"Whatever takes us to our edge, to our outer limits, leads us to the heart of life's mystery, and there we find faith."--Sharon Salzberg

Saturday, February 27, 2010


They also serve who only stand and wait
John Milton

If you’re going to get sick, as in “need to see doctors on a regular basis” sick, then you had better get good at waiting. I don’t mean waiting for the bus, waiting for the rain to stop, or waiting for something good to turn up on pay-per-view type of waiting. The kind of waiting I’m talking about is the gut wrenching, soul squeezing, “The doctor will be with you in a minute,” waiting that anyone with a serious illness knows about all too well.

This isn’t a rant about the medical profession and its apparent twisted sense of time, I want to talk about the psychological nature of waiting itself. The word actually means “to watch over” or simply to “watch.” This seems relatively harmless and even somewhat quaint--as in “I think I’ll just watch to see if those clouds are ever going away.” The problem, of course, comes from the time-addicted mind and its need to keep things moving. Waiting is to the mind what being stranded on the beach is to a fish. So it is that a mind forced into idleness flaps around gasping for something to worry about.

The smorgasbord of waiting that is laid out before you when you fall ill would be farcical were it not so physically, psychologically, spiritually and emotionally draining. From the time of my diagnosis to the time of my surgery six weeks passed by. There was the waiting for test results, waiting to have the procedure done, waiting for the drugs to wear off, waiting for the drugs to kick in, waiting to get into the hospital, waiting to get out of the hospital…and so forth. In the spirit of the Olympic season, I think I deserve at least the Bronze Medal in waiting.

Sure losing one’s cool seems like a good idea when asked to wait one too many times. However, it seldom has the desired effect. The inner tension that builds is simply one more form of stress that the body has to confront. The externalization of that stress on the poor receptionist, who has seen one too many meltdowns, simply earns one the extra notation in the chart, “Mr. Verano is not handling his recovery very well.” Believe me; no one waits longer than the one tagged with the asterisk “Needs to practice being more patient.”

My wife and I have chosen another course when it comes to time not spent--we engage in meditative practices. Now don’t imagine some new age couple sitting in lotus position in the oncology office chanting “Om.” What we do, instead, is turn waiting back into its origin and simply watch. We watch our breathing, watch our thoughts mindfully (without judging), and watch the ebb and flow of inner energy. In this way, our waiting becomes our practice; an invitation to meet ourselves in the present moment. In this now moment comes a sense of calm that one seldom finds while waiting to hear that both radiation and chemo are recommended . When this process really catches hold, we finds ourselves getting a little annoyed when the nurse finally arrives to take us back to see the doctor. “Just when I was on the verge of nirvana.” Oh well, there will always be next time.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


In the depth of winter,
I finally learned that there was within me
an invincible summer.
Albert Camus

“You’re going to walk through the fire, and you’re going to be ok.” These are words that I will never forget. They were spoken by a coworker who had learned that my CT scan had confirmed that there was a mass nestled under my sternum that was clearly not supposed to be there. Then she pointed to a scar on her right cheek and said, “I got this for my 39th birthday, cancer of the mouth.” She hugged me with the kind of the hug that says, “You’re one of us now.”

I was humbled by her openness and compassion but I was also confused, in my denial. What fire? There was no fire, simply some blob of something that would turn out to be a mere smudge from the radiologist’s finger. Or, perhaps there would just be a low burning ember, like “Well, Mr. Verano, it’s not supposed to be there but it’s not going to hurt anything to leave it alone.”

Not only were my coworker’s words prophetic, as I was, in fact, about to join the club of people diagnosed with cancer, they also pointed to a profound truth. This truth is that life after a major medical diagnosis is never the same and the challenges ahead are initiation rites of the highest order. Only one who had crossed that blazing bed of charcoal briquettes can possibly look someone in the eye and, without a hint of uncertainty, say “I’ll see you on the other side.”

There are many ways that illnesses get interpreted. From the lofty heights of “God’s will” to the street level “shit happens,“ not only are we given a health crisis we are faced with giving it meaning. A central message passed down through ages is that while our joys make life sweeter, it is our sufferings that define who we are. Despite appearing hardwired for good times, it seems profoundly true that it is our pain, not our pleasure, that make us grow. This is surely why the great teachers from both the East and West spent so much time talking about facing our suffering. It’s not that they were kill-joys looking to rain on everybody’s parade, they were pointing directly at the fertile ground that lies within our very souls. Ground that so often looks like a deep pit, a road to nowhere or even a path of pure fire.

This is why so few take the trip willingly. A push of some sort is usually required to break the “I like things just the way they are“ mentality. When it comes to this nudge toward a new path, cancer is like the big bully who waits at the public pool for some poor unsuspecting soul who is trying to get up the nerve to enter one toe at a time when all the sudden, SPLASH! Now it’s sink or swim time.

The first few days after my surgery I often found myself repeating my coworker’s words over and over like a mantra. Especially the “you’re going to be ok,” part. It had an immediately calming effect, the source of which was much deeper than mere positive thinking. When I would say these words, it was as if I was in contact with the very spirit in her that had already sorted out all the fears, questions, uncertainties and disjointed thoughts that were rattling around in my head. Bless her for having done all of that work for me ahead of time.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Time That Wasn't Lost

So many wings flew around
The mountains of sorrow
And so many wheels beat
The highway of our destiny,
We had nothing left to lose.
And our weeping ended.

Pablo Neruda

Too often, when illness strikes or we encounter some unexpected form of suffering, it is as if life is put on hold. We even talk about having lost time while sick or recovering from a traumatic life event. The notion is that our lives move in certain trajectories and that ill health is a deviation from that course.

This sense of time wasted, of a life that has jumped the track and is now stuck on the sidelines, adds an extra burden to our psyches. We watch as healthy and vibrant people move care free with seemingly orchestrated ease. If we really want to push our grief deeper, we envy them and their nonchalant approach to their days. Secretly, in the deepest recesses of our hearts, lingers the unanswerable “Why me, why now, why this?”

But what if these moments do not represent a pause in life? What if they are not detours but a direct path? Less traveled surely, but no less valuable than the well mapped out roads more desired? Is it possible that we were meant to live our illnesses with the same curiosity and willingness normally reserved for “the good life?” Perhaps the ancient teachings of the Buddha, Lao Tzu and Jesus, that called us to find peace amidst suffering, were practical, not metaphorical.

My experience since being diagnosed with a rare form of thymic cancer and undergoing thoracic surgery to remove the tumor, coupled with four years of studying mindfulness techniques, has convinced me that the great masters were correct. They saw no distinction between up and down, yes or no, health or illness. They saw only manifestations of a singular loving source that calls to us to wake up and live life in the present moment. Their message is as simple as it is profound; the peace we seek is no further away than our next breath and the path we seek is no further away than our next step.

In the end, there is no such thing as lost time. Illness does not take us out of the game; it pushes us deeply into the heart of the matter. Whether or not we experience gain or loss depends on whether our pain brings openings or shuts us off from being able to live life fully. Personally, I found that the door of awareness rests on loose hinges. At times, it swings easily into the realm of depression and “what ifs.” However, with the same ease, it opens on the vast experience of life in the now.

Sharing my experience helps me make sense of what I have been through, not by reliving it, but by living through it with others. If this experience has taught me anything it is that none of us goes it alone. I whole-heartedly believe that the path to my recovery is paved by the thoughts, prayers and healing energy of others. My hope is that by sharing this episode in my life I might repay some of the overwhelming kindness shown to me. My health felt like a very personal thing, my illness is a social event that has reframed my notion of wellness.