Bernie Glassman and Eve Marko Talk About the First Days After His Stroke
Conversation recorded in May 2016, Transcribed by Scott Harris
Bernie: So, you remember four months ago [January 12th 2016], we were having an international conference call on the Internet . . . from Germany, from Israel, California, Colorado, all around. And all of a sudden, I was in my office with Rami—our office downstairs—and you were in your office, and all of the sudden, you came down to give me a note. Do you remember what that said?
Eve: Yeah. I wrote you a note on the yellow pad of paper, and it said, “Bernie, don’t take over the meeting. Just listen.”
Bernie: So, I got that note, I started to listen, and all of a sudden, I blacked out! And I have no memory—I don’t even know how many days I have no memory for. So maybe you can tell us a little about that initial period.
Eve: Yeah, you sure took that seriously, “Don’t take over the meeting,” because at that point you started sliding down your chair. And Rami called me again, and I came down. And he had caught you, and put you on the floor. So you were lying on the floor, on your back. I looked at your face. And you were talking at that point. I asked you to raise your leg, and you couldn’t raise your leg. And I asked you to raise your arm, and you couldn’t do that. And then I could tell that your speech was beginning to slur. And then it just stopped. And I asked you, and you just, like did this [shaking head left and right], or something like that—that you couldn’t speak anymore. Oh, and I said I wanted to call 911, and you said, “No.” And I must have asked you another one or two questions, and then I called 911.
And they came, and they were great. They were ready, and they hooked you onto certain medication, put you in an ambulance, took you to a hospital in Greenfield [MA]. They turned right around then, and took you down to Springfield, also in the ambulance. And you went straight into the Emergency Room. And from there you went to Critical Care. And then you went down to Neurological Critical Care. And then you went down to a regular bed.
So at each of these stages they were trying to stabilize you. They knew right away that you had suffered a stroke. And you were at Bay State Springfield Hospital for five full days. They did scans, MRIs, and it was a big stroke. And it had hit your left side they told me, affecting the right side of your body. And also that’s where the speech center is in the brain. So it also affected the speech center. So for five days they were trying to make you stabile. And it was really not clear you were going to make it.
So that was your five days in Bay State. And your daughter Alisa came, and Rami was there. And after five days they thought you were stabile enough to release you to the Weldon Rehabilitation Hospital. And that’s what we did.
And you spent five weeks at the Weldon Rehabilitation Hospital. The first couple of days after your stroke, you didn’t talk. And it wasn’t at all clear that you could even speak. And only after a couple of days, I think one morning Rami and I were there, and you said something. And I realized that you could, that you had some speech—little bits, some words. But you were able to make yourself heard. And I remember just squeezing Rami’s arm, because I was so moved. He was standing right next to me. And you were even able to — one or two people from the family called on the phone, and if I put it to your ear, you were able to say, “Yeah,” or “OK,” very muffled. You were able to do that.
So in Bay State you would just lay in bed, and you didn’t move. And we were just hoping you would stay alive, and that you would stabilize. Once they brought you to Weldon—for me at least—the full extent of the loss of abilities became clear. Because it was only then that they really started looking at your legs, your arms, your whole side, noticing how you couldn’t feel here [right side of the head], the whole shape of your mouth that came down on the right. Your eyes, you couldn’t see, your vision was impaired on the right. And you couldn’t move on the right side at all. You couldn’t move.
They pretty much were able to ascertain that you were not paralyzed. I guess they have a way of seeing that. So they could determine you were not paralyzed, but the extent of the recovery, and what you would eventually be able to do was anybodies guess at that time.
People were optimistic. And according to various tests, they said you would have a good recovery. And if you remember, a Tibetan doctor came to visit you, and he looked you over and said you would have a very good recovery. And the prognosis was guarded, but very positive. And the rest depended on you, and the work you would be ready to do to regain your abilities.
Bernie: So, how long a period are you describing?
Eve: So, I know you have practically no memory of those first weeks. You were five days in the hospital. After that, at the rehab hospital you spent five weeks. And I’m aware that the first two, three weeks, you have almost no memory. A few people came to visit you, and I’m aware from when we talked that you barely remember faces, but you remember no conversations.
They started trying to get you to move, and walk. Well, not walking. That took much longer, but just to get you to move, get you to move your arms. And just everything— toileting—on me it was very hard because I could actually see it. I’m not sure, you know later on when we’ve talked, like we’ve talked now, it doesn’t sound like you were quite aware of what was happening. I think for people around you like me—who were there, and I could see—it was a shock. It was a big, big, shock to look at the abilities that you lost. A huge shock for me. I realized that you weren’t aware—or you were aware then, but you’ve forgotten now.
Bernie: Now I do have some memories in that period. I’ll repeat it, because it seems powerful. I thought I had the memory—I thought it was three days in which I was dying. And my whole energy was based on how to die. I thought, the fourth day, that all of a sudden I had the sense that I could improve. That’s all I knew. I didn’t have a sense of anything else. All I had a sense of was that I could improve. And that to do that I had to exercise.
So again, I don’t know when that came. But that was all I had in mind—that I have to exercise. Most of the time—I think, I don’t know yet, later on it’s more clear—that most of the time I was in what I call a state of non-thinking. I just was laying there. And so I don’t remember that.
Eve: But were you alert, or were you just kind of out of it, in a daze?
Bernie: That’s interesting, see. I think—now I’m thinking, this is not experiencing—I’m thinking that in that state I was aware that I was in the state of no-thinking. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I don’t remember being in pain, or anything like that. I just remember where I wasn’t doing anything. And it seemed to me I was resting so I could exercise. Everything was so focused about exercising. And then I do remember certain people coming to visit. And I may have even said it’s OK that they come to visit. And I remember thinking when they came, “They’re taking all my energy. I can’t do this. In between my exercising, I need to rest—or be in the state of not-knowing.”
Eve: How did you feel when you exercised, and you say that you couldn’t do? Like when they first tried to get you to walk, it took three people to get you walking. And I wonder, did you feel discouraged? Did you feel bad?
Bernie: Yeah. During this time, which was later—four or five weeks, I remember five week, or I remember the last few—during all that time I didn’t feel depression. I didn’t feel negative. I didn’t feel like I can’t do these things. All my attention was, “How do I get what I’m doing to be done with more energy? And then we’ll go to the next thing.” Somehow—I don’t remember at least—having any sense of, “Oh this part’s not working, that part’s not . . .” I just was, “Here’s what I’ve got to do now. Oh, I need three people to help me walk. OK, let’s do it. And you know, what? Hopefully it will be two people next week, or one.”
And a good example of this—it was late in the game, I think it was the fourth week, or fifth week, I don’t know—they brought me over to four steps. And they said, “Here, we’re gonna have you walk . . . We’re gonna have you take your good leg (My left side was in good shape. The right side had a lot of problems.) . . .” So they said, “We want you to move your left leg, and move it up to the first step. Today that’s all we’re gonna do.” I couldn’t do it!
That’s the first sense that I had that my brain and my body were not so together. Because I know my body. I could lift my leg. My brain would say, “You can’t get up that first step. You’re fooling yourself.” So that first day, I couldn’t get up the first step.
The second day I came, I moved my foot up, and I moved the next one. I could walk up four steps! And then I said, “Now what?” On the top of four steps they said, “OK turn around, and come back.” My brain said, “No way! You can’t turn around here! And you ain’t walking down.” That very day, I walked down.
So obviously, what I was learning was that my brain was saying one thing, and my body another. That first day my body knew I couldn’t lift up that leg. My brain was saying, “You can’t.” And so I couldn’t. The brain took over. It had more control over what I did than my body had.
Eve: So what happened on day two? You think your brain was suddenly persuaded that you could take those steps up?
Bernie: Well there was no difference between that first step, and the second step. And all of a sudden, I said oh, I did the first step. My body could do a step! Man, I could have done ten steps, or a hundred steps. Maybe not—I might have gotten too tired. But I got past an impasse. So obviously on that first day, my brain was telling me, “No. Your leg can’t get up. Your right leg can’t get up.” But second day, it just went right up. So what the hell? That means I could have done it the day before too—I think. I mean I couldn’t have just in one day done it all. But it may be . . .
Eve: So you’re saying that even though the brain was saying, “No, you can’t do it,” on the first day, you might have just been able to raise your feet and do it anyway.
Bernie: On the second day?
Eve: No, even on the first day. That’s what I’m trying to get at.
Bernie: Yeah. There probably would have been a way—I don’t know if there would be a way—of overriding. The brain has a lot of control, it seemed to me. That control is not allowing me to do something, not allowing me to feel something, not allowing me to hear something. I know there were many times I’d say, “What was that?” And you’d think I don’t have my hearing aid. My hearing, my brain for some reason doesn’t want, so things would be repeated two or three times.
And Godfried and Mariola, they just came from Europe. They came to visit me. And Godfried said something about—because he’s going to write a book with me on Zen—and he said something to me about Zen, and the essence of Zen. And then he had to go the bathroom. And Mariola turned to me and said, “What is the essence of Zen?” And I looked at her. And I realized at that moment that I had no idea what the essence of Zen meant. Now people have been asking me that question for years. And I didn’t have trouble answering them in one way or another. I may have changed the way I did it. But this time I had no idea.
Now what I also recognize is that I felt I knew what that state was—the state of Zen. But I had no way to describe it. The words that I used before to describe it weren’t available to me. And I had no words that were available to me. What that did to me was huge. A huge sense of joy. Or a sense of holy cow! I don’t know what this is, and now I can find out.
Now I’ve been sixty years in the world of Zen. And I don’t know what it is, maybe since the beginning, and feeling so much joy that I can now express it. But that’s what I remember, this state where I was just, “Wow. I have a new chance to clarify what does that mean.”
And then I got home, and I started to work with Godfried, and Rami, and Mariola on my book. I was doing a book. And the book was going to be the sixty years of Zen, talking about those things, which in a sense didn’t interest me anymore. But working on the book, one of the first things that happened was Godfried said, “I heard you say over and over that you stayed to study with Maezumi Roshi because he was the clearest man that you knew of.” And Godfried said, “What do you mean by ‘clearest man’?”
And I looked at him, and I said, “Huh? I have no idea what that means.” But now I have a chance to try to find out. What does that mean? Not only don’t I have an idea what it means, but I don’t think it could mean anything.
So anyway I was in a whole new study phase for me. And that was true for many Zen words that I had been using. I thought maybe we used them without really knowing what they mean. And I thought I probably thought I knew what they mean. But I didn’t really know what they mean.
And this is a new phase in my life where I could go a little deeper into what these states are. And then, what became strong also is that in between the times that I did at the hospital, I did a lot of exercise—for my feet; it was three main things, my legs, my hands, my arms, and my speech. All three were exhausting. I would put maybe two hours into each. I was exhausted by the time it was over. I needed to rest. I rested before and after. I had to rest before and after.
And when I was resting, there was nothing. I was staying in a state of non-thinking. It was very restful. I would get ready for the next things, but I didn’t remember thinking anything.
Eve: Now Bernie, for many years you’ve talked actually about that state. And you’ve said that the purpose of Zen isn’t to get you to not thinking—because if you don’t want to think, you can have a lobotomy. So that’s not the point. The point is to live, and be actively engaged, and to live like everybody else. So now you’re saying, in the face of all that, after your stroke, you still found yourself in these states—prolonged states of non-thinking. So what is your comment about it now, given how many years, my impression was that you thought that there were teachers who said, “I could be in a state of non-thinking for two hours,” and you actually pooh-poohed that. I remember, “That’s not the objective,” you said. “That’s not the point.”
So what is your impression now of this?
Bernie: Well, I don’t know. Again, these are areas that I want to explore. What I do know is that I could sit there . . . It was not a lobotomy state. I was aware. I was aware, and I was resting. And I wasn’t thinking. Now that period went on for a long time. And I think—but I have no way of knowing—that that’s probably true during the phases when I don’t remember what was going on. But I don’t know. And I have no way of going there.
So I would like to explore with somebody who has some thoughts on this—what was going on there. Also, it’s also gone. It used to be when I’m in that state; I would get there and rest up, now my mind is doing all kinds of things. So it feels like my brain has redone some wiring. And part of that wiring has given me more memory— because I didn’t have that much memory.
Eve: And do you have to have a stroke to experience that?
Bernie: Perhaps. I just don’t know.
Dear Bernie and Eve. Thank you for sharing this. It feels so intimate.
I had a stroke about six or seven years ago – a mild one that landed me in the hospital for about 11 days. And I too remember (or I think I remember, or maybe just sensed) a state of just being – there was not a thought of fear or joy or hope or despair. But I wasn’t asleep and I wasn’t unconscious, at least I don’t think I was. There was this quality of just being aware. And then this state was punctuated by things – like a terrible headache that I wanted to be rid of, or nausea, or of a doctor or therapist coming in to do some test, and then I would react or think about what was going on. But there were moments, which can be attributed to brain injury I suppose, that were characterized by awareness without thoughts. I’m not even sure that I remember them, except that I have a sense that there was a kind of coming in and out of discursive thought. Nothing terribly “spiritual” happened during any of this, but afterwards, when I began to recover, some things were clearer to me, my priorities in how I want to live my life were a bit more vivid.I was still the same me, but something got a somewhat reordered. Maybe it was just the “near death” experience itself and the sense that my mortality wasn’t an abstract theory any longer, or maybe it was the periods of deep rest that allowed something to cook down, I don’t know. But I can say that it was like toothpaste that came out of the tube – it couldn’t be put back in. There was just a reordering of things and some kind of greater clarity. Deep bow to the two of you. I found it very interesting to read this and thanks for the invitation to share. Love and peace. Joshin
Thank you for sharing this intimate conversation!
Metta & peace for both of you and all beings!
in Vajrayana Buddhism that state is called resting in nature of mind. It is an actual practice.
Thank you. We at Greyston send you Love.
thinker without thoughts
Thank you for sharing this honest and authentic exchange. The JOY of exploring non-thinking and Zen without preconceived ideas, without familiar words. So beautiful. Thank you.