- Meditation, Disability, and Identity
Since we are all Crips in one way or another, it is well worth learning the truth of what must befall us some day, even if it hasn't already started (it has).Lorenzo Milam, CripZen: A Manual for Survival
After all, when all identities are finally included, there will be no identity.Lennard Davis, Bending Over Backwards
[C]lassifications should be recognized as the significant site of political and ethical work that they are. They should be reclassified. . . . There is no simple unraveling of the built information landscape, or, pace Zen practice, of unsettling our habits at every waking moment.Bowker and Star, Sorting Things Out
I have practiced Zen meditation for a number of years now. Maybe that is why, when I noticed that a number of disabled people have taken up meditation and written narratives about it, I became interested in what meditation has to teach us about disability (and vice-versa). Seated meditation, or zazen, involves learning to "think not-thinking," according to Zen Master Dogen.1 Zazen consists of the moment-to-moment encounter with what is: the thoughts that flow through the mind; the feelings that pass through the body; and the occurrences in one's surroundings as they come into being, and fade away.
An examination of three narratives written by disabled meditators reveals how Zen meditation might illuminate the relationship between disability and identity, as well as what Buddhism might learn from the experience of disability. Lorenzo Milam writes CripZen: A Manual for Survival from the perspective of a postpolio paraplegic.2 Joan Tollifson, [End Page 23] whose right hand was severed in utero by a strand of amniotic tissue, traces her journey from alienated marginality through disability activism to committed meditation practitioner in her Bare-Bones Meditation.3 Finally, in The Zen Path through Depression, Philip Martin investigates the value of meditation to a social worker and psychotherapist suffering from major depression, a disability generally situated on the other side of the mind/body divide from the experiences of Milam and Tollifson.4 In these three narratives, Zen insight is modified by disability insight, so that meditation acts as a survival aid for the disabled person at the same time as the experience of disability modifies the notion of meditation, introducing itself as a new form of Zen practice. But what of narratives written not by disabled meditators, but by those who treat the disabled? If we examine two recent studies by medical and psychological professionals who use meditation as a mode of treatment, we can see that the two-way traffic between meditation and disability is given another twist in clinical texts written from the point of view of the practitioner.5 As I will explore, the result is a paradoxical identity position with challenging implications for disability studies.
Milam, Tollifson, and Martin arguably have very different experiences of body and mind, given their very different disabilities, but through meditation they learn the inadequacy of any simple construction of the disabled identity, whether universalizing or minoritizing.6 To frame a universalizing view of disability would be to say, with Lennard Davis, "People with disability: they are you."7 Such a view extends disability from a narrow category of difference to a broad category with, sooner or later, universal applicability. Viewed this way, the identity category of disability is porous; as it reconceptualizes ability, it decenters the norm. Philosopher Eva Kittay makes strategic use of this position when she argues that disability is characterized by the dependency that all human beings share at least twice in our lives: when we are infants, and when we are very old.8 The minoritizing view retains the concept of "normal" and holds that only the person with a disability has the right to represent the disabled. As James Charlton puts it in his study of disability-rights activists around the world, "This is a militant, revelational claim aptly capsulized in 'Nothing About Us Without Us.'"9 The slogan asserts marginality in order to claim representation as disabled Others, a strategy distinct (in philosophy and in historical use) from the universalizing claim that disability is an inevitable life...