Strong mind, strong body?

Strong mind, strong body?

When Toronto’s combative Mayor announced his cancer diagnosis, a chorus of sympathy arose from supporters (few) and detractors (many) alike. They sang from the same hymn book, so to speak: “He is a fighter, he will beat this.”  It is a sentiment I hear routinely at the cancer hospital from the families of patients. Once upon a time the mind-body connection was the stuff of fairy tale. Yogis trampled upon by herds of elephants and surviving unscathed. Daredevils chained in underwater cages escaping certain deaths. Mind over matter, we were told to our amazement.

Now, the whole notion of mind-body and healing has come to be accepted as mainstream. (Thank you, Deepak Chopra. Take a bow, Miss Oprah). The problem is, in our haste to be enlightened, have we failed to think things through?

Whenever a terminal diagnosis is given, it is warm and fuzzy to believe that  my loved one (or I) will beat the odds because he is strong-willed, or because she has the faith of a saint. We somehow take is as gospel that there is a kind of jihad going on between the body (which is falling apart) and the mind (which is struggling to keep it together). So the logic goes, think postive thoughts, stay cheerful and determined, and this fatal illness will be defeated. What we conveniently ignore is that the body is born with its own destiny: it is in our DNA. Yes, a happy mind is good for your well-being, but worry does not grow tumors in the brain, hatred does not clog up the arteries of the heart. Were wishes indeed powerful enough to overcome DNA, trust me, I would be six-foot four! And if being “young at heart” were enough, Viagra need never have been invented.

Think of all the thousands of hospitals in the world: almost every patient who enters their double doors have some pretty solid reasons to live (children, youth, or simply the universal urge to survive) yet not every patient will leave the hospital alive. I once heard a patient (a Jehovah’s Witness), say to his roommate, (a Hindu), that if he were to accept Jesus as his saviour his cancer would vanish. (Hey buddy, then how come you are also tethered to a chemotherapy IV?) If we could cure ourselves based upon will, or the power of faith, cemeteries need never exist.

Where the mind does have a gigantic clout however, is in our habits, which have everything to do with healing. A mind trained in self-discipline will effortlessly adhere to a medication regime. A self-controlled mind will exercise the body without fuss, it will not struggle to choose nutritionally beneficial foods, and perhaps most importantly, such a mind will shut off when rest is required. If, on the other hand, say your mind fights obesity and fails, perhaps it is powerless to keep its promises to stop drinking into alcoholic stupors (or crack-laced tirades). Seriously, can such a mind be considered “strong” enough to fight a fatal diagnosis? (Are you listening Toronto?)

I am reminded of my late guru, the great Swami Chinmayanda, who, when I met him, was globetrotting with three-quarters of his heart dead. The last cardiologist who examined him exclaimed: Why is this man even alive?  Those of us lucky enough to have observed him closely knew the reason. His was a very strong mind indeed, his discipline was the opposite of that of Toronto’s mayor. He could catnap at will, he could slow his heart rate to almost nothing, make his breathing almost invisible. I had the opportunity to quiz him about his seemingly miraculous control over his body. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “The body will do what it needs to. Rise above it. Don’t get too concerned.” His words sounded abstract at the time, but strangely personal.

Little did I know then that twenty years later I would be in a coma with the same cardiac condition as his. Many factors helped me but key among them were years of training in disciplining my mind. As long the mind is in conflict with the habits of the body, it will bring pain. His words helped me to accept the outcome of the body, whatever it might be. My mind reached a place of quietude which, ironically, calmed my heart rate enough for the body to recover.

Sadly, I have witnessed patients struggle to the bitter end because their mind was never trained to let go of the body. Any kind of conflict is painful, be it the struggle to adapt habits or the conflict to deny the inevitable. They died in greater agony than was necessary.

There is indeed a body-mind synergy but it exists at the foundation of the conscious mind. With practice anyone can learn to access the common foundation of both the body and the mind through ending conflict. In other words by learning to let go gracefully, the miraculous is possible. Though even this has its limits. Ultimately, Swami Chinmayananda’s body succumbed to its destiny. None is immortal. There is nothing any of us can do except learn to be at peace with this. Now that is strength.






Le Suicide by Edouard Manet.

Le Suicide by Edouard Manet.

Geraldine is a chatterbox with a mind far quicker than her eighty-eight-year body. As I sit listening to her I discover I hardly need to nod or interject the obligatory ‘yes’. After she is done telling her rich life story, she throws me a curveball. “When I fell sick and they brought me to the hospital’s emergency, honestly, I just didn’t care what was to happen next.” She kept her gaze steady before her, not bothering to see if I was startled her frank remark. “It’s not that I wanted to die, but truthfully, I have lead such a full life that I didn’t care if it was time for me to go.” Had she bothered to look at my expression, she would not have seen even a hint of surprise. I hear such sentiments from the elderly on a routine basis.

Yet a few months back one ninety-year-old man ignited a debate in Toronto by electing to choose the time and manner of his own exit from the world. John Allan Lee was an intelligent and self-aware man. He was a professor at a prestigious university and the author of several non-fiction books. He chose to leave the world now, before infirmity and dementia had set in. He did not want the indignity of waiting for death in an institution: having strangers change his diaper, being told when to eat and when to sleep. A practicing Buddhist, he knew that his awareness would not diminish, it would witness the agonizingly slow decimation of  both his mind and his body.

His methodically planned suicide caused many of us to think very deeply about what choices we might make when our time comes. There was a time in my life when my immediate response would have been to dismiss any such notion as unethical. I used to believe strongly that if a person takes his own life he is then doomed to return in his next life to the same set of circumstances and/or difficulties that compelled him to end his own life. I am no longer that dogmatic.

As I listened to John Allan Lee tell the world of his reasoning, I was nearly convinced that his decision was a wise and reasonable one. Then he said, “”I’m finished. I don’t have a bucket list. I don’t have an unfinished agenda.” Since he was no longer able to physically pursue the activities that had once brought him joy, he saw no purpose in lingering.

It seemed to me there was a huge flaw in that logic. Speaking as someone who has undergone a transformative physical journey because of my own terminal illness, I too once felt as Mr. Lee did. That life was over, it had been swell and what is the point of taking my pills and keeping alive. But that physical journey was also accompanied by a psychically transformative journey. I was no longer useful to society doing what I used to do, but I still had much to contribute. I discovered new joys, new strengths, new skills I had never imagined.

Co-incidentally that same week a young father expressed to me more or less the same sentiments as Mr. Lee. This younger man was left physically debilitated by cancer and his desperation was obviously from emptiness, and not from fullness. “I won’t be able to do things I used to,” he complained. “I won’t be able to help my sons in the way a father is supposed to.”

“But what about helping them with a calm, reassuring presence?” I asked.

I am fortunate enough to have a large and loving family network. Recently I spent a week with my two-year-old grand-nephew who brought me such joy by his presence and his being. He taught me that I could share in his natural joy without having to do anything in particular. I had simply to be there with him. He does not have full language yet, but he sure understands  the link between love and attention.

It reminded greatly of my own toddler years when there were many such loving adults who visited our home. I still remember them with fondness, though I cannot recall their faces or what they said or what they played with me. I simply recall the security and love of their presence.

Isn’t that plenty?

Ultimately I think the right to die is a personal choice but I do have concerns that sometimes people do not consider the serendipitous happiness that might lay before them. I have concerns that people underestimate the contributions they make to the lives of others without any conscious effort. I question whether the Right to Die is really the same as Dying With Dignity?



Chapel of Love CLOSED.

Another Valentine’s, another rejection. Sometimes I think the only reason this secular holiday is popular is that everyone has been rejected spectacularly at some time.

My shift at the cancer hospital happened to fall on Valentine’s Day this year. My partner and I were tasked with delivering personalized love notes, along with a heart-shaped candy, to each of the three-hundred or so patients. Even the severely sick were visibly moved by this small gesture from the volunteers. Each managed to put aside his considerable agony to beam a smile. And then there was Yvonne.

She was seated on a chair, fully clothed and so well groomed that an innocent might have mistaken her for a visitor, not a patient. She saw the candy and card in my hands and even before I could speak, she curtly said, “No. Thank you.”  She was the only patient in the entire hospital to have rejected a token of affection made by people who sought nothing in return.

Was it against her religion? Was she simply unkind? I could not figure it out. The more I struggled to understand, the clearer it became to me that I was asking the wrong questions. Why did her simple rejection bother me so? What was this need in me that compelled me to devote all this effort, all this time in unravelling the reasons for her rejection?

The very same week I had a phone call from my niece who is in the midst of a job search. Being a fresh graduate she is inexperienced, and is getting rather dejected from her avalanche of rejections. Being the old coot that I now am, I indulged her in a trip down nostalgia lane because, you know, everything in the old day was so much tougher. We didn’t have internet back in those days, I said. We looked for work by literally pounding the pavement, handing over hundreds of resumes to disinterested receptionists.

At times the receptions would give a sneering perusal then place them in tray, no doubt to be emptied into the trash. This is not the same as critique, which allows for negotiation. A person can learn, can improve from criticism, whereas rejection has a finality about it. Perhaps that is why it feels like a mini-death. As the rejections mounted, I recall it took more and more willpower to rise up each morning and start the job search anew. Being young I had so few tools with which to deconstruct the rejections. It was very easy for others to tell me to not take them personally. But on that typed CV was a summary of all my achievements, all my worth, all that I believed was best about me. Of course the rejections were personal.

Little had I realized then that these rejections were only the appetizers for adulthood. There would be rejections in love. Rejections from friends. Rejections from publishers, banks, the tax office. Rejections based summarily upon race, age, gender, sexuality. It seems to me life is choked full of rejections, both big and small, and each rejection scars our being like an  indelible tattoo, with more accumulating over time. The most striking aspect about my work with homeless men was how burdened by rejection these men were. Rejected too often by others, in time they displayed a kind of self-rejection. It showed in how the men carried themselves, the way they sat and the way they looked at me.

Of course rejection is unavoidable, it is woven into the very fabric of existence. Without rejection, evolutionary natural selection would not be possible ( you and I would still be amebae). Without rejection we would retain the toxins from the food we eat. The freedom of choice we so value would be impossible. In fact, without rejection the world might be a bland, mediocre place, thoroughly devoid of accomplishment or excellence. And wouldn’t acceptance lose its jumping-for-joy sweetness? In fact, I realized, Yvonne’s solo rejection of my Valentine had highlighted for me that every other patient had deeply appreciated the same gesture. Then I thought about her cancer, which by definition is unchecked cell growth. In other words, when the body fails to reject new growth, it is fatal for the organism.

I think sometimes rejections feel personal because we forget that everyone is rejected at some time. Harry Potter was reject by twenty seven publishers;The Dallas Buyers Club was rejected by movie studios eighty-seven times across twenty years, and Van Gogh only ever sold three paintings in his lifetimes (bought by his brother out of pity). Even though none of us can avoid being rejected, I do think we have the power to stop the rejections from shaping us.  All too often we have a habit of shrugging off rejections as though they don’t matter, but if we ignore them they stick around permanently. I prefer to neither accept nor avoid rejections but to look at them, to question them, to find their context. In my experience by doing that the rejections disappear from our posture, from the furrows on our faces and the creases of our clothes.

 I later found out why Yvonne had rejected my Valentine’s. She had just discovered that her body had rejected the bone marrow transplant which might have saved her life. Now that really is personal.

Is Art Redundant?

January 14, 2014

DSCN2336_1322My ten-year-old grand-nephew was gifted a sketchpad and pencils. He was so perplexed about what to do with them that I sat him down and gave him a few pointers on the fundamentals of drawing. Is art even still taught in schools? Perhaps to his generation it is about as useful as penmanship or the art of letter-writing. Doesn’t every kid have a cellphone with which to snap pictures of anything remotely interesting (thereafter to be Instagramed). So why should they bother mastering the skill of drawing or painting?

In my day (yes, I know I sound like an old fogey) we learned to draw before we could write. It taught us to hold the pencil correctly, to discovers shapes and curves, all of which I think made reading and writing that much easier. As soon as that first pencil was placed in my hand I fell in love with drawing. It was a way of making sense of the chaos of colors and shapes in a world which was still new to me. It is a hobby I have since cherished throughout my lifetime and as I matured, it has gifted to me new skills at each step of the way.

In my youth I sat through many life drawing classes, and yes, we drew nude models. “Is it very sexy to draw someone naked?” was a question I used to get asked repeatedly. “No,” I’d say. “We are taught to see shapes, textures, tones. We don’t have time to think of sex.” People rarely believed me. But it is true. Life drawing is training ourselves to deconstruct what we see. It is a skill that stays with you outside the life drawing workshop. Sexy magazine covers and advertising cease to hold sway in our minds. We learned not just to see, but to observe critically.

Whenever I travel I like to spend time in art museums. I am always amused by the young who do not know the art of observation. In Paris there is the Musee de l’ Orangerie which houses wall panels painted by Claude Monet of his garden at Givenry. The panels are curved such that if you sit in the correct spot you are as though transported into the garden itself. As I was sitting, a young tourist walked into the room with that typically bored stance of a put-upon teenager. Camera in hand, she snapped about a dozen images in the thirty seconds between her entrance and exit from the room. She had not been taught to put herself in the skin of the artist who painted the Les Nympheas. She did not have the faculty to experience, she could not share his feelings and his moods as he was composing this masterpiece. She is not alone in this; the camera serves to prevent tourists from observing or experiencing the very places and people they have come to see.

I am tempted to remind tourists that people literally died to preserve these art treasures. During the Second World War, one of many atrocities the Germans committed was the plunder of European art. During the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, or St Petersburg as it is now known, the German army surrounded the city for nearly three years and yet the residents put up a noble fight. They were cut off from all food supplies and electricity, yet they were determined the Germans should not get their hands on the art housed at the Hermitage Museum. The curators removed the canvases from their frames and hid the art in between walls in local homes or buried them in farmers’ fields. The curators hoped that when the city did inevitably fall, these works might be spared. They survived doing this work inside the museum by eating the glue that had held the canvases to their frames. The same happened in Paris. The French too risked their lives to save their treasures because to them it was much more than beautiful pictures they were saving, it was the very soul of Europe.

Of course the billions of digital images we now take so frivolously are destined for that invisible delete bin in cyberspace. We may have a laugh taking a selfie on the cellphone, but the masters delved deep into themselves to retrieve the images they painted. Learning to draw and paint teaches you the path to the unconscious mind. Drawing and painting requires the simultaneous consideration of so many skills (dexterity, tonal understanding, color, perspective, mood and atmosphere) that waking consciousness is not enough. It can only give attention to one thing at a time. However, the sub-conscious is where the fruits of practice and habit reside. The sub-conscious can juggle many things if the conscious has given attention to them in the past. The more you practice art, the better you understand the sub-conscious. So if anyone wants to seriously change her habits, the good and the ugly, she must work at them in the sub-conscious level. (No, Virginia, New Year’s resolutions do not work).

Of course no spiritual introspection is ever possible without understanding these deeper levels. That may be why all religions use art so freely.

I find myself now rediscovering my love for painting. This time round I am not so much concerned with the technique, but art as language. The unconscious mind speaks to itself in images, as anyone who has given attention to dreams can attest. I still love words but I also recognize that words are specific to a time and place, whereas art is universal. Art speaks the language of the collective sub-conscious, the underlying unity of all humanity.

I was very pleased to hear that my grand-nephew has now began drawing lessons after school. He asked his father (my nephew) if he could swap hockey practice for art in the New Year. If I played any small part in that then that is my gift to him.

Is Imperfection A Blessing?

December 23, 2013

DSCN2329_1304The dinner table looked fabulous. The centerpiece was formal yet festive. The cutlery sparkled and its layout would have made the butler on Downtown Abbey proud. Each dish served tasted exactly as it was supposed to and the conversation flowed as easily as the wine. Then one of the guests returned from the bathroom and requested a  toilet plunger. Never a good thing! Amidst all this sophistication, despite the attention to perfection, the drains chose to back up grease and gunk.

At first it felt like a slap in the face. But the more I thought about it the more grateful I was for this toilet disaster. That night, before I retreated to bed, I sat for a few minutes to empty my mind of the day’s events. This has been my routine for many years and I find it helps me to sleep well. Except on occasions when the day goes all too perfectly. Days when there is an abundance of joy, it is very difficult to turn my back on the day and retreat into the rest of sleep. The mind wants to relive the day. Despite a tired body’s demands, the mind recalls again and again each and every perfect moment.

On this night, even though the evening was a great success otherwise, I was able to shut it out from my mind because of this one mishap. So might there have been a technique for getting a good night’s sleep thrown up the drain along with the debris? Perhaps the secret to unwinding, the trick to falling into effortless sleep might be to find the small failures in the greater successes, the little sadness contained in that triumphant news. Oh I don’t mean one should cultivate an unhealthy pessimism, merely that whenever we desire to unburden the mind, we can use this little trick to stop it from ruminating uncontrollably.

 As a long-time meditator I appreciate the bliss of mental stillness, the other-worldly peace of inner nothingness. In the beginning I too used to be frustrated by daily upsets and routine worries. Strange that novices always seem to give attention to negating the bad stuff. They struggle to forget the unpleasant encounters, they labor to push back stressful memories. But in my experience, the ugliness of life is much easier to reject, it is the pleasant and the perfect that seems to take up permanent residence in the mind.

I can’t count how many young cancer patients I have encountered who are fearful of death precisely because they grieve the loss of all the happiness they have previously enjoyed. Not a one of them regrets leaving behind financial worries or the physical misery of old age. It is the love of their families they mourn to leave. It is the absence from their daughter’s graduation, the non-attendance at the son’s wedding that brings emotional pain. Misery is something we forget naturally because our pride forbids us from revisiting old failures. Yet we indulge in what I will call crudely (but aptly) mental masturbation upon the happy successes in our life. Unable to let go of the happy and the beautiful, we then  complain: meditation is so, so difficult.  

The other day I wished a patient at the hospital a Merry Christmas simply out of polite habit. He glared back at me with a frown and then said, “Everyone is pressuring everyone else to have a perfect Christmas.” He then collapsed exhausted into his bed. I understood his frustration. Christmas, more than any other holiday, is supposed to be greeting card perfect: a light dusting of snow, a warm fire, a cheerful array of gifts under the tree and of course, congenial family sharing quality time together. No wonder Christmas has the highest suicide rate of the year. Many have no one in their lives. Some are too sick or too poor. And those of us who will attempt a Disney celebration will encounter clogged drains and other disasters.

And thank heavens for them. They are reminders of the imperfection of daily life. No matter how carefully we plan, we just can never shut out the ugliness. I was rather amused by a news snippet about the six-hundred-million-dollar lottery jackpot in the US recently. The news report suggested the lucky winner could purchase a Fijian island with his or her winnings. The unchallenged implication was that with enough money one could buy oneself a piece of paradise. What an awful idea.

Anyone who has experienced the perfect stillness of the mind will attest that that itself is paradise.

Death of Casamegas by Picasso

Death of Casamegas by Picasso

Dawn sits behind our building’s front desk surrounded by cobwebs, bats, and a dismembered hand. Halloween is her favorite holiday and she makes the most of her limited space (even the visitor’s log is covered with ghoulish images). She, like most of North America, is participating in a pagan ritual from Northern Europe marking the onset of winter. We now have more hours of dark than light. Foliage is dead and dried. Who can say how harsh the snow storms will be this winter? So the ancients decided to mock their fears instead of being overwhelmed by them.

Smart pagans.

As I do my rounds at the Palliative Care Unit I am startled by the sound of group laughter emanating from a room with an open door. Normally the Palliative Care Unit is a sombre place. Patients are often doubled-up in pain, relatives keep vigil at the bedside, not knowing what to say or do. The sense of fear, though unspoken, is palpable: is death the end of me? Will I suffer? If there is something beyond, will I forget my loved ones and will they forget me?

And then there is Evelyn, who is the centre of a mini celebration in her room. As I enter with my magazine trolley I dutifully sanitized my hands. “No need,” she laughs. “There is no germ big enough to hurt me now.” Her young visitors laugh at her joke, they are in that mood. Evelyn is in her fifties and she is terminal, but she has not allowed that fact to rob her of her joy. She is so overflowing with it that staff continually stream in and out on the flimsiest excuses.

I have to wonder, what is so unique about Evelyn that she is so underwhelmed by her imminent death? Is she perhaps extremely courageous? I decide no. Courage is a kind of resistance to fear. It involves a strength of will to suppress the fear. As such courage is stoic, serious and focussed. Whereas Evelyn is light and spontaneous. She is without effort of any kind. So what is her secret?

From the decorations in her room I gather she is deeply devout. There is a crucifix on the wall opposite to her, a rosary sits relaxed on her bedside stand. But I don’t think it is faith which is the source of her fearlessness. Faith can give you relief from the symptoms of fear. Much the same way that Evelyn’s medications give her relief from her pain but they cannot cure her cancer. In the same way, faith does not cure fear.

How could it? Faith is required when you do not know for certain. And fear is always about the unknown, the uncertain. Faith and fear are two different reactions to the same unknown.  The only possible antidote to fear is utter and complete  knowledge. No biggie if you are dealing with run-of-the-mill fear, say fear of that zombie family who just moved in down the hall. They speak a strange language, they smell weird, and they sure have disgusting tastes in food.  Here the solution is easy: walk up to them and start a conversation, get to know them and their foreign culture and presto! the fear of the unknown vanishes. But what about fear of the unknowable? Death for example?

In my experience the same technique works splendidly. Fear exists in the mind because it does not bother to ask the right questions. The mind by design is self-centered and so it is very casual about the deaths of strangers far away: that bomb blast in Pakistan, that typhoon  in Bali, occupy no more than a second of attention. The mind refuses to dwell on the deaths of the animals the body consumes. It does not hesitate to kill a fly who happens to stray into ‘my space’.

If however the mind is allowed to experience death and dying by proxy, by being around those in the process, the mind gets accustomed to the idea. It begins to see death as normal and natural. It then feels comfortable enough to consider death without condemnation or condonation. In doing so the mind sheds much of its fears. Even though it is still unable to conceive death, it figures out that not all people suffer in death. Some even thrive (such as Evelyn). The mind figures out it does indeed have some control over the whole process, and so it accepts the inevitability of death. Neither does it seek to shun, to deny, to escape the dying of others. It becomes a little less selfish.

Can it be that this self-centeredness of the mind is the true root of all fear? If so, might giving attention to selflessness dissipate much of the fear in daily living?

Happy Halloween!

outofboodySandy is young, bubbly and very sick. Once in a while I get to meet a patient as thoughtful about her sickness as Sandy. She, like many other heart patients and trauma survivors, have experienced what is commonly (and wrongly in my opinion) known as Out-of body experiences, or OBEs.

You break through the limits of your own body’s senses. You experience sights, sounds, memories and feelings that do not belong to your own body or mind. You inhabit the universal and that includes your body lying there on the bed. In fact I think the term out-of-body is an oxymoron because in this state of hypersensitivity you experience sensations within your own body much more acutely. Once you have experienced the world from this perspective, you cannot ever see the world in the same way again.

Out-of-body experiences, or OBEs, happen spontaneously during extreme trauma such as car accidents, or during medical events such as heart attacks. They can also be induced through hallucinogens such as LSD or anesthetics. More commonly, they are a byproduct of meditation practices, or through lucid dreaming with the aim of taking a trip into the subtle worlds.

In my lost youth I eagerly devoured the books of Robert Monroe on Astral Projection. The idea of taking mystical journeys fascinated me and though I never experienced what he claimed I would in his books, I did have my first taste of meditation. I would lie still, enter a catatonic state where my body was asleep but my mind was fully alert. It was a scary sensation at first, a feeling of being trapped, yearning to escape. In this state it occurred to me for the first time that the mind might be a separate entity from the body. Gradually, with practice, the mind is encouraged to lose its fear of roaming away from the body. It is something it naturally does during dreams. OBEs are fully-conscious dream-like experiences.

Modern neurology has attempted to debunk OBEs by inducing them in subjects. By stimulating various parts of the brain electronically, they hope to prove that OBEs are a simple neurological phenomena. But they miss the point because they are asking the wrong questions. What they should be asking is: Does the mind live inside the body? Or does the body live inside the mind?

Sandy and I sat for two hours exchanging ghost stories. She recalled visitations from the departed as glowing, warm presences without the human form or costumes (O how Hollywood has that wrong). As fascinating as ghost stories are, they reaffirm the revelation of OBEs that the mind and body are indeed separate entities. During her procedure Sandy saw prayers from her church members ascending towards her (another very common phenomena). While in this state neither she nor any other OBE experiencers felt threatened or afraid. To a man they report a feeling of deep peace and joy. Much more than that, they feel a wholeness with others after they survive the OBE itself. They are more empathetic in significant and unalterable ways. Surely, there is more at play here than stimulated neurons?

For me the experience of OBE was prolonged and I experienced different degrees of it. The times when my heart stopped completely, the experiences were more intense and vivid to other times during the coma, I heard, saw, felt events happening outside of my hospital room. Events I was later able to verify with the people saying, doing, experiencing them. Yet I was aware of my body the whole time. To this day I question this accepted notion that the mind resides within the body. It felt so natural, so normal to be wondering around while the body lay there tethered to tubes and machinery that I think it is the body that resides within the mind.

The mind is this enormous, shapeless presence that houses this body. The very fact that OBEs happen to so many people, of all ages and in every culture, proves that OBEs are a clue to the reality of our existence. To me this is what is worth investigating. It is unfortunate that this term has entered into everyday speech as a way of describing extraordinary desserts, dresses, film stars. (“When Brad Pitt looked at me I thought I was having an out-of-body experience.”).

This phrase means so much more.

waitingUrsula and I load our cart each week with DVDs, games,  and magazines. Each week we roam the patient wards and the waiting areas of the cancer hospital offering a chat, a sympathetic ear and the contents of our cart. We are peddlers of distraction for people burdened by waiting. Mrs. B. might be waiting for her procedure. Mr. C. might be waiting for the results. Some wait for loved ones to feel better, while others await their own death.

No one likes waiting. They all wear that fixed-upon-nothing stare. I find it curious that no matter how educated or professional, waiting people pick out the tabloid gossip rags most often from our trolley. It makes sense when you think about it. These people are waiting for something significant to happen; some turn of fate they can grip their teeth into. Gossip magazines are filled with the highlights of other people’s significant events (even if they be untrue).

When I finish my shift I recognize that same foggy, unfocussed look on the people in the streets and in the subways. The world is like this huge airport lounge, people frantically waiting to get somewhere: waiting for one thing to end, waiting to finish another, waiting for others to do whatever thing for them. Most office workers at day’s end are tired of work, not with work(unlike labourers). I wonder, are we really tired because of waiting for something meaningful to happen?

Looking back at my own life also, I think it is ironic that even though we hate waiting but we spend most of our lives doing exactly that. In youth we can’t wait to grow up, we dream of the day our perfect mate might turn up, in working life we count the months and years to retirement. Once in a while there are significant moments where we are wholly engaged, fully living, the rest of the time, it seems, is about waiting.

And just like the patients at the hospital, we fill that wait with distractions. We learn hobbies, we gossip, we surf the net, we watch TV, etc.. “What do you do in your spare time?” people ask. Don’t they really mean: how do you occupy yourself while you are waiting for life to happen? 

The bride at the wedding reception I attended gave a moving speech and something she said has stayed with me. She described the moment after her wedding as the most perfect moment of her life. A moment she had dreamt of all of her life, she said. And she wished she could somehow live in that moment forever. That, seemed to me, summed up nicely the tragedy of our lives. We desire, we dream of the perfect place, the perfect time, the perfect people saying and doing the most perfect things. But aren’t our desires, our dreams, our ambitions all a form of waiting? When you think about it, desires and ambitions are postponements of happiness. When I get this, or when she goes, then I will be more happy than now. We set conditions for happiness. We put up limits. Then we wait for those conditions to be met, putting our happiness on hold while we wait.  Why do we do that to ourselves?

Of course a few times in our lives we get to experience a moment as perfect as the one we had imagined. All limitations and conditions satisfied. Abraham Maslow called these Peak Experiences.

Peak experiences leave a person joyous, alive, whole, fulfilled and integrated. They can occur through art, spiritual events, or those rare moments when life aligns itself in a perfectly desirable way. As it did for that young bride on her wedding day.

In my work with the geriatrics I have come to realize that Peak Experiences are not always conducive, and sometimes they are not even desired. Yet they leave that same indelible mark upon the individual as the experiences of rapture. I believe I will always remember Luka, aged ninety-four and a half (he insisted on adding the half). He loves to speak of his experiences during the Second World War when he was captured by the Germans and held at a POW camp in the Ukraine. He and his colleagues escaped after a visitor smuggled in wire-cutters by baking them inside a cake (seriously, it actually worked). Luka then hid from the Germans under their very noses by escaping into Berlin. He tells his story with such animation, such detail, one feels one is experiencing a big budget Hollywood movie. He does not talk about his life before or since much, there is little doubt to me that those years of living on the edge of danger were Peak Experiences for him. He was alert, he was wholly present in the here and now. He was fully alive.

Instead of waiting, one has to wonder if there is a way to rewire the brain to be always alive to the moment? To be truly awake and alert and enjoying all the small, non-events that make up most of daily living? I believe it can be done right now, right here, through awareness and attention. I have made it a hobby to notice quiet moments of perfection within mundane, routine events. In my experience, to wholly and truly realize the absurdity of waiting is to slowly let it go.

Frieda Kahlo's spinal injury informed her art.

Frieda Kahlo’s spinal injury informed her art.

One striking aspect about visiting terminally ill old people in hospital is their casual attitude about their imminent end. When I first began volunteering I had expected them to be depressed about death. Perhaps a rare few might offer a philosophical gem about death and dying, I thought. But none of that has happened.  Instead, time after time, I come across people totally at peace with leaving the world.

For me there was a disconnect here. After all, aren’t we mortals supposed to be dogged by fear of death? Our every action is curtailed, informed in some sub-conscious way by the fact that some day we will perish. And here are people face to face with that fact and not the least bit concerned.

Having just recovered from a bout of illness myself, I have had a lot of time to reflect on the feeling of being sick and how it changes awareness. Naturally there is much attention upon the body and its aches and pains, but look a bit deeper and you notice something is missing. Gone is the mundane chatter of daily concerns: the worry about this and that, the concern with what is happening on the street, etc. When I am sick I do not care to log into my e mail, the news does not interest me, I don’t care who has phoned, in fact, nothing much of the world seems as important as it did before. Not money, not pleasures, not even eating. The attention is solely upon the basics, the breathing and heart beat.

I found this interesting because this is exactly the technique of meditation. Most styles of meditation teach suspending the outside world in some way. Find a quiet spot to practice meditation, they say. Close your eyes to shut out distractions, they advice. Now turn your attention to your breathing, simply watch the in flow and out flow.

During my illness, all this happened effortlessly. Because the breathing was laboured, my attention naturally fell upon its ebb and flow. I found it curious how it affected my sense of “me.” When the breathing was near-normal, this feeling of “I” was at its strongest. When the breathing was faltering, the “I” lost significance, and along with it, all the things “I” considers important.  The fact of being alive, the life within my body was the one and only constant.

It made me wonder if illness can be perhaps be a natural form of meditation?

The other odd thing about fever is the vivid and surreal dreams. In fact, even normal thinking has that phantasy characteristic when in the grips of fever. It is no coincidence then that many great artists and writers had bouts of prolong illness, particularly in their youth. Jonathan Swift, Shakespeare, James Joyce, the Bronte sisters, among others, all retreated into their imagination during their illnesses, as did artist Frieda Kahlo. While none of them were saints, all of them did plunge deep into their psyches and explored the underbelly of daily living with insight. Isn’t that a kind of meditation?

Once the fever broke and normal thinking resumed, it struck me that the images of daily thinking are just as unreal and surreal, only we take them oh so seriously. I was reminded of the classic descriptions of near-death experiences, you know, the beings of light that appear before you. They do. Except they appear before you even when you are not dying. They appear before you nightly in dreams as well as in routine thinking. Imagine anyone you love. Isn’t that presence of him or her in your mind made up of a kind of light? The light of you own awareness?

I believe this explains why prolonged illness is so profound, so life transforming for people who survive it. In effect, we are in a prolonged state of meditation. It not only affords a person the time to reflect and contemplate upon his life, it affords attention. Normally we are too burdened, too distracted, too entertained by the ideas and plans of our own mind. Illness enforces a lovely letting go, a temporary freedom from the cares of the world.

It may explain why seniors in hospitals, who usually experience  multiple illnesses in the final years, are so at peace with dying.

A painful body is no picnic but it does compel a person to find a centre within where there is no pain. If this is done with awareness, then you quickly  realize the body is a shell which houses your essence. Even done without awareness, this knowledge grips hold at some level, without being verbalized.

Finally, I had an idea about that other classic NDE, the tunnel with the light at the opening. In my opinion, the light people see is one’s own essence, only the mind objectifies it as out there. The darkness of the tunnel is the stillness of an unfettered mind. The light you see in NDE is your true self.

None of us are immune to sickness of the body. While I do all I can to remain healthy — eat right, moderate exercise and take reasonable safety precautions, I no longer fear being overwhelmed by a virus or worse. As age advances, and with it the decline of the body, I take comfort in what someone said to a friend on his seventy-fifth birthday: When you get over the hill, the view is so much more spectacular. 

Is birdsong peaceful?

Is birdsong peaceful?

The dog barked incessantly for over three hours. A whimpering, agonizing bark. I could not contain myself any longer. As soon as I stepped out into the hallway to investigate, the grumpy woman next door held her front door ajar to do the same. In the apartment across the hall from us, a dog was locked inside, alone. It was barking for help. As an animal lover it was the distress of the dog which upset me. For my neighbour it was the loudness of the noise which made her grumpy (she is a nurse who works nightshifts). A third neighbour soon joined us. He is a Condo board member and he was angered by the violation of the pets bylaw.

It was fascinating that the same sound had elicited such very different, but strong emotions from each of us. It occurred to me that perhaps sound is the most potent of all the senses. While sight is essential to navigate our movements through space, it is sounds which delivers our emotions, passions, and moods. I recall reading a sardonic definition of pop music somewhere: “That which is too foolish to be spoken is sung.”  So I wonder, does our relationship with sounds destine our relationship with the world? Does are ability to cope with noise determine our peace of mind?

The other day I decided to escape the noise of my neighborhood’s construction by visiting my local park. Seated on a park bench, I was enjoying the pleasant sound of birds. A jogger ran past, her iPad plugged into her ear, insulating herself from the park’s natural sounds. Opposite, a pair of lovers sat canoodling on the grass. Their intimate whispers effectively shutting out all other persons. It occurred to me that all three of us, the jogger, the lovers, and myself, were attempting to find some peace by isolating ourselves from our environment. Each of us was using sound to distract from what is here and now. We each craved peace, and we were all doomed to fail miserably.

As soon as the jogger removes her iPad, the world will flood back in. As soon as the lovers part company, the waiting cares and emotions will resume. As soon I return home, that pneumatic drill will be there to disturb me. The peace of selective sounds is highly fragile.

It seems to me that pleasant sounds merely alleviate some of the symptoms of inner restlessness, but they do not cure the root cause. Much in the same way as balms and aspirins help symptoms of physical maladies without treating the original cause.

So then we go looking for peace through perfect silence. The phrase peace and quiet  is so commonplace that we have assumed they belong as a pair. Of course religion also confuses peace with quiet. In every house of worship the world over music and silence are used to simulate peace.

But let us look at this logic. If quiet equals peace, the absolute silence should bring about absolute peace. I wonder what those criminals locked up in solitary confinement would say about that logic? And if absolute peace really results from silence then most of us are screwed. There is nowhere on Earth where there is absolute silence. And so we pursue relative silence: the lull of the ocean waves, the cooing of dolphins, the whistling of a breeze through tree leaves. It is the closest we can imagine peace of mind, but we never quite reach it.

Then where should we be looking? What exactly is peace? Maybe peace is there all of the time. Perhaps peace is what we experience when we are meaningfully connected to the world. Restlessness is when we are isolated from the world.

I like to think peace is related to sound in the same way that a white canvas is related to a painting. Peace is that blankness upon which the colours of daily sounds, and the emotions which they shape, reveal themselves.  Peace is there before the first sound of the day is heard. Peace is there  after the last sound before sleep. Most importantly, peace is there passing through each and every sound of the day. Peace is there while that pneumatic drill is going. Peace is there while that stranger is insulting you. Peace is  there while your friend is complimenting you. In other words, peace that passes all understanding. (Yes, Virginia, this Eastern idea is universal).

To be aware that peace is the background for all sounds, is to be freed from the burden of noise. To understand this relationship intellectually is a start, but when this insight comes from your own observation you begin to have a choice about the emotions contained within sounds. You then have a choice about how, and if, you will respond to an insulting tone of voice. You have a choice about what you say, as well as what you hear. You have a choice whether or not to be disturbed by construction noises or Rap music. And that is the beginning of freedom.

Now that really is peaceful.

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