Archive for the 'Spirituality' Category

“When Breath Becomes Air”: A call to life before death

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“Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.” — T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

whenbreathbecomesairI picked up When Breath Becomes Air (hardback; ebook; audiobook) at about 10pm on the first day of spring by a recommendation from the inimitable Jesse Kornbluth. From his and other reviews, I roughly knew what the book was about: death. What better time to meditate on death than on the very cusp of Earth’s re-awakening?

In one sitting, it was read. It’s a tonic against the unreality that assaults us in the world today — politics, entertainment, advertising, broken promises, missed meetings — because it’s the most real book I’ve read in recent memory. Paul Kalanithi is 36 years old, and chief neurosurgery resident at Stanford Medical School. Every day, he opens up people’s skulls with a drill and saw, dissecting through the dura and meninges to get to a tiny tumor in the cerebellum. One false move of his scalpel by 2mm, and instead of a productive career and fatherhood, his patient is fully paralyzed for life. This is not about shifting around some spreadsheet numbers or holding meetings with middle management about shareholder value, folks. Kalanithi’s work is at the interface between thriving and withering, life and death, every day.

And then, Kalanithi’s life takes a turn for the even more real: he himself is diagnosed with lung cancer. At that point, he has to decide whether he will be spending the remainder of his time on Earth dying or living — a span of 1 to 10 years, depending on disease progression. He chooses to live: to rehabilitate himself and go back to full-time surgical practice in spite of his exhausting chemotherapy regimen; to repair his marriage; to have a child; and to write this book. I am very glad he made that decision.

It turns out that Kalanithi’s time on earth was much closer to the lower end of the predicted range, which makes his story even more poignant and the creation of this book even more heroic. Between 100hr weeks at the hospital, mind-fogging chemotherapy, and a newborn, when did he write?

This is a book that stays with you. It’s a lucid exposition from a consummate insider on the practice of medicine and work of healing. When can doctors heal? What do they tell patients when they can’t? How do they react when a patient dies? How do they convey that news to the family? Is life always worth living?

Paul’s days were numbered, and he knew the number was small. But so are ours. If you’re 25, that number is 18,000 to 20,000. If you’re 45, it’s closer to 13,000. If your light plane crashes, or you have a mountaineering accident, or have a freak untreated food poisoning, that number could be much smaller, like it was for my three friends who died in the past year, all under the age of 35.

So the bad news is that we’re all going to die, folks. Especially you. The good news is that every moment that you live is a gift. You can have that fact impressed upon you by a terminal diagnosis. Or you can read When Breath Becomes Air. Let that inform your days, and you just may infuse every moment of your existence with greater meaning, purpose, and joy.

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On pain and how to handle it

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On the morning of Saturday, March 15, I woke up to shooting and stabbing pain down the right side of my neck, upper back and right arm. The pain encircled my ribs and was literally breathtaking.

I figured I must have slept with my neck in a funny position and a little massage would relieve it. But there was no part of my neck and back that my visiting friend could touch without eliciting a howl from yours truly. So I called my acupuncturist and bodywork specialist Steve, who was kind enough to accommodate me on short notice. Although the session gave me some relief, I realized that this was a different beast than a simple stiff neck.

Eventually, I found an experienced physical therapist/bodyworker based in San Rafael named Al Chan, whose deep knowledge of anatomy combined with his iron paws (I call his technique “Ow now, wow later”) helped put me on the mend.

This article is not about the clinical course of my ailment, though. This is aboutpain – where it

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‘God’s Hotel’ by Victoria Sweet: A Profoundly Human Book

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A book that can delight you through its entertainments or instruct you with useful knowledge is a good book; one that does both is a great book. Rarely, a book comes along that not only instructs and delights but also deepens your humanity, carving out extra space inside us to carry even more compassion. God’s Hotel by Victoria Sweet is such a book. [A hat-tip to Jesse Kornbluth of Head Butler for introducing me to it.]

There were many reasons I enjoyed this book, which is really many books at once:

1) The author, Dr Victoria Sweet, who has a PhD in medieval history as well as an MD, shares the ancient Latin and Greek etymologies of many terms used in patient care today. Hospitality, community, charity – what do they really mean? Through her stories about her time taking care of patients, Dr Sweet shows how those formed the three foundational principles of Laguna Honda Hospital.

Hospital comes from hospitality, the root of which is hospes, which means both ‘guest’ or ‘host’. This is how Sweet explains this:

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Taoism in Three Easy Pieces

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It must have happened to you hundreds of times.

There you are at a cocktail party, holding a mojito in one hand and holding forth on everything and nothing with the other, eliciting nods and knowing chuckles from your audience. You look good. Life is good. Then someone asks out of the blue, “So what the hell is this whole Taoism thing about?”

Aw man. Not that again. I mean, is it Taoism with a T, or Daoism with a D? And what’s that yin-yang symbol thingie anyway? Not your area of your expertise, not your bowl of porridge, not in your wheelhouse. End of your cocktail party mojo.

This is a pretty common condition, as I recently found out. A friend who was intrigued by Eastern philosophy but hadn’t the occasion to study it yet asked me what Taoism was all about. Mojito in hand, three basic principles came to mind which I thought you would find useful as a quick introduction, so you’re properly armed for next time it comes up:

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Partial Continuous Ecstasy: Can You Reside in Bliss Around the Clock?

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I want you to stop what you’re doing right now and really pay attention to… your breath. Slow down your breath, and make an effort to feel the air as it enters your nose.

Maybe even pinpoint a particular molecule of air, and follow its path as you feel it move along your airways, as you become conscious of every part of your body it touches.

First, feel it slide into your nostril. Then, slowly, it caresses the inside of your nasal passages, up and over into the back of your throat, down into your trachea. Slowly now – become aware of and really feel every little bit of

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Notes from a great conference

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I just came out of a four-day conference (which shall remain nameless), and it was such a life-affirming, mind-expanding, invigorating experience that I thought I would share my notes.  I got doused by a downpour of novel ideas from disparate fields in the many talks I attended.  Here’s a sampling, in no particular order:

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What are the chances of your coming into being?

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A little while ago I had the privilege of attending TEDx San Francisco, organized by the incomparable Christine Mason McCaull.  One of the talks was by Mel Robbins, a riotously funny self-help author and life coach with a syndicated radio show.  In it, she mentioned that scientists calculate the probability of your existing as you, today, at about one in 400 trillion (4×1014).

“That’s a pretty big number,” I thought to myself.  If I had 400 trillion pennies to my name, I could probably retire.

Previously, I had heard the Buddhist version of the probability of ‘this precious incarnation’.  Imagine there was one life preserver thrown somewhere in some ocean and there is exactly one turtle in all of these oceans, swimming underwater somewhere.  The probability that you came about and exist today is the same as that turtle sticking its head out of the water — in the middle of that life preserver.  On one try.

So I got curious: are either of these numbers correct?  Which one’s bigger?  Are they gross exaggerations?  Or is it possible that they underestimate the true number?

First, let us figure out the probability of one turtle sticking its head out of the one life preserver we toss out somewhere in the ocean.  That’s a pretty straightforward calculation.

According to WolframAlpha, the total area of oceans in the world is 3.409×108 square kilometers, or 340,900,000 km2 (131.6 million square miles, for those benighted souls who still cling to user-hostile British measures).  Let’s say a life preserver’s hole is about 80cm in diameter, which would make

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Danny Hillis and Robert Thurman in conversation: Science, Religion and Ethics

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I just got back from a talk with Robert Thurman and Danny Hillis at the Skirball Center here in Los Angeles.It was about religion, science and ethics, bringing together Danny’s viewpoint as a scientist and Robert’s viewpoint as a Buddhist scholar. Basically the equivalent of crack cocaine for my brain.

Thurman is the leading Tibetan Buddhist in America, a professor of religion at Columbia and buddy of the Dalai Lama.He’s just one seriously cool guy – take my word for it.

Danny Hillis is a genius.For me, the idea of genius isn’t just about being smart and having the intellectual horsepower. It’s about generativity, about making things.Well, in his spare time, Danny Hillis created the 10,000 year clock to illustrate his concept of ‘the long now’ – the idea that it’s a good idea to lead our lives now as if we’re having impact way beyond our own lives and that of our children. Hence, ‘long now’.

He’s also made a computer out of tinkertoys and been a Disney Imagineer and a zillion other things.I’d never met Danny in person, and the one thing that I noticed is that this guy is massive.He’s got these meaty bear paws, is at least 6’3”, and has the biggest head I’ve seen on a person.In fact, you could easily fit two of my heads inside his.All them neurons need a home, I tell ya.

But enough introduction.The conversation started civilly enough.Thurman talked about the 3 jewels (or refuges, or rattanas) of Buddhism:

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