"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

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

To the Dogs

So, the dog keeps you in touch with
Being—beyond mind—Being, the innermost core.
Eckhart Tolle

It seems like the right time to write about how all of this got started. Of course, in the interconnected universe, where any event has multiple causes stretching back to creation itself, it would be easy to lose any sense of a story. For brevity’s sake, and in the hopes of making it more entertaining, I will only go as far back as November '09 and the dog that saved my life.

On the weekend after Thanksgiving, I went to Charlotte, North Carolina, to meet up with our son, Justin, to perform a good deed. The deed was a simple one; Kath and I would adopt their 18-month-old Great Dane, Daphne, so that Justin and Jenny would get some peace and quiet in order to focus on raising their 2-year-old daughter, our grandest of all grand daughters, Elizabeth Grace. This act was a no-brainer for Kath and me. We had fallen in love with Daphne the moment we had met her as a little pup (if Great Danes can ever be considered that.) When our son started talking about finding her a new home due to the stress of raising two toddlers, we knew that new home would be ours.

Daphne arrived at a new home that was already populated by one dog named Sage, four cats and four fish. I figured that given her size, she was going to need an outdoor pen to run around in. We had already set up a double kennel in order to allow Sage and her earlier companion, Cody, to spend time outdoors without mauling each other. Since Sage showed little interest in the pen, I decided to expand the two areas into one large pen for Daphne. I spent that Saturday raking up wet leaves (I know!) and moving large pieces of fencing around in order to create a space fit for a Great Dane.

By the time I was finished, my left shoulder and most of my arm were in pain with an intensity I had not experienced before. Similar problems had sent me to a cardiologist, and then to an orthopedist to have my left shoulder examined and scanned. The cortisone shot they had given me had helped immensely. However, on this day, the shot seemed to have lost all effectiveness and I decided that I needed something stronger. I headed to the local Urgent Care center to tell them that my bad shoulder was acting up and to ask if they could kick up the pain meds just a notch.

Most of my time at Urgent Care was uneventful and predictable. Blood pressure was fine; temperature within normal range, range of movement in my pained shoulder was good. The doctor in charge said that he couldn’t tell where the pain was coming from but stated that since I had told him that the sensation was stretching across my chest he wanted to do a chest x-ray. So the routine orders of “Stand here, hold onto this, turn this way,” were issued and, in ever-increasing pain, I waited for the results of the x-ray.

The world changed for me that day when the doctor came back into the room and asked me to lay back down on the examining table. Now, most of what I know about medicine comes from watching M.A.S.H and ER, but I knew that this was not a usual request. As he started poking and prodding various parts of my body, I began to experience the rush of a coming panic attack. My toes became very warm and I felt light headed. Without saying anything, the doctor left the room and the nurse returned and hooked me up to a blood pressure monitor. My pressure was sky high. When the nurse asked me what was wrong I replied that I was "a little freaked by what the doctor was looking for.” As she left the office, I overheard her confront the doctor saying, “What did you do to him, he was fine when he came in.”

A thousand other things unfolded from that encounter with a doctor who decided to take an x-ray of the one area no one had looked at recently. I often think back to that sunny day raking leaves in order to make a home for the newest member of our family. What would have happened had we decided not to take Daphne into our home? How much longer would I have lived with the shoulder pain, which, not so coincidentally, is now gone post removal of the tumor, before having another shoulder scan and thereby again just missing the growing mass only inches away?

While no one ever said it to me directly, my sense is that had I not seen the doctor on that November day, the tumor may not have been removable through surgery and what was there may not have responded to chemotherapy. I think of this every time I see Daphne running through the house swinging one of my pillows joyfully in her huge mouth, when she chases one of our more timid cats across the living room, and even when she pees on the floor in an obvious statement of “I told you that I needed to go out.” I like thinking that Daphne played a role in saving my life. It helps to replace the often fearful thought that the universe is mean and arbitrary with the faith that it’s actually a truly miraculous place and only our ignorance of its depth makes us afraid.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Instant Messengers

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers:
for thereby some have
entertained angels unawares.
Hebrews 13:2

One of the things thrown off while my body rids itself of all the nasty chemicals it has absorbed over the past few months has been my sleep cycle. Post surgery, I slept like a baby; aided, no doubt, by the pain meds and my body's need to repair itself. During active treatment, sleep came rather easily from sheer exhaustion of what my body was going through. These days, however, I often find myself tossing and turning as mind and body try to readjust to "normal" life.

Being a firm believer in the notion that we cannot make sleep happen, we can only let go of wakefulness, I try not to struggle with these episodes. So, when wakefulness is stuck to me like Velcro, I will usually get out of bed and move into another room and let my mind wander as it will, knowing that it will eventually tire of itself. On one particular night, as I lay staring out our living room windows, the old Buddhist adage "When the student is ready the master will appear" came into my head. The idea is that when the time is right, not before, not after, our teacher, guide, guru, etc. will show up to lead us toward a higher level of consciousness. In the West, we are wired to think of this as always being a person whose wisdom will lead us toward everlasting life. In the East, it is taught that the guru can take any form and his, her, or its sole responsibility is to show us the path back toward our true self, our "inner guru."

As I lay there, legs still feeling like they were ready to run a marathon, mind already in full sprint mode, I thought, "Who is more ready than me, after everything I have been through? Where is my guru? Who is going to lead me out of this darkness? When is the master going to arrive? Why did I eat so many chicken wings? Did I take the garbage out? Which dog is licking my toes?” (My thinking is seldom linear during these moments.)

Suddenly, a question came to mind and it was like a light went on in my head. Or, maybe it was the motion spotlights outside illuminating the nightly visiting deer family hoping to munch on our garden’s latest offering. Whatever the case, I found myself wondering if it was possible that cancer itself was my teacher. Was it possible that while searching for a master, in the guise of a monkish figure come to Zen me out with his quirky insights, I had missed the obvious?

Instantly, the answer came with an equal flash. Nothing in my life has pushed me more toward present moment awareness, what the great masters have referred to as mindfulness, satori, moksha, or the kingdom of heaven, than thoughts about cancer. The moment I was diagnosed I began to shift from reading, thinking, and writing about mindfulness to actively engaging in its practices on a daily basis. Every anxious thought about what might happen next has been an alarm meant to wake me out of the dream of time, of past and future. Cancer has been there since the start like the Zen master’s board that he uses to slap the supposedly meditating student back into the here and now. (They actually do this; with love, of course.)

By no means am I suggesting that as I lay there that night I had become the Buddha--the awakened one. Heck, I didn’t even get a good night’s sleep, so I was the awake one. I did, however, gain a different perspective on my diagnosis and while I didn’t make friends with it, I did find some respect for what it has brought me in a positive sense. Its message seems clear; if we allow our greatest challenges to do their work, through acceptance not resistance, we just might find that the strangers who show up at our door are truly angels, literally “messengers,” in the ancient Greek text, who we mistook for intruders. The trick is that we have to be present in order to open the door when they knock.