Late last fall, after my third cold in less than two months, I went to see my integrative doctor. It was my rare day off. I had been ridiculously busy working long hours all of September and October. I said something about catching whatever bugs had popped up that everyone else seemed to be getting. She laughed and said, “Sebene, it’s not like the cold and flu arrive on a plane from somewhere else. There are as many microbes now as any other time of the year.”
Duh, of course. Wait, then why do we all get sick in the fall and winter? She answered: “It’s because we have lost harmony with the rhythms of nature.”
Think about it. Summer, with its long days and high vibrancy, is both when nature is most active and when most of us get our lengthiest restorative time. Starting around the fall equinox, just as we speed up in our post-Labor Day madness, all the plants and animals around us begin to store and slow down in preparation for a needed dormancy. Even if we don’t have kids (but especially if we do), the back-to-school rush is an engine that revs in preparation for months of over-activity. This craze culminates in an insanely frantic pace around the winter solstice when all of nature is either asleep or dead, while our crazy species rushes around in its end-of-the-year, sugar-fat-alcohol-induced madness otherwise known as the “holiday season.”
Deadly heart attacks most commonly occur on December 25. Second most common day: December 26. Third: January 1.
Many any of us—especially those residing in New York City—wear our busyness as a badge of honor with no small assist from technology, which allows (forces?) us to work from anywhere. We fill up every moment of our time, often without asking ourselves if all the activity is meaningful. Even “downtime” is spent scrolling through texts and images, adding endless links and associations to our flooded synapses. It’s totally cuckoo. What are we thinking? And what will make us finally slow down? For most of us, only one thing does it: illness.
Starting with me.
I have had cancer twice. Sadly, the mofo is back.
I was hesitant to share this news so publicly but part of my evolution with illness over the years has been to challenge its culture of fear, discomfort, and shame. Maybe this is an opportunity to remind all of us (especially moi) that we are sick in the head and need to slow the F down and listen to our hearts.
Of course, I have had many powerful emotions and thoughts while grappling with this news. Shock, fear, despair, disbelief, grief… and a roaring “F@*k Cancer!” and “What the F@*k?!” and “F@*k, F@*k, F@*k!!”
But I’ve been gripped most by a single inquiry: “What is important to me?” In the weeks since my latest diagnosis, I have been exploring my deepest longing, what Suzuki Roshi called the heart’s most inmost request. What is mine?
That is not an easy question to answer because the noise in my mind—with its voices of family, culture, society, media, doctors, and even well-meaning friends—is very loud. And bossy. And that noise insists that incessant activity will keep me from falling apart (counterproductive and pretty useless), help me plan for unknowns (mostly useless), and allow me to control the mysterious process of life and death (always useless).
It’s hard to listen deeply with all that racket.
Of course, there are decisions to be made and actions to be taken whether we are facing a serious illness or not. What is draining and unnecessary is the constant activity and the superfluous thought. Yes, mindfulness is useful here. I’ve written before about the power of presence. But beyond breath meditation there’s also a need to reckon with reality.
Yup, I’m talking about death.
Buddhists talk about the three messengers: illness, old age, and death. Some of us are blessed with good health for a long time (mazel tov) while others will not make it to old age—but all of us will die.
Yet, everything in our culture avoids or outright denies this reality and holds up the impossible ideal of eternal youth. Not that we need to be morbid. Self care is mature and wise. But how much can we diet, dye, cross-fit, pump, plump, inject, and extract, all the while spurning anything that reminds us of the inevitable?
Something that has helped me is a set of five daily recollections recommended by the Buddha:
1. I am of the nature to grow old. I have not gone beyond aging.
2. I am of the nature to be ill. I have not gone beyond illness.
3. I am of the nature to die. I have not gone beyond death.
4. All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will change and vanish.
5. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related to my actions, supported by my actions. Whatever actions I do, whether good or evil, of those I shall be the heir.
These reminders are simple statements of fact, but within our culture of denial they comprise a radical manifesto of reality: join the cause. Don’t wait for illness or death…
These days I am taking things way the F slow. I am dropping things, scheduling less frequently, and trying not to fill up free time and space with agitated activity. I am staring out the window, reading actual books (without checking my gadget every 5 minutes), and lingering on park benches. I’m once again noticing the rhythms of nature in the city. Listening…
This article originally appeared on Sebene Selassie’s website.
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