Growing up on the East Coast I didn’t even know about surfing until I came out to California as a young man just out of high school. I was more into motorcycles and weightlifting at the time and didn’t really start learning to surf until I was in my sixties. Recently while taking advantage of a free ticket and free lodging for a week in Hawaii, I made a major breakthrough in my surfing “career”. I found my center on the board and a way of standing up that enabled me to regularly catch waves and go for the longest rides I have ever done, including some twists and turns! Of course this was on mini waves at Waikiki, but I was still totally thrilled.
On the plane ride home I reflected on how surfing is such a wonderful metaphor for life: we don’t control the energetic waves that come to us from within or from the external world but we can learn to surf them using their power to get where we want to go and to enjoy the ride while getting there. I wondered what practical impact my recent surfing success at catching and blending with waves might have on my dry land experience back home. Little did I know.
Flying into Oakland airport that night I was mesmerized by dazzling lights radiating from what seemed like magnificent giant diamonds, rubies, emeralds and pearls —jewels from Aladdin’s Cave, pirate treasure chests of childhood imagination. “It’s all maya” I thought to myself. Just illusion, but how beautiful. Aldous Huxley said, “ We are fascinated by the bright and shiny because it reminds us of the light within.” I took in the wonder and drove home thinking of the Hindu belief, “Isn’t it all maya?”
Well maybe so, but life in a body brings challenges. To deal with challenges you need resources. A fundamental understanding in psychology and medicine says that a person’s life course is determined by two factors: issues (challenges and vulnerabilities) and resources. As issues increase, resources need to keep up. Psychologist Rick Hanson points out that resources can be found out in the world, in your body, and in your mind, i.e., inner strengths. These include capabilities (e.g., mindfulness, emotional intelligence, resilience), positive emotions (e.g., gratitude, love, self-compassion), attitudes (e.g., openness, confidence, determination), somatic inclinations (e.g., relaxation, grit, helpfulness), and virtues (e.g., generosity, courage, wisdom). “As the resources in your mind grow, that will help you build resources in your body and your world,” says Hanson, pointing out that when we learn something new, chemicals in the brain strengthen the synapses that connect neurons. Synaptic networks change constantly; some grow weaker and others, as they absorb new information, grow more powerful depending upon what we focus on.
A few days after my surfing success in Hawaii I went to see my Kaiser doctor to check out a sore spot on my neck. Doc said lets take an x-ray. It showed two small nodules in my right lung. Opps! Lets take a cat-scan says he. Ok. The cat-scan showed the nodules were “abnormal”. Ouch! Lets take a PET scan to find out what is going on. Umm, Ok. Got that the next day and then had to wait for its results.
Waiting time was sitting with not knowing – is it lung cancer even though I don’t smoke? Will they find out I am riddled with cancer like they found with my dad Ray years ago, giving him a week to live? Waves of fear, worry, anxiety and what-ifs came roaring up from the depths. What if I have to go through debilitating bouts of surgery, chemo and radiation? What if I can no longer do all the activities that bring me such joy – hiking, riding my bike, swimming, exercising, being out in nature? What if my time is short and I will be miserable with whatever time I have and not able to enjoy my family and friends while I am still here? What if, what if?
My mind was racing, feelings running a muck. In the midst of the chaos two helpful thoughts emerged – one, “When the going gets tough, you get what you practice” and two, “A spiritual warrior uses everything for their own growth and wastes nothing!”, both of which helped me shift from passive victim response to an active, creative one. “This is an opportunity to work with my consciousness, to strengthen my mind and explore what is possible. The surf is up and there are waves to ride” I thought to myself. “Catch the emotional and thought waves and use their power to help me get to where I want to go!” Well ok then, lets get on with it. “What is my inner surfing practice and towards what ends? Where do I want to go?”
A fellow elder-friend David Goff, wheelchair bound from a stoke, uses the term “essentializing” to describe his process of being simplified or reduced like the ingredients of a good sauce in a cooking process into a richer, more complex, and flavorful substance where his essential nature is being drawn out by giving up the superfluous in favor of the more essential. He speaks about his life ripening, becoming juicier, unfolding within while declining in both physical body and in function.
The challenge of the waves was “essentializing” me. First off I had to face the possibilities of the worst-case scenarios coming true and how I would deal with them if so. This took me into seeing how attached I am to being here, to life, to enjoying the gifts of life and how sad I would be if I had to go while still feeling in my prime. I saw the fear and worry in the faces of my wife Andrea and my daughters and how sad it would be for them if my days were numbered to be short. This took me into intense focus on the present moment to totally enjoy it because it might be all gone in the very near future. I paid full attention to whomever I was with, what ever I was doing making sure to savor the experience while also surrendering and letting go to the mystery of the future.
A main focus of my daily practice involves meditation with a mantra – “Infinite light and love is what I see, infinite light and love is what I be.” I close my eyes and seek to dissolve boundaries of perception separating my essence from the infinite essence of the universe finding inner peace in the Oneness, the love that doesn’t die but that joins all in its encompassing embrace. This helps me catch whatever waves of thought and feeling are flowing in the moment and use their power to transform awareness into an empowered sense of connectedness with all that is, has been, and will be, no matter what the outcome of tests on the nodules in my lung.
I also remind myself that everything is essentially energy so I send healing light and love into my lungs, into the nodules simultaneously opening to learn what they are trying to help me see. In my inquiry I find that they are the left over residue from work that I had done several months before. Similar to the cold and lifeless charcoal left over in a fire pit the morning after a rousing fire. All the energy is gone but the charcoal remains. What was the work?
Well it turns out that there were two people that I had placed outside my heart, neighbors that had been bugging me for quite some time about our dogs barking (even calling the police!) and harassing us in other ways that were just really pissing me off – full steam reactivity! When I would do my morning prayers sending love out to family, friends, community and those in need I saw quite clearly how my heart was closed to these two folks. I couldn’t hide from the fact that it made mockery of my morning affirmation, “I am a sacred, worthy, luminous being. I am love and my love is for giving. “ No, not to those two people!
The contradiction of saying this mantra while keeping my heart closed was like putting the gas pedal down full force while smashing the brake down at the same time. The contradiction between what I was saying about myself and what I was actually doing, contradicting myself in hypocrisy, short-circuited my soul’s fuse box creating a great deal of tension in my psyche. I could only take it for so long. Something had to give. The place where it gave was my lungs, where the breath of life comes in. Continuing on in the way I was going was hurting my life force, negating it. I had to either stop the mantra or deal with my closed heart.
I decided to go into the judgments I was holding against my neighbors and re-frame how I was holding the situation. I needed to create a new story, one that remembered that beneath their bothersome behavior was the same sacred luminosity that was in me that was their true being in which we were joined. I had to acknowledge they had a right to their feelings and they were trying to deal with them in the best way they knew how. I saw that their way of doing so was an opportunity to work my letting-go of control and wanting them to change to suit my needs. My growth challenge was to reopen my heart to their being and to see their inner light sending love to them for their being (I still didn’t have to like their behavior).
I had to reframe how I held them in my mind from seeing them as bad-guys out to cause me upset, to seeing that they were teachers giving me opportunity to work with my reactive patterns that are based on separation consciousness, ego-identity and simply wanting things to be the way I wanted them to be. In my prayers I began to thank them for showing up exactly the way they were showing up pushing exactly the buttons they were pushing. I visualized sending them love. Now I could see their fear. Empathy and compassion started to flow for their suffering, for all us going through our parts in the human drama. Reflection deepened. “What are we here on this Earth for but to learn our lessons, to wake up to our true nature and use whatever time we have here in all our relations to be a channel for unconditional light and love to all who cross our path? Get on with it Tom! Do your work! Give thanks for it all!”
I did. My heart opened. The tension left. I visualized beautiful blossoming flowers flowing into the nodules in my lungs. I felt good, healthy and happy. Results from the pet-scan and lung biopsy that followed showed there was no cancer, all was well. The doctors didn’t know what the nodules were and suggested another CAT scan in three months to make sure the nodules had not changed. I think they will be fine so long as I keep my heart open and honor my purpose intention of being a channel of light and love to all who cross my path. Don’t let my pipes get clogged up with judgments!
Its’ been a month or so since getting the good news. I am very thankful for the gift of health and wellness. I am even more thankful for the gift of being able to be here each day as I wake up to experience the simple gifts of being alive. Family, friends, community, seeing, feeling, touching, being touched. Wow, this life is something else! Halllelujah!
Thank you for being part of my daily enriching opportunity to love life, to live love, to grow ever more into the fullest blossoming of the potential we all share – luminous, worthy, sacred beings of light and love. Purpose is power. Purpose reflects a commitment to broader life goals that helps organize day to day activities. Research shows that purpose is a good thing to have, long associated with satisfaction and happiness, better physical functioning, even better sleep. “It’s a very robust predictor of health and wellness in old age,” said Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago.
She and her colleagues have been tracking two cohorts of older people living independently in greater Chicago, assessing them regularly on a variety of physical, psychological and cognitive measures. The subjects agreed to donate their brains after their deaths. What have the scientists learned? Following almost 1,000 people (age 80, on average) for up to seven years, Dr. Boyle’s team found that the ones with high purpose scores were 2.4 times more likely to remain free of Alzheimer’s than those with low scores; they were also less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor. “It also slowed the rate of cognitive decline by about 30 percent, which is a lot,” Dr. Boyle added.
In a subset of 246 people who died, autopsies found that many of the purposeful subjects also showed the distinctive markers of Alzheimer’s. “But even for people developing the plaques and tangles in their brains, having purpose in life allows you to tolerate them and still maintain your cognition,” Dr. Boyle said.
Purposeful people are less likely to develop disabilities. And they found that those with high purpose had roughly half the mortality rate of those with low purpose.
This protective effect holds through the years according to a recent study which relied on a national longitudinal study that enrolled 7,100 Americans aged 20 to 75. Those who died, in all age groups, scored significantly lower on purpose-in-life scales. Purpose in life, all by itself, appears to have a potent ability to improve and extend lives.
“People want to make a contribution,” Dr. Boyle said. “They want to feel part of something that extends beyond themselves.” Though what provides purpose in one’s life varies, people with purpose “have a sense of their role in the community and the broader world,” Dr. Boyle said. She particularly mentioned mentoring, passing one’s memories or experiences on to younger people, as a way to stoke a sense of purpose.
Since we all live in our own observer-determined reality, since we are all getting older, and since aging experience is shaped by perspective and choice, and since the only time we ever have is right now, today is the best day of your life to empower it with purpose and practice. Hey, surfs up. Catch the waves of your life and use them to help you get to where you want to go, the qualities of being that you want to grow stronger, then, enjoy the ride!
Originally Published on A New Vision of Living
Tom Pinkson, Ph. D., serves as a bridge builder, translating indigenous wisdom to bring forth the intelligence and creativity of Spiritual Awakening, Emotional Well Being, Healing, Health and High-Level Wellness, and Living In Harmonious Balance with Mother Earth and the Circle of Life.
He is a psychologist, author, ceremonial retreat and vision-fast leader, sacred storyteller, musician and spiritual guide. Tom completed an 11 year apprenticeship with Huichol shamans in Mexico. He helped start the first at-home Hospice program in the United States. For 32 years he worked with terminally ill children and families at the Center for Attitudinal Healing in California successfully integrating the wisdom teachings of the Huichol and other medicine teachers into the world of the practicing psychologist. Tom is founder of Wakan, a nonprofit organization committed to restoring the sacred in daily life and Recognition Rites Honoring Elders Program based on his latest book, Fruitful Aging: Finding the Gold in the Golden Years. He lives in Northern California with his wife Andrea of 44 years enjoying his grown children and their families.