Not Just Physically Do I Begin to Shatter

Vince Cousino Anila rides his bike, trying to escape the shadow of the abusive father he won’t become.

I should be better at this by now. I set out this morning riding alone against last night’s frost, and the memories I’d wasted most of the last two decades trying to leave behind. If I keep moving, I stay just warm enough to avoid shivering. Every time I stop, though, I start to freeze almost instantly.

It’s 2007, and I’m cycling the first “century” of my life. Although it’s a charity ride with lots of other people, somewhere, the only company I enjoy for most of what, by the time it’s over, is 103 miles is the hope that something inside me will have been given permission to hurt enough to snap finally. And my hope is that if I can accept how it feels when it does, I may finally start to be free of it.

I should be better at this by now, I think. I’m a Zen teacher, for fuck’s sake.

I should be better at this by now, I think. I’m a Zen teacher, for fuck’s sake. But after 12 years of Zen practice—some of it fairly diligent, some half-assed, but most of it shot through with the totality of a desperation I’d been feeling for so long that I no longer knew if I had merely once imagined that there had ever been some boundary between whatever I might be, and it—after a dozen years, it’s become clear to me, finally, that I’ll never be able to meditate my way around the things for which I started sitting Zen in the first place. Turns out, just the opposite. All I can see anymore, when I sit in meditation, is the need to face these parts of myself, of my history, directly, utterly, without narrative. And I couldn’t begin to describe how angry this has made me.

Periodically, as I’m riding, I gaze down at the picture of my three-year-old daughter taped to my handlebars.  I need this all to work for her, somehow. I haven’t hit her since the first time, when I slapped her hand as she reached for the hot water running from the bathroom faucet after I had warned her against it. The way she looked at me, confused about this new thing between us, like she would now have to read me closer, to begin deciding in any given moment how she herself was to meet the world based on little more than something in my voice that day or the way I might’ve shut the car door just then.

♦◊♦

I hadn’t owned a bike in years when I bought this one the year before.  I went with a “hybrid,” as vague as my reasons for wanting to ride it in the first place. I started riding it in Detroit, where we lived. In the mornings, I’d have downtown all to myself. I often found riding very similar to Zen meditation: yeah yeah, it could clear the head and all that; but like the meditation cushion the bike would accept any anger or aggression I threw at it. And on the bike, I could suffer as much, could empty as much of myself into it, as I needed to on any given day. A hard ride is a kind of burial. And a century sounded fucking hard. As soon as I heard there were such things out there, I started training for one.

When winter came, I “rode” indoors on a special flywheel I bought that made the bike stationary. And as the months passed, I learned as I hammered away on that thing to invite the old memories to come and be seared by the pain in my legs, by the fact that my heart and lungs felt like they might actually be collapsing in on themselves. The day my father threw me in that cold, green pool with all my clothes on because . . . I still have no idea why. I was about nine, and I had a sense that maybe it was wrong, if only because random. I must have deserved it somehow, though; how else to explain it? Or the time we were playing, and he chased me, and I thought he was gonna tickle me out in that field, and wow he caught me quick this time, he never catches me, ow that hurt, wha . . ., shit, stop it, why are you and now I’m crying “I’m sorry dad I’m sorry” on my legs back arms. I sat there, hugging my knees, watching him recede far off into his garage to do whatever he did in there that made him keep the door locked. . . .

Another time when I was ten he chased and caught me when my cousins were around, some aunts and uncles on my mom’s side. I was afraid to face everyone afterward, ashamed that I had done something bad enough for that to happen. I remember it seemed so odd that everyone seemed so sympathetic toward me; so odd that maybe I didn’t actually deserve whatever beating I had just received.

How normal it was for all of us to hold our breaths when he came home from work, waiting for whichever version of him walked through the door that day. The door wouldn’t be half open and already I’d know how to behave. If he was in a bad mood, I’d be quiet, retreat to somewhere. Good mood and I’d start telling jokes, try to maintain the whole thing, always convinced I could if I were funny enough. Always convinced I could if I were good enough. And I was never quite good enough. In any way.

I’m feeling pretty good on the bike until about mile 50 when I begin to crack. My goal was to finish the whole thing in under six hours, and with the cold and wind I’m well off the pace. My legs start cramping up, my back is seizing, and I find myself changing hand positions on the handlebars every ten seconds. All I start thinking about is surviving until the next aid station.  I’m alone and empty, and every time I notice my daughter’s picture on the handlebars, I find something inside me silently apologizing for failing her. It’s not just physically that I begin to shatter.

♦◊♦

I ride this way for what feels like decades. Begin to retreat back into that little boy who knows his place. Who tries only so much, and even then when no one is watching. It’s not that bad. It’s who I am. There’s even some old Zen teaching to justify it, let’s see, yes, “let go of winning and losing.”  I don’t really care. It doesn’t matter. It’s not that bad.

In the middle of nowhere, there’s an aid station around mile 70 at a little firehouse. I stop to stretch out my legs—which is almost worse than staying on the bike. I grab a banana; go take a piss. And just before I leave, I notice, as I’m filling my second water bottle, the excuses. I notice the excuses for why I’m not going to accomplish what I came here today to accomplish, and I notice that I’ve been rehearsing them for half the day. It was too cold. Too windy. I didn’t hydrate properly. Next time.

And I’d been rehearsing them my whole life. Just like him.

When I hopped back on the bike, I had 30 miles to bury myself if I was going to finish in under six hours. Physically, the next hour-and-a-half was in some ways the hardest of my entire life. The pain moved up from my legs and back into my neck, my arms, down into my numb hands. Physically, I was an utter mess. And I honestly could not have been happier. I realized that I knew how to suffer. And I knew for the first time in my life, unequivocally, that I had my own fucking agency.

When I crossed a hundred miles, there were no cameras, no crowds. There were no other riders in sight. I downshifted and exhaled. Sat up off the bars and stretched my neck, my shoulders. And then, reaching down to grab a water bottle, I saw my daughter looking up at me. I still don’t know which one of us winked first.

 

photo: s-t-r-a-n-g-e / flickr

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About Vince Cousino Anila

Vince Cousino Anila is a writer and the Guiding Teacher of Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple in Detroit, Michigan. The only thing he likes more than cycling these days is cycling with his daughter, who'll be shedding her training wheels any day now.

Comments

  1. Tom Matlack says:

    Vince this is one of the most beautiful pieces we have had on GMP, and we have had many truly amazing pieces of writing. I was with you on the whole journey. I too am a bike rider these days, after a lifetime of self-inflicted athletic pain and tons of zen meditation. My inspiration is always my kids–17, 15 and 6 now. And I too have those deeply shrouded demons that I somehow am driven to exterminate with the pain of extreme athleticism.

    I thank you for sharing this story with our readers.

  2. Vince, this is so real, so open and honest, I couldn’t just read and continue on, without expressing appreciation. Brings up many different feelings for me – memories not unlike your childhood experiences, and what I _think_ has helped/is helping me heal. Healing from both my own experiences, and the pain I’ve caused my own children. I’m grateful that I’ve progressed, as for my part in ‘intergenerational’ healing. I feel that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and His atonement, have really been very central to my healing. Me learning to let go of my pain, to forgive; to create my experiences today, clear from my beliefs, judgements of others and the past. I know that my experiences are not yours, and that I don’t know what works for everyone. I just hope to hold out hope that in some way might help another, brother. Thanks for who you are.

    • Vince Cousino Anila says:

      Thank you, Bryan and Tom. Tom, it’s an honor for me to be any part of GMP, and I was happy this week when my good friend Yago Colas asked me to write something on the topic of “Pain”, in part because the honesty and vulnerability Yago shows in his own work has been a quiet but rock-solid inspiration to me for many years now. He’s probably unaware of just how much his own fearlessness has meant to me.

      It’s a little difficult for me seeing the tagline, “trying to escape the shadow of the abusive father he won’t become.” Some of this is simply aesthetic; getting used to something there between the title and body that wasn’t there before. But even more basic is seeing “abusive father” in such large font, I think. For one thing — and this is common in my shoes — I’ve spent my whole life trying to protect him; to avoid naming what in the end I have to keep reminding myself is the truth. However, this silence, I think, and the shame of it, is as damaging, finally, as anything that happened, and I’m still learning by degrees to properly inhabit the full complexity of my experience.

      The other resistance I have is that “abusive father” isn’t the whole story, of course. That’s not all he was, or is. He taught me how to ride a bike, for starters. I deeply love him, and/but I’m still, maybe forever, learning that love is itself a kind of shadow when it tries to ignore the full range of our often catastrophically messy human relationships.

  3. Todd Mauldin says:

    Thanks for this Vince. Not only was it a great, honest, engaging article (like many others who’ve read it, I certainly saw myself in it)… but “I should be better at this by now, I think. I’m a Zen teacher, for fuck’s sake.” is probably the best two-sentence coupling I’ve ever read. Peace to you, sir, and thanks again.

    • Vince Cousino Anila says:

      Thanks, Todd! I’m happy those two lines stuck for you, and that GMP chose to highlight them here, actually.

      When I was ordained a Zen teacher in 2003, I went through this phase of feeling like I now had to be some version of perfect. This is common enough among conscientious new teachers that I think it may be universal. I say “conscientious” because there’s always that random guy somewhere who’s secretly pursuing his own little fiefdom. But for the majority, there’s this sense of wanting to uphold what by the time we’re ordained is something that we feel is valuable, transformative, precious even.

      But as I paid closer attention, I began to notice that what made my own teacher, P’arang Geri Larkin, so wonderful, is how her very difficulties and mistakes became the vehicle for the way she helped the rest of us along this path. She wasn’t hiding behind her robes, her status, any of it. And so instead of some unattainable ideal — which has only ever existed in our imaginations anyway — sitting up at the front of the room spouting timeless, pithy little Zen-isms, we had as our example another human being in the same trenches we all were in. It’s just that she was pretty damn fearless about it.

      The feeling that “I should be better at this by now” comes and goes for any Zen practitioner, I think, and sometimes most emphatically to “teachers.” I have seen — and it’s been my own experience — that if we try wishing it away on the one hand, or adopting it wholeheartedly on the other, what we’re left with is a kind of rigid spiritual theater — incense, bells, and maybe not much else.

      As much as we’d often like it to be, spiritual practice isn’t for circumventing our humanity (which is never really possible anyway). As Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield has written: “There is no enlightened retirement.” The Buddha himself kept at it his whole life.

  4. Incredible. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. You killed it, brother.

  6. Brother Koho, Thanks for sharing with honesty and integrity your struggles and insights with practice and healing. It reminds me that we all have wounds and fears that need compassionate attention. I am grateful for Dharma brothers such as yourself to ride with on the healing path.

  7. This is so beautifully written and it resonates. Thank you for sharing it.

  8. an incredible piece…inspiring, engaging, wonderful!

  9. Vince,

    I loved this. It’s beautiful and so sincere and yet uncompromising. You really brought to life a sense of complicated damage that, I think, many feel but don’t know how to express. I wish we could go back in time and rescue people.

  10. Wow, to be so vulnerable takes guts. Thank you.

  11. Vince, awesome post. You have clearly expressed the feeling and experience so many of us who have abuse in our past go through. I really appreciate how you are self aware enough to process what you have gone through in hopes of breaking the cycle (ironically by cycling). Feel the feelings and face the past; that is the mark of one on the path to healing. May you and your daughter have the most awesome daddy/daughter life together.

  12. Great piece. I appreciate your candour and courage. All the best of luck in confronting your demons.

  13. Monica Mickey says:

    The world seeps into us. These positive and not so positive experiences. These moments keep coming back to us, and we struggle. You write of this struggle so well.

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