Mojo Monday ~ Enjoy Every Sandwich

As medical director of the famed Preventive Medicine Research Institute, Lee Lipsenthal helped thousands of patients struggling with disease to overcome their fears of pain and death and to embrace a more joyful way of living. In his own life, happily married and the proud father of two remarkable children, Lee was similarly committed to living his life fully and gratefully each day.

The power of those beliefs was tested in July 2009, when Lee was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. As Lee and his wife, Kathy, navigated his diagnosis, illness, and treatment, he discovered that he did not fear death, and that even as he was facing his own mortality, he felt more fully alive than ever before. In the bestselling tradition of Tuesdays with Morrie, told with humor and heart, and deeply inspiring, Enjoy Every Sandwich distills everything Lee learned about how we find meaning, purpose, and peace in our lives.

Here are excerpts from Chapter 18 called Living and Dying Outside the Box.

“We create the world we live in.  Some of us have large comfortable homes with room to grow, and others have tiny, boxlike apartments that keep us feeling small and confined.  When I was younger, I lived in a Neuroimaginal box of depression and anxiety where smart people became doctors or lawyers and relationships were like those idealized stories presented to me daily on television and in movies:  Good people get good things, love is pure an romantic, and bad guys always get it in the end.  At that time, I believed that was all there was to life.  I had no way of seeing outside that limited worldview.  it was my truth.

When I lived in such a small box, I couldn’t imagine any other world or life.  I reinforced my limited world over and over by surrounding myself with people who shared my views, passions, and opinions.  I defined myself by the world I had created. 

I had no desire to leave the little box I lived in, because there was enough comfort, security, and success for me to believe that everything was fine.  I came up with justifications for why I couldn’t change.  I had responsibilities to my wife and kids, to my work.  I had invested so many years to build this life and career that the fear of change was greater than my desire to change.  Maintaining the status quo was just enough to get by, and I told myself good stories of a successful life to avoid thinking about change.  I had solid defense mechanisms.  

I was a physician with a wife, children, and a thriving practice.  Everything was supposed to be great, but a restlessness began to grow inside me. This restlessness became anxiety and dissatisfaction, and although I wouldn’t have used this terminology then, my soul began to call out to me for what it needed: a new self, a new world, something larger.  My desire to change began to exceed my fear of change.

I started to explore other options and ask other people about their experiences.  People around me who had changed their worlds told me, ‘Oh, it’s easy; I did it.  And look how happy I am now.  All you need to do is…’ I thought that they just didn’t understand how hard change would be for me.  I was a successful doctor.  They hadn’t lived my life; they weren’t me.

In retrospect, these people had made substantial changes in their lives, but in doing so they forgot what it was like to be stuck in a world of limitations.  For them, changing their world seemed so easy, a no-brainer, and of such great value that they wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Birthing a new life, scratching your way our of a confining box, is very much the same; the freedom and expansiveness at the other end make you forget how traumatic and difficult the work of escaping was.  Today I can’t imagine living my old life, but I can say that leaving it behind was not easy.  I have not forgotten totally the pain of delivery.

But pain always seems to push us until vision starts to pull us. In my thirties, the pain of living in my depressed and anxious little box finally surpasses my desire for safety, and I began to scratch away at the lining of the box in which I was stuck.  For years, I didn’t even know where I was going.  I just knew that my old world wasn’t enough.  I scratched away at that box with simple tools: meditation, exercise, rock’n’roll, love, and therapy.  I had no idea what I would find outside the walls of that box.  I only knew that it was too painful to live inside it anymore.  I was living the life I was supposed to live, but my soul was withering.  

So I scratched away each morning, each evening, and each and every day until a small streak of light started to shine through.  The wall had become just thin enough for me to know that there was something outside this prison of my own making.  After I could see that small glimmer of hope, the effort started to feel worthwhile and change became possible.  Inspired, I scratched some more.

After years of scratching, struggle, introspections, and disruption in relationships, the thin opening in my small box became wide enough for me to step out.  What I found was scary, unknown place where all my old emotions and thoughts lived but where they were now accompanied by a new worldview in which thoughts and emotions were just of the moment, not the definition of myself.

This new world I had entered, this new home, was a place of transcendence, anger, depression, and joy , and I had to deal with it all.  There was no shield expect love.  Somehow, without being aware of it, I had created a new home for myself.  It was a safe place both to grow in and from which to venture out into the risky unknown.  From this new home, life became and adventure in which difficulty was just something to dive into. Every time I did dive in, I came out stronger than before.  I came out refreshed and renewed. 

This new house of my own creation has changed and now has many rooms.  I have built it over many years with my practices of meditation, prayer, therapy, and journeywork, and it continues to expand.

This home has a room called depression where I can sit after struggling to walk up our small hill because my postradiation lungs are burned, coarse remnants of the pink, healthy tissue they once were.  In this room I sit and listen to Jackson Browne’s ‘Late for the Sky’ and acknowledge what I’ve lost. 

This house has a room called anger where the frenetic energy of punk rock pushes me to flail about until I collapse, usually of exhaustion, expunging anger at those who have hurt me.

This house has a room called joy, where Patti Smith’s ‘People Have the Power’ is cranked up to eleven on the volume dial, where I laugh, jump, and let tears of pure happiness flow.

This house has a room called love where ‘God Only Knows’ by the Beach Boys plays 24/7 and where I sit and feel the petals of gratitude in my pocket.

This house has a room where my family dances together to Johnny Clegg’s ‘Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World’ and I hold my daughter while hearing Joseph Arthur’s ‘In the Sun.’

This house has a room called peace where I meditate and Tibetan bowls ring in their sweet, harmonious tones and overtones, incense burns, and the world of today disappears in the silence of all that is bigger than me.

This house has a room called busy-ness, where a playlist of Springsteen, the Stones, the Beatles, John Prine, the Replacements, NRBQ, and many others are my welcome sound track to a life of doing.

This house has a kitchen where my friends and family gather and create warmth.  My dad sings Sinatra as we make sandwiches together — many breads, many fillings, much love.

This house has a room called death where some day –maybe this year, maybe in five years, maybe when I am seventy-eight — I will go to lie down and this body will stop and some version of ‘I’ will rest at last.  But the music will play on.

I built this house with practice, experience, and love.  It took years of work. It didn’t exist before me, and it may not be there once I cease to be.

You too can build a house of your choosing.  Like any labor of love, it takes time, patience, and practice.  Even if you only have time left to redecorate one room in your existing house, it’s worth the effort.

If you are confined inside four small walls, it is impossible to see what lies outside.  When you are inside a box of pain, scratch away at the walls.  When you are inside a box of depression, scratch away.  A box of perfectionism, scratch away.  A box of self-pit, scratch away at those walls as if your life depended on it.  Because it does. You won’t know where you are going, or how to get there, or what it will look like on the other side.  But if there is pain or worry or unhappiness, scratch away at the walls that imprison you–scratch away with prayer, meditations, yoga, exercise, laughter, art, movement, gratitude, acceptance, and love.  Scratch away with the knowledge that there is so much more to life that what we imagine it to be.  There is so much more to death than what we imagine it to be.  And there is so much more to living and loving and being than can be seen from inside our little walled-in world.”

“We all have this capacity, we can all learn the necessary tools, and we all have God or Spirit and the shaman within us.  We just need to begin to practice, to scratch away at the old Neurimaginal world we have created and build ourselves a new home. 

Patti Smith was right.  People do have the power.

Facing my mortality, chemotherapy, radiation, and especially the inability to help those whom I love has made this the most challenging period of my life so far, but simultaneously, I have felt more gratitude and more freedom and peace and life than ever before.  

Someday you will face your own mortality.  At that moment, I hope you see that your life has been well led, that you hold no regrets, and that you have loved well.  On that day, I hope that for you, it has become a good day to die.”

Questions to ponder and maybe answer

1) Author Lee Lipsenthal states “We create the world we live in.”  What are your thoughts on this statement?  Are you satisfied, content, happy in your current world?  If not, what changes do you want to make to it?

2) If you are living in the world you want and envisioned what took place to get there?  Was the journey difficult or easy?  

3) Lee describes his new life in terms of building a new home.  He then goes into detail about all the different rooms and because music plays an important role in his life he even shares the soundtracks that play in these rooms.  Consider the various rooms he names: depression, anger, joy, love, peace, busy-ness and death. He also mentions a room where he and his family dance and of course the kitchen, where family and friends gather.  Think about your own life and how you would describe the rooms of your home.  Which rooms already exist?  Which rooms might you add on?  If you are a music lover what songs would be playing in your rooms?  

4) On a deeper level what did you take from that whole section about rooms?  

Lee Lipsenthal, MD, ABIHM, was an internist, trained in the prevention of heart disease and in integrative medicine. A popular and acclaimed speaker and author, he was the medical director of Dean Ornish’s Preventive Medicine Research Institute for a decade and has also served as president of the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine.  Lee died September 20, 2011, just months before his book was published.  He and his family had grow hopeful over the course of two years that he had overcome the aggressive esophageal cancer.  Yet when he learned it had returned the prognosis was that he had only six to eight months to live.  

In August of 2011, shortly before his death, he wrote an article for the Huffington Post called Dying Awake.  Here is an excerpt:

“It may seem peculiar that I am calm while others in my life are suffering. I can assure you their suffering makes me sad; I wish this weren’t happening. Yet after almost 30 years of meditating, I have learned to embrace optimism, gratitude and the knowledge that I am not in control over my life or death. Instead of being mad at the hand of fate, I am focused on what is going on — mentally, physically, and emotionally — with myself and those that I love. In spiritual language, I am awake. 

I have no bucket list of things to do. I have been living my bucket list for some time now, and when I was first diagnosed, it came to me that the real list in my life was not the places I wanted to see, but the list of friends in my life with whom I want to spend my time.”

Here is one last piece by Lee on “Living Fully” as it appeared in his article The Noetic Change Model – Living  Life of Meaning 

Living Fully
Living fully is having an ongoing transcendent experience.
It is not studying and analyzing the experience.
It is not wanting more of the experience.
It is not buying the right clothing to remind you of the experience.
It is not telling the world that you are the experience.
It is being within the experience.
It is asking “How does this experience inform my life?”
It is asking “How does this experience help me to serve others?”
It is doing the work of love without being seen.

Mojo Monday ~ The Gift Giver

I normally ignore the ads that show up in the side column on Facebook.  A few weeks ago there was one that drew my attention.  The title was The Gift Giver.  I was so drawn that I clicked the link.  I found myself on a new page that described what happened to be a book called The Gift Giver by Jennifer Hawkins.  From the moment I began to read the premise about this true story I was hooked.  
“What if you were to wake up one morning and find that the person you were closest to in this world had died? With no notice, no goodbye, nothing. What would you do? Where would you turn? How would you live? What would you believe about life, and death? How would you go on? As an accomplished athlete, businesswoman, and mother, author Jennifer Hawkins believed she had everything until one morning she woke up to find her husband lying lifeless in their bed. Shaken to her core, Jennifer struggled to put her shattered world back together, rebalancing relationships with friends, family, and her own children as she came to grips with the vacuum left by the loss of her husband. Jennifer teetered on the brink of despair, until she heard a voice – a voice she never thought she would hear again. It was the voice of her husband, who in six simple words told her of the tragedy that would have occurred had he stayed. How his leaving saved a life, one whose loss would have had ripple effects that were inconceivable. Few memoirs deliver such an inspirational message of loss and redemption, of sorrow, mercy, and reawakening. Jennifer’s story suggests that love never dies. That our world is not as distant from the afterlife as we now believe, and that life is meant to be lived and lived fully in the moment. Her story shows how love can bridge the gap between our world and the vast nurturing universe that lies beyond. And that most of all, there can be a reason for every single thing that happens, even if in the moment a reason seems impossible.”
I knew from reading that introduction I needed to learn about those six words she heard her husband speak to her from beyond.  In my life I too have had to wrap my mind and heart around death, loss and grief.  Back in 1984, when I was 15 years old, my brother Tom, only 21 years old, died in a motorcycle accident.  In 2001, my 41 year old brother Jim died from AIDS related lymphoma.  There is one other death though that took place in 1995 that also shifted my world.  It is like that when you lose your fiancé, as well as all the dreams you had for the future you would share together.
On May 7, 1995 I received a call.  I thought it was my fiancé Khalid who was still residing in southern France.  We had met in the spring of 1994 while I was living and studying in Aix-en-Provence.  I had been living in Aix since August of 1993.  We met at a Moroccan restaurant that was hidden down a winding narrow alley of a road.  The streets in Aix seemed like a maze when I first arrived.  Even I was impressed when after living there for over a year that I could walk those cobbled streets without getting lost.
Me and Khalid in Marseille, France 1994
Normally Khalid would have been hidden back in the kitchen were he worked his culinary magic.  However, on this particular day, the owner/waiter was out running an errand.  When my roommate and I arrived at the restaurant we were immediately identified as Americans by the owner’s wife. Assuming we might not speak French she retreated to the kitchen to get Khalid.  In reality Khalid’s English was not very good, but what he lacked in ability he made up for with enthusiasm.  Back in the states I had previously dated two Moroccans.  My relationship with Mohammed had lasted three years, but ended prior to me departing to France.  I wasn’t looking to get involved again, but my heart had other ideas.   I honestly tried to keep my heart guarded and the relationship light, but as things developed I realized I had never met a man so loving and open with his emotions before.  We were also very much alike in many ways, which was both a blessing and a challenge at times.  
When the time grew near for me to return to California and complete my final semester of university we both found that we couldn’t bear to part.  We simply couldn’t imagine our lives being lived apart.  We visited the US embassy to see about obtaining Khalid a visa.  Unfortunately the embassy representative explained that he would not be a good candidate to receive a visa to visit the USA.  She recommended the only way he would ever get to California would be through requesting a fiancé visa, which in turn required that we get married within 60 days of his arrival in the states.  We both knew right then that there was no question of what we would do.  Khalid proposed and presented me with a ring.  My departure in January 1995 was tearful due to parting, but also because we did not know when we would see one another again.   Months passed after filling out copious amounts of paperwork on my end and he had to travel twice to Paris for physical exams and interviews.  We had to prove that the relationship was real and not about just getting him a green card.  During those weeks and months we sent many card and letters to one another.
Khalid and I in Cassis, France
Finally in April Khalid received the long awaited visa. I began to make wedding preparations ~ dress, flowers, location and so forth, as our time frame would be tight upon his arrival.  He wrapped up business in France and planned a trip with an aunt and uncle to Morocco prior to joining me in California.  Their plan was to caravan through Spain by car, cross the Straights of Gibraltar on a ferry, and arrive in Morocco for an overdue visit with his family, who he had not seen in almost 8 years.  The day before they were to depart Khalid made one last trip back to his apartment.  On the way there his car crashed head on into a tree and he died at the scene of the accident.
That call I received on May 7th was from someone calling me to tell me the news.  So many things changed in that moment.  The life I had envisioned sharing with Khalid in California was not to be.  Initially one of the thoughts that helped me to cope was that everything happens for a reason.  This thought is much like what Jennifer Hawkins experienced after the death of her husband.  Today I am not always certain that this is true.  A part of me thinks that sometimes bad things simply happen with there being no rhyme nor reason behind it, and that really the only thing within our control is how we choose to respond to those events.  
What I definitely love is how Jennifer Hawkins, the author of the Gift Giver is taking her difficult and tragic experience and is sharing it with the world.  I am certain that her book, her blog, the articles she continues to write on the subject and the interviews she gives will help others who are journeying through the grieving process and feeling deep loss.  

I also applaud her courage, for Jennifer Hawkins was aware that not everyone would believe her story of communicating with her dead husband.  Fortunately she was brave enough to share her story anyway.  In fact there is a special note to the reader at the beginning of the book:
I believe these events happened to me…
And are true.
But truth is a very personal thing.
And my truth may or may not be your truth.
My intention is to share with you the experiences,
lessons, and insights
that changed my and my boys’ lives forever,
in the hope that they will deeply enrich your life.
I wrote this book for you.
– Jennifer

Jennifer Hawkins
Here is an article author Jennifer Hawkins wrote in July 2011.
“On February 4, 2009 I woke up to find that my husband had died in his sleep from an undetected heart condition. He was forty-nine years old. I was thirty-nine. It was the biggest shock of my life. The first two hours were a blur of emotion, pain, fear, shock, and denial. The next two and a half years have been a lesson in living life much more openly, deeply, and presently.
In the immediate aftermath of his death, I discovered I had two choices. I could either surrender to what had happened, or instead, choose to fight the reality of it all.
Initially, I fought the reality and life was hard. I felt alone, afraid, hurt, angry and even guilty. With Mark gone, I was instantly and solely in charge of our home, cars, finances, and children. I thought ‘Til death do us part?’ Well, what if I wasn’t ready? I felt abandoned, and could not overcome the thought that Mark was supposed to be there with me to help me take care of everything. Deep down I knew he couldn’t be there, but accepting that meant accepting the fact that he really was gone. And I wasn’t ready for that, so the battle continued.
A few weeks after Mark died a close friend said something to me that changed my perception at the core. She said, “Jennifer, no matter what happens in the future, you will always have lost your husband. There is nothing you can do about that. For the rest of your life it will be a part of who you are. You don’t have to ever ‘get over it.’”
I realized with those words that I didn’t have to act any certain way. I didn’t have to get rid of my grief. I didn’t have to be anything I wasn’t. I was a widow and nothing would ever change that. Not even my deepest thought that it wasn’t true. It gave me the long-term view I needed in order to let go of the pressure I was putting on myself to be ‘fixed.’
After I heard those words I began to surrender to all of my emotions, including grief. In these moments of surrender, there were glimmers of hope, love and life. For lack of a better way to explain it, angels took over and miracles began happening. Almost mysteriously, life began taking care of itself. The right person walked in the room at the right time, needed items appeared without even asking. It was as if the universe was saying, “Yes, this happened, and yes, it will all be OK. Because no matter how hard it seems, there is something right about this.”
Upon surrendering, I was able to acknowledge all of the people who appeared who wanted to help me with my kids, my home, my work…everything. And, more importantly, I learned how to let them help. I’d always thrived on handling everything on my own, but because of my new life I had to let go of that independence. It was impossible for me to handle everything Mark and I had handled before. I HAD to let people help me. I even had to ASK for help. It was an entirely new concept. Like no other time before I saw that there were lots of people in my life who wanted to help, who even felt helpless if I didn’t let them help. So, I started to let them; and in the process I became closer to them. I really felt their love and energy in my life.
After my world started to smooth out a bit from the huge turbulent waves of the first few months, I knew there was another step. I had to rely entirely on myself for one thing—taking care of me. Nobody else could do that in the long run. So, each day I began to do something for me.
I quickly realized that it didn’t have to be anything big. I could make a cup of tea and breathe in the steam for a few minutes. Or, take a short walk around the block with my dog. Or, listen to music that made me happy. Or, go to a funny movie. These little ‘me’ moments kept my spirit afloat at times when the alternative was to drown.
Even now, after years have gone by and times still sneak up on me and grip my heart and gut like nothing else can, I breathe and remember to surrender and feel everything I’m feeling. Because one thing I know for sure is that Mark is still a part of my life. Sometimes it’s just a glimpse of something that could have been, which leads to sadness in missing him. But I know that the sadness is simply a reminder that I’m human, alive and can love. And that reminder is a blessing that I will always cherish.”
The author’s husband with their sons.
Her most recent article is this one published on February 17th in MindBodyGreen
6 Lessons in Learning to Live Life Without Your Loved One
My world crumbled when I lost my husband unexpectedly. The morning that my children and I discovered his body and realized that he had passed on, is one that will be forever engrained in my memory. At first, it was a memory that brought pain, grief, and sadness. And while two and a half years later, his death is still difficult to face, I’ve come to peace with his passing and have learned to live life well, and even joyfully without him.
There comes a day when every person will face the reality of losing someone close to their heart. Drawing on my own realizations of surviving without my husband, here are six tips to learning how to live life without your loved one:
1. Surrender: As long as you fight the feelings or the reality that your loved one is gone, the longer you will feel pain. Pain comes from resisting the truth, stop resisting and start going deeper into the real feelings. You will hit grief, sadness, anger, confusion, and many more emotions you may never have experienced as deeply before. Those emotions are perfect.
2. Know that you don’t have to ‘get over it.’ Loosing them is part of who you are now. That won’t change. There is nothing you have to fix. There is nothing you have to change. There is nothing you have to do. Nobody expects you to be anything you aren’t. That includes sad, angry, confused, all of it, for however long you want or need to feel those things. That may be until the day you die. And that is okay.
3. Lean on people who care about you. Look around you, there are most likely people who love you and who want to help; family, friends, even co-workers. Understand that they don’t just want to help; they may actually feel helpless unless you let them. Even if you’ve never been able to ask for help before, it is crucial within the first few weeks and months to allow others to support you. You may find that there are more people than you ever imagined who love you and want to help. This is a valuable reminder that you are not alone.
4. Take care of yourself. Once the initial shock wears off, it is important that you take care of you! Try your best to work yourself into a new routine; it doesn’t have to be anything extreme but enough to get used to a new ‘normal.’ Drink tea and read a book, go to the gym, see a funny movie, listen to music that is happy and soothing, and, perhaps most importantly, interact with positive people. As you start to formulate your new routine, stay away from negative things, like alcohol, drugs, the news, and people who bring you down.
5. When the grief pops up, let it! Feel it. Drop to the floor and let it wash through you for as long as it is with you. Savor it. Let it tell you that you’re alive, that you loved that person, and that he or she is still in your life even if only through the feeling of grief.
6. Find your joy. Whether it is coloring, singing, dancing, or just experiencing the beautiful tree in your back yard, dig deep and find out what makes you tick. Then, do it without abandon. Let the lesson of death teach you that life is magic, wonderful, wondrous, passionate and simply alive. 
Enjoy every moment you are able to enjoy. Live like there really is no tomorrow, because after losing a loved one, that is the one fact that is absolutely clear.
Jennifer Hawkins and her two sons
Jennifer Hawkins is an accomplished athlete, businesswoman, mother and author. Her most recent book, The Gift Giver, is the true story of the sudden death of her husband Mark, and the surprising conversations she had with him during the year following his death. 
What are your experiences with death?
If you have experienced the death of a close family member, spouse, child or friend was it difficult to release the pain and the loss?  Were there things that helped you through it?
Do you have beliefs about what happens after death?