Zen Road
Zen Road
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Tales from the asylum

I’d like to tell you that at the end of the impossible, we are never alone – or rather,
we are so alone that nothing is true… And yet!
You’re crazy, I’m crazy, we’re crazy.
Crazy, but there’s truth in our frenzy, there’s a trace of reality in our lives that has to be tamed!

- poem by an anonymous psychiatric patient


One day during a sesshin, Philippe Coupey glanced at me during the meal and said, “You don’t look very normal…” He was comparing me with Eric, a schizophrenic practitioner who was eating at the next table.


What’s normal?!… And that’s how I started thinking of them: “The Dino,” Charly and the others…


For instance, do you know who “The Dino” is?

[The Dino, a menacing face with thick features and pockmarked skin]

He had been conceived at a psychiatric hospital during World War II, through a wire fence that separated the men from the women in the courtyard. His mother was permanently medicated with the powerful neuroleptics of the time, to tame her agitated psychotic delirium. She carried and brought into the world this deformed and mentally under-developed child who would live with us this way for 60 years.


His first name was Alain. We, the nursing staff of the psychiatric hospital, had nicknamed him “The Dino,” because of his atrophied arms, which he would use like small flapping wings while hesitantly wandering, jumping and falling… His face was as narrow as his thoughts and ideas were absent. He constantly shouted unarticulated, deafening cockatoo-like shrieks. Maybe Alain was expressing anger or pain from being stuck in this human world we hardly considered him a part of…


Taking care of The Dino was for us, the nursing staff, an exhausting daily burden. We were to bathe him, get him dressed, feed him, put him to bed, muzzle him, put him in a straightjacket, and force him into all kinds of normal and decent actions… We were to mold him in spite of his incredible inability to live… How many times did we dream of killing him, suffocating him or abandoning him to one of his frightening epileptic fits? In a word, we felt like putting an end to all of his imposed displays: the weird-as-the-rest-of-his-anatomy penis he would set on the pages of our nursing reports in order to coax us into instantly taking care of him; the shit he would spread in pestilential layers in the corridors; the hepatic slobber he would wipe on the collars of our smocks; his absolutely disgusting manners when eating by fits and starts like a gigantic lizard; his scaly, peeling skin; his violence, calmed with injections… Indeed, Alain was unbearably present every day of the year… He aroused murderous desires in us, hatred, fear, guilt, anger: extreme feelings and emotions hidden in the darkest parts of our souls. He coaxed us into acknowledging them… He was a tyrannosaurus, relentlessly devouring the smallest inclination of tenderness towards him…


One morning, just like that, Alain died. That’s how they told me: “Alain is dead.” There was a blank, a kind of “knockout” in my mind. And, in the middle of this space, I am sure I saw him fly like an angel, with real white wings. Or rather, the wings were pinkish or iridescent orange, delicately crossed by the light. He was flying, surrounded by a sparkle of tiny clear-as-crystal childish laughter… He was now free of clumsiness (his and ours). And above all, he was now in this state, freed of an ego he had never shown. These days, thinking of him is an incredible support to me. On the other side of our visible world, at the exact opposite of his terrible terrestrial definition, he has become a pure spirit of light. Who would believe in following the teaching of a “Dino”?



But what teaching? Couldn’t it be contained in two words: “seize or reject”?

[Tabular contrast between ‘him’ and ‘us’: where’s the separation?]



Doesn’t it remind us of the Buddha’s teaching?


Those who see me through my shape,
or believe they can hear me through the sound of my voice
are mistaken.
These people do not see the Tatagatha.

- Diamond Sutra, Chapter XXVI


Also, isn’t attributing a kind of bad human karma to a Dino a way of avoiding facing our own primary game of “love/rejection”?


And Michel, the childish fear that unleashes brute force?
[The back of an obese man sitting on a bench]

Abused from the day he was born, he was taken away from his family but abused again in his foster home. As a result, he became purely, permanently and exclusively anxious. His psychosis is his escape, his refuge. And so the outer world has become his inner world; his own feelings and those of others tend to meld. For instance: if someone is afraid, the fear becomes his – just like the one he experienced when he felt threatened.


Michel was a patient with an incredibly low IQ housed in a colossal body, a real King Kong. His misunderstanding of situations set off displays of strength that scared the wits out of the nursing staff and left us speechless. He was originally a woodcutter who had set himself apart from society by never leaving the forest. It took thirty cops to bring him in when he was found. They had a tough time capturing him, since he was twirling his axe around as if it were a majorette’s baton. Then the great ape-man landed in our unit. We obeyed most of his immediate wishes because we were too afraid of him, since he had already severely injured two of our colleagues (smashed rib-cage, broken jaw…) – and these colleagues weren’t exactly weaklings themselves. One day, I was very imprudent and stayed alone in our unit. I thought to myself, “I’ll prepare breakfast.” Suddenly, I turned around and saw Michel’s tall figure standing behind me, his fists clenched.


“I don’t know why,” he said to me, “but I feel like smashing your face. So I’ll have to do it!”
“Sweetie,” I answered, “before you do anything, we could have coffee, just the two of us… Look, it’s ready… And you can tell me what you’re feeling.”
“Yeah, ok.”


And here he was, explaining to me:
“When I see somebody who’s scared, it scares me… So, I smash everything. The only thing I’m scared of that I can’t smash are storms!”
“How about me? Do I scare you?”
“Then, you don’t have to smash me!”
“Well, ok. Thanks for the coffee. No one’s ever asked me… It feels weird, and it doesn’t scare me… I’m glad!”


And he left. My colleagues arrived, and I collapsed in tears, shaking uncontrollably. And yet, it had been so simple to talk to him “normally.”



If the eyes do not close,
dreams disappear by themselves.

Shinjinmei, Master Sosan


In an emergency, action comes before action. When the situation changes, our ego creates its fears, sets up the cop car, the straitjacket and the solitary confinement. And when fear is disguised, we invent censures and categories, labels of “bad lives” and abnormalities, which authorize rejection and isolation.


What was “not normal” for Françoise was the powerful hatred she felt for anything that came from others, who she only perceived as rejecting.
[White ceramic toilet and kitchen sink, broken and abandoned on the ground with a hoe and pitchfork]

She has been living in the psychiatric hospital since her adolescence because of her family’s rejection of her severe behavioral troubles. She is now in her fifties. In fact, Françoise was diagnosed with poliomyelitis when she was 18 months old. Since then, both of her legs have remained paralyzed. Her mother judged this handicapped child as unacceptable when compared to the cute little girl (the only one in the family, and much-desired) she should have had. From that moment on, the mother tortured her daughter with rejection. Humiliation became physical violence, and violence turned into murderous intent. Françoise became touchy and wild, capable of attacking children in the playground, biting them and clutching them in her very powerful arms… Her wickedness grew sharper when faced with her difference as reflected by everyone else, who she both desired and hated at the same time.


My relationship with Françoise was one of a kind. She liked me and, as a consequence, wanted to break me! She attacked me dangerously several times, pulling my hair, scratching my face like a tiger. After these moments of crisis, I often asked her why she had done it. She would answer that she could not help it when she liked someone. No doubt she had integrated her mother’s violence as a form of love. That’s how Françoise was!


In spite of the difficulties she caused in any kind of relationship, I decided one day with one of my colleagues to take her to a restaurant – she who is impossible to take out, since, on top of everything else, she is incredibly disgraceful, the very face of hideousness, ugly as sin. I saw that she enjoyed this outing a little bit. She wore a poor, toothless smile, but a smile nonetheless, and she behaved nicely. And then Françoise had to go to the toilet. I went with her, pushing her wheelchair. A very attractive woman held the door open for her and said, “There you are, Madaaaaaaaaam,” in a very condescending way, I must admit. Françoise immediately noticed the snobbish rejection of her difference, coming disdainfully from behind the safety of this woman’s beauty. She answered: “Hey, tart! I didn’t ask for your help, so fuck off!” I was so taken aback I almost let go of the wheelchair out of shame, but I murmured to her, “You’re right. That woman is a real slut!” Françoise had a great laugh and, as tears came to her eyes, she took my hand and kissed it.


This time, she was the one who helped me.


And finally, Charly, who had taken refuge in an imaginary world to escape from his own pain.
[Figurine of a child-like character with clasped hands, pursed lips and white feathery wings]

Charly had been raised in a tangled mess of deviant family relationships: his sister was a little bit of a mother, the mother occasionally behaved as a lover, as did his niece and his incestuous father. From this he developed a horror of physical contact, and had replaced the real world with a heavenly one, illustrated by a devil/angel duality.


In our hospital files, doctors had coldly labeled him as “schizophrenic with mystical delirium, latently dangerous.”
“You know, little sister, I’m not any of those things!” he used to say.


He always called me “Rebecca,” referring to a time he believed we had lived together as brother and sister in the hell of a concentration camp… I never imagined fighting this identity he had created. Accepting meant being able to communicate with him. It’s true, he did have violent fits of anger “because there’s no order anymore, there’s no respect,” he said.
“Can’t you see anything, you bunch of ignoramuses!?”
Softly I asked him, “What, Charly?
“You can’t pretend, little sister, that you haven’t noticed that every day, the others step on your angel wings, soiling them… And why is every sight of a sunbeam in this ward immediately demeaned by some stupid decoration that kills any attempt from the other world to touch us a little? I am fed up, Rebecca! It’s true, I’ll die…”


His treatment from the staff consisted of all types of neuroleptic medications, so he would suffer less – this is reassuring for the nurses. On injection days, he would welcome me with, “Go ahead, little sister, I forgive you, but I chose my life and my confinement. I regret being human, that’s all. I’ll never be cured, I’ll never get better.”


As his nurse, I always hesitated to administer this treatment. I gave him the injections in spite of everything, because of the tacit agreement we had.


One day, I had to change wards. I was sad to leave Charly and the others.


Time passed; at one point I was going through difficulties with work, my colleagues… In a word, things weren’t going so well. Coming out of the building one evening, at the edge of the lawn: Charly standing stock-still in the dark. I was most surprised because he never went out for fear of the outside world. When I came up to him, he said, “Ah! At last! I was expecting you. You called for me, didn’t you?”
“Yes, you did! Here, take this: a gift to give you hope again!”
And with his bony arm, he held out an ace of hearts.


I’m in the schoolyard, and a hopscotch board
half-drawn with bits of chalk
allows a few feats to get all the way to heaven
body in balance between playing and truth

- Monique, psychiatric patient

So… “not normal”?


- The Dino, who constantly reminded us of our “love/rejection” duality?
- Michel, who rejected the “unloving” that frightened him, and reacted before somebody could hit him?
- Françoise, who hunts down the “unloving” in others?
- And Charly, who disguises the reality of love parodies which did not construct him, using an imaginary devil/angel duality?


I am not a stranger to any of these four people, nor to any of their suffering. They do not disguise it. We spend a lot of time and energy on that. Didn’t Master Deshimaru often remind us that “we are all a little crazy”? For a long time I got around this feeling of suffering – my own, this time – by escaping into sleep or tears of rage. The day it all sat down facing the wall, I experienced massive, fundamental boredom and, at the same time, evidence of something more bearable in the moment, with a confident (and unconsciously reassuring) posture/breath and the “just-as-you-are” presence of those who show and guide us. So I came back, in spite of the boredom. After boredom came anger towards the objects of suffering that came back into my consciousness. But I always felt this trust in the living, breathing posture.


And then these objects, the causes of buried suffering, were no longer seen as dangerous; they had no object, no substance! With the violence calmed, the driving force behind the anger (= scars of suffering) remains and can now be put to more fruitful use, serving the suffering and “abnormalities” that I can understand.


And how about you? What do you have to say to this?

Florence Avenel