The Face of Death

As I have said in previous posts, illness presents so many opportunities for practice and reflection.  Since last year I have faced a series of minor illness that built to this very moment.  Each of those illnesses were unconnected to the present problem I face, according to doctors I have spoken with; and yet, I am hesitant to give up on the notion that certain conditions do not have a precursor, a single connection that links symptoms to disease.  I believe in causation.  Buddhism has taught me that lesson.

On Tuesday night, walking my dog on a brisk walk and slow jog, my breathing became labored, my throat tightened.  I called my partner and asked her to pick me up.  My first thought was that I was having a reaction to a recent medication I took, an antacid.  As an aside, I generally take no medications when faced with some pain.  I use medicine as a specific remedy.  So, when I arrived at the house, sat in a chair on the front porch, I tried to catch my breath, and felt lightheaded and sweaty.  I took a benedryl and drank water…I felt better….in the very next moment I had some clarity of my symptoms and realized I was going to pass out; I said to my partner, “call 911.”

In midst of the ambulances and paramedics, I was connected to blood pressure cuffs and the like, completely lucid and aware.  To that point I used my meditation practice to gain some control over my wild mind…staying in the here and now, being completely present for what was happening.  They took me to the hospital and I was poked and prodded.  Initial results showed nothing, absolutely nothing.   Blood work came back good, and my heart rhythm was normal.  The staff stuck me in a room and I waited for the next morning for more tests.

In those hours in the hospital I watched and listened as patient after patient was wheeled into the ER. My room was the first in the ER, next to the outer door.  The swish of the automatic door opening and closing each time a patient was ushered into the triage.  Feet away from my bed was a radio alerting staff to the next patient and their condition.  Every word of their initial report spilled into the air.  No names, just basic information:  a 51 year old woman, blood pressure 157/94, a 77 year old man, unresponsive, and on and on.  In front of my room, a glass doorway partially covered by a pale green curtain, I heard the last gasp of life from an elderly man as the staff worked to save him. As the night wore on, I heard the nurses and doctors call out medications, treatments, and a series of “codes”.

As I lay in my bed, I brought my legs together and began meditation.  Distracted as I was, I could only use the “Benza Guru” mantra over and over.  I grabbed my phone, turned on the mantra on repeat, and for about two hours just stayed in that place.  Stillness spread across my mind and I was spacious.  At that point in the early AM, I started a tonglen meditation in its most simple form; giving and taking.  Giving happiness, taking on suffering.

Prayer Wheel, Bumthang, Bhutan


The words of Dzongar Jamyang Khentsye and Sogyal Rinpoche were right there, present in my mind.  I did what I could to remember the process and I didn’t feel like I made any difference in anyones life in those hours in the hospital bed.  I let go of the whole idea of accomplishment.  In the back of mind, I thought that I COULD make a difference; that somehow my giving and taking would help relieve some pain or suffering from someone.  So, I let go of accomplishments and just stayed with the practice for a time.

As I am sure you know, time in a hospital is measured in visits from nurses, doctors, and staff.  I did not and would not turn on the TV during my entire time.  I just sat and allowed my mind to be empty; truly empty…I did not attach to any thought.  I credit not being distracted with my practice and the teachings I have heard.  A calm mind woke and I was present when staff came by and food was offered.  Ultimately, a sense of being grateful rose for all of these staff, all of these people caring for me, and being cared for.

My stay in the Hospital was brief; 36 hours.  In that time I was treated and released.  My plan of action was put into place and I have a way forward.

During and after the visit I felt and feel so lucky.  I faced the prospect of death and came out with a sense of wonder and awe at the world, and my place in it.  More importantly, I learned a valuable lesson in compassion.  Sitting in the ER for 24 hours, laying on a bed will do that for you.  Listening to folks come and go, hearing the challenges and difficulties of all the patients, sitting in the midst of all this confusion, pain, and suffering, what was real was that we all face the same basic situation: suffering in many forms.

I wish I could say I have some deep insight or perspective on any of this stuff.  What I took away and what I am keeping with me is the simple truth: that the way to peace is through compassion for all sentient beings.

A Butterfly in Trongsa, Bhutan




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s