This Terrible, Spectacular, Agonizing, & Gorgeous Moment of Living

I plan to include on this site personal meditations & musings about my own experience in a human body. Although some people might find this exhibitionist and distasteful, I believe it important to back up the central message of MindfulBiology with examples from my life. After all, there needs to be some evidence behind what I’m advocating. Although plenty of research has been published demonstrating the benefits of mindfulness and yoga, there isn’t any specifically about the use of biological imagery in mindfulness meditation. Randomized trials of MindfulBiology methods are unlikely to be undertaken anytime soon, so the only proof I can offer of their value is my own improvement as I adopted them.

The text quoted below is from a post I wrote in 2012, shortly after the first of two hospitalizations early that year. I include it here because it marked a transition in my life. After this brush with death, I understood that time is short. My rate of emotional and spiritual maturation increased, as did my love of life and all it entails: the entire spectrum of experience from birth to death, from joy to terror. I see that hospitalization as a key moment in the development of MindfulBiology.

As background, it’s important to mention that there was a time when suicide tempted me. This wasn’t surprising, since my earliest memories revolve around my mother’s depression and her subsequent dying from it. During my fourth through sixth years, as her depression worsened, I heard her pray for death. When word came that she had been found dead in the psychiatric hospital, it seemed she had been granted what she craved. So when low moods plagued me in my early twenties, and many times afterward, it seemed natural to imagine ending my own life.

But then I confronted a life-threatening illness (though despite the worries expressed in the essay below, it was not cancer), and I learned then that even if you have spent a lifetime imagining death as a relief, when you glimpse the unplanned end of your own time on this planet, mortality feels far from welcome.

I spent the last four days in a hospital. It all began with severe abdominal pain, which I endured for twelve hours before letting my wife drive me to the Emergency Department. It hurt too much to sit up, so I laid down in the back seat and spent the entire short drive shivering from cold and pain. After several hours of workup, the doctors informed me that a liter of fluid had been found next to my pancreas. They believed this was very likely blood from a sudden internal hemorrhage, but they were uncertain about its cause.

After a few days in the hospital the diagnosis remained unclear. The first considerations of pancreatitis and perforated ulcer were ruled out by further tests, and my wife and I were left with a short list of exotic benign problems but also the real possibility of pancreatic cancer.

As a physician, I know that this particular malignancy is highly lethal. It usually kills quickly and the longterm survival rate is extremely low. We hope, of course, that something else will explain my condition, but now that I’m back home awaiting additional studies, I’m finding mortality staring me down like never before.

You can contemplate suicide a thousand times and so convince yourself that death would not trouble you. But let the Reaper come knocking at your door in the form of a dangerous disease, and suddenly you realize that life is more precious than you ever admitted.

Any longterm reader of my essays has watched me grow more welcoming of life’s uproar. I now find beauty in even the hardest circumstances, and I love all beings with more depth than I could have imagined in younger years. But although I’ve endeavored to walk through my days with increasing mindfulness, and to appreciate the shifting weather and achy momentum of my human body, this morning I am feeling life’s tender majesty with greater acuity than ever.

On our fence outside hangs a ceramic sun made in Mexico. It is a cheap item that we bought long ago. But seeing its bright, shiny face this morning nearly brought me to tears. How many more opportunities will I have to gaze upon this innocent bauble? How many times have I glanced its direction without noticing the serene, eternal message? Or appreciating my spouse’s sweetness in hanging an uplifting decoration where it can be seen every day whether I choose to look or not?

The clay sun is just a small example of how powerfully everything is hitting me right now. I hesitate to describe the wrenching, simple joy I feel in my humble stucco house, or how potent my wife’s worried smile feels to me as she gazes at me typing here next to the fireplace. So many heartrending gifts that I take in every day but seldom really feel. So much life surrounds me, and so much of it has passed me by as I obsessed about past mistakes or future problems.

Well, it all may turn out fine. Maybe it was just a ruptured aneurysm. Maybe I can go back to ordinary life without fear that the next six months will trace a slow, agonizing spiral toward extinction. But either way, I now see the futility of complaining about the problems we face. They will end soon enough, whether we want to let them go or not. In the meantime, our task is to embrace this terrible, spectacular, agonizing, and gorgeous moment of living. Most of all, we must love everybody and everything that shares our time on this plane, while we still can.