In my last article, I spoke about the importance of integrating the physical, energetic and mental aspects of our being, and the positive effect this can have on our world. The truth of this integrative principle was thrown into stark relief for me a little over a year ago, when I experienced a heart attack that left me hovering at the boundary between life and death. That I survived remains a source of constant reflection—for it annealed my conviction that we are all spiritual beings living in a sacred world. Let me share with you what the world looks like to someone who’s been given a second chance.
It takes 60 years for Saturn to go twice around the sun; I am 59, and it is time for my “Double Saturn Return.” Wizards know that Saturn is the abode of the impersonal Lords of Karma. It is where our personal stories are recorded, not the story we imagine about ourselves but the real story of who we really are. All debts are owed and must be paid to these keepers of the truth.
Double Saturn Return is a powerful and magical time; the deeds of the past, which have formed into latent karmic seeds, are planted again to ripen in the fields of present circumstances. If life is a symphony, Saturn return is the recapitulation, a condensed restatement of the major themes, a summation of all that has happened. While the symphony may end, life continues so the spiritual tasks are quite clear: Honor your lessons and move on, or refuse to learn and get thrown back for another go-around. I have earned the right to tell this story because I am in a state of grace; I have passed by the guardians and through the gates.
I knew there was something very wrong when I awoke on January 4, 2005, at 7:30 in the morning, with an unfamiliar pain in my chest. By 9 a.m., I was in the catheterization lab in St. Luke's Hospital joking with my cardiac surgeon, Dr. Leber, about what one of the medical team called my EKG profile: a tombstone, a lethal 100% blockage of the coronary artery. I declined morphine; there was a lot going on, and I wanted to be present. The room was kept cold, the proper temperature for all the high-tech computerized equipment, and I was shivering as I watched the same four monitors that Dr. Leber was watching as he skillfully manipulated the high-tech catheterization instruments, working to save my life.
While all this was going on, I was strangely detached from the gravity of my situation. I was reflecting on my kind Buddhist master, Namkhi Norbu Rinpoche, and I felt held in his presence. What follows is difficult to convey so I'll just tell it the way it was. I started to lean into the possibility of dying when I heard praying voices in my head. “You do not have my permission to die,” said my brother, “I love you, and you must not die. We still have so very much to do, and I need you to do it with me.” I heard many other voices, too, saying “it is not time, we love you, and you must not go.” I was startled when I heard this, and reflexively I asked myself, do I care about what they want? Then, I saw my parents’ concerned faces, and I felt tangible waves of their love. I was sure that everyone was being honest with me, but then I asked myself, “Do I feel love for them?” Then, my whole being filled with love for everyone in contact with me; and I remember thinking, that's the answer, the whole thing turns on caring, on love. I really do want to live.
At this moment, Dr. Leber asked me if the pain was starting to diminish. He had successfully put two stints in my upper left coronary artery, and he pointed them out to me on the monitors. He pressed a button and said, “Here take these pictures and put them on your refrigerator”—he placed the before and after pictures in my hand. I said, “Thank you very much. I guess the only technical glitch in this whole process is that I peed all over myself.” He told me “not to worry”—the nurses would take care of everything, the operation was a success, and I was going to be OK.
I didn't break down and cry until I saw the sunlight as I walked out of the hospital. I turned west toward Riverside Park and headed home.
I spent the next three weeks visiting my parents in Florida, staying with my brother in New Jersey, doing spiritual practices in my Upper West Side apartment, and walking in Central Park. I kept thinking about the movie, Jacob's Ladder, a story about someone who actually did die but didn't know it—just yet. He thought he had gone back to his normal life except that strange things kept happening with increasing frequency. Eventually, he figured out the truth. The joy I felt now was tempered by my watchfulness for those strange occurrences that might tell me that I, too, really hadn’t made it.
I always go to Nature to heal myself, so in those first few weeks I spent a lot of time in Central Park. I saw the very beginnings of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s installation of The Gates, although at the time I didn't know that's what they were called. I marveled at the scale of the project and its industrial precision. The first thing I noticed were these ingots of steel placed on almost every pathway throughout the park. Later on there appeared pallets of saffron-colored 18-foot-long plastic extruded tubes and pallets of saffron fabric.
On February 12, I was in Sheep's Meadow at 8:30 a.m. to watch the unfurling of the first fabric. By the end of the day, I had walked the entire park again, but this day, the park was filled with people. They were all smiling and talking to each other—I have never seen so many New Yorkers let down their guard.
Until this day, I had been walking around in my own protected space, and with each passing day, I had become more convinced that I actually was alive. The opening of The Gates in Central Park became a party celebrating my life. I experienced the whole thing very personally. I heard that Christo and Jeanne-Claude had spent $21 million of their own money to throw me this party. They brought all these people together in the park in midwinter; they caused all these people to be happy and to smile. They had brought me the saffron symbols of life and renewal that I needed. They were my Gates, and with each one I walked through, I took another breath of life. More than any single gate, there were endless patterns to be enjoyed; with a slight turn of the head, I could make them dance.
The Gates were not meant to be permanent; everything was to be recycled and nothing sold. I quickly found out a secret, however. Volunteers were walking around the park with long sticks to disentangle the windblown fabrics; if I asked them for a memento, they would hand me a 2-inch square of the very same saffron cloth. Within a week or so of walking in the park, I had collected the pieces that were to be my gifts to those people who were in my thoughts and had touched my heart during this time of healing.
I have passed by the guardians and through the gates.
In my next article, we will began to explore the Chinese wisdom symbols of Yin and Yang, then drift back to the furthest reaches of time, to the moment when God said, “Let there be light,” and existence exploded out of the primordial emptiness.
Center for Empowered Leadership