Ass on Fire: My Journey in Mindfulness & Basketball
July 6, 2015 / By Jason at Parallax
Pain brought me to mindfulness, not any desire to reach nirvana or pop out of any chrysalis. It was in “unlearning” certain habits and thought patterns hard-wired in my brain and walking through my pain, rather than avoiding it, that ultimately put me on a joyful journey of self-discovery.
I grew up Dorchester, Boston, in the fifties and sixties. Here’s how Urban Dictionary defines the place:
A ghetto in Boston where hood rats and thugs kill each other over basketball courts, street corners, and anything else they feel like. Most people know to steer clear of this area and let the ghetto rats cull themselves out of existence.
Here’s another definition of my hometown you’ll read on that site: “When walking down Blue Hill, bring a Kevlar helmet and vest.”
I did not live far from Blue Hill Avenue. You get the picture.
I was number ten in a family of thirteen children. I had seven older sisters, which means that I had eight mothers. These eight mothers took care of me when I got hurt, which was often, since I came into this world accident prone: I was always hitting my head on oven doors, getting stepped on, and knocked around. If lightning were going to strike, it would strike me. I’ve come to realize that stress itself can create a vulnerability to being injury prone; no doubt I grew up internalizing the stress of my family. That’s how the mind/body connection works.
Of course, no one knew that back then. We just tried to get by—barely—living from paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes the electricity got turned off because we couldn’t pay the bill. Other times we had no heat because we couldn’t afford heating oil. There were even times when we couldn’t go to school because there wasn’t enough money for bread or school lunches.
My parents did the best they could, all things considered. My mother was an elevator operator in a hotel and she cleaned houses. My father was a laborer on the New Haven Railroad by day and a barber by night. They both came from a line of Alabama sharecroppers who worked all year under the crack of a whip for twenty bucks. Alcoholism was one way they dealt with their pain, and my father carried on that lineage. He was raged on at the railroad, and he raged on us when he came home. No one was spared, not even the family dog.
Basically, you did not mess with my father or engage in acts of self-expression unless you wanted serious trouble. I will never forget the day my sister was getting married and I asked him to give me a quo vadis haircut. He was so outraged by what he thought was a radical request that he shaved me completely bald. I attended that wedding in a veil of humiliation and anger.
I learned early to keep my mouth shut. It has taken me decades to unlearn it.
When my dad wasn’t railing on me for no good reason, the cops were doing so. I recall getting pulled over by the police while riding in the back seat of a friend’s car. When I asked, “What’s the violation, officer?” the police officer responded with: “Who the fuck are you—Perry Mason?” Then he pulled me out of the back seat and began punching me unmercifully. He beat me down again and again, as if I was a punching bag.
Being African American I had two choices: speak up and get beat up (and often go to jail) or be quiet. Be very quiet. I chose the latter option, which became woven into my emotional blueprint: I did not speak up to my father, to cops, or even to coaches. I learned to shut up and be, and I carried that oppression around like an albatross. Whatever emotional pain I experienced, I unconsciously buried in my body. No wonder pain became my constant companion.
Looking back now, maybe my dad thought that by literally trying to knock the spirit out of me, he was protecting me from the perils of free thinking. This was the United States of America in the midst of the sixties counterculture, after all. As fate would have it, Martin Luther King, Jr., used to preach in a church down the street from our house. His freedom marches and the civil rights movement were part of the social fabric of my youth. There was also the birth of rock and roll, the sexual revolution, feminism, peace protests, Vietnam, and the so-called dawning of the Age of Aquarius that lit the stage for the human potential movement. The Esalen Institute in California, and later the Omega Institute in New York, both still thriving today, were beacons of this movement, bookending the country as spiritual centers dedicated to personal transformation, well-being, and consciousness raising.
Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined that decades later I’d be teaching at the Omega Institute myself. In those days, nobody in Dorchester focused on consciousness-raising. That word wasn’t even in our vocabulary. We focused on survival. As the sixties unfolded in a whirlwind of experimentation and turmoil, I found my nirvana in basketball, music, and drugs.
Open Your Funky Mind
I had always played sports in the streets—dodge ball, stickball, baseball, football, and tag. Like millions of inner city youth, I had NBA dreams from a young age. Sport was a salvation and a way out of the ghetto. I loved the Celtics, the Red Sox, the Lakers, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor, among many others. They fed my dreams when, at four feet eleven inches tall, I went to middle school, dribbling with confidence and working on different shooting styles until I perfected a two-handed push shot. I suddenly shot up to five feet eleven inches in high school and my feet became a vortex of growing pains.
My injury proneness was just about to escalate to new heights.
No one told me when I was growing up that I could alter my consciousness by going within. Even at church, no one helped me stay in touch with the spark of divinity once I left the pew. I had no real spiritual foundation, though I longed for spirit.
I used to play with ten-pound weights on each ankle until I went up high to take a shot during one game and landed awkwardly, spraining both of them. From then on I played with both of my ankles taped up. My knees were stiff and ached constantly. In the spring of my junior year, something popped in my knee. Undaunted, I kept playing until my muscle atrophied, my leg was too weak to run or jump on, and I tore a patellar tendon in my left knee.
I was injured so often in my youth that I was in crutches every year throughout high school, and I had such intense back pain that I had to sleep on a bed board. I kept my NBA dreams going, however, until their death knell came when my coach sent me to an orthopedic specialist and I got him in trouble when that specialist billed the high school for his services. My coach never put me in games again for fear I’d get hurt; instead, he urged me to become a coach. I agreed, hoping it would provide a path to college and a way out. It did. I ended up going to the University of Massachusetts on an academic scholarship, with pain as my mascot. But by then, I’d picked up a few vices along the way.
No one told me when I was growing up that I could alter my consciousness by going within. Even at church, no one helped me stay in touch with the spark of divinity once I left the pew. I had no real spiritual foundation, though I longed for spirit. I found it first in John Barleycorn—I was only five years old when my uncle turned me onto boozing with my first taste of beer. I liked that enough to move on to more sophisticated spirits, like my father’s Seagram’s 7 whisky that I enjoyed in private. At an early age, I found God in getting high and leaving my body, floating into space, and taking off—anything that would get me away from the experience of physical and emotional pain was welcome.
I floated further into space in my teens when a group of kids I’d met at a YMCA turned me on to heroin. We called it “skag” because it was inferior to white boys’ heroin. We’d sniff it off the end of nail files and go on about our business. On heroin my pain lifted and my spirits soared even higher. I could suddenly speak out and be gregarious without fear. Jimi Hendrix had hit the charts in those days, and I could relate to having “purple haze all in my brain.” Music, in fact, was another form of bliss that got me high, transporting me far away to some Shangri-La of the mind. I recall listening to groups like the Funkadelic, whose psychedelic lyrics to “Free Your Mind, Your Ass Will Follow” spoke to a generation of spirit-seeking junkies: “Open up your funky mind and you can fly/Free your mind and your ass will follow/ The kingdom of heaven is within.”
I had yet to find that kingdom of heaven within, but I’d certainly found my little helper.
There were a lot of ironies around my drug use back then, and one of them was this: During a hospital visit for chronic back pain, I was given Darvon, a powerful pain-killing narcotic. That one little pill packed with white crystalline powder not only relieved my pain, it got me an even more agreeable high than skag. Under the influence of Darvon, the kingdom of heaven felt very near. I was even more gregarious and freer to speak out. It had taken a formal check-in with the medical establishment to tip the scales, but there I was: I had become a bonafide substance abuser.
I had no idea that in taking this path, I was robbing myself of the stress hardiness people develop naturally in life. And my descent into drug use didn’t follow the traditional trajectory from smoking cigarettes, to smoking pot, and progressing onward. I avoided pot because I’d been told that it stunted your physical growth. I wanted every possibility to grow tall. So instead I went straight to heroin and stunted my emotional growth. Call that junkie wisdom.
Adapted From The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance, by George Mumford.
Used with permission.