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Shambhala Sun | July 2014

Prepare Now

Death can come at any time, so the Buddha warned us to get ready now. Knowing that helped Buddhist teacher Allan Lokos after a terrible plane crash. ROD MEADE SPERRY has his story.

Did meditation save Allan Lokos’s life?

Well, there was this one time. The short of it: an indigestion-type feeling hit one evening, was noted but not much worried about. Next thing Lokos knew, he was on the floor of his bathroom at 5 a.m. He was rushed to the ER, where it was guessed that he was in atrial fibrillation, putting him at risk of a stroke.

As he was waiting to be seen, it occurred to him: “What could be a better place for meditation?” So he set to it. Finally, when he was examined, it seemed that Lokos had, thanks to the practice, brought his heart back to normal function. He was given tests and prescriptions but, sure enough, was declared recovered in a few weeks.

It’s a great story, nice and neat. Did meditation help? It seems reasonable to think so.

But then, there was this other time, in Burma, on Christmas Day, 2012. Lokos laughingly encapsulates it this way: “It was a trip I wanted to go on, and I loved it. Except for one little thing!”

 

It’s Marathon Sunday morning on New York’s Upper West Side. A cool hush is in the autumn air. The neighborhood is extra quiet, ground transport having been snarled up in much of the city. I arrive at the Community Meditation Center (CMC) no problem and am greeted by Susanna Weiss, Allan Lokos’s spouse and, as he’s put it, “perfect partner.” She’s natural and charming, and maybe even a bit familiar, to a film fan at least: the actress Laura Dern is a dead ringer for her.

Because of the traffic, Weiss tells me, some die-hard seniors and other regulars may not be able to make it to CMC this morning, so attendance could be way down; it tops out at about two hundred sometimes. She warmly invites me to meet Lokos.

Automatically, I thrust out my hand and shake his, but my sense of touch quickly sends a message to my brain: This is not the time for a firm handshake. Both of Lokos’s hands are in bandage-like glove contraptions. I hope I haven’t hurt him.

I leave him to a moment with himself before he gives today’s teaching at 11:30. The room seems to be filling up nicely. Halloween decorations are still up—a green witch will stir a cauldron behind Lokos as he talks—and people are festive, talky, upbeat. By 11:28, fifty have arrived, including some of the die-hard seniors, who are joined by visitors of all ages from their twenties on up.

“Let me catch my breath,” the seventy-three-year-old teacher quips, having just taken his seat. “That marathon’s quite a race.” Then he begins his guided meditation, which includes references to gratitude for the body. “Isn’t it amazing that breathing just happens on its own?” he says. “How wonderful to have this body that supports this practice of mindfulness.”

Coming from him, it means a lot.

 

Which brings us to that trip to Burma and the “one little thing” that went wrong.

Lokos, Weiss, and sixty-nine others were taking a short in-country flight on a Fokker 100, a small plane but not quite a puddle jumper; the numeral denotes its number of seats. There seemed to be nothing unusual with this flight. Then, with essentially no warning, the plane crashed.

One of the passengers, a woman from California, later recalled looking out and seeing a blue flash, which was likely the plane shearing through electrical wires with its wings. And since the fuel was stored in the wings, they immediately burst into flames. But Lokos didn’t see any of that, so when Weiss first told him they’d crashed, he thought she was overreacting. There had not even been a “Fasten your seatbelts” sign.

Lokos turned to Weiss, and by the time he turned back—it was that fast—heavy noxious smoke was pouring in and chaos was overtaking the cabin.

There was an emergency exit, but it was on the other side of all that smoke, and Weiss was already feeling the poisonous effects. She didn’t think she could make the jump to safety. “You’re going to go right through it,” Lokos told her. “You’ll be okay.”

Lokos gave Weiss a push and intended to follow right after her, but his foot caught on something. “From that moment to when I landed on the ground outside the plane,” he says, “all of it is blocked out of my memory, which my trainer, Nancy, ascribes to ‘the benevolent brain.’ But, clearly, I was on fire in that time.”

The plane had crashed in an abandoned rice field. More than half of the passengers were spared serious injury. Two died. And then there was Lokos. A pair of teenaged boys tried to help him after he’d escaped the plane, but he was too big for them to handle. Two men—one of them the husband of the Californian woman—stepped in. “They had to drag me because I couldn’t walk,” Lokos says. “As I looked up, I saw the faces of all these spectators. They looked horrified.”

Then he looked down and saw why. “There were large sheets of skin hanging off of me. But I have no memory of being scared by any of it; I was probably well into shock at that point.”

It was then that Lokos turned to the man from California. “Those people look really scared,” he said. “I must look awful.” “Oh, no,” the man replied. “It’s really just like a bad sunburn. You’re fine.”

It was a kind, comforting thing to say. But it was, of course, not true. Lokos was in grave danger. His legs were seriously burned, especially the ankles, which had been burned right to the bone. “Exactly how my hands got so damaged, I don’t know,” he says. “I never knew that I was close to dying. I never even thought I was injured, never thought about it. Now, as my trauma therapist says, my body knew. I was on fire!

Lokos also suffered burns on his head and neck, and part of one ear was lost. “It now looks like I have a deep eye socket,” he says. “See that line of red? That’s how close the flames came to that eye, right to the socket. Two weeks ago Susanna asked me if I wanted to see the clothes that I was wearing at the time. They were just shreds.”

Immediately after the accident, a doctor on the scene assessed things this way: “There’s nothing we can do for him.” When Lokos was moved from Burma to a hospital in Bangkok, doctors there concurred. Then the same happened in Singapore, and once more back in New York. All told, six doctors would tell Weiss, who’d suffered seven broken vertebrae in the crash herself, that Lokos’s prognosis was hopeless. When one flatly told her, “This man won’t live,” she replied, “You don’t know this man.”

Finally, two doctors—a Dr. Tan in Singapore and a brilliant New York surgeon named Dr. Yurt—saw not only the Lokos that Weiss knew but also the potential for turning things around.

 

Lokos counts Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Thich Nhat Hanh, Mingyur Rinpoche, and others among his teachers, but the path was not always so clearly delineated for him; in fact, he didn’t come to Buddhism until late in life. As a native New Yorker growing up in Brooklyn, he was raised in a family that was, as he puts it, “once-a-year Jewish,” though his mother’s side was both very religious and wonderful. “That’s where the joy was in my early childhood,” he says. “But—and I think this really plays into where I ended up—my mother died when I was sixteen and my father was mentally ill, bipolar.”

His father was arrested repeatedly, and Lokos and his brother were eventually called to his apartment to intervene; he had pinned a woman down and was over her with an axe. He was arrested one last time and died in the forensic ward nine days later.

Whether despite or because of such difficulty, the young Lokos found himself drawn to beauty. He began exploring the arts, in particular singing. (This can be no surprise to anyone who’s heard his sonorous voice and impeccable diction.) “I studied with Madeline Marshall, who was teaching at Julliard and was the great English language teacher at the Met,” Lokos says. “She literally wrote the book on how to sing in English. I used to cut all my classes at Brooklyn College so I could go to rehearsals. This teacher said, ‘Why don’t you go to a school where your classes are rehearsals?’”

A career was born, with Lokos performing on Broadway and loving it, as well as the lifestyle that came with it. It wasn’t lucrative, he says, but “I did lots and lots of raucous carrying on and having fun.” Later, wanting more, he and Weiss decided to pursue careers as ministers fostering harmony in post-9/11 New York. The interfaith group they founded wouldn’t last, yet the ministry experience would eventually lead to CMC’s birth in 2007, and training for it was what ultimately put Lokos onto the Buddhist path.

It’s often said that people come to the dharma because of suffering, but that wasn’t quite it for Lokos. “I was suffering as much as anybody else,” he claims, “but even in seminary, I never understood why the word was used so much.”

Instead, Lokos says he felt the pull of a more positive allure: “Part of the study program to be a minister was that a practitioner from each of the world’s religions would come and chat with us. And when this Buddhist fellow came in and began to speak, he brought this sense of calm and joy I really hadn’t seen before! That was in 1998, and I was about fifty-seven. He asked me, ‘My teacher is coming to the United States. Why don’t you come on retreat with us?’ So I did.” That teacher, Lokos’s first, was Thich Nhat Hanh.

Today, the connection to calm and joy remains. He says, “I’m often asked what about this path appealed to me so much. It’s just, life works better. It’s easier. It’s more fun.”

 

After the crash, Lokos endured surgery after surgery, graft after graft, with fantastic results. He seems awed, still, by all that’s happened, and without self-pity. But more than that, he seems appreciative.

“The body is unbelievable,” he tells me, smiling. “It’s incredible—this is all healing. When I came home, I could not turn on my electric toothbrush. The first time I did, we celebrated! The nerves are regenerating right now, which is painful, but also sort of miraculous because if they aren’t regenerating, then the hands are dead. So I try to rejoice in the fact that I’m getting a lot of pain in my hands. I could stop working on my legs right now, because I can walk—I could probably dance if I had to—but we’re continuing with these pressure garments that I’m wearing.” (They’re like the zippered, tipless gloves he wears, only covering his legs.)

“As difficult as things were for us, I think a lot of positive is coming out of it… will come out of it,” Lokos says. “The big thing that dominates all of my thinking right now is that there is this opportunity. In no way was I looking for it—certainly, not in the way I got it!—but there is now this opportunity to be able to reach people like I never could before. Quite frankly, if I had been in an automobile crash and injured exactly the same way, nobody would be interested. Practically everyone’s been in an auto crash. But ‘airplane crash’ grabs everybody’s attention. We had a group of attorneys come here, and when we were all finished, one of them said to me, tearfully, ‘This has been fantastic to meet with you. Usually we only get to meet with the families.’” 

And word gets around. Now when Lokos meets new people, they often tell him, “Oh, I’ve heard about you.” “So there is an opportunity here,” he says, “and I just hope I can be equal to it. I’m in uncharted waters.

 “The twist,” Lokos adds, “is that I will no longer only be teaching someone else’s teachings. Great teacher though I do follow—the Buddha—I have now been ‘in the fire’ for real, and have been among people who have been suffering in a real sense. Susanna reached a point—and she has spoken about this openly—of saying, ‘I now know that there can be something worse than death; we would’ve been better off if we had been killed.’ So suffering is no longer theory and philosophy. And I’m not through the flames yet. I’m still sitting in them.

“My life focus is around studying and teaching the dharma and writing,” Lokos continues. Indeed, Through Fire, which follows up his 2011 book, Patience, is well under way. “I want to help people realize that the last thing the Buddha said is very important: ‘Prepare now.’”

 

So, did meditation save Allan Lokos’s life a second time?

In a word: No. Lokos recalls that soon after the accident, his dear friend and mentor Sharon Salzberg advised him, “You shouldn’t be meditating.” It was as simple as that, Lokos explains. “I had no concentration whatsoever, and it wouldn’t have been wise to introduce an additional struggle at that time.”

But is it possible that meditation practice helped him in his recovery?

“That’s the first thing people usually ask,” he concedes. “Maybe that’s where I had one leg up—that, due to practice, I’m not under as much stress as a nonpractitioner might be. I think the way the research about these things puts it is that there is no illness or condition that is not made worse by stress. None! So if we’re dealing with less stress, we have a better chance.”

Wrapping up my visit with Lokos and Weiss, I ask about that comment she’d made to the doctor who’d said Lokos wouldn’t make it: “You don’t know this man.” What did Weiss know that the doctor didn’t?

“I don’t tend to quit,” Lokos offers. “Rather, I become more intrigued. I’ve discussed this with my trauma therapist—that I don’t really think that you can actually quit. And she said, ‘But you can turn bitter.’ And that’s what happens—a part of you quits. That doesn’t interest me.

“I don’t think I was in a plane crash for any reason other than I happened to be sitting on that plane. I’m very much a believer in ‘things arise out of causes and conditions.’ It was all my choice to be there; I don’t regret that choice—I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.”

Lokos and Weiss even flew again, on the one-year anniversary of the crash, to see family. “I think it’s good to do those things, you know,” he says.

“But it was not remarkable. Flying into Cleveland is not usually remarkable. Even the anniversary couldn’t change that.”

 

Rod Meade Sperry is the associate editor of the Shambhala Sun and the editor of the new anthology A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation: Practical Advice and Inspiration from Contemporary Buddhist Teachers.




From the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Photo(s) by Donna Svennevik.


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