some pills, I'll call you, and when everybody's out of the house, you can go in and get 'em... flush them down the toilet."
She was finally admitted. She turned and said, "Remember... this is a private retreat with me and my guru... a soul cleansing. Don't tell anybody anything."
I went home and crawled back into bed. The following morning she called asking please would I bring her six packs of menthol cigarettes. There was a strange edge to her voice. I was back in the boat.
"No," I said.
I jumped overboard and started to swim. I felt safer alone in the middle of the Pacific, until I remembered a PBS nature show that had some footage of tigers swimming with great natural strength in the Ganges.
And that my friend is the end of my story or, I should say, that is where I find myself today. at sea.
May all the blessings of all the Buddhas give peace to all who seek it and may your suffering spur you onward.
Last modified: November 22, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts