Sick in the Head: Slow the F Down & Listen to Your Heart

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Late last fall, after my third cold in less than two months, I went to see my integrative doctor. I had been ridiculously busy all September and October working long hours and with the rare day off. 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 & 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? According to her, “because we have lost harmony with the rhythms of nature.”

Think about it. Summer, with its long days and high vibrancy, is when nature is most active but 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 storing and slowing 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 the engine revving in preparation for months of total over–activity. This 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 the end–of–fiscal year, sugar–fat–alcohol–induced madness otherwise known as the “holiday season.”

Deadly heart attacks most commonly occur on December 25th. Second most common day, December 26th. Third, January 1st.

Many of us (especially in NYC) wear our busyness as a badge of honor while technology allows (forces?) us to work from anywhere. We fill up every moment of our time often without asking ourselves if all this 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 illness. Starting with me.

As many of you know, I have had cancer twice. Sadly, the mofo is back.

I hesitated sharing this news so publicly but part of my evolution with illness over the years has been to challenge the culture of fear, discomfort and shame around it. And 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 & 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 what has gripped me most is the 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 (voices of family, culture, society, media, doctors, well–meaning advice–giving friends) is very loud. And bossy. And that noise insists on incessant activity — mental, emotional, physical — to never fall apart (exhausting and pretty useless), to plan for unknowns (mostly useless), to try and control the mostly mysterious process of life & death (always useless).

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 (and worry). 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 three messengers: illness, old age, and death. Some of us are blessed with good health for a long time (mazel tov), some of us 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 (and limitless success/accumulation). 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, extract, and spurn anything that reminds us of this inevitability?

Something that has helped me is the 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 that I shall be the heir.

These reminders are simple statements of fact and within our culture of denial they form a Radical Manifesto of Reality. Join the cause. Join me. Don’t wait for illness. Or death…

These days I am taking things way the F slow. I am dropping things (see side bar). Scheduling less frequently. Trying not to fill up free time & space with agitated activity. I am staring out the window. Reading actual books (without checking my gadget every 5 minutes)! Lingering on a park bench. Noticing the rhythms of nature in the city. Listening…

What do you long for? What is your heart’s inmost request?

Next month we will explore deep listening. Until then: Slow Down. Listen.


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