the tattoo

So, I went into the tattoo parlor unprepared. I had two designs in mind: one Buddha from a photograph, and one image from Steven Lane’s awesome t-shirt design. I didn’t have a clear idea what a tattoo entailed. I figured it would be painful, but I didn’t really think much about it.

I also went in thinking that I couldn’t have tattoos after surgery–it was now or never. Turns out I was wrong. After getting the tattoo and finding out how long it takes to heal–whoops, the whole two weeks until surgery–I contacted Rush. Medtronics manufactures the implant. Rush contacted them, they say tattoos afterwards are OK, but they have guidelines. And I’m fine.

Steve’s design was almost ready to go–had to simplify it some, take out a few elements, but it was cartoony enough to work almost as-is. The Buddha was this photograph. It would have required substantial tweaking to make into a workable tattoo, which would not have happened before the deadline I thought I had.

Matt and I worked out the t-shirt design quickly. He expanded it a bit, he got it transferred onto my back, I got in the chair, and he got to work on me.

At first I thought, that’s not quite so painful. Then I thought, whoa, that hurts more than I was expecting. And it did. For about three hours. Other artists would walk by: ‘That’s a lot of black.’ ‘Is that your first tattoo?’ Yes, I had jumped in the deep end.

It’s interesting to watch what your mind does with that much pain. I mean, it wasn’t agony. I’ve had arthritis flareups three or four times as painful. But the amount of time spent in pain demanded something pretty mindful.

I can’t just sit there biting a bullet for three hours–I don’t think I have that much energy. But it’s the first instinct. You just want to tense up, hold your breath, grit your teeth, think about beating someone up. Resist. I did all that.

After a few moments, I started paying attention to my breath, as my years of meditation have taught me. Which helped a bit.

But then I started giving attention to the pain. Not making anything up about it, just noticing all the details of how it felt as he traced my skin with needles. It started to fill my mind. And I found I could relax into it. Get interested in it. It wasn’t the pain that was so awful, it was the resisting.

That worked for a moment. The trouble was, he would stop. And when he started again, I had to struggle back to a mindful state.

After going through this about fifty times, I looked at something else: what was the source of the resistance? Very simple fear. It was also interesting. It was much more difficult to be with than the pain. I didn’t get as far with it.

One newly-emerging spiritual capacity for me is something I want to call ‘non-discriminating mind.’ Being able to be with what’s happening right now, and appreciate it for what it is. Not to compare it with something else. Pain? OK. No pain? OK. Not that I got there that evening, but I can see it from here. Being that way on a tattoo artist’s table seems possible to me.

My Burning Man experience was the beginning of it. I had a moment of just pure appreciation of what is, being at a particular place and time, and being happy. And not caring about what I may have imagined forty would look like: this unmet goal or that disappointment.

I’m not saying it’s the place to live your whole life from. Preferring pleasure over pain is not such a bad thing. But it’s interesting to be free of that preference. And it’s not the same as not having it.

And…the results? Well, it’s not done at this writing. Though the risks are low, I figure I’m probably better off waiting till late November to finish it. And it doesn’t look bad as it is…




  1. John— I wish you the best of luck with the surgery and am sending positive energy your way. I have also submitted your name to Silent Unity, where many people will pray for at least 30 days on your behalf for ease, grace, success and recovery.

    I work with Betty and have listened to some of your struggles and triumphs along the way… you are truly an admirable person, in every facet. Best to you and your family always.

  2. John – Your tattoo is GORGEOUS. I also love the fact that you stopped mid-process. With something so permanent and such a part of you, it’s a good idea (and fun!) to live with it for a little while before you proceed. It’s beautiful – congratuations. Cathy

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