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...)


mandt said...

:) Peace M

carly said...

PEACE. The small departs,
The great approaches.

Everything on earth is subject to change. Prosperity is followed by decline, decline by prosperity. This is eternal law on earth.

Knowledge should be a refreshing and vitalizing force. It becomes so only through stimulating intercourse with congenial friends with whom one holds discussion and practices application of the truths of life. In this way learning becomes many-sided and takes on a cheerful lightness.

The picture is that of a sage who stands outside the affairs of the world. Liberated from his ego, the sage contemplates the laws of life and so realizes that knowing how to become free of blame is the highest good.

One recuperates in peace and keeps still.

Keeping the heart at rest leads in the end to the complete elimination of egotistic drives. To remain free from all the dangers of doubt and unrest leads ultimately to that other, higher level.

True joy rests on firmness and strength within, manifesting itself outwardly as yielding and gentle. A quiet, wordless, self-contained joy, desiring nothing from without and resting content with everything, remains free of all egotistic likes and dislikes. In this freedom harbors the quiet security of a heart fortified within itself.

This marks the effort to attain tranquillity. One is at rest, not merely in a small, circumscribed way in regard to matters of detail, but one has also a general resignation in regard to life as a whole, and this confers good fortune and peace.

robin andrea said...

I have had these same thoughts, the dreaded diagnosis and six months to live. In some ways I believe that the deepest contemplation of this, the paring away, the profound realization of one life's inevitable end is a blissful awakening.

Gary said...

I had the same skin issue which turned out well and
like you examined the essential elements of life, my connection to my boys, art making and ego.

Mortality is a blessing for we are not able to obtain
unending human life. Since the Epic of Gilgamesh as contemplated by the hero or as Wittgenstein wrote in his Tractatus, "eternal life belongs to those who live in the present".

I find fly that fishing with my boys provides the opportunity to simply be in a state of tranquillity in nature. The boys find sighting the fish to be the greatest thrill and I find the moment the fish jumps
into our realm of air and wind a poetic gesture of freedom and shared joy.

The present moment is always available for our words and deeds to conjoin with the twins of being:
art and love. We have given our children both by making life beautiful for them whenever we can. If
we maintain our inner child each day by seeing it refreshed from the first waking moment then we may water the garden without picking from its nurturing soil and enlighten our soul by expecting nothing.

October 19 2008

TaraDharma said...

boy, did robin's last sentence nail it, or what? i love that one can use a possibly adverse situation as an opening to enlightenment. I have a book for you: life is a verb, by Patti Digh: 27 days to wake up, be mindful and live intentionally. A workbook, really.

I love that Getty!! Been there many times and each time a real treat. If there were no exhibits, I'd be just as happy touring the gardens and the building.

Glad your skin is treatable! :-}

PeterAtLarge said...

MandT--thanks for the blessing!

Carly, a beautiful reading from the I Ching, and very appropriate to the moment--not only mine, the brief one, but the larger moment in which we find ourselves collectively.

Robin, thanks for the remarkable insight!

Gary, great to hear from you. Fly-fishing-- great meditative art... Such a gift to your boys.

Tara, thanks for the referral. I'll check it out.

Vickie said...

Great read. I have been contemplating this same question and loved reading someone else thoughts from a Buddhist perspective. Thanks again.

buddhist amulet said...

so cozy