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Footprints and Shadows: The Tao of MS

multiple sclerosis

Getting MS was never on anybody’s agenda. None of us ever planned on getting sick, and the shock of the diagnosis is an uppercut to the jaw, a stunning blow that knocks some people off balance forever.

During the never-ending process of learning how to spiritually and psychologically deal with my progressing disability, I’ve found great solace in the Eastern philosophies of Zen Buddhism and Taoism. These philosophies emphasize that we each create our own reality through our perceptions and emotional responses to all that happens around and to us.

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Since our emotions are born of us, and not we of them (as popular culture would have us believe), we have the power to create our own happiness, despite whatever circumstances life throws at us, by exercising control over those emotions. Nothing that happens to us is inherently “good” or “bad.” It’s our perceptions and reactions to the goings-on of existence that define them as such.

Happiness is a conscious choice that must come from within, and those who rely on outside sources as their fount of happiness are doomed to a life of perpetual discontent.

This isn’t an easy concept to grasp, let alone put into practice — especially when you find yourself experiencing “creeping paralysis” (an actual early medical term for MS).

But the only way to avoid utter despondency and hopelessness in the face of such a predicament is to mindfully and willfully refuse to define whatever obstacles life challenges you with as miserable. Happiness is a conscious choice that must come from within, and those who rely on outside sources as their fount of happiness are doomed to a life of perpetual discontent.

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Messages of discontent

In fact, we live in a society that’s evolved to deliberately breed dissatisfaction. Discontent fuels our economy; we’re constantly bombarded by messages telling us that our problems can be solved through consumerism, that they stem from the fact that our teeth aren’t white enough, our possessions — no matter how plentiful — are somehow lacking, and that popularity and sex appeal can only be attained by drinking the right beer or using the latest breakthrough in armpit deodorants.

The true meaning of success is a BMW, sexual fulfillment awaits those who don the right pair of Levi’s, and self-worth can be found in a really cool pair of Nike’s. Happiness is equated with physical beauty, and the modern mythology of movies and television indoctrinates us with the belief that others can “complete” us and bring fulfillment that in reality can only come from within.

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This search for identity in romantic attachment has led to a divorce rate of over 50 percent, and instead of bringing everlasting happiness, it breeds a perpetual state of dissatisfaction we often feel for both our mates and ourselves.

It’s incredibly easy to be seduced by these messages when you’re healthy and striving to attain some preordained definition of success, even if you consider yourself enlightened and aware of the efforts being made to seduce you.

Before I was forced to the sidelines by MS, I made my money by playing a part in manufacturing these illusions, and still I was susceptible to them.

How my MS lifted the veil

Once chronic illness hits, though, it’s as if a veil of delusion is ripped away, and blindness abruptly gives way to vision. Suddenly, the absurdities of these notions of consumerist contentment come into crystal view. My physical condition won’t allow me to drive a BMW — or any automobile, for that matter (and I was a guy who loved driving, zoom, zoom!).

Fumbling with the button-down fly of the hippest pair of ridiculously expensive jeans would soon find me peeing in my pants, and unless those Nike’s can somehow make my legs work again, they just aren’t going to do me any good.

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Still, such messages are beguiling siren songs that no longer entice me to buy, but now serve to call attention to the many losses I’ve suffered.

When healthy, although I had an intellectual understanding of the basic tenets of Eastern thought, I found them nearly impossible to put into practice. Now that I’m sick, I find it just as impossible to not rely heavily upon them.

Faced with these distractions, it’s easy to lose oneself in the noise. When healthy, although I had an intellectual understanding of the basic tenets of Eastern thought, I found them nearly impossible to put into practice. Now that I’m sick, I find it just as impossible to not rely heavily upon them.

The literal translation of “the Tao” is “the Way,” the inner path one must travel to find true happiness and contentment. This path can’t be defined by outside influences, and is unique to each individual. In fact, the wisdom contained within can’t be conveyed to you by anybody else. In that way the Tao, your Tao, is unknowable to all but you.

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Only by quieting our inner turmoil, and turning down the cacophony of conflicting thoughts, emotions, and desires, can we come to an understanding of our own personal path to fulfillment. We carry within us all that we need to be happy despite the chaos ricocheting around us. If we can only learn to listen to these inner whispers, we can undertake the necessary steps to create our own contented reality.

We are taught very early on that taking action, almost any action, should always be the goal, and the heroes in our society are always those whose actions speak the loudest. But the deeper truth is that sometimes more can be accomplished by inaction rather than action, an idea that might seem incongruous at first glance.

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The flow of life can be likened to a raging river. Too many of us spend our lives constantly trying to swim upstream, valiantly but hopelessly fighting the natural flow of our own lives — sometimes to the point of drowning — in a desperate attempt to reach what we have been led to believe is material and personal “success.”

If time and effort is spent putting aside those frantic efforts, and we quiet down long enough to discern the true direction in which life wants to lead us, the wise come to understand that by simply floating on their backs and relinquishing the struggle, they’ll finally reach their destination. It’s a truer, more fulfilling destination, and thus they’ll avoid the misery, heartache, and inevitable discontent born of the perpetual battle.

MS has erased my footprints and forced me to sit at rest. This reality is inescapable, no matter how frantic my efforts, and running away is quite literally no longer an option.

Many Taoist lessons are taught through parable, and my favorite of these was first related by the ancient Tao master, Chuang-tzu:

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“There was a man who disliked seeing his footprints and his shadow. He decided to escape from them, and began to run. But as he ran along, more footprints appeared, while his shadow easily kept up with him. Thinking he must be going too slowly, he ran faster and faster without stopping, until he finally collapsed from exhaustion and died.

What a fool.

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If he had stood still, there would have been no footprints. If he had rested in the shade, his shadow would have disappeared.”

I’ve been aware of this parable for at least two decades, and was always struck by the simplicity and profundity of its wisdom. Now, afflicted with MS, its message has taken on immense new dimensions.

My footprints are now tire tracks, and when I see my shadow, I’m somehow still always shocked to see that the silhouette I make is no longer that of the strapping 6-footer I once was, but instead is that of a man in a wheelchair. MS has erased my footprints, and forced me to sit at rest. This reality is inescapable, no matter how frantic my efforts, and running away is quite literally no longer an option.

The way, then, is to find the contentment within that eclipses physical disability, and to make the infinite number of choices each and every day that allow for that contentment.

I’ll never be happy about having MS, but I can be happy in spite of it. My efforts to combat the disease will never cease, but in the tradition of the ancient warrior, my efforts to battle the illness are best born from tranquility and quiet determination, and not from the turmoil of desperation.

In the end, when pondering the imponderable, we simply must learn to let it be.

Let it be.

This article originally appeared on Wheelchair Kamikaze.

Marc Stecker is the author of Wheelchair Kamikaze, and has been living with multiple sclerosis since 2003.

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