Experts and Amateurs

This morning, I decided to trust my own judgement over some ‘expert’ advice I have been following for more than half a year.

The expert in this case was an orthopedic surgeon whom I’ve been visiting every month or so since I fractured my ankle last March. I’m certainly glad I have been able to lean on his expertise and on the entire orthopedic floor at Presbyterian Hospital with its experts, X-ray machines, and technicians who work with fiberglass to immobilize the compromised bones of their patients. Without them, I don’t think my body’s natural process of recuperation could have done its own work.

In the past eight months, I have had: two fiberglass casts; a walking cast (that I could remove for showers and to sleep); a cloth brace that inhibited side-to-side movement but allowed me to walk freely; and finally, for the past three months, I have worn only my shoes and socks. Well, on my ankle that is.

However, at our most recent appointment, almost three months ago now, recalling that he had told me, during my previous appointments, not to meditate in a cross-legged position, I turned at the door as I left his office and said, “And now I can meditate cross-legged, right?” And he replied, “No, keep your leg extended out straight when you sit.”

So that’s what I’ve been doing now for many months (at first because a rigid cast imposes that posture and ever since in order to follow “medical advice”). I accepted without question that sitting with my ankle bent outwards would cause a sustained pull on the fracture, which was already taking months to reknit; and that–like a steady pull on the two halves of an Oreo cookie– this would weaken the adhesion that had finally cemented across the entire length of the fracture.

The main side-effect of following this medical advice was that the instructions for most of my meditation practices say to sit with the back unsupported and straight (in order that grounding energy can flow up the spine into the upper body). Since this visualization is meaningful to me, I’ve just been waiting patiently for the time when I could sit that way again.

Then a few mornings ago it occurred to me that I almost always defer to the knowledge of experts in their field of specialization and don’t hesitate to consider my own knowledge as something superseded by their better-educated understanding. But a few minutes later, it occurred to me that when I think of myself as an uninformed consumer of other people’s knowledge, I am turning my back on a wider perspective that might leave room for the contribution of my own more personal understanding. After all, I am the one living in my body; I am the one moving through my days in my familiar environment, including the couch on which I sit in the sunroom. And how my leg bends or doesn’t bend when I cross my legs is something that I could at least examine for myself.

With a more open mind and a willingness to look at what was actually happening, I started trying other postures. I discovered that, with the aid of several pillows, it was quite possible to bring my left leg in from its straight-ahead posture and place my foot next to my right inner thigh—taking care to maintain a straight line from knee down to the bottom of my foot. So now I’m sitting more like I used to, which allows me to sit up straight, with no pillow behind the small of my back. In this posture, I think of myself as being like a tree, rooted in the earth, trunk reaching up to the sun, while the grounding energy of my lower body flows up the spine into the head.

But before I rebuke myself for going along with the doctor’s hasty response to my hastily asked question, in an appointment three months ago, it seems more useful to notice that this is merely one example of a far more general situation. I have many habits all of which will just continue until I become aware that they are not really necessary.

This present situation is offering me an opportunity to go a step further than simply noticing how I rarely question professional advice. I can also use it to observe the habit-forming tendency that set up this behavior in the first place; and also how I allowed it to take over the reins. There are several familiar maxims that express how this process works for me:

“Experts know more than I know in their chosen fields”;

“It’s better to keep pulling the cart with a few extra bushels of apples dumped on board (i.e. the inconvenience of keeping my leg out straight in front of me) than to risk upsetting the whole apple cart (reinjuring my fractured ankle).”

But if the cart is the environment in which I live then surely I should allow myself to have a say in how I interact with that environment.

I can also see an even more fundamental trend in my tendency to treat current situations as beyond my capacity to influence. I persist in treating this lifetime as a series of days following one-after-another—as if time were a Pez-dispenser distributing one-day-at-a-time from a bottomless stack. But now that I have dared to look at how I am actually sitting when I cross my legs, perhaps I can look again at the way I stick with the Pez-dispenser-view of the days-of-my-life lifetime; perhaps I can look again at how I treat my life as an unending dispensation from the seemingly unending fountain of embodied being.

I don’t believe that “the customer is always right”. But I do believe that the consumer is the one who must ultimately decide when, where, what and how to consume. Otherwise we risk squandering our capacity to dive into this potentially fulfilling life—this shining presence in which I am, for now, immersed.

One comment to “Experts and Amateurs”
  1. I am certainly no expert on this proper sitting thing, but I have a perspective too. Not saying my view supersedes yours in any way. With that disclaimer out of the way, allow me to describe my limited and no doubt myopic view… I haven’t been able to sit cross-legged in years. I’m too old and fat, with bad knees, blah, blah… I just sit in an easy chair, or upright in bed, with legs usually stretched out before me. Deep breaths, and feeling inward seems to center me as I wait and watch, and calm happens… and by that the self seems to mostly release the tendency to exert control by judging, is this right or wrong… it’s just about being allowing… with a pleasant, even happy anticipation of whatever may present. It’s a centering of the feel of all of me… moment to moment…

    Am I right… am I doing it wrong? I really don’t spend much time judging this, because it takes me out of what I described above. It puts me in the mental realm judging ABOUT meditating, instead of engaging with it… You know the old pointing out instruction… ‘Thoughts about the thing are not the thing’…

    I used to think I had to be comfortable to become calm enough to meditate. I’ve found that’s not really true. I can be in excruciating pain, or deep sorrow, and still become calm in the midst of that… You just need to stay with it…

    So… cross-legged or straight-legged… get on with it… with love Brother…
    Your friend,

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