Cross-posted at MettaPanda’s Ramblings.
I am often asked or complimented on how I get through all that I’ve gone through – the progression of the CF, the transplant, the immediate recovery, and the still-ongoing long-term maintenance of these new lungs. My spirituality has been life-saving, particularly my Buddhist practice and learning. I’d like to share with you how that’s happened, how the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha) have helped me to deal with dharma (the way life is).
The traditional legend of the Buddha’s quest for enlightenment tells us that throughout his youth and early manhood Prince Siddhattha, the Bodhisatta, lived in complete ignorance of the most elementary facts of human life. His father, anxious to protect his sensitive son from exposure to suffering, kept him an unwitting captive of nescience. Incarcerated in the splendor of his palace, amply supplied with sensual pleasures and surrounded by merry friends, the prince did not entertain even the faintest suspicion that life could offer anything other than an endless succession of amusements and festivities. It was only on that fateful day in his twenty-ninth year, when curiosity led him out beyond the palace walls, that he encountered the four “divine messengers” that were to change his destiny. The first three were the old man, the sick man, and the corpse, which taught him the shocking truths of old age, illness, and death; the fourth was a wandering ascetic, who revealed to him the existence of a path whereby all suffering can be fully transcended.
This charming story, which has nurtured the faith of Buddhists through the centuries, enshrines at its heart a profound psychological truth. In the language of myth it speaks to us, not merely of events that may have taken place centuries ago, but of a process of awakening through which each of us must pass if the Dhamma is to come to life within ourselves. Beneath the symbolic veneer of the ancient legend we can see that Prince Siddhattha’s youthful sojourn in the palace was not so different from the way in which most of us today pass our entire lives — often, sadly, until it is too late to strike out in a new direction. Our homes may not be royal palaces, and the wealth at our disposal may not approach anywhere near that of a North Indian rajah, but we share with the young Prince Siddhattha a blissful (and often willful) oblivion to stark realities that are constantly thrusting themselves on our attention. If the Dhamma is to be more than the bland, humdrum background of a comfortable life, if it is to become the inspiring, sometimes grating voice that steers us on to the great path of awakening, we ourselves must emulate the Bodhisatta in his process of maturation. We must join him on that journey outside the palace walls — the walls of our own self-assuring preconceptions — and see for ourselves the divine messengers we so often miss because our eyes are fixed on “more important things,” i.e., on our mundane preoccupations and goals.
–Bhikkhu Bodhi, in “Meeting the Divine Messengers”
Five years ago in February, Tim and I began meditating with a wonderful teacher named Abhaya. Our friend Brenda soon joined our sitting group, and thus began the meditation group that we still maintain and organize and attend every Tuesday night. (Abhaya left us after a year for health reasons; we’ve been a primarily peer-led group ever since.)
Although I had meditated before, this was my first exposure to Buddhist tradition and philosophy. First, of course, we learned the Four Noble Truths – suffering, the cause of suffering, there’s an end to suffering, and the Eight-fold Path. What a revelation to me! Not that suffering exists, that was all too clear to me. But: Suffering Exists!! Let’s be loud about it and not pretend otherwise! It seems in our culture we try to ignore suffering or push it away by distracting ourselves with prettier or newer things, instead of looking at it straight on. How amazing – to just acknowledge that suffering exists!
The story of the four messengers (as above) is also one that we heard early, and its message got into and liberated my heart. Of course – what could be more true? Each one of us will get sick, get old and die. The only way to avoid the first two is to get to the third more quickly. Siddhartha Gautama (who would later become the Buddha) saw these things – along with the fourth messenger, the holy man – and set out to find that which is beyond sickness, old age and death. I heard this truth and said, “Oh. So I’m not that special because I’m sick; everyone will be sick at some point. There’s something more to me than just that.” In this place, in this tradition, I don’t have to feel that my sickness is something to hide and be ashamed of. As I learned – experienced – on a retreat, in this tradition, the overwhelming response to my cough is not pity (“Get away from me. I’m so glad I’m not you. Poor you.”) but compassion (“Wow – I’ve been there before / I can only imagine what you’re going through. I can tell how much you’re hurting. What can I do to help?”). It’s impossible to describe the difference one feels between receiving pity and receiving compassion. In my case, I had to be willing and able to give compassion to myself before I could receive it from others. Previous to this retreat, I always felt it as pity (regardless of the sender’s emotion), and therefore would shrug off any help. I wanted to hide my cough and my condition as much as possible, sometimes to the detriment of my health. The progression of my illness made hiding it more and more difficult; I am very grateful that I was introduced to this religion / philosophy / practice (pick your own label) where hiding is not necessary.
There is also the story of the two arrows. (I’m going to paraphrase, here.) The Buddha told the story of two men. One was shot and wounded by an arrow. It hurt, but he had it pulled out and survived. The second man was also shot and wounded by an arrow in the same way. It hurt him in the same way. But instead of pulling it out, he spent time asking ‘Who shot me? Why did they shoot me? What kind of arrow is this? What’s it made of?’ By the time he might have gotten around to pulling it out, he had already bled to death. So – obvious lesson: Take care of the physical injury before the emotional / mental injury. But the lesson that is more applicable to everyday life is this: There is some pain that we can’t avoid – a broken leg, for example. That pain is the first arrow. But then we have a tendency to beat ourselves up, ask unnecessary questions, and worry about the future – ‘I’m so stupid; I should have seen that root in the path.’ ‘I never look where I’m going.’ ‘Why wasn’t I paying attention?’ ‘How am I going to get to work tomorrow?’ This causes additional suffering – the second arrow – which is avoidable. So, to bring this back to my own life – which I was able to do fairly quickly, at least in theory: Yes, I have CF, and it causes suffering (more or less, depending on the moment). I can’t stop that suffering. But this aspect changes: I can’t cure myself from having CF, I can’t stop the coughing (most of the time), I can only do so much to slow the progression of it, and I can’t do anything about how I did or did not take care of myself in the past. If I cut out all of the negative thinking that goes with the physical discomfort, I’ve eliminated a HUGE source of secondary suffering, which often was more painful than the primary arrow. How I react to my illness makes all the difference in the amount of suffering I experience.
Finally, there’s the central teaching – better, understanding and recognition – of impermanence. Once we stop to look at existence, we realize that nothing lasts forever, even things that seem most solid. The mountains will erode; the houses and buildings will crumble; our selves and our relationships are in constant flux and growth and will eventually end. This is very comforting to someone who is sick, especially one who goes through cycles of acute sickness followed by less sickness. I will not feel this poorly forever. This pain will not last forever. This isn’t a call to suicide; the pain will pass on its own, in a natural manner. I’ve seen it happen before; no matter how bad it seems right now, I know it will pass. This knowledge can help to relax you in the most uncomfortable situations. (It’s the equivalent, on a larger scale, of the woman in the gynecologist’s office going to her ‘happy place’ mentally – a beach in the Bahamas, for example. She knows the exam won’t last forever, so she just needs to wait it out.) Even at my lowest – in the hospital in Boston, attached to a chest tube with suction, knowing that I would not be allowed to leave the hospital unless they could wean me off the suction, which didn’t seem to be working — even then, I knew and trusted and took refuge in impermanence. Either this would somehow get better, I’d get a transplant, or I’d die. At that point, that didn’t seem like a stretch to say. Even death, at that point, would have been some comfort – mainly because my body was so tired.
And then… the transplant and initial recovery. Of course I was thrilled to be alive and have a new chance at life, though I could barely comprehend it. Throughout the hallucinations, through some of the worst pain – when I’d already had what pain killers I could, and had to just wait it out — impermanence was my friend. I saw it play out constantly, as how I felt changed hour to hour.
And now… watching myself is like watching a new person. I’m reforging my identity – another proof of impermanence of self. I have enough energy to work-out on the treadmill, dance for hours at a wedding, sing for a church service or just because I feel like it. I have a huge burst of inspiration and motivation to write song lyrics and poetry. But I know…… all of this is also impermanent.
That’s where we take this into life. This is what the teachers and books have tried to teach me – but you can’t be taught, you have to experience. You have to feel what it’s like to NOT have health and energy, in order to fully embrace and appreciate having it. Feeling how quickly it was gained allows me to know that it could go away again at any moment, and that really does make me want to live every minute of every day in a way that I will be proud of – whether it’s doing something “productive” or not. I need to decide where I want to place my priorities, where I want to put my energy.
I expect I would have survived my lung transplant without my knowledge of the Dharma. I am strong-willed, and I have always felt that I was put on this earth to “do something,” which is a great motivator. But the Dharma has allowed me to thrive and grow spiritually as my health faded and then was re-born.
As Bhikkhu Bodhi concludes in “Meeting the Divine Messengers”
The final word of the Dhamma is not surrender, not an injunction to resign ourselves stoically to old age, sickness, and death. This is the preliminary message, the announcement that our house is ablaze. The final message is other: an ebullient cry that there is a place of safety, an open field beyond the flames, and a clear exit sign pointing the way of escape.
If in this process of awakening we must meet old age, sickness, and death face to face, that is because the place of safety can be reached only by honest confrontation with the stark truths about human existence. We cannot reach safety by pretending that the flames that engulf our home are nothing but bouquets of flowers: we must see them as they are, as real flames. When, however, we do look at the divine messengers squarely, without embarrassment or fear, we will find that their faces undergo an unexpected metamorphosis. Before our eyes, by subtle degrees, they change into another face — the face of the Buddha, with its serene smile of triumph over the army of Mara, over the demons of Desire and Death. The divine messengers point to what lies beyond the transient, to a dimension of reality where there is no more aging, no more sickness, and no more death. This is the goal and final destination of the Buddhist path — Nibbana, the Unaging, the Unailing, the Deathless. It is to direct us there that the divine messengers have appeared in our midst, and the good news of deliverance is their message.