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Jeffrey Hopkins Reconstructs His Mind
Jeffrey Hopkins, Buddhist scholar, Tibetan translator, author and professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Virginia in the United States, suffered in 1991 from the debilitating and sometimes fatal Lyme disease. He talked to Robina Courtin in Kathmandu, Nepal in June 1993 about being close to death and of the experience of subtler states of mind. He speaks of his slow recovery; how he has had to “reconstruct” his mind, to reconnect with the world, retrieving the meanings of not only the intricacies of Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan language but the simplest words and concepts. And he talks of his certainty that but for a mantra given him years ago by Ling Rinpoche, and but for his own Dharma practice, he would have died.
Robina When did you get sick, Jeffrey?
Jeffrey I showed my sickness on March 17th 1991. I had for quite some time thought that something was wrong. I remember getting in my car at the university one day and thinking: “I’m not playing with a full deck!”
It was 10:30 in the morning. I had worked out with my friend and he was making breakfast. I was working on a book on colloquial Tibetan, which we have subsequently named Fluent Tibetan, but my problem was I wasn’t fluent! I was correcting something and trying to write the letter ya and I couldn’t write it. And I thought, “That’s strange.”
Then I went and lay down on my bed and suddenly the right side of my body was paralysed. Even the right side of my tongue, which was amusing! It happens that, the night before, I had told my friend that if I ever got ill he should call Bill Magee, a student and friend of mine. I was in and out of the paralysis, so at some point I called out and said, “Call Bill! Now is the time!” At first he thought I was joking.
Robina What was happening in your mind?
Jeffrey I am rather pleased that I was just what I was. I wasn’t wishing for something else; this was what I had to deal with and I was working with it.
Bill came from Charlottesville quickly, and the ambulance came about forty-five minutes later – I live way out in the country. So then they carted me off. I was in and out of paralysis, which was getting worse.
The doctors first thought it was stroke. Actually, they went through about ten different diagnoses over the next ten days before they finally tried Lyme disease.
Lyme disease is spread by ticks; they have a blood feast from a rabbit or a deer and so forth and get these spiral bacteria. The bacteria get into the body and multiply, corkscrewing their way into any sort of tissue. Eventually they get into the spinal column and go to the brain.
Although I knew what was going on around me, I couldn’t communicate that at all. When I tried to talk I would just make strange noises, whoooooaaaaaa. And I could hear myself talking that way. They came to the conclusion that I didn’t know what was going on.
Robina So the way you were appearing to them was that you were completely out of it, and that you couldn’t comprehend. But actually there was simply a separation between your comprehension and your capacity to communicate.
Jeffrey And that’s called aphasia. There are many types of aphasia. Sometimes you can say words, but only connectives; therefore they would ask me – once I was a bit better – to say no ifs, ands or buts. If you could say those words you probably couldn’t say meaning words, nouns and so forth.
Before that, when I initially got back the capacity to utter a few words, and I had something in mind that I wanted to say, I would start out the sentence, but just kept saying the same introductory phrase over and over again. I would try to restart in the middle of the sentence but couldn’t.
At one point I could say two things: “Shit!” which I used to mean no, and “Come on!” which meant please explain more. Nowadays I notice that I sometimes say, “Hey shit, come on!”
Eventually they gave up on me at that hospital. I arrived there about one o’clock and at some point in the afternoon they took me to the university hospital.
On that first day they did a procedure to check whether my carotid artery was blocked; it wasn’t. They also did a spinal tap, which is that essentially they stick a shish kebab skewer into your spinal cord and withdraw fluid under a local anesthetic. It isn’t too painful if it is done well; I ended up having it done seven times, and one of them wasn’t done well and was painful for a few days.
You’re not supposed to have any white blood cells in the spinal fluid; if the count gets up to eleven, they feel that’s serious enough to be treated. My count was 144, which indicated a severe brain infection. They guessed encephalitis, so they began treating me with Cyclovir intravenously.
That first evening I was in the intensive care unit of the neurology section. For the most part I was floating in golden light.
Robina Floating in golden light …
Jeffrey It’s a reflex of a deeper experience, but with the deeper experience you don’t have the feeling of floating in something, you are the something. I did sometimes have an impression of a hospital, a little bit of surroundings, imagined. They talk about all appearances gradually disappearing at death …
Robina So, most of your gross consciousness was not functioning, is that what you would say?
Robina Your subtle consciousness was functioning?
Jeffrey If one had never experienced anything more subtle, one would think this was very subtle!
Robina You were thinking words like, I am dying or something?
Jeffrey No, but I knew what was going on. During that first night while I was off in golden light, I suddenly thought, “What is my name?” I could hardly recall it, but out of the golden light came Paul Jeffrey Hopkins. I knew that one of the names was supposed to be more important, meaning Jeffrey, but I barely had that sense. I knew I was in trouble.
At that point I remembered a mantra that Ling Rinpoche had given for warding off difficulties and so forth, and I started mentally reciting it. But it came out much like the whoooaaaa sound in my mind! Anyway, I kept reciting it. I think that is what probably brought me back, what saved me.
Robina As far as they were concerned you were nearly dying?
Jeffrey Yes, people felt I wasn’t going to live through the night. Indeed I almost didn’t live through the night.
At some point in the morning I realized I could talk again. I was so pleased. I was looking at the nurses and choosing words I was going to speak. One of the elderly doctors came around with his students; he was telling them about what a vegetable this professor had become. To demonstrate this, he asked me a question, something like, “Where are you?” and I answered, “The hospital.” The students were shocked! He’s with us! But then the doctor decided that he would show them what a vegetable I really was, so he asked me a bunch of rapid-fire questions. At that point I couldn’t speak quickly, so I just shut up. I was fed up with him! So he shrugged and indicated, “See!” and they all walked on. Maybe if everyone had treated me like that, I would still be there.
Then a young bearded doctor-to-be came in, and when I started speaking to him, a biiig smile came on his face, and we talked a little.
From then on I had to reconstruct my mind. I didn’t have access to the meaning of Tibetan words. For instance phrases of The Six Session Yoga would be there in my mind, but I didn’t know what they meant. For instance gyal-wa: I would think, “That’s Cuban!” I didn’t really think it was, in fact I knew it wasn’t, but that’s what it seemed. With no meaning.
Over the next few days I worked hard trying to figure out what these words meant. Finally, I asked one of my students to bring in a printed copy, and immediately I could read it and understand it. In a couple of days I also had him bring in Lekshe Nyingpo, which I could understand. Then I thought, well if I can understand Lekshe Nyingpo, I can understand anything.
I had to reconstruct my mind. In any field, I had to consciously make a logical connection, and then once the connection had been made, then that area was reopened.
Robina By now they had diagnosed you?
Jeffrey No. They had gone through a number of possibilities. With this sort of dementia it could have been encephalitis, it could have been AIDS, which they soon found it wasn’t. There were at least ten different diagnoses they were toying with. Eventually, they released me from the hospital: I went in on a Saturday and was released on Thursday. I pretended that I was better than I was. They explained that I might improve with the Cyclovir, but that they couldn’t keep me in the hospital because they had no rationale to do so–cost cutting. I could walk again; the paralysis had stopped by that first morning. But the infection was just as much as it was before.
I felt rather lousy at home, and by Saturday I was unable to talk again, but only for fifteen minutes. Fortunately another friend was visiting and they took me to hospital.
At the hospital they looked at my record and saw that I had a positive test for Lyme disease. They wouldn’t even have noticed unless I had gone back to the hospital.
I was still on the Cyclovir, which wasn’t doing anything, and by then I had four or five spinal taps. Every tap yielded the same result.
Believe it or not, the infectious disease doctors and the neurologists argued about how to treat me, because even though I had had a positive Lyme test, the neurologists didn’t want to consider it Lyme disease. But the infectious diseases people felt, well, at least you can treat Lyme disease. Why not give it a try!
In the meantime I had been doing a great deal of mantra, using the intelligence mantra om ah ra pa tsa na dhih of Manjushri. I found it very helpful because I could retreat into the mantra and into a special kind of mind, even if I was stupid or unable to do this or that. It seems that most people who become aphasic start thinking of themselves as stupid and incapable of doing things, and thereby make matters worse. Whereas in fact you can withdraw into what is in some respects a brighter mind – more withdrawn, more pleasant.
So I used my time with mantra. There was no fear of becoming too withdrawn: I would just come back and try to do a few things, and if I couldn’t, I would just go back into the mantra again.
Despite the fact that I had only half of my usual mind, I had to run my own case and influence how the doctors treated me – which was in its own way helpful. At one point a neurologist asked me, “You don’t want to be treated for Lyme disease, do you?”!
My Lyme count was not astronomical but my disease was astronomical. Lyme disease is very hard to diagnose; so doctors are hesitant.
I encouraged them to treat me for Lyme disease, so they started Ceftriaxone twice a day intravenously, and in time they saw it was bringing results.
But they disagreed about how long to treat me. I should’ve had had it for at least three weeks but they did it for two weeks. So three months later I had a relapse.
The relapse was in two phases. One night, I was watching a television program –The Golden Girls – with my friend and couldn’t follow the plot at all. Not only that, I could hardly look at the set. It was like being drunk or crazy. But by the next morning I was better, and when I went in to see the doctor I was chipper.
I was supposed to go to Tibet with the US-China Commission, to give suggestions about how China can treat Tibet better. The doctor knew this, and he encouraged me: “Go to Tibet.”
I was running around one morning getting ready to go and suddenly I lacked maybe forty or so intelligence points, just became stupid; able to talk but stupid.
So again I had to reconstruct my mind, this time over a rather long period. I was treated with Ceftriaxone for thirty-seven days. I had to work and work and work to reconnect areas. I worked at the computer at simple books that didn’t take a vast mind – I didn’t need to remember a whole system, I just had to go over lines. I would do whatever I could and got quite a bit done. A good time for a gay man to finish a book on heterosexual sex – The Tibetan Arts of Love!
It was only towards the end of that thirty-seven days of taking Ceftriaxone that real strength came back to my mind. Then I had to work for at least a year, reconnecting, using mantra, re-exposing myself to things that I had known in order to be able to tap that knowledge.
What was extremely helpful is the fact that I had been in a monastery for five years, from 1963 to 1968, with Geshe Wangyal in New Jersey, and I had at times meditated a great deal, completely unmoving, with my mind totally withdrawn. So I was quite used to the state of not having a body.
For instance, when I did mantra I would almost never count it with a rosary. It is very helpful to begin mantra by saying it out loud, then whispering, then doing it mentally, even if you can do it right away mentally. And there is no question that the very strong interest I have in meditating on emptiness makes it a lot easier to be without your usual facilities. No question.
Robina So due to the habit from the past, you felt it was okay somehow.
Jeffrey Yes, due to the habit from the past. And then by the time the relapse came, I knew what was particularly helpful to do during it, so I was even more conscientious about withdrawing my mind. I knew how successful that was, whether or not I came back. It’s a nice state!
Robina So, you say then – in terms of gross, subtle and very subtle levels of mind – that maybe you were vaguely subtle level? But you weren’t totally withdrawn, were you?
Jeffrey The point at which I almost couldn’t remember my own name, I was pretty close. As I said before, if you had never experienced something deeper you would probably think that was it. But there is plenty deeper than that! In the division of gross, subtle and very subtle it’s pre-subtle.
Robina So you mean like sometimes when you go to sleep and you’re half conscious of what’s happening and half in the other state?
Jeffrey No. It’s much subtler than that. Within the gross mind there are all sorts of subtler levels. When you get to the mind of white light, your consciousness is so fused entirely with it, there’s no sense of you are in the white light; your consciousness is white light.
Here my experience was, so to speak, like my fingernails were white light! – something that’s yours but just slightly distant; more of a sense of “I am floating.” There’s no body, but there’s a center. So that’s actually still at the gross level.
Robina If we talk about experiencing emptiness then, would this have been something like that?
Jeffrey I couldn’t talk about that without suggesting that I had experienced emptiness… But if you carry emptiness meditation through well, then when deeper mind manifests there is not the sense of being in light, but of being light – but that would be an inadequate description. And even within that there’s a subtle sense of duality that isn’t recognized as duality. But I can say that what I was in was pre-that.
But it wasn’t like light coming from somewhere else. That’s even grosser. But I don’t mean to say, “This is not any good because it’s still gross mind!” You are what you are at the time.
Robina So, how long has it taken you to get completely better?
Jeffrey There are so many layers in getting better. When you can do something that you couldn’t do well before, you feel you are entirely better, and it’s only when the next layer is removed that you realize you have more to go.
Subsequent to this long antibiotic treatment, low level chronic physical problems that I had had for years could then come out, and so I have also been treated for a myriad of problems, and I may have gotten rid of a lot of them. So it may turn out to help me live longer than I otherwise would have!
But who knows. I am off to Tibet now, reconnecting to another activity. Maybe I can’t take the altitude!
Robina Actually, you look very well.
Jeffrey Yes, I feel well. As one doctor from Harvard explained to me, because I had figured out how to use other parts of the brain, I probably have a bit more mind than usual. Sometimes I have a hell of a lot of mind! The sense of mind is a bit intense, you could say!
Robina You mean a bigger picture of things, or a clearer memory, a clearer way to see things?
Jeffrey Clearer mind. Sometimes the instrument is so clear that it almost can’t connect with data. It’s like the hardware can’t find the software. When I am lecturing or teaching, that can be a bit difficult; I have to calm it down.
Robina What do you mean? Too much happening in the mind? Say more about that.
Jeffrey Well, it’s not too much happening, it’s too much intensity to the power of mind. Too much presence.
Robina You’re talking about it as if in one way it is a good thing but also as if it is a problem.
Jeffrey Yes, in one way it is and in one way it isn’t. Sometimes with people who have strokes, they blurt out whatever they are thinking. For many many years, from the time of intense meditation in New Jersey, I was aware of such scurrilous things as when someone steps in front of you and you think, “Get the fuck out of the way!” That sort of thing. But you don’t say it, you oppose it. But after this experience, those sorts of reactions are stronger and have to be opposed more strongly.
The practice of compassion then has the potential of being more effective. As my friend said, my reptilian mind is exposed. And so it’s like the reptilian mind is being worked on more directly.
Robina In other words this mind is more evident to you now – and that’s good, isn’t it?
Jeffrey Yes, it’s more evident. Even though it was evident before, it is louder now.
I feel particularly lucky that I have worked very hard over the years on the seven-fold quintessential instructions; that’s been very very meaningful for me. Thus I have something at hand to counter the reptilian mind more or less from the outside but also try to counter it from the reptilian level, get the old reptile to be a little bit kinder.
Also I have a stronger sense that there is no time. So if I feel to do something or say something, I do it or say it now, because there isn’t any time to do it later.
Years ago I used to go out and live in the woods, and write and meditate on the sky. There was a turning point in my life in Oklahoma – it was in 1962. I started to meditate on a stream – a classic thing but I had never read about it. It was a very shallow river than ran over high flat rocks at one point. I was just watching the water there. The river was important in that area: people talk about The River. I’d be back in my cabin and I would think about The River. I used to float down in it every day in a tube, even though I learned that there were poisonous snakes in it!
I would stop and stare at the water rushing over these flat rocks, and I began to see that there was just this momentary water; there was no river – The River that I thought about back in my cabin didn’t exist; it so entirely changed every instant.
In the area there was an old man I talked with, and one day when I was passing by on my tube he was off fishing on the side; he was just sitting there with his head slumped over; I thought he had died. And because of having stared at the water I realized that he brought no crescendo of experience to his last moment; he just merely turned his head to the side, and he had one little look that was no different from any other look, and bing! that was it. That caused me to give up hope for a crescendo of richness of experience that I would bring to a finale.
Very consciously I then turned to a spark of light inside the mind as something more interesting than this illusory crescendo of experience. That made it possible to leave, to go to the monastery. When I went to the monastery I got rid of every trace of myself in my family’s home.
Nowadays, even more so, if I think to do or say something I will tend to do it or say it right away. I will say some things in the wrong context now, being willing to say what’s on my mind, thinking that there isn’t any other time to say it!
Robina So this whole experience shows the effectiveness of Dharma.
Jeffrey In many ways. You have nearly experienced death, you realize how utterly changeable things are: suddenly you are being carted out backwards on a stretcher. Time to go! Tibetans have this weird saying: “You go like a hair pulled out of butter.” Butter is such a great and wonderful thing in Tibetan culture, and I guess if a hair is in butter it is just the most marvelous place to be. You leave all these goodies, even your body. In another way your body leaves you, this thing that you take such great care of.
To have heard such teachings, to have reflected on them and meditated on them and felt some of the impact of them, that is just tremendously helpful, there is no question about that at all.
The intelligence mantra om ah ra pa tsa na dhih has been extremely helpful, to have done it for years and years and years. I overheard Geshe Wangyal tell one Mongolian boy who was having problems memorizing: “And then do dhih dhih dhih … endlessly.”
There is no question that I would have been a mess if I hadn’t practiced.
Robina You would say, then, that because of being a person who worked on their mind you got better more quickly than a person who hadn’t?
Jeffrey Not only got better faster; I certainly would have died.
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Tibetan Buddhism teaches you to overcome your dissatisfied mind, but to do that you have to make an effort. To put our techniques into your own experience, you have to go slowly, gradually. You can’t just jump right in the deep end. It takes time and we expect you to have trouble at first. But if you take it easy it gets less and less difficult as time goes by.
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