A Year in the Face of Death

On November 7th 2017, death reared its ugly head as I walked my dog on a trail in Albuquerque New Mexico.  Jogging up a slight hill my breathing became labored, sweat poured from my body, and my throat felt like it was closing as if hands wrapped around my neck, squeezing the life from my body.  I slowed to a walk and tried to catch my breath to no avail.  I mentally stepped into meditation and forced my breathing into slow, regular breaths.  I could a hear a wheeze coming from my lungs and airway as I passed people on the trail, trying to catch my dog, Kona, zipping between people and dogs.

Fear rose in my mind and I frantically searched for the causes of this condition. Anaphylaxis? The classic symptoms of a heart attack were not present.  No chest pain.  No radiating pain down my arms. No numbness or other effects of that dreaded event.  I deliberately slowed my walking to a very timid pace, deliberately taking one step at a time.

I called my partner and asked her to pick us up.  I was about a 1/4 mile from the trail exit.  I felt a bit more calm, but the tightness in my throat did not subside.  We drove home and I sat outside on the porch, pouring water down my throat.   I took a benedryl thinking this pill would alleviate what I thought was an allergic reaction.  After three glasses of water, I felt a little better.

And then.  I cannot explain the feeling exactly.  I knew, completely knew, that I was going to pass out.  The feeling in my head was like a kind of blurry sense of self; I was feeling the onset of syncope, as I was told later.  I told my partner to call 911.  She did.  I passed out.

I was A+Ox1. Verbally responsive with a grunt, clutching my throat, breathing heavily.  Then, in about a minute, I was back.  I felt better.  Not just better, restored.  The fog lifted, the tightness in my throat gone.  Just as I woke an ambulance appeared, then two, then a fire truck, sirens blaring.  Paramedics came up to me, asked me questions, and fitted me with a blood pressure cuff, and set up an EKG.  The paramedic searching for my pulse said, “He doesn’t have a pulse.”  Dude.  Really?  I am moving, talking, responding to questions and I don’t have a  pulse?  Not likely.  The EKG looked roughly normal; maybe a depression, maybe arrhythmia.  Inconclusive results, as they say.  They asked if I wanted to go to the hospital.  I said, very clear, yes.

The short ride to the Heart Hospital included taking 4 baby aspirin.  I was hooked to an IV, fluids poured into my veins.  The paramedic talked about what was happening, radioed “probable MI”.  I arrived, and doctors surrounded me.  More questions.  Blood taken.  Within about an hour, everything was normal: heart rate, EKG, BP slightly elevated.  One doctor said, “He converted on his own.”

One Year Later…


The hospital stay was quick; I sat in the ER for about 24 hours while they decided what to do.  Found one marker in my bloodwork that showed a possible MI.  Heart cath.  Stent. Sent home the next day.

Since that day, I have felt like death is following me around.  It’s a completely new feeling, but one I should have been aware of much sooner.  My Buddhist practice is all about the reality of death and how we do not acknowledge it or prepare for it.  We go about our days oblivious to the fact of death.  Some see this focus as nihilistic.  Instead it’s very much part of life.

In my artery, the so-called “native artery” I have a lesion.  It’s blocking some percentage of that artery.  It’s in the artery known as the “widow-maker.”  My doctor said to me, “It’s just a matter of time.”  Isn’t that so true?  Just a matter of time for us all.

In the meantime I have changed my diet (plant-based), excluded oils, dairy, and all meat from my eating plan.  Watching triglycerides (they can be a problem even on a vegan diet) and monitoring my blood work.  Too, I am on a self-proscribed exercise plan doing what I love to do: riding my road bike.  Last weekend, one year since the great unfortunate event, I rode about 62 miles in the Day of the Tread.  I planned to go just 50, but felt good and decided to make it longer.

Here I am.  A survivor.  Someone who is attentive and aware of what I face.  Someone who, in the face of all of the potential gloom am seeking out the silver lining; the sun light in the midst of the rain.

Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,

In which the burthen of the mystery,

In which the heavy and the weary weight

Of all this unintelligible world,

Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,

In which the affections gently lead us on,—

Until, the breath of this corporeal frame

And even the motion of our human blood

Almost suspended, we are laid asleep

In body, and become a living soul:

While with an eye made quiet by the power

Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,

We see into the life of things.

William Wordsworth, Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798

Bodhicitta: The Alchemy that Turns Anything into Love

Over the years, I’ve read The Way of the Bodhisattva by Shantideva.  I have the text and commentaries written by people like the Dalai Lama and have heard talks about this text that reveal the profound teaching that this beautiful poetry describes.  Yet, I’ve been less and less likely to incorporate these teachings directly; mostly, I struggle with taking something in this text and finding a way to make the ideas fit within my proscribed mental formations…it’s like I understand the words but missed the meaning.

Into this morass of confusion came Pema Chodron’s text No Time to Lose.  Her writing and commentary have reopened my mind to the ways in which Shantideva transcended the teachers he encountered and helped transform what we understand as Buddhism.

In particular, Chodron’s commentary helped me better understand an idea I really thought I knew: bodhicitta.  This idea, bound up in the very heart of vajrayana teachings, is the core principle that opens the mind to the possibility of enlightenment and awareness.  Without this one thing, no dharma teaching our reading will do anything for you.  It’s like I have experienced: reading the words but missing the meaning.

In her text, I am pausing on bodhicitta.  Why this concept today?  Well it’s pretty much the place I need to be right now.  I don’t know if you’ve experienced this feeling, but I’ve hit a proverbial wall.  I cannot move my mind any further in any direction without this teaching.  As well, without incorporating the essence of bodhicitta and compassion into my thoughts and actions, I’m missing a key to breaking the pattern of samsara in which I am trapped.

Here’s the money quotation from Shantideva,

For like the supreme substance of the alchemists, it takes the impure form of human flesh/ And makes of it the priceless body of a buddha. Such is bodhicitta: we should grasp it firmly! (Chapter 1, verse 10)

Ok, so stay with me here.  Paolo Coelho’s book The Alchemist really spoke to me when I first read it.  The idea that what we seek is not at all what we need.  That virtually every distraction and obstacle will get in our way until we unlock the awareness of our minds.  Like Shantideva is saying, we can take our own form and create from it a buddha.  Unlike Shantideva, however, Coelho’s awareness comes from connecting to the Soul of the World.  Maybe that could be a kind of buddha nature?  A nature we all share?  Hmmm.220px-Shantideva(1).gif

Anyway, Shantideva is finally speaking to me through Chodron’s words.  In particular, I loved her words on how bodhicitta is like a great fire, burning away all negative tendencies.  She says, “Ordinarily we buy into our negative habits, acting them out or turning hem against ourselves.”  In may own case, the idea that we take those negative thoughts and actions and turn them against our own best heart is so much of my own tendency.  Her language really captured my attention and helped me redirect my thoughts.  Rather than acting out or repressing these negative energies, we stand in the fire and allow the pain to connect to those around us.

The fact is, experiencing the pain of negative thoughts and emotions is, actually, a KEY to making the connection to bodhicitta.  What a profound and wonderful way to look at it all.

Evidence-Based Living

The complexity of living by research and a constant stream of information is overwhelming.  We are bombarded by advocates for one approach to living or another.  There are moments in which I am stymied with the massive amount of information I am given.  Which story is accurate?  Is coconut oil the silent killer?  Can I really consume 60% of my diet in fat and be healthy?  If I meditate one hour a day, I will remain calm and at peace all day long.  Which author is revealing some truth?  It is so challenging to figure out which way to go in terms of living a healthy, happy life.

A Healthy Life is Just 30 Days Away!

On my path to be physically and mentally healthy, I’ve run across so many statements about changing your life.  In fact, after a review of information about the Whole30 diet, almost every web site made this claim: “let us change your life!” or “change your life in 30 days!” or “your best life now!”  From the Whole30 Program web page, “millions of people have successfully completed our Whole30 program with stunning, life-changing results.” Wow. Stunning! Life-Changing! The claims of personal satisfaction and transformation were alarming and hopeful.whole30

Yet that healthy life, you know the one, where your children are always happy, your partner oozes with gratitude and support, and your body and mind are at one in union as you all flow on the path together.  Yea THAT life.  Does not exist.

Evidence-based living brings us to evidence-based anxiety and frustration.  Writers offer contradictory approaches to diet, exercise, medicine, mental health, and just about everything else under the sun.  WHAT is a person to do in the midst of it all??

The thing is, it’s hard NOT to feel like a failure at everything.  In this world crowded with mantras of how you need to do this thing or that thing, how the only way to good health, eating, marriage, relationships, kindness, wholeness is to follow THIS approach!   Truthfully, it’s all a kind of madness.  I’ve come to the conclusion that all of the noise is trying to drown out one internal scream: the of the fear of death.  That soundless scream is the thing that drives us to ruin; personal ruin or otherwise.  As I make choices that are clearly against my best interests, whether it’s food or whatever, I’m running as fast as I can away from the truth of my existence: that I am dying and will die.

So, the ads claiming vitality, a better sexual experience, or finding the perfect mate are all distractions from the fact that whatever you choose distracts you from the inevitable.

Now, this diatribe is not a message of depression or a nihilistic view of the world.  It’s the fact of impermanence.  Everything changes and will change constantly.  One moment life will be a glorious, joyful moment…the next a failed experiment in living.  On my recent trip to the Grand Canyon (not so much a trip as a quick visit via Flagstaff), I experienced impermanence as it happened: the light moving across the canyon, the vistas slowly disappearing in shadow as the light of the sun descended over the horizon.

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Grand Canyon view, Fall 2018

The light faded and I watched as the day changed to night, the canyon fell into darkness, the image permanently transformed.  The light I captured in that photographed lasted seconds.  Literally in a moment it was gone.

Trying to live our lives using all of the evidence around us is, in part, a good thing.  To be aware of knowledge that can effect your personal outcomes is positive.  At the same time, evaluating these pieces of information and forming those ideas into a coherent plan of action is a completely different process.  Let’s take on these ideas one at a time.

Diet: a plan for eating is a good thing.  Keeping track of what you eat and understanding that what goes into your body can profoundly affect your health.  This one change is a real step in the direction of having some measure of control over your life.  At the same time, it’s sad but true that the phrase “everything in moderation” is a killer.  From my perspective, based on my understanding, there is no amount of meat that is safe to eat.  The evidence against the consumption of meat has been building for years.  While some folks argue that eating meat in reasonable quantities is OK, you will find a lot of evidence against that approach.  Again, not a diatribe along the lines of “meat is murder”….a statement of fact based on scientific evidence.  Briefly, adding meat (and the fat that goes with it) to your diet increases the levels of LDL in your bloodstream leading to a buildup of lipoproteins that will line our arterial walls and create serious problems for our bodies.  Finding a diet that prevents such a calamitous event is important…deciding which one works for you the work that will take a while (for me a couple of years).

Stress: finding a way to deal with the daily onslaught of stress is a huge part of living a healthy life and stories abound of ways to achieve this outcome.  Yoga. Meditation. Quiet time. Reading. Chilling. So many choices and paths to choose to lead you to a calm, more stress-free existence.

When it comes down to it, dealing with stress is about changing your mind.  Literally, the way mind works has to be transformed.  That, my friends, is a huge challenge.  We have habits that are ingrained into our minds; like trail ruts of wagons that passed on the Oregon Trail, our thoughts are trapped in a sequence we have settled on years ago.  To break free of these thoughts and emotions carved into our minds, it takes a huge effort.  From my perspective, a transformative effort.

Oregon Trail ruts…like the thoughts and emotions in our minds.

First, we have to realize that some of what we have been taught is fundamentally flawed.  Here’s my thing: we have to abandon the idea that we can create happiness for ourselves.  Yea, I know.  We all hear the stories of how doing yoga everyday brought happiness to that one person on Instagram and therefore happiness is achievable through yoga.  OR all you have to do is meditate each day and you will find the source of happiness.  I think something got lost somewhere when folks attributed Eastern philosophy with happiness.  If we were really paying attention, we would already realize that happiness is not something you create inside your own mind; it’s something you give away in acts of compassion.  Serving those around you and not focusing on one’s own happiness leads to, well, something akin to happiness.  So, want to end stress in our lives?  Focus on helping someone people in your life.  My daughters came up with a pretty simple idea: make food bags for homeless people and give them out instead of money.   Simple things lead to positive results for those around you.