Saturday, October 18, 2008
Six Months to Live... A Buddhist Perspective
(Moonset at dawn, from our balcony...)
A visit to the doctor’s office earlier this week had me playing a useful mind game—one that helped to put this whole election melodrama into a saner perspective. The visit was occasioned by a sore spot on my left forearm that had been itching for a couple of weeks and had refused to heal. I have always heard that when a wound refuses to heal it’s time to see the doctor, so I took advantage of Kaiser’s same-day appointment schedule, and stopped by to be examined by a young third-year resident. He diagnosed an inoffensive cancer, gave me a local anesthetic, sliced off the blotch and popped it into a biopsy jar.
Just yesterday I had confirmation from the Kaiser lab that the growth was indeed nothing to cause concern. It had one of those medical names that I can never pronounce, much less remember, but the advice was to wear sun block when outdoors (like my Welsh mother, I have fair skin, and burn easily) and avoid direct exposure.
Okay, all well and good. But what if the diagnosis had been different? Here the mind game began, the morning after my visit, during meditation. Suppose the news had been that I had six months to live? Or less?
I have played this game before, of course, as I suspect many of my Buddhist-interested readers have done, but the visit to the doctor’s office gave it a particular edge this time around. With six months left on this planet Earth, would I change my life in some way? What would I need to do to wrap things up? Uppermost in my mind was the need to spend a good few days with each of my two sons, one living now in England, the other in Iowa—both far enough from where I live to leave me with an inevitable sense of separation. I have come to finally accept that there is nothing I can do to make up for my absence, as a father, during their childhood years; but I would want to be able to sit with them, hear where they are in their lives right now, in some way bear witness to my love for them and my wish for their happiness and fulfillment. I would want to spend time with my grandchildren, too, also in England, to make myself a little better known to them, as their grandfather, and to enjoy this moment of their childhood and the prospect of their lives to come.
As for my daughter, younger than the two boys—well, men, really, approaching middle age!—she lives nearby, and it is a joy to have her close to hand. As with my sons, I’d want to be sure there was nothing left undone or unsaid that could help her on her way…
For the rest, I would look for appropriate time for solitude and contemplation, without in anyway cutting myself off from those that I hold close. Indeed, I would try to treasure those relationships more deeply. I would try to come to a still clearer understanding of the way in which my ego constructs barriers from its own small-minded fears and needs, and release myself from both, opening my heart to a freer, more loving and more generous availability to Ellie, who has shared so many of my years, as well as to our friends.
I would also seek to abandon my attachment to material needs, insofar as possible, and simplify the way I spend my days. I would plan to examine the way I live my life to determine what is really necessary and what can be pared out—what brings me true peace, fulfillment, satisfaction, and what is mere distraction and disturbance. In this light, for example, I would work to surrender my attachment to the outcome of the current political contention, and recognize the smallness of it all in the long perspective of human life on earth. I might try to go still further, detaching my mind from the Earth itself, and see it rather from some distant point in the universe from which our terrestrial troubles might seem infinitesimally irrelevant.
I would strive to maintain my health and energy, too--though I would not abandon my occasional Sunday cigar and my daily indulgence in a glass of wine!--in order to be as fit and conscious as possible for my last moments.
I wonder whether my daily writing would appear “really necessary,” or whether it would be a part of “what can be pared out”? I think the former. Writing is like breathing to me—something I do naturally, without particular purpose other than the doing of it. It’s my way of taking my own emotional and intellectual pulse, of finding out where I am at any given moment in my life. No matter what I write or have written—poems, novels, art monographs and reviews, memoirs, blogs—it all boils down to the same essence: it’s that old adage that I love and quote so often, “How do I know what I think ‘til I see what I say?” I hope and believe that this habit will accompany me until I can no longer put finger to the keyboard.
That's the broad sketch, anyway. If Buddhism teaches anything, surely, it's to savor each moment as it passes, in the knowledge that the arrival of our last is arbitrary and could come at any time. Best to be ready for it...
(Yesterday, we went to the Getty Museum, savoring the moments...)