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Living This Life Fully

facing life with equanimity

I am in the middle of reading Breast Strokes: Two Friends Journal Through the Unexpected Gifts of Cancer, by Cathy Edgett and Jane Flint. Although Cathy does not use Buddhist terms in her spare but lyrical journal entries and poems, it is clear that she understands what it means to embrace Dharma, to live this life fully even while undergoing the rigors of medical treatment for breast cancer. She faces each day trying to be as present as possible to what each moment brings: the sight of a redwood tree outside her window, Mt. Tamalpais in the distance, the fragility of the body, with its soreness, nausea, and fatigue, the soft morning light, the joy of being able to walk or share a meal, the sound of rain, the clutch of fear. As she confronts the truth of what is, she comes back again and again to “calm, steady, present, and clear.” Realizing that suffering arises when she wants things to be otherwise, she is now willing to “be with the journey, instead of wishing or willing it away.”

Cathy’s mindfulness, acceptance, equanimity, and even gratitude in so much discomfort remind me of how Munindra dealt with the vicissitudes of the ailing, aging body.

Despite our best efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle, we never know what might hit us. Munindra took precise care of himself: yoga, meticulous hygiene, fresh food, a positive attitude, walking, meditation. Yet, he too suffered what every human being is subject to—all kinds of physical and emotional stresses. He had to say goodbye to those who were dear to him. For two years following a hernia operation, he suffered an ongoing infection because the surgeon didn’t complete the procedure correctly. The accidental spilling of a pot of boiling water burned his right hand. Bronchitis and fever sent him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and pleurisy at the age of 82. He lost all his teeth and eventually became too frail to walk unsupported.

“If anything happens, it is OK; I accept it,” he would tell his students. But that didn’t mean he was resigned or fatalistic. His smile and loving-kindness always indicated otherwise. He simply greeted whatever showed up with equipoise. Whatever the conditions and circumstances, he mindfully observed the sensations, the thoughts, the feelings. He didn’t run away from them. Knowing he’d never again see an old friend, he didn’t stop the tears in his eyes as he held the monk’s hands and said good-bye. “When parting from those we love, there is sadness,” he taught. “This is how it is.”

Munindra was non-reactive and balanced in the flow of ups and downs, accepting what came and what went. He used to tell his students to not take things so seriously, to observe the impermanent nature of all phenomena: “It’s all a passing show. Just watch it.”

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