One City

by Stillman Brown

I wasn’t able to make it to last night’s Heartcore Dharma class on “Aspiring and Entering Bodhicitta,” so I thought I’d blog about something more personal. Several weeks ago, the partner of a good friend of mine was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer. It was a shock. She is 26, has no family history, eats well, manages her stress, and gets to the gym more than most people. As my buddy, who is from rural Pennsylvania, put it, “I was raised to do the right thing, save my money, not drink too much, follow the rules. Go to school, go to college, get mediocre grades and get a job. If you followed the rules, you’d be safe from this kind of thing. But it’s simply not true.”

It was heartbreaking to hear him say that. It’s a bitter pill to swallow so young, just as you’re embarking on career and making a life with your partner. But I was also proud of him, because, over the phone, I could hear him grappling with the essential impermanence of life, that sickening feeling of uncertainty that, if we’re honest, is ever-present underneath the narratives we construct to feel safe and insulated.
Sitting at my desk in Brooklyn, he probably sitting at his in Los Angeles, I felt helpless.

There was nothing I could do but listen, ask questions, and try feebly to send my sorrow and hopefulness through the phone. I offered to come out and wash the dishes and walk the dog – be helpful, instead of just another concerned friend who’s own emotions had to be managed. It still felt inadequate. 

His crisis put me in mind of my own a few years ago: I had just transferred to New York University and was living in the vertical freneticism of the city by myself. I didn’t know anyone, school was difficult, and I was experiencing deep upheaval at home. I wasn’t sleeping or doing my class work, and I was surviving on tuna melts and Doritos from the deli on the corner. My apartment was across from the New York State Criminal Courts building, and every morning on my way to campus I would pass busloads of intense, hard-looking men in shackles. I felt improbably connected to them.
Then, after eight hard months, a friend gave me John Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, saying, “I think you’ll find this useful.” I read the introduction and felt an immediate connection with the gentleness of his teaching and his insight. From the first page:

By lost, I mean that we momentarily lose touch with ourselves and with the full extent of our possibilities. Instead, we fall into a robotlike way of seeing and thinking and doing. In those moments, we break contact with what is deepest in ourselves and affords us perhaps our greatest opportunities for creativity, learning, and growing. If we are not careful, those clouded moments can stretch out and become most of our lives.

Wherever You Go There You Are was my introduction to mindfulness and meditation, and set me on the path I follow today. Meditation gave me a toe-hold of awareness, a fighting chance to understand and weather the crisis in my life. 

Sitting at my desk, worrying about my friend and his partner and feeling ineffectual, I decided to get on and send him a copy of Wherever You Go. Maybe he wouldn’t connect with it, but it’s quiet wisdom helped me in crisis. Maybe it can do the same for him.

For the community: Do you have any suggestions for a book on mindfulness and illness? It’s for folks who’ve been to a yoga class, but never meditated before, so not too esoteric.

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