Monday, May 11, 2009

Zen, Poker, and Multiple Sclerosis

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..."


  1. Thanks for this Marc. I had a crappy MS day and this wise thoughtful post inspired me to go back and read my books on mindfulness.

  2. Oh Master (I'm not being sarcastic really, maybe just a tiny bit because such is my nature, but that's me, don't take it personally, it's my emotional angst, not fully under control, rearing it's ugly head again), I'm ok then not ok, ya know?).
    I can only quote Kenny Rodgers, "you have to know when to hold, know when to fold them" Yes. SOMETIMESI do better than others. Looks like today I will. Thanks Marc, for reminding me.
    Little Grasshopper (as a friend likes to call me sometimes)
    (AKA Kicker & Anonymous)

  3. I think you're only supposed to cite Steve McQueen in posts about Taoism. Paul Newman gets the nod in this instance. [I'm probably going to have to work on overcoming my attachment to trivia.]

  4. Thanks Marc. I really enjoy what I read here. You always make me think.

  5. anillo, glad I could be of some inspiration. I don't know, I'm actually not that crazy about this post. It didn't quite come together the way wanted to...

    kicker, well, I think you are being sarcastic, and that's quite all right. I enjoy sarcasm, even when it comes in the form of a Kenny Rogers quote.

    John, thanks for pointing that out. I must have a brain disease or something. Boston University is going to rescind my film degree...

    Diana, thanks for the kind words. I'm just happy that people are actually reading the stuff I post...

  6. I always 'read you', Marc...and usually 'get' you too. Today's post was no exception. I often quote the saying, "It ain't whatcha got, it's what you do with it". i.e. if life deals you a sack of shxt, you can either stick your nose in the bag and gag, or spread it in your flower garden and enjoy the roses...OR as Little Orphan Annie use to say, "Never say die". Jstlookn

  7. Marc, I thought this was one of your better posts.

  8. OK, The Grateful Dead ; "Sometimes the cards ain't worth a dime, if you don't lay em down.
    Trucking, got my chips cashed in." I think, it's been a long time. That ends my knowledge of any card songs. I got a little Zen, pull it out in my head sometimes but reading you helped. Like AMN says "carpe diem"(like that in her own AMN way).

  9. Hi Marc,
    You somehow manage to both get my heart and make me laugh when I read. Been reading you for awhile. This is my new blog: HEALING THROUGH MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS-
    please let me know what you think.

  10. Marc, an EXCELLENT post. I have quoted from it on my blog. Well done

  11. Kicker, sometimes a little Zen is all you need. Especially if you have a bunch of good lyrics knocking around your noggin...

    Centennial, you're very welcome. I'm glad my words could be of some use to you

    Cathy, wow. Your website is breathtaking. Love the artwork, love the prose, I will be a faithful reader.

    Pride, high praise indeed. Your blog, too, is terrific. Thanks for the kind words...

  12. I recently lost my father to complications of heart surgery, a left hemicolonoscopy, and multiple sclerosis. Reading your blog brings to life much of the same humor and regal sense of humility you have. Wishing that I had found you sooner in order to share with him, I instead am happy to have found your blog. Your thoughts are a gift and I thank you.

  13. Leave it to they guy with MS to know the sound of one hand clapping.

  14. I love this post, I´ve read it many times. Thanks Marc. Here´s a quote I wanted to share with you:

    "You should train yourself: Even though I may be sick in body, my mind will be free of sickness. That’s how you should train yourself…. And how is one sick in body but not sick in mind? There is the case where an instructed noble disciple … does not assume the body to be the self, or the self as possessing the body, or the body as in the self, or the self as in the body. He is not obsessed with the idea that “I am the body” or “The body is mine.” As he is not obsessed with these ideas, his body changes and alters, but he does not fall into sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, or despair over its change and alteration. (Similarly with feeling, perception, mental processes, and consciousness.) This is how one is sick in body but not sick in mind."

    - The Buddha

  15. Bigdog-sorry, very late getting back to this, but thank you very much for your comment. The quote is perfect.

  16. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, sometimes known as Lou Gehrig's disease, a progressive, incurable, usually fatal disease of motor neurons.


    online viagra

  18. Viagra is very effective at treating erectile dysfunction.
    The medication works by blocking a chemical that causes blood to flow out of the penis.
    More blood in the penis means an improved erectio


  19. Definitely when you got a decease you realize that anything else matter because if you don't feel good how you can do everything that you want in your life, that's why I try to live as simple as I can because you never know when it will change.

  20. once I read something about Emotional Intelligence, and now I agree with the author in the sense that human beings have the capacity of managing emotions and redirectinng our reactions before certain situations in a way that we get positive outcomes even from our problems

  21. Hi. I have a rare neuromuscular disorder called Friedreich's Ataxia, which is similar to MS in both its symptoms and its progressive nature. Studying and practising Zen Buddhism has done a great dealing in helping me to cope. It would, I am convinced, help anyone who suffers with something (this being all humans, whose sufferings are different from but not lesser than my own). Do you know of any Zen-related resources that are designed specifically for disabled people? Zen retreats in which I could participate?

  22. Miguelita-so sorry to hear about your diagnosis. I wholeheartedly concur with your observation that all of mankind could benefit from a healthy dose of Zen Buddhism.

    Unfortunately, I don't know of any Zen related resources designed specifically for the disabled. It seems like it would be a fascinating subject for exploration, though…

  23. Thanks for this Marc. I had a crappy MS day and this wise thoughtful post inspired me to go back and read my books on mindfulness.

  24. Very interesting topic and thanks for great posting.