Blog

Radical acceptance.

I recently learned from a friend of a term that gave a label to a concept I had been practicing for the last fifteen years: radical acceptance. The definition is, in short: when one stops fighting the reality of the day, letting go of bitterness and its cycle of suffering.

For me, Parkinson’s disease guided me to the concept. I fully accepted early that Parkinson’s was incurable, it would affect me both physically and psychologically, and it would get progressively worse until I died. For some reason, it was just that simple for me. There is no reliable timeline associated with Parkinson’s to help prepare for when these changes will occur, making my fluid adaptation more surprising.

Parkinson’s impacts everyone differently, and there is a wide range of symptoms that can manifest, leaving one never quite sure what precisely they are accepting. The future becomes murky at best.

The bottom line is that radical acceptance works, at least it has for me. It doesn’t ask you to be happy, sad, or mad about the situation. It only requires that you accept life’s current reality. In doing so, one can avoid the most damaging pitfalls, such as considering yourself a victim and wallowing in self-pity. Sure, everyone has bad days and feels sorry for themselves for a while, but radical acceptance can help make those feelings fleeting.

Radical acceptance does not relieve suffering, but it allows one to move past the suffering treadmill as a defining aspect of life. It provides breathing room for a situation where there are no good options. The effect is that you can accept what “is” as what is, suddenly making a life under the shadow of debilitation—or any potentially difficult situation—a wonderful thing.

Deep into my 17th year since PD diagnosis, I strongly recommend radical acceptance as a beginning point to learning to live fulfilled while suffering. It need not supplant any beliefs you currently practice: it is likely to be in your spiritual or religious belief system in some fashion already. Try it—what do you have to lose?

Dawn

Dawn’s ray tickles sentience, warming animation to being, heralding the day’s welcome home. The tapered beam flickers, defining form, before merging with the infinite wave.

Watch the birds twirl from limb to wire and back again, dancing to love’s grace. Listen. Feel. Live.

Freedom

First, I wanted happiness, permanent and sincere, a glimmering fantasy from an ivory tower of perceived wholeness.

Then, I wanted peace, to be at ease with some unnamed demon yet to emerge from my shadow.

Now, the image forms absent the brambles of reason, that creator of illusory confusion: Freedom from attachment; ultimately, freedom from myself.

Breakwater

Breakwater

As a young lad, I felt compelled to “run the jetty” whenever I came across a breakwater. No matter where I was—New York, Massachusetts, or Greece—if there was a jetty of giant cluttered boulders jutting out into the open ocean, it called on me to take its silent challenge.

Approaching the jig-saw strewn boulders with eyes down, I chose to take each step as it came, an immediate decision requiring perfect foot placement and balance if I was to avoid a bone-breaking spill. During summers, I’d often run the jetty barefoot, limiting my choice of stepping-stones further by disqualifying any rocks that appeared to have sharp edges.

Depending on my mood, I might attack the breakwater, sprint-jumping step-to-step, events moving too quickly to think as I searched for the following landing site for my foot even before planting the first leg. To be successful at this game required an absolute faith that a suitable target would appear, often at the last possible instant. And it always did.

Other times, my stride would be a slower, rhythmic gallop, but either way, the play demanded deciding foot placement in a flash from moment to moment. No matter my style, my unspoken goal was to push aside the continuous loop of stories that ran through my head, stop thinking, rest my brain, and allow imagination room to breathe. Running the jetty always did the trick.

Reaching the jetty’s end, breathless with heart-pounding and leg muscles burning in short-term exhaustion, I would briefly rest while gazing out at the open ocean in its various moods. All was possible; all was ahead of me. Except for the jetty—that was now.

I was to have other moments of intense concentration in my life that achieved the same goal, mostly while flying or diving. Despite extreme and often dangerous circumstances, each one presented the same intervals of peace from the mind’s constant chatter.

It is only now, no longer physically up for past tests, that I look within for that same quality of peaceful acquiesce. Of course, it takes far longer to achieve a lesser result, but it is there. Such is life.

Still, an image of a jetty in my mind’s eye inspires a familiar, reassuring longing; a welcome friend returned from the shadows to help usher me home in timeless unity.

So, this is how it’s going to be

Last summer, my daughter, son-in-law, and their two adorable, rough-housing black labs joined us in Washington State for an extended visit. When our two golden retrievers first met the black labs, they immediately started playing, eventually taking their melee of snapping jaws outside.

It wasn’t long after that a sharp yelp motivated a group run outside to investigate. The larger of our two retrievers, Baker, was cowering in confused silence while the other dogs still darted around him. A closer look revealed that he had a slight nip causing a bit of blood to mat up on his neck-fur, but it was the transformative look on his face that spoke volumes.

Baker’s expression indicated that he was surprised, slightly hurt, but, as my son later pointed out, he almost immediately accepted that there was a new reality in town, one that might involve the occasional incidental injury. His eyes told the story, according to my son, as if to say with pure, humble grace:

“So, this is how it’s going to be.”

Within minutes Baker was back to playing, more cautiously, but with no malice towards the labs and a wry grin added to his regular toothy smile.

I often think of my son’s astute observation of Baker’s quick acceptance of the situation. Perhaps dogs are oblivious to questioning the why or how of an uncertain new fact of life, a trait we humans could gain much by imitating. Maybe it’s best for us to at least suspend judgment while working to process and quiet unhelpful emotions like guilt, fear, and anger.

Baker and my son—and my entire family, for that matter—have been inspirational to me as I strive for happiness and a sense of peace. It has allowed me, just like Baker, to smile through discomfort, accept that which I cannot change, while saying the simple words, “So, this is how it’s going to be.”

Naked truth

One of the final short pieces in my latest book, Beyond Identity, is titled Puddle Sprayed. It is a fun essay that speaks to being sprayed by the business end of a seagull after exiting a grocery store. At its essence, the piece is a reflection on reaction.

I was entering the same store this morning, passing the exact spot where the gull nailed me on the head and shoulders 15 months earlier, when I was struck by deja vu. A sudden rush of air a second later and, sure enough, a massive load of wet bird poop rained down, halting my forward advance in a splattering semi-circle on the asphalt.

I was amazed (and pleased) to find myself completely unscathed. I thought back to Puddle Sprayed and nearly doubled over with laughter. A lot has happened since I wrote that opening piece of what is shaping up to be an ongoing saga. On the world stage, there has been a pandemic. Personally, there has been knee surgery followed by a rapid progression of Parkinson’s symptoms. Still, overall, life is good.

Why was I so “lucky” entering the grocery store this time compared to my first crossing of the parking lot’s imaginary bullseye? I never saw the offending bird in either instance until it was too late. Then it occurred to me how presumptuousness I was being—maybe the bird didn’t see me either or even know I was there.

We are trained by society to consider life from an individual perspective, enculturated to disregard the untold possibilities surrounding us. Physics theorizes at least ten total dimensions (and perhaps as many as 26) that either share the space of our universe or are too small for humans to sense or act in another mysterious manner that hides them from our view. Our three-dimensional world (four including time) is probably a tiny piece of a complex multidimensional puzzle.

Maybe the reason meaning eludes us is that we catch but a glimpse of relative reality, with unimaginable events taking place in the same space just beyond our vision. Perhaps I was not the sea gull’s target at all. Maybe to view the universe’s inner workings in totality, we must first shed the blinders of hubris that separate us from the natural world, barring us from experiencing naked truth in all its beauty.

The perfect time

I received an instant message the other day from a college friend, John, living in Massachusetts and not spoken to in years. Sometimes such “out of the blue” communications are initiated for no articulable reason; other times, the break in the information darkness is not routine. John’s contact was of the latter sort.

John got to the point—our mutual college buddy, Dan, had stage four metastatic melanoma. Dan had visited me in Texas to attend my navy pilot winging ceremony in 1987. Was that the last time I saw him? I couldn’t remember. I would, however, receive the occasional email from Dan over the years, his most recent being sent just six months ago when Dan was still oblivious to his deteriorating condition.

Melanoma. How much time does that leave Dan, I wondered, knowing that it was a particularly aggressive form of cancer? Probably months, but maybe weeks, I concluded.

Dan and I spoke on the phone the next day. He sounded great: upbeat, sharp, funny. That didn’t surprise me. Always thoughtful and curious, Dan had been a towering, muscular football player in college, but he was also a confident leader and the kind of genuinely nice guy who really listened.

Dan only found out he had cancer late in the game, skipping the first three quarters and going straight to stage four; he joked with me, although it was true. It had metastasized to major organs, causing Dan to lose sixty pounds in the three months that he was aware of the unwelcome visitor. Try as I might, I couldn’t visualize Dan as frail, but that was what he was describing.

After we hung up, I reflected on the call and my friend from four decades past. And I thought about time, how much of it Parkinson’s had left me while being in such short supply for Dan. We all will die: how much time was enough? Was more always better, or could there be too much?

Dan seemed to be as well adjusted to his fate after three months as it had taken me 16 years to achieve. Was there a “right” amount of time for any circumstance? Perhaps we can only reach eternity after time is recognized for what it is, a dimensional relic that we choose to use to mark the relative cadence of our lives.

Maybe it is not in the quantity of time that we find lasting value but in the intensity of the timeless spirit of creation that we are comforted. Could it always be the perfect time?

Trauma

A friend recently gave me a book about living with trauma, hoping that a comprehensive self-examination of all yesterday’s life stresses might help me with Parkinson’s disease today. The book, The Transformation by James Gordon, introduces many practical tools, some of which are well known, while others challenged a meditation of the past with methods unfamiliar to me.

In looking at my life through the lens of past traumas, both big and small, I first discovered that there were an awful lot of occurrences. I’m not just talking about physical, life-threatening distress, but also of far more common issues, such as a mid-high school move from overseas back to New York that looks relatively benign now but really shook me up at the time. When I reflect on the incident, I experience a wave of emotion, proving that it still affects my life, probably in ways hidden from conscious thought.

Granted, some sort of hierarchy exists on the list with the most impactful, such as killing in war, receiving my attention long ago. Nonetheless, that leaves many other traumas in some ways as fresh and frightening as the day they occurred.

It is only at age 59 that I am attempting to explore all of the past trauma in my life. I suppose I assumed that their influence would dissolve with time. They have not. I’ve found it helpful to conduct this exercise without judgment or labels: whatever happened, happened, and the distortions of fault or values are immaterial.

A compassionate curiosity about yourself, accepting the rich depth of humanity that is life experience, might be a gateway to contentment, a path to inner peace paved with kindness and understanding, especially for yourself.

Brain fog

The pressure draws near in a suffocating welcome of misty inaction, impossibly heavy yet real. The fog is back, the same oppressive blanket experienced before the brain surgery almost seven years ago. Only it is thicker now, more persistent in its attempts to subvert confidence in who I am as it relentlessly conjures false paths to fool me, to retain control.

“I see you.” I direct the words at my adversary: one of us must go. The mind is desperate to return, to dominate through fear and desire as it constructs the ego’s false urges. Its persistence is difficult to ignore in a weakened physical state. Verbalized reminders of “I see you” hold the line against the first wave, but barely.

My foe strikes at the heart of a life theme, of being left out of the day’s vitality. I see others moving seemingly forward. More likely, they are circling in material temptation’s dampening of understanding. The afternoon’s darkened repose is a trick, an attempt to infuse me with the illusion of self. It becomes harder to calm the mind from anxiety’s panicked hold. It drags me to the edge.

“Is this a test, or maybe Karma for some past deed?” The question is silent. Immediately I see through the ploy, the attempt to inflate a sense of personal worth in a universe so vast that the thought of permanent individuality is ludicrous. All is temporary.

I deserve nothing; I am entitled to nothing. I am, merely and grandly: I am.

Change

Everything changes, and usually not in the manner that you or I envision.

Last November, I had a neurology appointment to fine-tune the settings in my Deep Brain Stimulator (DBS) in an attempt to be more responsive to rapidly evolving Parkinson’s symptoms. Such hardware adjustments are inherently tricky maneuvers, educated guesswork impacted by medication dosage changes and lifestyle modifications.

After extensive trial and error experimentation, we decided that my DBS was already emitting the optimal electrical pulses to my brain, and the settings were left unaltered. I did, however, leave the neurologist with the option to vary the system voltage within a set range.

Soon after getting home, I began experimenting and found that modestly increasing the right-side voltage seemed to slightly improve my bradykinesia (a slow, painful stiffness of limited mobility). I left the DBS at the higher voltage and forgot about it.

Toward the end of December, I had knee replacement surgery, a second operation to stop uncontrolled bleeding, and a surgical recovery heavily dependent on months of narcotic painkillers and physical therapy. Unable to access calm through exercise or yoga, my resilience suffered significantly. Already poor sleep patterns deteriorated further, as did my usually healthy diet.

Meanwhile, my knee healed just fine, but I seemed to be losing ground to Parkinson’s daily. My right shoulder began experiencing near-constant, excruciating muscle spasms that could only be relieved by round-the-clock muscle relaxant and increased levodopa. I couldn’t sleep or, at times, even pick up a fork. I grew desperate.

Finally, I stopped trying to think of solutions while quieting my mind as best I could. Out of the blue, I remembered the DBS adjustment made months earlier. The worst muscle spasms stopped almost entirely after dialing back the DBS controller to its pre-November voltage. What helped me just four months ago was killing me now.

Some changes, despite a daunting appearance, are easily made. Others are not. Perhaps the difference lies in the quiet, compassionate wisdom we bring to trying to understand.