Dathun on Wheels
A Look Back at Shambhala Mountain Center in a Wheelchair
by Robert French, Washington DC
I was injured in a car accident on November 12th, 1988 that left me paralyzed from the chest down. One therapist helped me manage pain by concentrating on my in and out breath, but I did not start meditating seriously until I went to the Washington DC Shambhala Center in 2005. Because of my injury, I do not have the necessary abdomen muscles to keep me in an upright position on a zabuton, but meditation instructors are trained to guide you through the technique of shamatha while sitting in a chair rather than a cushion.
A scholarship gave me the opportunity to attend a dathun in August of 2010. But it was important that Shambhala Mountain Center (SMC) could accommodate me with accessible lodging as well as transportation to and from housing to the meditation tent. After several phone conversations with staff, I was confident in my ability to attend and our director Jayne Sutton secured my spot. I made the necessary flight arrangements.Upon arrival at Denver International Airport, I gathered with other participants at the assigned terminal and waited for the shuttle bus to take us to SMC. The bus did not have a wheelchair lift, so I relied on able-bodied participants to lift me out of my chair, up into the cabin, and onto the first row of seats directly behind the driver. I could tell by the heavy breathing that it was not easy, so I grabbed the rail to steady myself a bit as they turned my body around and into the seat. I was then told that the driver secured my wheelchair beneath the cabin with the luggage.
We arrived at SMC just after a rain shower produced a rainbow in the eastern sky. We all gasped at nature’s magic and when everybody rushed off the bus to take pictures, I was left alone on the bus ruminating on what seemed to be an auspicious sign to begin the dathun. I was finally lifted out of the bus (much easier going down with the help of gravity), into the staff truck and over to the commissary for dinner and then orientation in the tent.Exposure to the Rocky Mountains and its “rough” terrain happened that first day of arrival to SMC. I fortuitously met my meditation instructor during dinner and he offered his car for transportation to and from my living quarters to the program area, Red Feather. But for the orientation meeting we decided he would push me up the hill on the footpath instead of driving me. They do design wheelchairs for off-road travel, but I do not have one, nor do I need one in the Nation’s capital. The front wheels on my wheelchair are very small – called “casters” – and dig into the dirt and rocks unless you tilt the wheelchair back. This was a challenge since we were going up hill and a part of the path was very rocky. We had to rest a couple of times before we got to the top of the hill and onto the more flat surface of the road. From now on the car was the way to go!
My meditation instructor’s car worked fine but it required that my wheelchair be taken apart. (The wheels come off and the back folds down allowing the frame to either fit in the trunk or the back seat of the car.) At the time of my retreat, I owned a specially equipped car and I would disassemble my wheelchair and load it into my car independently. Because the car at SMC was not equipped with a hand control, I depended on someone to load the wheelchair and drive. To make it easier to load and unload the wheelchair without dismantling it, a participant offered his Subaru Forester hatchback. It was difficult to depend on someone else for transportation since I was used to the freedom of driving, but connecting with others was an important part of my growth not only as a Shambhala buddhist but as a human being as well.
I stayed at the Shotoku Children’s Center, a large lodge with multipurpose rooms, accessible bathroom, kitchen, office and a second story living space. The bathroom had a shower with an attachable bench so I could transfer onto it and clean myself independently. The beds – twelve-inch foam mattresses on a makeshift wooden frame – presented a problem. Because of my paralysis, I cannot shift my body weight easily and need a thicker mattress with more support to prevent pressure sores. I asked about the beds beforehand and brought a twin-size memory foam mattress like the one I sleep on at home. This allowed me the comfort and the sleep I needed to participate in the meditations sessions and other activities during the month.
For the most part I transfer in and out of my wheelchair without assistance, but there are times when I misjudge and I plop to the floor. This happened one morning when I had to get up and use the restroom, but as I lifted myself into my bed, I missed and hit the floor. My two roommates woke up suddenly and rushed over to help me back into my chair. As independent as I like to be, I was glad I was not alone, for the alternative would have been either to yell for help or push my body along the floor to the phone in the office. Lugging my body around on the floor is not only exhausting but dangerous since I could bruise my skin and cause a pressure sore.Because of my injury, I cannot empty my bladder naturally but must insert a plastic tube called a catheter into my urethra to drain the urine. I have what is called a “self-contained” catheterization kit: it limits bacteria from getting into your bladder and causing a urinary tract infection. It also has a plastic bag where the urine goes and can be thrown away at a later time without the need of a toilet. I had thought about going over to a corner in the tent but it seemed disrespectful in front of the shrine. I decided on a spot around the side of the tent next to the road with enough privacy except for the occasional passing of a deer or chipmunk. I remember this routine quite a bit the first two weeks, but less so towards the end of the dathun as I got to know the others better and we seemed to take more breaks as the newness of the retreat wore off and cravings of modern distractions grew stronger. One of the teachings in Buddhism is not only to be kind and compassionate to others, but to be kind to yourself, which is harder to do. Sitting upright in my chair for long periods of time can be tiring and sometimes painful. Because my injury was at about chest level, I do not have the lower body muscles to support myself while sitting. I must use my shoulder and arms to support me or I will fall forward. The manual chair that I used while at SMC does not have a reclining back feature to help take the pressure off my shoulders and arms, for in order to push the wheelchair, the back needs to be in an upright position.
My roommate approached me during rota break and noticed I was a bit uncomfortable at times. He brought a canvas fold up lawn chair and thought I might be more comfortable sitting in it. He was right! The back on the chair reclined so I did not have to support my torso with my shoulders and arms. In exchange for more comfort I would need help getting in and out of the chair, but it was worth it! It was a lesson in letting go, compassion, and interdependence that I will always treasure.
Robert Warren French is an art history professor and practicing Shambhalian since 2005, living in Washington DC.