Chapter 3, Part 4
In October of 2008, about the same time as I started practicing Tibetan Buddhism in earnest after years of dabbling in it, blood tests showed that in a short span of a few months my kidney function had suddenly dropped to 50 percent of full capacity. My kidneys were failing, swiftly and surely, it seemed. Nobody knew why.
The news was a shocker! But my reaction was even more astounding. I began to realize how the knowledge of my failing kidneys is a lovesome thing, a fortunate thing, a thing of beauty and inspiration, a gift. I am dying, it’s true, but so what?
As Jack Nicholson’s character, Jake Gittes, cracked over the phone in Chinatown, when asked if he was alone, “Aren’t we all?”
Here’s the definitive existential truth. Am I dying? Sure. Aren’t we all?
The inevitability of death is only endured by most of us through hard-nosed denial. We’re all cast as film noir detectives of the Jake Gittes kind, ignoring reality with gritty wise cracks. But now, with deniability no longer an option for me, I’ve found the certainty of my own death, and the rough timetable it has given me for my future, a source of heady motivation.
One factor in this adjustment process was a series of appointments with a group of kidney specialists, who were supposed to diagnose the cause and, therefore, the fatal effect of my kidney problems.
During my first appointment, sitting in a modern waiting room – complete with its faux-Motel 6 furnishings, the perfumey odor of industrial-strength janitorial products, and magazines of the supermarket tabloid variety – I gazed around me at my fellow bovines being herded into the medical slaughterhouse. Many of the patients, bless their hearts, were grotesquely obese. I had to shift my eyes away from the elephantine ankles, painfully red and swollen, of the woman across the aisle. Someone behind me wheezed air leaking from a broken carburetor.
Those patrons who weren’t grossly overweight looked frail enough to break into twigs, which might not have been far from the truth, since severe osteoporosis is one symptom of advanced kidney disease. Others are debilitating anemia, nausea, drowsiness, confusion, seizures, and coma. Literally everyone around me looked defeated and ready to die.
One tottering older man shuffled in with the aid of a walker and settled uncomfortably into a chair with upholstery in the pattern of a skin rash. Soon his name was being paged by a medical assistant, and he was asked to step inside. For several disturbing seconds, the poor man struggled to rise from his chair as though it were a wrestling opponent pulling an illegal hold.
Finally, he bawled, “These goddamn chairs are built too goddamn low!” It was a voice crying in the wilderness filled with outrage, desperation, despair.
He made me want to scream as well. So did the whole scene, for there but for fortune go you and I. And my own fortune might not be that far away. I pictured myself in this same waiting room a few years into my intimidating future. Or even a few months.
Throughout the spring of 2009, the specialists at this center pricked, prodded, and poked me, up and down, looking for hard evidence explaining my kidney woes. By May, they had supposedly eliminated every possibility but two. I was informed that they wanted to drill into my bone marrow looking for either leukemia or bone marrow cancer, a Hobson’s choice, if there ever was one.
Instinctively, I knew I had neither, don’t ask me how. So I politely cancelled all my remaining appointments, swore never to report to that waiting room again, and took matters into my own hands.
I will detail how I escaped my own mortality and the clutches of the Industrial-Medical Complex in Chapter 6 of Back to Walden. But here’s a hint. I had neither leukemia nor bone marrow cancer. Aside from my kind, understanding, and supportive GP, the doctors simply didn’t know what to make of a vigorous, lifelong runner in ruddy good health who happens to have failing kidneys. They still don’t.
If only my kidneys would hold their own, I vowed, I can continue running, swimming, and hiking for…Well, that’s a question still to be answered.
Meanwhile, I had to come to grips with my worst-case scenario. Unlikely as it seems, during the months following my fatal diagnosis, I reached my own separate peace. Knowing I didn’t have much time to waste, I fleshed out a streamlined method for practicing spiritual awareness by splicing together the essential threads of the Transcendentalism and Buddhism beloved by Thoreau. By adopting Thoreau’s lifestyle and boiling down many years of spiritual and philosophical reading to the three powerful awareness techniques summed up in chapter one, I discovered a speeded-up, pared-down method of spiritual trekking geared to those of us who haven’t any time to spare. In essence, perhaps, that means everybody.
Making the best of my time, I arrived at a kind of acceptance, welcoming whatever fate awaits me, and reaching a state of happiness and peace I’ve never known.
All the while, my life has taken on the atmosphere of late September in New England, when the turning summer mulches into fall, the quality of slanting light makes magic, and all the world seems to be holding its breath.
In that sense, the prospect of death was a gift from a God I don’t even believe in.
The offshoot of my detour into medical malpractice is Back to Walden. The heart and soul of Back to Walden is Thoreau’s lifestyle and this set of three awareness practices – True Thought, True Energy, and True Insight – which I believe can help anybody find peace of mind. In the following pages, I offer you these transcendent tools in hopes they can make your life more satisfying, more meaningful, more joyous.
By publishing this eBook, I don’t want to suggest that I have suddenly become some enlightened spiritual guru. On the contrary, my message is much more deductive. If these simple methods work for me, with a past so recently gone AWOL from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, they’re liable to work for anyone.
I also understand that, at this point in time, what I offer you on these pages might not fit into your current agenda. I expect as much. I’m not trying to convert anyone to anything. But some day, as you dodge the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, you might find you need something beyond what “over-civilization” (as Thoreau called society) offers. Like Thoreau, you might be seized by the impulse “to cast off the debilitating and dispiriting obligations of a respectable life.” Your mind might turn inward for something more.
In that case, Back to Walden is here for you if you need it. Your own infallible intuition – your “transparent eye-ball,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson called it – will tell you when that time is at hand.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’ve got all the answers. I’m no highly evolved human being. I am not even “An Illumined Soul,” as one gravestone in my hometown Amherst cemetery claims for the dearly departed. I’m just a guy looking for truth. But, for the first time in a life of trying almost everything, I know I’m on the right track. For the first time, I’m zeroing in on what’s truly authentic.
As French philosopher André Gide noted, “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who claim to have found it.”
In that context, I ought to be believed.
It is my intention that my journal will, in its own modest way, act like Walden did for countless readers, including poets, novelists, philosophers, naturalists, monastics, environmentalists, painters, bohemians, beats, hippies, and other time trekkers from every generation. I want this journal to help you and my other loved ones find joy now and for the remainder of your stay on earth. I picture you turning your life into a noble but very personal calling, whose ultimate reward is tranquility.
Later, perhaps, in the fullness of time, my eBook might help you face the same end-of-life challenges that I face now. In the best of all possible worlds, it will be my timeless guide to you. It is the very best gift I can think to leave.
My fondest hope is for this account to impart a few nuggets of intuitive wisdom to you and my other dear ones; to offer you all my loving camaraderie from this moment on. Just as Thoreau “never found a companion as companionable as loneliness,” I hope you’ll never find a companion as companionable as my companionship on these pages.
As the lyrics of the lovely September Song go: “These precious days I’ll spend with you.”