The Dark Night of My Soul
In my previous essay, I recounted what it was like to survive a catastrophic heart attack. I had intended in this essay to use the Taoist wisdom symbol Yin and Yang to address the fundamental principles of polarity and change in everyday life. Let's save that for a future time. For now, I want to present my reflections on what I have learned since returning from what the Tibetan Book of the Dead calls the Chikhai Bardo: the unique state of awareness that one experiences in the transitional space between life and death.
I had been more curious than afraid as I started across the boundary between life and death: it was my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to know for certain what happens when we die. My experience was intense, a sort of death-light, if you will. It was a shock to my psyche that was to anneal my most intimate spiritual intuitions. For, as I turned again toward life, I somehow had the mythological philosopher’s stone firmly within my grasp. And by its light I could clearly see; we are all spiritual beings trying to awaken within our sacred world.
The experience changed me. No doubt you've heard the expression, “What doesn't kill you can make you stronger.” I have learned for myself that this is true. It makes you stronger if you reframe a potentially negative experience into an opportunity for learning and spiritual growth. It then becomes a wake-up call to turn toward life with renewed vigor. From that decision, you develop the strength to deal with everything within a spiritual context.
As a result of my own experience, I have lost a certain naïve illusion of my invincibility, but I have gained a real appreciation of how precious every single moment of life really is. This in itself is an extremely powerful affirmation. It brings to my mind the cliché, “Don't sweat the small stuff and it’s all small stuff.” I used to sweat the small stuff all the time, being by nature rather perceptive, and by temperament easy to annoy, quick to anger.
After my heart attack, I went through a rather extensive cardio rehabilitation program at The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. I was in a class with a dozen people who had also suffered cardiac events. We each worked one-on-one with physical trainers, nutritionists, cardiologists, and psychologists. As we rotated through physical training sessions, interviews and classes, I assumed that the others felt as I did, that by being there we shared a special bond, we were the lucky ones—we were all still alive. So I thought it was natural to look for opportunities to exchange stories.
It was during one of our breaks that Jennifer, a vibrant olive skinned woman in her mid-40s with clear eyes and a gentle smile, offered me a cup of tea and casually mentioned that she had actually died. I felt at ease to ask her, “Did you experience anything when you were dead?” “I really did see the white light. They told me I was dead for four minutes. I remember putting my head down on my desk. I've always had arrhythmias; I guess I got a real bad one. I'm lucky they had a defibrillator where I worked. I saw my father standing in front of the most beautiful blazing bright white light I ever saw, somehow even brighter than the sun yet I was still able look at it. He was telling me to go back, that I didn't belong here. I said, `No daddy I want to be with you.’ My father was very strong-willed, and I always had to do what he told me to do.”
“I continued to walk toward him, again saying, `No daddy I want to be with you.’ He then told me, in a commanding voice that I had to obey, `Turn around, you don’t belong here.’ I said, `OK, daddy.’ I turned around, and at that moment, I felt the defibrillator on my chest as I gasped for breath and opened my eyes.”
Armand was a ubiquitous presence in our class, he seemed larger than life with his spontaneous jokes and pithy pronouncements; I wanted to get to know him better, so I chided him as if he was an old friend, “Armand, how did you end up here?” He seemed grateful to be able to tell someone his story. He began, “I served two tours of duty in Vietnam. I volunteered. I was in Special Forces. I just got off the boat from Cuba, and they said, `Do you want to be a citizen? Do you want to serve your new country?’ I said, `Yeah, why not.’”
“It was in my second tour of duty during the Tet Offensive that I finally woke up. I'm gay, and I saw my lover's head blown off right in front of me. We were high all the time. In Special Forces, they turned me into a killing machine; the medics would give you whatever you wanted to keep you numb and not thinking about anything else except killing the enemy. But seeing my lover die in front of me freaked me out; it woke me up. I became conscious of what I was doing—I wanted to get out!”
I said to Armand, “I'm your age. We've gone through the same time bubble, but I was able to avoid the draft.”
Armand nodded and said, “Good for you, that you didn't have to deal with this shit. When I got out of the Army in the late ‘60s, I went back to New York City. I was getting on a subway. This guy came up to rob me. He put a knife at my throat. I didn't think about it, I took the knife away from him and started to beat him to death, just like I've been trained to do. I was lucky that day, Adam.”
“A cop pulled me off of him. Somehow he knew what was going on inside of me; he kept on saying you're not in Vietnam anymore soldier. He just let me go on my way. But, he made me promise that I would never fight again. Adam, I've kept that promise, but I've been addicted to drugs ever since. It’s my cocaine habit that got me here. I’ve destroyed my heart with drugs.”
“Do you want to live, Armand?” I asked.
“Yeah, I know I’ve pushed this as far as I can, I'm going to stop doing drugs.” Then he turned the tables on me. “Adam, you’re thin, you seem like you're in pretty good shape, so why are you here?”
I heard myself say to him, “I don't know!”
The doctors wanted to know why I was there, too; I was in the system now; they wanted to learn more about why people get heart attacks. The psychologist gave me a whole series of tests. Then, I had a private consultation with her.
“Adam, do you consider yourself to be an angry person?”
“Yes, I have an anger problem.”
“I want you to look at this particular scale; it assesses anger. Normal ranges from 4 to 6; even at 6 there may be a problem; at 7 or higher your anger level is very high; you scored at 12.”
“I'm not surprised, that’s me.”
“Read this book, Anger Kills, by Redford and Virginia Williams and let's talk about it at our next session.”
I couldn't turn away from what she said to me. I also got the message loud and clear from the rest of the clinical team: I have cardiovascular disease. Unless I make some lifestyle changes, I will not live out my normal life. After 12 weeks in the program, it was up to me. They wished me good luck. I followed their advice as best as I could, yet it’s taken me almost two years to sort things out.
I now believe that I know the answer to Armand’s question, why I ended up racing against time in an ambulance to the alerted cardiac team at St. Luke’s Hospital. I am a perceptive person who is quick to anger. I learned from the psychologist that my anger is rooted in my sensitivity to injustice. I learned from the cardiologist that visceral anger sets in motion profound physiological changes in the body. The justice part is good; the anger part almost killed me.
The events leading up to my having a catastrophic heart attack on January 4, 2005 began little more than three years prior, at 9 a.m. on September 11, 2001. I was running late for my early morning skate down the bike path of Riverside Park to the boat basin by the World Trade Center. I was lacing up my skates when the phone rang.
“Adam, do you know what just happened? A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!”
I was curious but I thought it best not to go, I just might be in the way. By that afternoon the sight of the squadrons of F-16 fighter aircraft flying overhead reassured me that the federal government was in control. I felt we were doing the right thing when our troops went into Afghanistan, and I was proud when we defeated the Taliban. I instinctively believed that President Bush would rise to the occasion and do what was best to protect our country. I was no longer a partisan democrat, I was a citizen of the United States of America and he was the commander and chief of our armed forces.
But, when our president started shifting our military resources out of Afghanistan and into Iraq, I told everyone I knew that while Saddam Hussein was certainly a cruel dictator, he was a secular Baathest and had nothing to do with either the religious jihad movement of Osama bin Laden or the attack on our country. By invading Iraq, President Bush was actually playing into bin Laden's hands by destabilizing the entire region.
Then I recognized that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was making strategic and tactical blunders. He had assumed that Shock and Awe would intimidate Saddam Hussein's hard-liners and the Iraqi people would welcome the American troops as liberators. According to the Chinese classic, Sun Tzu's Art of War¹, Shock and Awe, was simply a Vanguard action meant to penetrate the enemy lines. It should have been followed up by the deployment of the Main Body force of additional troops, sufficient to secure the gains of the vanguard. When Rumsfeld permitted looting on the streets of Baghdad because he didn't have enough troops to stop it, I knew that he hadn’t anticipated these events, so rather than bringing peace and stability to the region, Team Bush had inadvertently opened the gates of hell!
I now know why I had a heart attack. Just like Armand, I had allowed myself to become just one more invisible victim of war. I knew that we were fighting the wrong way against the wrong enemy. I internalized the dissonance between wisdom and power, and my anger at this injustice literally broke my heart.
It is now the dawn following this dark night of my soul, and I would like to share with you what I’ve learned about how I can still be close to the fire and not be consumed by the flames.
In my next essay, I will draw from the well of wisdom of the I-Ching, an ancient Taoist text known as the Book of Changes. Its truths will serve as the foundation on which I will be able to develop the theme: We are all spiritual people living in a sacred world.
¹ The best translation is by Thomas Cleary
Center for Empowered Leadership