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Zen, Poker, and Multiple Sclerosis

Posted Jul 31 2009 11:54am

Back in my healthy days, I found myself drawn to the teachings of Zen. My life was frequently turbulent, and I often felt like the target in a game of "whack a mole". The clarity and serenity that Zen offered seemed quite appealing. I read books on Zen thought, talked to practicing Buddhists, and came to have a pretty good working knowledge of philosophies that are the foundation of Zen practice.

Intellectually, I understood the importance of living in the moment, and could see how vanity and attachment to desire breed misery. In an abstract way, it made sense to me that there are no absolute realities, only those we create by filtering the world through our emotions and opinions. Since, with practice and effort, we can control those emotions and opinions, we should also be able to control our realities, and master our reactions to changing circumstances.

Emotionally, though, it was a different story. Rather than controlling my emotions, my emotions controlled me. I wore my psychic wounds as badges of honor, like a Boy Scout who had just learned how to tie a box knot. Unfortunately, the only thing I’d learned to tie in knots was myself, and, simmering somewhere in the background, I expected some reward for all of the angst that I embraced. I paid Zen lip service, but never truly incorporated its teachings into my daily routine.

And then I was diagnosed with MS. Suddenly I was faced with trouble of an entirely different magnitude. Not with existential angst, not with romantic heartbreak, not with the pain of being human, but with an all too real disease that was literally eating holes in my brain and spinal cord. All of my other worries suddenly seemed quite trivial.

I desperately wanted a do-over. Hey, Universe, I'll trade you my shiny new spinal lesion for a nice dollop of existential angst, what do you say? What? No deal? How about a hole in my brain for a smidgen of heartbreak? Again no? Who are you, that supermodel I once asked out? I demand to speak to your supervisor! Hey, wait a minute... Hello? Hello? How dare you hang up on me! Waiter! There's a fly in my soup! And a hole in my brain! Holy crap!...

Thankfully, the universe had provided me with the one thing I absolutely needed to get through this experience, a kind, gentle, caring wife who has stood beside me through it all...

After the initial shock of the diagnosis started to wear off, I found myself turning to my knowledge of Zen as a matter of survival. MS has turned all of those Zen abstractions into hard realities. Living in the moment? The disease forces you to live in the moment. My healthy past is gone forever, and the progressive nature of MS makes peering into the future quite unsettling... Attachment to desires? Most of what I desired went right into the crapper. Career? Kaput. Wealth? Have you ever seen the dollar figures on a disability check?... Vanity? Finding your spastic ass stuck in a wheelchair will quickly cure you of vanity. Zen values humility. MS supplies plenty of it...

I've played a lot of poker in my time, and I've found that the game can teach lessons that resonate far beyond the poker table. Poker and Zen have much in common; both teach the power of making proper choices, and the importance of practicing emotional control despite ever-changing circumstances.

The law of averages tells us that if a group of poker players play enough hands, they will all eventually be dealt the same proportion of good and bad cards. Logic, then, would dictate that these poker players should all eventually break even, since they'd have all played a similar mix of cards. Of course, this not how things actually work. In the real world, there are players who consistently win, and players who consistently lose. The difference between them is not the hands they are dealt, but how they play them. Winning poker players know that they themselves determine whether they'll be winners or losers. The cards are actually secondary.

Likewise, over the course of a lifetime, we are all dealt a wide variety of circumstances. If happiness and contentment are the "chips" we try to accumulate, those who triumph understand that what determines their own happiness is not the circumstances life hands them, but how they deal with those circumstances. Happiness is not a choice; it's a million choices, made every day. If you choose to label a situation, such as getting MS, as a calamity, or a tragedy, then it will surely be one. On the other hand, if that same situation is reacted to with a mix of wisdom, resolve, and kindness to self, it needn't be an emotional wrecking ball. Certainly, getting such a diagnosis dramatically changes the course of your life. The key then, is to let go of your old road map, and to learn how to best navigate the path you now must follow.

MS is no blessing, but it doesn't have to be a curse, either. It just is, something that happened during a lifetime of somethings that happened . Though I might not have control over what the disease does to me physically, it is within my grasp to control its emotional impact . It's all in how I choose to play the hand that's been dealt.

As Paul Newman said in "Cool Hand Luke", "Sometimes nothing is a real cool hand..."

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