Category Archives: Buddhism

Impermanence and Complaint

“Allow your thoughts to come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.” (Suzuki Roshi)

I’ve been pretty sick with a cold–for almost four weeks now. Tests identified rhinovirus on July 17 and again (still!) on August 8. In the last couple of days I had a low-grade fever which was just enough to make me feel crappy.

I’m hopeful this morning. The Tylenol and Ibuprofen are keeping the temp down. I’ve started taking Augmentin (penicillin), which is usually not recommended without signs of a bacterial infection, but doctors are extra-careful with stem cell transplant patients, especially with fever. I’m starting to feel better.

This cold has been even more annoying because 2017 has so far been the year of viruses–rhinovirus, influenza, parainfluenza. I think the immunosuppressant I was taking for graft-versus-host disease (now resolved) increased my vulnerability to these things (no great leap of logic), so I stopped taking it.

When I feel good, I forget to appreciate how nice it is to feel good. When I’m very sick, I’m in the hospital–surrounded by experts, and usually I have a strong feeling (and motivation) that there’s a treatment that will make me better. In both those situations, feeling very good or very bad, I can forget or ignore the fact of impermanence.

When I have “just” a cold, but feel too crappy to do anything, I discover a sense of guilt if I don’t recover quickly. (That’s helpful, right? If you don’t feel well, there’s a mental trick to make you feel even worse.)

Feeling good doesn’t last long before it shifts. But who thinks like that?

Buddhists try to. It’s challenging to think about impermanence when everything in your life is going swimmingly. But that’s when we should be taming and training our minds, because we know things will change. It’s easier to train your mind when your body isn’t overwhelmed, to prepare for when it is.

Feeling bad is a clear message, a lesson, that feeling good doesn’t last. The medical rush to make it better can be a way to avoid awareness of impermanence. We’d rather not think about it.

My practice, I remind myself, is to simplify my inner commentary, calm my personal curmudgeon. (Seriously? Another virus?!) Stop complaining.

As I start feeling better, I challenge myself not to forget how sick I was, and to remember the countless others who are more sick than I. I challenge myself not to forget (or complain about) impermanence.

Impermanence is a profound teaching because it is a universal fact. It should become as familiar as our own name. We should never become complacent about it, or treat it as merely an idea or a philosophy.

The coffee that’s gone cold, our moods that can shift unexpectedly, last night’s elegant dinner that’s become a fading memory. People, too–friends, enemies, family, celebrities–we arise, dwell for a while, and move on. That’s how things are. It can be horribly painful when someone wonderful dies. Or a profound relief when an illness ends. Bad things fade away as well as good things.

We should experience impermanence, acknowledge it, feel it, open our hearts to it. Live in the full catastrophe. Be motivated by impermanence, inspired toward compassion and the path of awakening.

As we train our minds in this way, we realize that all we have is nowness.

P.S. Just to avoid any misunderstanding, I don’t advocate stopping medical or mental health treatment. Some people get the funny idea that meditation or Buddhism will heal everything and solve every problem. It won’t. 

Take loving care of your body and mind, as you would your own child. Maintain awareness of the preciousness of existence.

Things Fall Apart

Photograph of pelicans by Celeste Budwit-Hunter

When people ask what has helped me “stay positive” on my cancer journey, I should just quote Pema Chödrön. She summarizes the approach that has been the basis of my dharmic path for half my life. I would be miserable without it.

“Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” (from When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön)

Maria Popova, brilliant writer of Brain Pickings, highlights these teachings in a recent blog post

The “letting there be room for all of this to happen” is an attitude and practice firmly grounded in the experience of meditation. Meditation is the foundation, in my experience and according to traditional teachings, for developing genuine openness, cheerfulness, and bravery.

Gifts

Good news is always the best kind of gift. This time last year, right before Christmas, Jessica, the Stem Cell Transplant coordinator, called me to say they had found a stem cell donor for me. The donor was a 100%, perfect match. 

Jessica sounded almost giddy with excitement. I learned later that the team had started to worry. They were having difficulty finding many donor options for me. They were so relieved to confirm not just a good match, but a perfect one (14/14 alleles). My doctor called me her “Christmas miracle.”

Yesterday I received a different kind of good medical news. My kidney function is dramatically improved for the first time in many months. My doctors agree that the cause of the problem was TMA (thrombotic microangiopathy), and that the TMA is now “resolved.” Bye, TMA.

I was hospitalized for the effects of TMA in June. The immunosuppressant medication Tacrolimus, which is standard issue post-transplant, caused my TMA. TMA results in a cascade of effects, among them lower hemoglobin and higher creatinine levels.

Healthier kidneys, no more TMA–it’s a huge relief. The news nicely confirms how well I’ve been feeling the last few days, both physically and mentally. With healthier kidneys and good management of my blood pressure, I feel more energy during the day, so I’m more active. Once I’ve finished tapering off the current course of steroids, I’ll sleep better too.

Last weekend, before getting the news, I felt inspired to revisit my Qi Gong and lengthy meditation practices for the first time in, well, a very long time. These practices put me in touch with “life force energy.” We all have life force energy while we’re alive, but circumstances and our untamed minds can distract us from staying in touch with it. As a result we feel less alive. 

The last 14 months have been life-threatening, draining, challenging. I am realistic enough to know there are likely to be more bumps on this road. There are no guarantees. So I’m grateful for the practices that help plant me in the center of my precious life. I appreciate the committed doctors who have been so dedicated to making me well. I’m thankful for all my friends and family who share their warmth and caring.

To you and yours, Merry Christmas, happy holidays, cheerful Solstice. 

Life Changes

Life changed dramatically for me and my family when I was diagnosed last year with plasma cell leukemia. The perspective I’ve contemplated for half my life–that situations are impermanent and unpredictable–came alive as a sanity-saver. I’ll be sharing parts of that story here, along with other brilliant stuff. 

The Bardo of Waiting

I wrote an email to a friend this morning:

I am getting familiar with that in-between, waiting, confused, gap experience. I’m waiting on biopsy results myself–results are due Tuesday. My health over the last year has been one thing after another, since I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis a year ago.

There’s a word for this waiting place from Tibetan Buddhism–bardo. A bardo is a state where we’re leaving something familiar, and the next stage hasn’t fully revealed itself. It’s the most uncomfortable, potentially terrifying place to be. It requires the utmost kindness, gentleness, a light touch of awareness, and an approach of grounding, one-step-at-a-time, and appreciation for the present moment. Continue reading