Thursday, August 1, 2013

365 Inspirations—213: Finding Blessings in Tragedy

"I've been surprised and uplifted by the power of a single compassionate word or glance. I guess I'd never experienced for myself how powerful a single word could be—how uplifting, how life changing."—Allan Lokos

Author and meditation teacher Allan Lokos is a wonderful mentor to me. Before my book, Lessons from the Monk I Married, was published, he offered to help me without even knowing who I was. We chatted on the phone and he and his wife Susanna read my book before it was published. He introduced me to meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg and both Allan and Sharon ended up writing blurbs for my book. Allan and Susanna hosted my book event in NYC at The Community Meditation Center along with Namaste Bookshop. His willingness to do so much for me, a stranger, was really awe inspiring. When I learned that he was in a terrible plane crash in Burma with his wife Susanna over Christmas last year, I felt numb and helpless. I didn't know how I could help. Now, over seven months later, Allan is here on my blog to recount his experience, talk about how his practice of meditation helped him and about the unexpected blessings that came, mostly from strangers, during this tragedy. This is a long post that I took from a telephone conversation with Allan. I have not edited it too much, as I wanted to capture the complete essence of his story.

What were your experiences of the plane crash in Burma and how did your practice of meditation and/or patience come to your aid?

First of all, it is shocking when there is a plane crash. It’s unimaginable and you can’t believe it would ever happen to you, and yet when a plane goes down it happens to someone and this time it was me and it was Susanna and 75 others. 

Fortunately, very few people will ever be involved in a plane crash, but everyone knows what it’s like to go through pain and suffering. 

As to how my experience as a meditator played into this, first of all, in the moment of the crash itself, we had no advanced warning whatsoever. We thought we were coming down for a landing, but, as I understand it, we were about a mile short of the runway. So, there was no opportunity to even think about things. You just hope and assume that after many years of introspection and work, and what not, that you will be supported by your practice.

At the time of the crash, many of the passengers got pretty panicky and moved towards the front of the plane and almost immediately there was thick, black smoke coming from the front of the plane. So, my first move was to try and slow some of the passengers down and help them, but they, understandably, were interested in getting off the plane as quickly as possible. I turned to Susanna and she had already removed the emergency exit door and she said she could never make it to the front because she was already starting to choke on the smoke. So, I helped her through the emergency door and she went out, and then there was an unfortunate moment for me because when I tried to jump myself my leg was caught and I couldn’t jump. And I had a terrifying feeling and I turned and looked for help, but everyone was just sort of interested in getting out. So I freed my leg as quickly as possible and I jumped from the plane as well. However, in that moment or however many seconds it took to get my leg out, I was in flames at that time. That’s when I assumed I suffered my serious injuries. 

I have one blank spot in my memory, from the time that I freed my leg to the time that I was on the ground. I have no memory of jumping through the opening or hitting the ground. When I was on the ground, Susanna said to me, 

“Come on, we have to get away from the plane, it’s going to blow up!” 

And I was dazed. I couldn’t move. A crowd had already been gathering and two teenage boys ran down this slope and each of them took me by an arm and pulled me away from the plane. Behind me we heard these four loud pops and the plane exploded. They pulled me up a slope and surrounded me in a field. There was a time when I looked straight ahead and saw the faces of the spectators, the faces really looked terrified as they looked at me. As I looked down, I saw large black limbs hanging from me, but I don’t remember feeling frightened at that time…just a sense of being dazed. 

Going up the slope, one moment that really stands out in my mind, besides the terrified faces looking at me, was one woman, who was perhaps around 50 years old or so, who leaned out from the crowd and said, 

“You will be alright, sir.” 

That’s one of those moments I think I will always remember. Those words come back to me often when I’m dealing with pain and the kinds of things I’m dealing with. 

The medical care in that tiny town of Burma was, I would say, worse than non-existent. Burns have a real danger of infection. I don’t have a clear memory of how long I was there. There was an IV injected into my arm and I have no idea where that needle was before. But there was no other care. I don’t even know what was running through that IV. 

A woman came along who was an inn owner and she was expecting one of her guests to be on that plane. It turns out the guest was not on the plane. She called her husband and asked him to bring sheets, towels, clothing—anything they could use to help me and she took over and took care of me. Susanna, it turns out, had four broken vertebrae from jumping from the plane or from the crash itself. This woman, a total stranger, removed my clothing and washed me completely. She cared for me and said, 

“I’m your sister right now.” 

It’s a person I’ve never met before and will probably never meet again. She cared for me right on the spot. 

We were then taken in kind of a pick-up van to the closest thing to any sort of medical center, and after that we were taken to Bangkok to a burn center. I think it had been a total of five days, extremely dangerous for someone who had serious burns like I had. Then we were taken to Singapore where skin graftings and surgeries began on me and whatever help they could offer to Susanna. In Singapore, in this burn center, I met one of the most wonderful men I have ever met. Dr. Tan performed 6 or so surgeries on me and did a remarkable job of grafting. After about two weeks, the doctor told Susanna that there was this window of opportunity to take me home and get me into a hospital in the United States. My body was strong enough to withstand that kind of flight, which was 30 hours on the medical plane, but if we waited much longer, we may not be able to do it. 

It’s important to note that every doctor, until we met Dr. Tan, told Susanna that I wouldn’t make it, that I wouldn’t live. What she said to the doctors was, 

“You don’t know him. He will make it.” 

I think what they learned was that they didn’t know that woman. I don’t even know a lot of what she did, but I think she just wasn’t going to let me die.

So we got back to NYC and we went to New York Presbyterian Hospital, to one of the best burn centers in the United States. It was not a pleasant experience to start with. A lot of rushing around. A lot of grabbing and pulling. I experienced the misuse of drugs and I thought it was going to be the end of me. The drugs should not have been used the way they were used. The original estimate was that I would be in the hospital for about eight months, it turns out, between Bangkok, Singapore and NYC, it was about two months and then I came home. 

What you may not know is that I’ve lived in my home for 40 years. But during the time in the hospital, I couldn’t recall my home. I couldn’t envision it. I tried to remember the entrance and I tried to picture the living room and I couldn’t do it. When I finally did come home, it was such a welcome sight and it was so beautiful. 

At this point, I work with a physical therapist, an occupational therapist and a trauma therapist. I work with a wonderful therapist who uses SE (Somatic Experiencing). She helps us remove any remaining trauma so that we are not stuck in a place of trauma. She has been incredibly helpful and I’m just so grateful she found an opening in her schedule. 

That’s a sketch of where we are at the moment. I had to learn how to walk. I learned slowly, but I’m now a very good walker. I haven’t really tried any running yet.

I guess I’ve taken this for granted, but I should not have taken it for granted. My mind has been clear. It wasn’t all that clear in the beginning, but as you may know, I went back six or seven weeks ago to teach at the Community Meditation Center, which is my own sangha, and it was a fantastic morning when I was there. I was greeted with cheers and cheers and there was an enormous crowd. 

I also want to mention that the sangha has been unbelievable in the way they took over in the absence of the two teachers. They never asked us what they should do they just did it. They immediately had the very best teachers there—the first one was Sharon Salzberg. Then, Tara Brach, Gina Sharpe and others. Not only did we survive, but we thrived. I guess they had read about me in the New York papers and on NPR and they came around. They came to meditate and get support of the sangha and offer support. That was something I always wanted. That the sangha would thrive after me. Because I can’t be here forever, obviously. It almost became a shorter time than I had envisioned, but that was just one of the greatest joys that came out of this.

 Physically, right now, I would say I’m doing very well, the main issues I have to deal with are all related to my hands. They don’t close well, so I can’t hold a pen or a pencil. About three weeks or so ago, I went back to see what I could do on a computer, and it would be difficult to do something that was long, but I could do my emails. Friends have installed a program for me called Dragon Dictate and I’m learning how to use that. 

Dr. Tan and the doctors in New York believe that I will have complete functioning again. That is the light on one end of the tunnel and the fact that I survived is the light on the other end of the tunnel. That’s something my trauma therapist reminds me again and again. I survived this…and that was not easy to do. I don’t want to paint a picture that isn’t true, because I’m certainly dealing with pain as far as my hands go, but as you know, everything is changing and some days there’s a lot of pain and some days it’s not bad at all. 

How did your practice of meditation help you during this difficult time?

Frankly, very early on, I thought many, many times I don’t know how anyone could deal with this without some sort of practice.  Mine was there all the time in the early stages. And when I talk about some sort of practice, as you know, mine is meditation, but it doesn’t have to be. If someone was of the Christian faith and believed that God was there watching over them, protecting them, holding them, that would be great. I think you have to have something, I don’t know how one would manage otherwise. 

The practice that kept coming up for me the most was relinquishing or letting go. Now I can’t take much credit for it because most of the time I had no choice. Starting from the time when that woman offered to wash me. You know, I had no way to say, “No!” even if I wanted to.  I could have been in a situation where I couldn’t do anything about it, but in my mind I was angry about that. The part of my practice that helped me was that I wasn’t angry and I wasn’t resistant. I think I just constantly felt grateful and I gave myself over immediately to whatever others said I needed and I was able to do that without suffering and that was the key and that was the practice of relinquishing. I’m fortunate that I did not have to deal with, at any time, any form of “Why me?,” “Why did this happen to me?” There are a lot of those unanswerable questions and if they are unanswerable, I don’t spend a whole lot of time on them. 

I had an opportunity to look at the realm of suffering as I never have. I learned that two people died on the plane and one of the people who died was sitting right behind me and she was our guide. It just broke my heart. Not because we were great friends necessarily, but because we spent every minute of the previous eight days together. 

When I was in my home, meaning my own home and the accident was two months behind me, there came a point where I couldn’t practice at all. I would sit down and I don’t think I could put together two consecutive seconds when I could concentrate. It just wasn’t there and wasn’t happening. So I let all practice go as far as sitting in the morning and I would just take it whenever it would come to me, when I could stay focused for a few seconds and that’s what I would do. I’d observe one or two breaths and for quite awhile that was my practice. And it was okay, I didn’t feel guilty in any way or I didn’t feel negligent. Each day I was able to do a few more minutes and a few more minutes and now I’m up to my usual time. 

I think there are times when we need to observe what our practice is saying to us. Let it go and just note what needs to be noted. 

Do you have any words you could offer to anyone who may have gone through a tragedy or have lost a loved one?

Well, I think the Buddha is correct in his teachings that we all experience levels of dukkha, or suffering. I want to be able to offer something, but perhaps I’m not there yet. How to deal with physical pain may be the unanswerable question because it’s so compelling. And I’m not saying mental anguish isn’t, it certainly is. When someone is dealing with a very stressful situation, at that time, one can’t really say, “Well now I’m going to start to learn about meditation.” You can, but I think it’s unrealistic to expect that you will, in one or two sessions, get the kind of support that you need to deal with the situation. One thing that one can always bear in mind, which will help in a difficult situation, is that everything changes. Even more than that, now we see that everything is changing in the moment. If we can somehow focus our attention onto this changing nature of things, the impermanent nature of things, we can see that this also will change. It’s not looking at the future, it’s looking at what is happening right now. What is going on in my mind? This isn’t easy to do, it takes practice. To look at the nature of what is going on in the mind and not so much the story. It takes awhile to be able to understand the difference. 

For example, if it’s raining outside. All that’s happening is that it’s raining. We may say, “Oh, today is the day I planned a big picnic. Now everything is ruined. It’s the worst thing that could ever happen.” All of that, I created. The one reality is that it’s raining. In my case, the accident still happened. I still have pain in my hands. The pain arises. But, as my trauma therapist said, “Without that pain, there would be problems. That pain is the nerves regenerating. Right in the face of the pain, why don’t you say ‘thank you’ to your hands.” 

Out of all of this, if you could tell me one great lesson you’ve learned, what would it be?

I don’t know if I can single out one, but I think I’ve been somewhat surprised and uplifted by the power of a single compassionate word or glance. I think about that woman who I’m sure I’ll never meet again on that slope who looked at me and offered words of encouragement. I think about Dr. Tan and what an incredible human being he was and how he saved my life and lifted my life with his positive words. So, I guess I'd never experienced for myself how powerful a single word could be—how uplifting, how life changing.

ALLAN LOKOS is the founder and guiding teacher of The Community Meditation Center in New York City. He is the author of Patience: The Art of Peaceful Living and Pocket Peace: Effective Practices for Enlightened Living. His writing has appeared in Tricycle magazine (for which he also led a month-long online retreat), The Huffington Post, Beliefnet, Back Stage newspaper, and the anthology, Audacious Creativity. Among the many places he has taught are Columbia University Teachers College, Marymount College, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, The Rubin Museum, New York Insight Meditation Center, The New York Open Center, Tibet House USA, and Insight Meditation Community of Washington. Allan has practiced meditation since the mid-nineties and studied with such renowned teachers as Sharon Salzberg, Thich Nhat Hanh, Joseph Goldstein, Andrew Olendzki, Stephen Batchelor, Larry Rosenberg, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, and Tsoknyi Rinpoche. He has also attended a number of weeklong teachings with His Holiness, The Dalai Lama.

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