Fifteen years ago, looming on my horizon was Thirty, with a capital-T. I knew the power “carpe diem” had wielded in my life, that I had lived life with travel, a happy marriage, wonderful family and friends, and a deep enjoyment of my work. I had no regrets, no grudges, no projects I hadn't gotten to. I wasn't cavalier about death -- it made me sad to think of leaving my wife, Emily, and my family, of course -- but I was resigned.
Thirty came with a huge party thrown by my family. “She's still kicking!” the invitation read. Friends came from all over the country, and I was grateful and humbled.
A month earlier, Emily and I had decided not to have kids. My health was deteriorating too much to be the stay-at-home mom I'd always dreamed of being. We also decided to sell our house, which was too big for just two people. We moved into a one-bedroom apartment with our two cats.
Almost at once, things started to go wrong. One of our cats died, which brought home to me our decision not to have children. My lungs became so unpredictable and I went on government disability. I fell into a serious depression and started having panic attacks, during which noises deadened and I felt choked of all air. Things that had once sustained me -- hiking and writing and being with family -- felt pointless and distant. I slept a lot, and could barely smile when Emily got home from work. In November of 2005, I started taking medication to help my depression and I found a great therapist to work with. I learned to “fake it 'til you make it,” and shakily began re-engaging in life.
And then, the catalyst for the upheaval of my entire life happened. At a routine clinic visit, my doctor looked me in the eye and stated that the trajectory of my disease meant I could live to 70. “No one can know, of course,” he said, “but 70 is not beyond the realm of possibility.”
My family and friends were thrilled. They congratulated me, and I loved them for it, but inside I was completely miserable. How could I possibly maintain “carpe diem” for 40 more years? Didn't everyone know that I was ready? Didn't they know what hard work it was to stay healthy? I knew I should be happy, but I just felt weary.
I was clicking around on the web one day -- the way you do when you're surfing for answers to empty questions -- and saw an advertisement for a meditation class through the Penn Program for Mindfulness. I talked to Emily, who had been such a rock during these years of misery, and we decided to take the class together.
Meditation was just about watching your breath, right? But watching my breath -- the seat of pains and hospitalizations -- was agonizing. I hated my breath, its crackles and rasps, its tightness, its meaning to me of hopelessness and death. When I tried to do a body scan, flashbacks of waking up with doctors at my hospital bedside engulfed me. If I meditated on sound, all I could hear was tinnitus -- caused by antibiotics.
My teacher was wonderful. He gave me practices that centered on sensations in parts of my body untouched by cystic fibrosis, taught me to recognize panic early enough to stop it, told me to be kind to myself when it was hard. Pain, physical and mental, happens to all of us, and meditation allows you to notice and accept it. Meditation is looking at the reality of living with a chronic illness, and saying, “I see you.”
That was 11 years ago, and I now realize that the most dramatic change of my life was the moment I decided to sit down and do nothing.
I still get sad and anxious sometimes. But I have learned to have pain without suffering. Watching my fears, exploring them, has become an unpleasant but interesting experience, like watching my nephew get his first vaccinations. Seven years ago, I woke Emily in the middle of the night to say, “I'm having a panic attack, but it's OK!”
I meditate day by day, week by week, moment by moment, whether by sitting on the cushion, doing yoga, or mindfully washing the dishes. I feel more present than I ever did living full-throttle. I am a Buddhist, and I study the dharma every day, learning bit by bit how to live and how to die. My favorite thing to meditate on? My amazing, beautiful breath -- how it crackles, how it pushes to keep my lungs open, how it is part of me, how it keeps me going. Maybe even until I'm 70.