"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison

Shoulder Surgery: A Path to Liberation

Shoulder Surgery: A Path to Liberation

I recently underwent shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff.  While the surgery was routine, the recovery was not. My doctor warned me that I must be prepared to suspend my life as I know it for at least six months. Little did I know how profoundly transformative this period would be. 

With my left arm bound to my torso by a huge sling (my albatross), certain activities were deemed permissible. I could visit friends, listen to music, and garden with one hand, which turned out to be a bad joke. I was free to read Tolstoy, Montaigne and all those other 1,000-page doorstoppers I’ve been setting aside for years, as long as I didn’t try to lift them or hurl them at intruder mice. But, some of my favorite pastimes—playing my cello, tennis, and yoga, to name a few—were in the no-fly zone. 

However, halfway through my six-month sentence, I discovered that the nature of my recovery from shoulder surgery was oddly reminiscent of a three-thousand-year-old Indian ritual. Here, a person underwent a series of ordeals that resulted in his spiritual awakening or rebirth. To my utter surprise, my post-surgical fate bore some striking similarities. 

One night, tired of reading War and Peace, I began looking through a box of research papers I’d written decades ago for my graduate degree in Sanskrit. They brought back memories of endless years struggling to decipher musty old texts deep in the bowels of Harvard’s Widener Library. As I rifled through the papers, one caught my eye: The Diksha Consecration: Entrance to a Godly World.

The Diksha consecration is a rite of passage performed for patrons of the Soma-sacrifice, an important Vedic ritual. The person being consecrated (the dikshita) is “reborn” and takes a metaphorical passage to the realm of the gods. He—sorry, ladies, we’ve landed on firm patriarchal turf—must endure various challenges that to a Western sensibility may seem bizarre. For instance, he is dressed in a linen garment representing a caul, which is covered with an antelope skin, symbolizing the placenta. He scratches himself with an antelope horn, lest he injure his tender embryonic skin (go figure). Bodily hair is shaven, and his nails are cut. He is scrubbed down and anointed, wears a girdle, and sits with clenched fists near a fire in a hut whose beams run in the direction of the gods. In this purified state, he is positioned near scorching fire from midday to dusk accumulating inner psychic heat (tapas). He must remain alert, lest his psychic energy be dissipated. The heat “burns” him in an act symbolic of death. In short, he is turned into an embryo, ready for rebirth. Later, he must creep across an antelope skin on a metaphorical journey to the abode of the gods.

Reading the paper, I was struck by how similar some of these activities seemed to my current predicament. Before surgery, I had to fast; in the hospital, I was scrubbed down and the hair on my arm was shaved; and at home, my arm was bound by a $114 DonJoy UltraSling III with thermoformed padding (I kid you not)—a kind of hi-tech girdle, although it felt more like I was carrying an AK-47 day and night. 

In the Indian ritual, the person being consecrated is made to do everything in reverse from what he would do normally. He uses the opposite hand to eat, his nails are cut starting from his right hand (when one would normally start from the left), and his hair is combed on the opposite side from daily practice. 

Like a dikshita, I was forced to use the “wrong” hand to eat; I put my left arm through my shirtsleeve before the right, the opposite of my daily routine; and I had to sleep on my less comfortable side. While I didn’t take to scratching myself with an antelope horn, I had to find creative ways to reach itchy bodily parts no longer accessible with my “good” hand. My wife tied my shoes. And while there was no sitting by a fire to generate internal psychic heat, I numbed my shoulder three times a day with a $150 “cold-rush therapy system” from Amazon. In effect, my world felt oddly like that of the dikshita—upside down and inside out. It was a heck of a sacrifice just to be able to whack a tennis ball again.  

Or was it?

Oddly, I began to sense an unexpected upside. In ancient India, the “reverse” actions of the Vedic rite described above prepped the dikshita for spiritual rebirth. As for me, I never believed I was headed for any godly sphere. Nevertheless, performing even the simplest activities differently and with considerable difficulty had the effect of turning off my automatic pilot switch, with curious results.

Despite moments of frustration, I found myself being more mindful—recall the dikshita’s need to be alert so as not to dissipate his inner psychic energy—and appreciative of all the small things that make up one’s daily routine. I became hyper-focused on the present moment. When I was eating, I was eating; when I was making coffee, I was making coffee; when I walked down a slippery slope, I walked down a slippery slope. While I was no dikshita, I feel that my surgery brought me closer to a mental state that was both joyful and liberating—a rebirth, of sorts. That said, I’m still in physical therapy, counting the days until I can whack the hell out of that tennis ball again. But, with any luck, more mindfully.

Kenneth Langer recently completed his debut novel, The Bird’s Nest. His previous lives include Sanskrit scholar (Harvard), university vice president (Brandeis), and founding president of EMSI, an international green building consulting company. Ken's fiction, essays, and articles have appeared in the Taj Mahal Review, The Satirist, The Woven Tale Press, the Vineyard Gazette, and various academic journals. Website: www.kennethlanger.com/kens-blog.

Photo by Piron Guillaume on Unsplash

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