Our Own Lives

I don’t know if you read Oliver Sacks’ op-ed last Thursday in the New York Times where he revealed that he has terminal liver cancer. The piece was of particular interest to me as someone who survived liver cancer via a liver transplant only 9 months ago and has lost 2 family members to the disease in the past 13 months.

I think it should be of interest to everyone because we are all terminal. To paraphrase the title of a humorous and ironic song by Hank Williams Sr., none of us will get out of this world alive.

Oliver Sacks by Elena Seibert
Oliver Sacks by Elena Seibert

I must confess that before this I was not too familiar with the life and work of Oliver Sacks, who is a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine. I knew that his 1973 memoir Awakenings about his work with patients suffering from the sleeping sickness, encephalitis lethargica, was made into a film with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, which I enjoyed. And that he wrote another book titled The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, but I have read neither and had to go to Wikipedia to learn more about him.

It’s not necessary to know his life story to be moved by Sacks’ reflections. They are poignant and inspirational. The valuable takeaways for me were the appreciation he expresses for his life and the sense of detachment he has found. Both are indispensable to Buddhist practice, and even though some mistakenly think they are mutually exclusive, they are not.

Buddhism teaches that human life is precious, and that is reason enough to be grateful for the blessing of life. When you face death and survive, appreciation for life seems to blossom naturally. It is a shame to wait until you have a crisis for it to unfold.

In regards to detachment, Sacks writes,

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment . . .”

That is the kind of detachment Buddhism encourages us to develop, but again, while there is still time to watch the news, pay attention to the world, to argue, to forgive, love and cry. We form attachments to so many things – desire, material possessions, even our own sufferings – and it is vital that we learn to let go. As Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, “Letting go gives us freedom and freedom is the only condition for happiness.”

There is not much more to say about the piece. It is called “My Own Life.” It could have been titled “Our Own Lives,” as it speaks to and for us all. Please read it. Here is the link:

Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer February 19, 2015


Being Alive

I’ve had problems concentrating recently, which is why blogging has been slow, intermittent. It is partly due to my recovery from major surgery and the medication they are giving me, and partly due to other matters that have been pressing on my somewhat compromised mind, such as the death of a dear family member.

Fear of death (thanatophobia) is a phobia shared by most people. Almost everyone is afraid of dying. Buddhism teaches that when we develop a deep understanding of the inevitability of death, we can overcome this fear and face death with courage.

Another aspect of fear of death is a reluctance to talk about death, or think about it. But the subject of death should be discussed and pondered, and I feel our reflection on death should lead us to an appreciation of life.

There are times when it is difficult for me to remember just how precious life is, times when I begrudge my life.

It is easy to lose track of what is important. The old adage about stopping to smell the roses is a good one, because as Thich Nhat Hanh says,

When we learn to stop and be truly alive in the present moment, we are in touch with what’s going on within and around us. We aren’t carried away by the past, the future, our thinking, ideas, emotions, and projects.”

Nor are we preoccupied with feeling sorry for ourselves, bemoaning our disappointments, and so on.

Life is not fair. Life is uncertain. Death is not fair. Death is uncertain, but inevitable. Every moment of life counts, every breath is precious . . .

There is only one important point you must keep in your mind and let it be your guide. No matter what people call you, you are just who you are. Keep to this truth. You must ask yourself how is it you want to live your life. We live and we die, this is the truth that we can only face alone. No one can help us, not even the Buddha. So consider carefully, what prevents you from living the way you want to live your life?”

– Dalai Lama XIV


Cultivating Appreciation for Sufferings

A vital element in our practice and understanding of dharma is a sense of appreciation. In the way I’m using the word, it’s not the same as gratitude. Gratitude is a feeling in response to something received – a kindness, a gift, an opportunity. Appreciation, on the other hand, is a quality that should always be present and is not dependent upon any external causes. It goes beyond merely being an aesthetic admiration of the beauty and wonder of life. We develop this sense of appreciation at the very core of our being and it encompasses everything we observe and experience. That includes appreciation for our sufferings.

We naturally want to avoid suffering. We seek freedom from life’s miseries. Buddhism is supposed to help us attain nirvana, which is freedom from sufferings. In Mahayana, we say that sufferings are nirvana. Many people wonder how that makes sense. How can nirvana be the very thing we are seeking to escape?

Understanding “sufferings are nirvana” begins with the recognition of a simple fact: it is only through suffering that we can even approach nirvana. It’s like the simile of the raft. You’re on this shore and in order to reach the other shore, where nirvana awaits, you must cross over the sea of suffering. There’s no other way. You have to do it.

In Shoji (“Birth and Death”), Dogen wrote,

When we see that sufferings are themselves nirvana, there is no need to avoid suffering or to seek nirvana. Only with this understanding is there a possibility for freedom from birth and death.

“Birth and death” is often a metaphor for Samsara, this mundane world we inhabit, and because Samsara is permeated with suffering, so it too is a metaphor, representing suffering itself. What Dogen is saying is that nirvana can be found only in the here and now, in this world, in the midst of suffering.

He also says that there is no need to avoid suffering, but the truth is we cannot avoid them. Now, he’s actually referring to the non-dual nature of sufferings and nirvana, and he may not have also had the idea of cultivating appreciation for suffering in his mind when he wrote those words, but they certainly lend themselves to that additional interpretation.

Appreciation for one’s sufferings may be a hard concept to wrap our minds around, but when you consider, for instance, that suffering can be a teacher, it starts to make sense.

I didn’t pay that much attention in the past when people would tell me about the loss of a pet. Kinda like baby pictures. To me, all babies look the same. Ho hum. Yawn. But now I know what it feels like to lose a beloved pet. When I hear of someone’s loss in the future, I’ll be able to feel their pain. I had to do through my own suffering to be able to see the suffering of others. My personal suffering taught me a lesson.

A small lesson, perhaps, and yet, that’s what life really consists of – small things. The big stuff, the large events of life come few and far between, actually. Typically, life is just a series of small moments. That’s one reason why mindfulness practice is so beneficial. Because mindfulness helps us to become aware and have appreciation for the small, present moments that make up our life. And the small lessons.

Appreciation is a prerequisite for awakening. We often think of awakening as being this big, esoteric thing. A quality of an elevated state of being. But awakening, too, essentially is rather small. At least, it starts out that way. It’s just being aware of the moment you’re in. Thich Nhat Hanh came up with a little verse I like a lot:

Breathing in, I am happy.
Breathing out, I smile.
I am in the present moment.
It’s a wonderful moment.

That moment may be joyful or sorrowful. Buddhism doesn’t make any distinctions between what sort of present moments are worthy of our awareness. Nevertheless, whether the moment is good or bad, if you have appreciation, it’s wonderful. To be able to see it in that way is the essence of awakening, perhaps even the key to freedom.

We cannot avoid sufferings, so when they come, try to cultivate appreciation. It’s hard to do, but within your suffering is something very valuable for your life. Remember that irritation is the stimulation that produces a pearl. Should a tiny grain of sand get inside an oyster’s shell, the oyster coats the irritant with layers of fluid, and from that coating, a pearl is formed. No irritation, no suffering – no pearl.

My present tribulation is not so heavy,
And will be beneficial;
Let me be glad of a suffering
That redeems the world of its suffering.

– Shantideva, Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life