The Greatest Teacher

It’s been a month of hard lessons.

We all long to tell the truth, to share what we know. But how? Sometimes really telling the truth requires a turn of phrase, similes, metaphors—a story.

My story begins like this: its been a month of hard lessons.

The hard part? A clot of blood in the lungs was hard, and painful and scary. Painful and scary is a blood clot story with a happy ending.

How is my wife doing? She is doing quite well, thank you. She feels pretty much “back to normal.” Yesterday morning she told our Granddaughter that those skinny jeans were just too tight and she had better change them “Now!” All this at 6AM in a countdown for a school bus. I took it as a good sign.

What’s next? More blood thinner, more tests.

Me? How am I? I don’t know. I’m rattled. The kind of rattled you get when you’re in your car alone, trailing an ambulance down the interstate at 3AM, wondering.

The kind of rattled you get when you are calling a stepdaughter on another continent—from a hospital cafeteria.

The kind of rattled you get when your “love” of 35 years threatens to vanish one ordinary Wednesday evening.

Near the end of his life, Suzuki Roshi yelled at his students. “Death is the Greatest Teacher,” he said, banging his staff on the floor.

I’m a wimp. Insecure with a thin skin. If death is teaching, you can find me at the back of the class fiddling with my iPod. But death, like life, is hard to ignore. A few lessons got through:

Trust your instincts. If you have a “funny feeling” – as a patient or a caregiver  respect it. Don’t ignore it. Life is a funny feeling. Your intuitions may be all you have.

Panicking doesn’t help. Move fast when you need to, otherwise slow down and appreciate what you’re doing. Don’t be hard on yourself. Amazingly, suffering (yours or hers) isn’t personal. Sure you’re afraid, but the uncertainty you are facing now was always there.  Don’t turn away. Be brave. It’s OK to cry.

Remember your meditation practice. If your mind is like a wild horse, follow Sakyong Mipham’s instructions. Lasso it and bring it back to the present. You know you can. In a crisis, “just being” is your meditation. It meets a definition of prayer: “The thing you do when there is nothing else you can do.” (Garrison Keillor).

Nothing to do but have to do something? Wherever you are, do tonglen (sending and taking) practice. Take in suffering on your in breath, give out any composure you have on the out breath. You are not alone in your pain. Others (too many to count) are going through this very thing, right now. Sending and taking will help you, maybe them too. Pema Chödrön can remind you how to do this.


Let help and support come. Ask for it when you need it. But don’t expect it. Some will “say what they truly feel in a clear expression” (Emily Post). Others can’t. You might be angry. Remember a definition of aggression from Chögyam Trungpa: demanding sympathy.


Say “Yes” to your new life. It never was “old,” you’re just noticing how new it always was. Now, on top of the fridge, instead of a bowl of fruit there is a box of syringes. Let it be there.


Question everything. Use the Internet. Educate yourself. Knowing a little more, you suffer a little less.


There is a realm too exhausting to describe. It’s called the Tired Realm. In this realm doing anything is hard. Sitting on your meditation cushion? Too late, should have done that earlier. When you can, leave this realm by the door marked “REST.”


Yes, you were wrong about so much. You thought that everything cared, that even the night sky at 3 am was somehow on your side. Did you want to think that forever? Feeling “wrong” now only points to your investment in feeling “right.” That must have been satisfying, in an exhausting kind of way. Why not relax?


If someone is in pain, ask them how they are doing and where it hurts, but not every 10 seconds. Let them share what they want to share. What you hear may end your future. If your future was in the habit of being your present, that may seem to go too. You will find it again.



My wife’s pulmonary embolism occurred on Wednesday evening, May 4th. (And yes, she is really much better.) Sorry if this a bit of a downer.

We Buddhists get a bad rap for dwelling on life’s shortcoming and these days I do find myself a little sober. But aren’t all good students a little sober? Note: I also hear the birds of spring in a new way and notice details long overlooked.

What is life then, if it’s not what we thought it was?

My grandmother once marveled at how quickly her 90 plus years had gone by. “Like the wink of an eye?” I asked.

“Exactly!” she replied, satisfied with the turn of phrase that might begin (or endwould it matter?) her story.

A story that could be true.

Editor’s Note: “As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space, an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble, a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning, view all created things like this.” Lord Buddha, The Diamond Sutra

4 Replies to “The Greatest Teacher”

  1. Michael, my light, warmth, understanding and any help I might offer are extended to you and Jeanine. You were a bright candle in my darkest hour. Please allow me to shine for you if you need it.

    With gobs of love,

  2. Thank you so much sharing your terrifying yet so real adventure into the unknown with us.

    Don Juan (ala Carlos Castaneda) said: “Death is your greatest advisor.” and reminded Carlos that death was always at his left shoulder an arms length away.

    I thought I understood this and thought I lived it until 4 summers ago I was given the report that my elevated liver enzymes had a cause and I was the effect. Hepatitis C — contracted 40 years earlier and still active.

    I had only been sitting for 3 years and although I KNEW what Castaneda said and KNEW what the Buddha says about impermanence — all I could think and say was OMG I’m going to die.

    Yet here I still am. Without symptoms and so I forget most days that I have a life threatening disease. Unless I get a tinge in the liver area.

    I’m still not able to “remember” that I too will die. As will my friends, my family, my pets. It all seems so happy and permanent. And I fall easily to the delusion that “everything cares” and is somehow on my side. (that was a FABULOUS line – thank you)

    Especially if I am a good buddhist and sit often.

    And then I remember — wait — The Buddha never said I wasn’t going to DIE!

    It’s easy to forget, especially in the spring.

    Thank you so much.

    And please give your wife my love. I’m thrilled to hear she’s noticing those too skinny jeans. It IS a good sign.


  3. Hello Michael,

    I hope that you and Jeanine are doing well.
    Thank you so much for writing about your experience. It’s
    a profound reminder of both our fragility and our powers
    of endurance.
    I passed this blog along to Becky, Jigme and Tashi.
    I think that Becky went through something similar when
    Bruce had a heart attack a few months ago.
    You are in my thoughts.
    Thank you again.

    Steven Daniels

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